Thursday, December 1, 2011

The hunted becomes the Hunter

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
James Davison Hunter
Yesterday afternoon and evening, I had a chance to listen to and later converse with James Davison Hunter, a sociologist from the University of Virginia, just over the mountain from Harrisonburg. Hunter was a significant figure for me this time last year, as I was reading his recent book, To Change the World. One of my favorite Christian scholars, James K.A. Smith, was pretty excited about Hunter's work at the time, so I was eager to integrate it into my learning. Last fall I wrote a paper on biblical and cultural hermeneutics, using Hunter's work, which was later presented at a symposium at Bridgewater College, which I wasn't able to attend due to the passing of my grandfather.

As I prepared for Hunter's lecture, I re-read my paper and went back over my copious notes from the book, with the expectation that I wouldn't come away from his visit with anything profoundly new or different from what I had discovered last year. While Hunter's lecture was largely drawn directly from the pages of his book, and thus wasn't all that novel to me, I was pleasantly surprised by our subsequent conversation, when a few faculty, my seminary dean, and our provost hosted Hunter for dinner at a local restaurant. Luckily, because the prof organizing the guest list for the dinner had read my paper last year, my name got added to the list and I got to tag along. (Thanks, Kevin!)

So in what follows, I will nuance my earlier summarizations and critiques of Hunter's book, including backing off my complaint that he didn't "get" neo-Anabaptists, which I made somewhat out of self-defense because that's how I like to describe my own theological project. It turns out, I was the one that didn't "get" the sense in which Hunter was using the term. But I'll start with his constructive argument first...

An expansive "faithful presence"
In some ways, I'm even more jazzed about Hunter's "faithful presence" project. His seemingly from-the-hip theologizing in the book struck me as decent theology for a non-professional, and in many ways comported with my own developing theology. The way he described FP over dinner was much more far-reaching than it appeared in the book, applying it even to Christian educational institutions. Essentially, he's very sympathetic to James K.A. Smith's goals in terms of "education as formation."

He nuanced his theory of culture change a bit in helpful ways.  What first struck me about his statement in the book and lecture that change happens "from the top down and the center out," and that change almost never comes solely from below, is that it sounded awful authoritarian and institutional, potentially writing off nonviolent social movements, most recent that come to mind being Occupy Wall Street.

But that's not where he's going. Hunter "relativizes power" and "relativizes leadership." So he's not talking about only institutional power and elites atop those institutions, though change certainly can originate there. Rather, it's relative to where you're doing the analysis. I think this is easier for me to swallow than just assuming he's talking only about institutions. To me, it gives space for movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring, because they're most certainly not only grassroots efforts. There are organizing and institutionalizing forces at work in both, as naturally develops with social movements over time, if they want to survive. And that power is not only institutional but can also be, among other things, intellectual. Gene Sharp and the Arab Spring, for instance.

I wanted to ask Hunter specifically about Occupy and the Arab Spring, but didn't have a chance to do so in the discussion. He briefly referenced a few concrete efforts of his "faithful presence in," going on in Nashville and Portland that involve Christian groups (both Catholic & Protestant) doing some form of this "dense networking" to be a faithful public presence in local communities, including in local governance issues for the common good. He wasn't more specific than that, but at least he had something concrete in mind.

Neo-Anabaptist as "script," not ideal type
After discussion with Hunter, I'm more happy with his use of neo-Anabaptists than I was in my first reading of the book, and in my paper. Where I was taking him to be constructing an absolute type and throwing groups into it, he's rather using it a sense as a "script," or a heuristic. So Hunter knows that Hauerwas can do nuance and shouldn't be considered an Anabaptist, proper, both things of which I accused him of being ignorant. But as a script, Hunter is using "neo-Anabaptist" in the way that it has some freight in popular usage, or in the "dumb" sense. I'd rather he used the other name for this script, "purity from," than neo-Anabaptist, because using the latter suffers from some of the same problems that prevent him from using the word "politics" as John Howard Yoder would use it, instead preferring "social power."

But the sense remains with me that Hunter's account of the church, his ecclesiology, in his "faithful presence" argument is too thin, or just needs to be made more explicit. At dinner he characterized his own ecclesiology as Anglican, which may shed some light on why it remains unarticulated. Anglican ecclesiology is constantinian in that it depends on a cozy relationship with the political order. This is puzzling to me because Hunter does such a great job of describing the ways in which the forces of difference and dissolution in this age are so corrosive to authentic Christian faith, and increasingly antagonistic to the Christian faith in some societies, which should go to show how the church no longer has pride of place. So if the church has no pride of place, how can "faithful presence" be embodied in an altera civitas called "church" in Hunter's account? If Yoder and Hauerwas are too sectarian (they're actually not) and Anglican ecclesiology is no longer possible (nor desirable), what does the shape of the church look like in Hunter's faithful presence?

I found that Hunter values particularity in traditioned communities and doesn't want to see groups like Mennonites sell out to the broader culture(s) as more mainline Protestant groups have done so happily (including my own). Does Hunter leave his ecclesiology so thin in order to have it articulated by others, namely professional theologians, as he is quick to point out he is not? I'm genuinely curious on this point.

In conclusion, I was surprised by how much I ended up getting excited about Hunter's book all over again. It still has a strong enough rebuke to most expressions of Christianity in America as to warrant broad readership, intense discussion in various circles, and further expansion/appropriation of his theology for "faithful presence." I'm very grateful that I got to tag along to dinner last night and pick his brain. And the Indian food was really good, too.

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