General Convention and the Pathos of Modern Theology

As General Convention begins, I am pondering something John Milbank says on the first page of Theology and Social Theory:


The pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a meta-discourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy. If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology.

Hmmmmmm . . .

Milbank goes on to say that the goal of theology as Christian sociology should be “to tell again the Christian mythos, pronounce again the Christian logos, and call again for Christian praxis in a manner that restores their freshness and originality.”

Hmmmmmm . . .

3 thoughts on “General Convention and the Pathos of Modern Theology

  1. Despite far too many years of formal education, I do not have a clue about what this person is saying. Is that the point? It pains me to confess incomprehension, but I cannot tell a lie…

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  2. Hmmm indeed! A few random comments come to mind, based primarily on discussion in a lectio divina group this morning as we reflected on Matthew 9:1-8 (discussion at the Milbank level of philosophy and theology is admittedly tough sledding for me!). First, if Milbank is talking about why Christian theology has, and should claim, a particular authoritative standing over against the examples he calls “idolized”, then yes. As Christian theologians, we stand in a stream of grace-filled authority that comes directly from Jesus, Claiming this authority is, or should be, part of what we do. Second, in the Matthew passage when Jesus sets aside the institutional religious authority claimed by the scribes, he is responding to a particular human situation affecting a person lying paralyzed right there in front of him. He uses his authority, and his compassion, to restore (for want of a better phrase) “the right order of things” — health, wholeness, rightful place in community — to someone who desperately needs it. Any theology that prioritizes academic or institutional rigor over specific, literally on-the-ground human needs is to say the least, suspect. So if Milbank is asking us to dismiss out of hand the disciplines he calls “idolized”, then no. They might have something helpful to teach us.

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    1. Thanks Beth for your helpful comment. Milbank’s argument is nuanced (as indeed your comment is as well). He does think we have things to learn from the social sciences. However, he is also claiming that the disciplines of political theory, economics, sociology and the like are not offering dispassionate, scientific descriptions of social reality. Rather, based upon an analysis of the emergence of these disciplines, Milbank sees them as emerging from a story told about the sphere of the secular and instituted through an act of imagination in theory and practice. And it’s not just that it was instituted through an act of the imagination, but rather through a distorted, and, from a Christian point of view, a tragically mistaken act of the imagination as a sphere of pure power. The pathos of modern theology and the church is that it has assumed that these disciplines of political theory, economics, and sociology are providing an objective account of reality and then theology and the church simply tries to add a little something on top of or into the so-called objective analysis. In doing so, theology and the church have already given up the description of reality to a deeply theologically problematic viewpoint that accepts violence and power politics as a given. The only things we can do is to perhaps offer a little pastoral care to those who are harmed by the rough and tumble of the real world or try to exercise whatever power we can muster and influence the direction of society in a somewhat more humane direction. Milbank’s point is that these strategies will never work because of the reasons mentioned in his quotation. Rather, what theology and the church needs to do is to offer a different narrative based upon God, Christ and the politics of non-violent love. The question that faces the church in General Convention is whether it will try to offer a little pastoral care for the hurts caused by the rough and tumble of the so-called real word and maybe try to muster a little leverage to enter into the world of power politics in order to push things in a more humane direction, or will it offer a fundamentally distinctive and different account of reality based upon the story of God’s free and sovereign grace revealed in the non-violent love of Jesus Christ. I really don’t know the answer to this question.


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