Monday, July 29, 2013

Ghosts and Water: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This is post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post continues the conversation about the first chapter.

Radical democracy haunts Hauerwas, which indicates that he still sees himself as an outsider to that praxis. This first chapter charts his friendship with Coles, whose appropriation of Yoder is the bridge between these Durhamites. But Rom Coles haunts the high-church Yoderian just as Yoder hovers over the shoulder of the radical democrat: these specters rattle the walls of fortified thought and propel engagement with new ideas (17). Coles reminds Hauerwas of stories about radical political imaginations that see Christianity and radical democracy as partners. Our deepest convictions are troubled by ghosts and noises in the night. They whisper open-ended questions in our ears. Coles sees democracy not as a possession but as the practice that listens to these voices (18), almost akin to deconstruction. As John Caputo says:
deconstruction describes the ghosts that haunt us, the spirits that inspire us, and the difficulty of discerning among these several spirits. Deconstruction . . . is not a determinate position . . . but a ‘how,’ a way of holding a position, of being under way or being on a path. It is an affirmation without being a self-certain and positive position.
I think radical hermeneutics (borrowing from Caputo) and radical discipleship (borrowing from Ched Myers) help contingency and commitment haunt one another. The former deconstructs our stories by exposing their utter contingency alongside traces of other possible meanings: “God” is a cultural and historical construct shaped over time. The latter exposes the roots of our socioeconomic and historical crises by recovering the transformative roots of our stories: “God” is the wild ruach that in the naming refuses to be named. Because in the end stories are all we have. We are sustained and subverted by our stories in their very contingent reality. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asks the rich landowner in a book clearly depicting Jesus as, at the very least, good. The star of the show takes himself out of the spotlight. The story deconstructs itself even as it commits to the story it’s telling.

Maybe this is why I don’t have the jealously for Jesus that Hauerwas does. I’m not that possessive, though I’m not wholly opposed to jealously. As Hauerwas and Coles note, certain accounts of jealously can be “unavoidable, necessary, and helpful in resisting odious forms of power” (22). But I don’t think I’m willing to risk ruling to place a bet on my own preferences, as Hauerwas says he and Yoder are willing to do (22). Coles is concerned that Yoder’s insistence on biblical language, like “Jesus is Lord,” could mute postcolonial, liberationist, and ecological voices (and, as Osage theologian George Tinker notes, these voices from the underside of history show that you don’t need Derrida, or Caputo, for deconstruction).

Because Hauerwas isn’t convinced he has a stake in radical democracy, Coles’ worries make sense. And I share them, especially after comments made by certain Yoderians, including one scholar who said he wanted his theology “straight-up” without all the liberationist or womanist frills. Another scholar told me that he mourned for a Native American Christian friend who couldn’t overcome his “Zionist connection to tribe and land” to see the church as an alternative, and truer, community. If this is what Yoder’s jealous apparition looks like, then call the Ghostbusters.

For Hauerwas, jealously can go by another name, and that name is orthodoxy. But Peter Dula and Alex Sider ask their former professor the same questions I want to ask: “Is a radical democracy really compatible with an orthodox theology? If so, how?” (29) Hauerwas’ church will always be located next to neighbors he didn’t choose, so he needs to have a stake in something like radical democracy. But can orthodoxy allow for something that risky and horizontal? I know enough about Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers to acknowledge that radical democracy and orthodox theology can at least tolerate one another. On this point, Hauerwas might be right, but does he elaborate on his students’ second question: “If so, how?” That might be the more important of the two questions.

In a previous comment, Brian noted that I visibly squirm when orthodoxy enters the room. But my discomfort isn’t with keeping our stories consistent or having guidelines about how we should live together. I’m intrigued that scholars like Hauerwas, advocates of post-foundational theology (rejecting authoritative universal assumptions while still arguing in favor of guiding visions for our actions), maintain two of foundationalism’s pivotal pillars: orthodoxy and metaphysics. God is a dynamic mysterious character in the scriptures, not a theistic omnibus of omni-prefixes. Orthodoxy usually assumes a metaphysical foundation that we know exists, whereas radical hermeneutics knows the dice could always be rolled differently. In order to be in Hauerwas’ club, do I need to sign off on these shaky supports?

My good Catholic friend Chris Haw argues that, given enough time, every group will develop orthodoxies. Maybe we can’t escape orthodoxies any more than we escape gravity. Monastic orders have their rules, many indigenous societies have their customs, and Hauerwas says orthodoxy is the training necessary to form people capable of working for justice (30). But I’m not a hard determinist: I don’t think, as Chris does, that the Catholic Church is what anarchism or radical democracy must look like after two thousand years. Jesus was surely concerned with appropriate interpretations of Torah and the prophets, but I don’t see him wringing his hands over whether or not everything is orthodox.

The word orthodoxy is usually associated with Christendom, so perhaps another question is: what does orthodoxy look like after Christendom? Yoder and Hauerwas think general theories or strategies for Christian engagement reproduce Constantinian habits; the alternative to such hierarchical definition is definitions that are timely and fragmentary (23). This would be a very different orthodoxy, one that would be like the local adaptation of planting dates and cover crops: conversations can still be had across time and space about shared standards and practices, but appropriate care will vary with the weather and contours.

Montana lawyer Daniel Kemmis helps discern between the local and hierarchical definitions of orthodoxy. He says that politics are not the procedures or laws but the set of practices that enables a common inhabiting of a common place: the former arrives at the common by abstracting from the particular while the latter arrives at the common through the particular. Coles believes that allegiance to and receptivity of listening means that we don’t have a stable “table” around which to gather our differences.

Instead, “the democratic table must move and be transformed” so that separation and relation continually change (19). Kemmis would probably agree with the emphasis on listening, but he sees the “table” differently than Coles. To help make his point, Kemmis quotes Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:
To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates mean at the same time . . . What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved, or at least not primarily, but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them. The weirdness of this situation resembles a spiritualistic séance where a number of people gathered around a table might suddenly, through some magic trick, see the table vanish from their midst, so that two persons sitting opposite each other were no longer separated but also would be entirely unrelated by anything tangible.
If the table is fleeting ideas or specific situations, then Coles is right: we must be on the move to allow our separations and relations to change. But if we’re discussing actual tables, actual kitchen and dining tables of complicated people who bicker and laugh together, then this transience is unsustainable. Without some coherence or dynamic equilibrium, such fluff is easily blown away by imperial winds. Kemmis compares contemporary public life to a Big Mac, which can exist in the same form anywhere as a placeless abstraction that diminishes the possibility for culture. Sustainable politics might mean some kind of stable table that nevertheless decenters itself.

A watershed is a place defined by the constant current of water. Ghosts and water disturb our stable tables even as we sit around them to tend to our common goods and differences.

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