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Photo by David Cosand via Flickr

Becoming Aflame: Beyond Liberal Christianity

Joshua Brockway, Director of Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren, seeks a path beyond the recent conversations on the survival of Liberal Christianity.

Photo by David Cosand via Flickr

Confession time: I am an Anabaptist. Not just a cradle Menno/Brethren, but also an Anabaptist of the Neo kind. So when James Davidson Hunter called out the Neo-Anabaptists in his recent book To Change the World, I bristled a bit. In each of the other chapters on Evangelicals and Liberals I found myself in the Amen corner. Yet, I recognized the fault lines he named in his section about “me”.

See, I do ascribe to the alternative definition of politics that Yoder, Hauerwas, and Cavanaugh have used to distinguish the Church from governmental politics. I think the Church matters for how we conduct ourselves in the world, and that working out how we are the people of God is a task for the common good and not just sectarian withdraw.

Sometimes we Neo-Anabaptists are confused for liberals because we think that the things of the world are broken- partisan politics, war, and corporate capitalism. In almost the same breath we are seen as conservative- Jesus Christ is central to redemption, the Bible matters, and prayer is effective. What is more, the individual is not the pinnacle of society.

So imagine my groan in the recent debates in the blogosphere around the question of Liberal Christianity’s survival.

How is it that Liberalism continues to hang on? Are we really stuck in the loop of asking “Can Liberal Christianity survive”? Or do we not have a better paradigm to envision Christian life and faith apart from the Enlightenment assumptions of culture, government, and belief?

As Hunter and David Fitch have shown, we all have given into the assumption that partisan politics is the defining narrative of our society. In short, our denominations and communities of faith are more identifiable by the party for which our members vote come election day. Our imagination is captive to the Enlightenment Liberal assumption that one can have the form “American”  while simply pouring in it the content of our individual values. In effect, both progressives and conservatives alike assume a Chistendom posture that seeks to make a virtuous society, or Christian state, through our civic duties.

Can’t there be a third way?

Consider this adaptation of the infamous desert saying about becoming aflame. A young monk came to the abba and said “What must I do to change the world? I fast in protest to unjust policy. I boycott businesses that do not support my values and I publicly declare my support for Christian causes. I even vote for the candidates that speak my values. Yet, little seems to change.” And the abba stretched out his hands to the sky and his fingers became flames. He said to the seeker, “If you wish, you can become all aflame.”

In discussing the original desert saying, and its implications for a theory of asceticism, Richard Valantasis argued that transformation is at the heart of the monastic project. Yet, it is not just transformation of a culture or a change in the self. Instead, the works of asceticism performed in a dominant culture form new subjectivities, new social relations, and new social imaginaries. (Richard Valantasis, “Constructions of Power in Asceticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion vol 63, 1995; 796. Note here I have substituted Charles Taylor’s term of “imaginaries” for Valanatasis’ semiotic term “symbolic universe.”)

Rather than understanding askesis as an individual’s actions of radical self-denial, Valantasis shifts the focus onto the re-formation of the self and the ways the subject engages society. The power to change, then, is within the hands of the individual, yet those changes dramatically alter how one participates in the dominant culture. Thus, the social transformation begins with the hard self-work of the ascetic.

That seems to be the logic of Christianity over and against the dominant Liberal view- namely that significant social change begins with a dramatic reorienting of the self away from the dominant cultural logic. Instead, ascetic Christianity refuses to play by the seeming consensus of the society.

Rowan Williams, in an essay published when he was 19, brought the work of Thomas Merton and Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov into conversation. In the middle of that study Williams notes that Evdokimov sets the three temptations of Jesus alongside the three traditional monastic vows, thus making clear that rejection of current powers is an ascetic, not Liberal, project. Here, for example, the temptation to turn stones into bread corresponds to the vow of poverty. In that frame, the Christian monk lives in the primacy of “grace over necessity.” In refusing to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple Jesus prefigured the vow of chastity. “The monk’s chastity is an ‘integration’ of his human powers over matter in a new attitude of what Simone Weil would call ‘attention; to created things.” Finally, the refusal to bow before Satan “corresponds to the vow of obedience: the refusal of slavery to Satan, to illusion and falsehood, is liberation to him ‘whose service is perfect freedom.” Here Williams also notes that this makes clear that “obedience is not submission to secular authority.” (Rowan Williams, “Bread in the Wilderness: The Monastic Ideal in Thomas Merton and Paul Evdokimov,” in Merton and Heysychasm: The Prayer of the Heart (Fons Vitae, 2003), 179-180. Originally published in Cistercian Studies, Number 29, Two Yet One: Monastic Tradition East and West, 1976.)

The connecting of the temptations and ascetic vows reveals a whole other way of being present and active in the world. It is, in its essence, an alternative politic to both liberalism and the secular governments. Rather than assuming a kind of democratic leverage of individual influence in the political structures the very logic of the culture is turned upside down. Simplicity is chosen over wealth; mutuality over self-gratification; service over domination.

Much of this has been apart of the Anabaptist tradition from its inception. Neo-Anabaptism, at its best, seeks to embody such a counter logic. However, Hunter is right: Traditional Liberalism is a temptation not easily avoided. Yet a recovery of the ascetic nature of the tradition–the formative, re-orienting practices of the faith–resists the trap. We need not ask if Liberal Christianity can survive but what practices of the faith reform us into Christ-like witnesses in a dominant culture.

Photo by Glenn Riegel

Joshua Brockway is both an academic and a minister. Currently he serves as denominational staff in the Church of the Brethren. His work in the church focuses on the practices of discipleship and the spiritual life. In academic circles he studies monastic practice and theology of the 4th and 5th centuries. He is currently a doctoral candidate at The Catholic University of America. Josh blogs at Collationes and serves as the blog editor and book review editor Brethren Life and Thought. He can be found on Twitter @brockcassian.

8 thoughts on “Becoming Aflame: Beyond Liberal Christianity

  1. “Becoming aflame” is a good thing! Yet Desert Fathers have no monopoly on the light. Poets, Prophets, Romantics, Transcendentalists and Liberals also have burning hearts. Indeed, a central concern of a robust Liberalism is learning the art of uniting self-creation with social solidarity.

    The question for a political theology, unlike a mere churchly theology, is once one is on fire where does one stand, and with whom, and why? What does social solidarity in the public square look like?

    Neo-Anabaptists tend to have a high theology of the church and a low theology of creation, culture, civic engagement and the pragmatics of political change for the common good. Liberal Anabaptists have long argued that Yoder and Hauerwas are not really concerned with the gritty but graced work of politics but captured instead by prophetic “witness.”

    Most Liberal Christians are not caught in old debates about church and state or confused about God and the government. Instead, in a pluralistic democracy, we wonder how best to love our neighbors in and through the contingencies of culture, civic life and political solidarity for a just, public peace.

    1. Thanks Scott for commenting. I am not sure how I missed your comment! Thanks for pointing it out.

      As I have said in other forums, I am not a Hauerwasian by any means. In fact, my reading list of his work (as well as Yoder) is limited.

      I might push back in your conflation of Neo-Anabaptism with Hauerwas and a kind of creation denial theology. In fact, I think you have assumed that a criticism of the Enlightenment Political process with a kind of sectarianism of the early founders of our tradition. In fact, I think it is easy to find Neo-Anabaptists that are radically engaging in the needs of the day, including creation care, without getting sucked into the dramatic politics of the ecumenical movement which has dissolved into institutionalism and bureaucracy. Persons like Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, Jarrod McKenna, and many in the Christian Anarchy circles (Jesus Radicals) are seeking ways of being a faithful presence on the ground- working for and witnessing to Kingdom Peace and Justice. I am more heartened by their creativity and imagination than I am with the statements prepared in ivory tower offices on Maryland Ave in DC.

      I agree that some (or most as you say) liberals are caught up in “Church State” issues, but the logic they have assumed is of the same cloth. I think Hunter and Fitch have argued this persuasively.

      1. Thanks Josh. My point on creation theology, or a theology of culture for that matter, is deeper than the practice of “witness” to culture or for creation as a Jesus mandate. Certainly Neo-Anabaptists do much to serve culture and save creation, whether inspired by a Jesus anarchy or a Gospel mandate. I am really interested here in matters of anthropology and cosmology. Is creation — this sensuous living world as well as our carnal bodies — a rich source for theological construction and composition and not merely the object of theological proclamation?

        I know you understand this question well but I know some Neo-Anabaptists who don’t understand the implications of the question. Still others answer with the word John Howard Yoder’s teacher, Karl Barth, thundered to Emil Brunner, “Nein!”

        Only when Barth was old and sick did he ask his assistant to send a new message to Brunner. In translation, Barth said, “Tell him I now say YES!”

        If one answers “YES” to this question it makes joining up with the Jesus Anarchists or the Taliban much more difficult because the world, not merely the Word, becomes a gritty and graced source of divine revelation.

  2. Thanks Scott, I think there is another comment coming from another reader which will start to push towards just what you are talking about, at least as it refers to asceticism.

    In the mean, I want to point back to the sources I know much better than the Neo-Orthodox and Anabaptist confrontations you mentioned.

    It is easy to read the Sayings of the Desert Fathers as ridiculously world denying- or rejecting the sensuous knowledge gained in a living within the good creation. Obsessions with fasting, nocturnal emissions (yes, those too), how much one sleeps or how much one eats, all seem too negative to our current sensibilities.

    Yet, at the same time these “world-deniers” had an amazing awareness of how their daily practices impacted their understanding and desires. What they are doing, I think (following Meg Funk) is trying to understand their bodies and desires in a right manner. Or as Funk mentions- getting their desires rightly ordered.

    I think this is a good example of where proclamation of the Word and living within the world are not mutually exclusive. I am outlining a short piece as I sit up with my new born that will try to articulate this more succinctly. The central claim is that re-ordering our desires and perspectives is itself a political action.

    This is where I think Hauerwas fails miserably. As you have noted, it is often an idealized and theoretical view of community. Just do the things of the church and it will be ok. Instead, I think a better approach is to name how life in real community and actual relationships helps us reframe our perspectives and desires. That is hard work, and just doing the liturgy doesn’t get there.

    1. Nice response, Josh. As you outline your short promised piece, I’m interested in your familiar refrain about “the re-ordering of desire.” Must desire always be re-ordered? Doesn’t this refrain imply that the desire of earthly delights is debased? There are spiritual traditions that insist the relationship with the divine is not a gnosis but rather an eros, a desire.

  3. Joshua,
    From our Facebook conversation, you said: “…when I read of the terrific prayers and ministry of monks and nuns I think there is something more to asceticisim beyond fasting, celebacy, and only an hour or two of sleep…  I am not trying to call us back to the negative forms of asceticism we got in modern history books.  Rather, I am saying that we should start turning to practices that transform us and the ways we encounter the world and imagine what can be.”
    I love this idea, especially your comment that “re-ordering our desires and perspectives is itself a political action.”
    However I wonder if your prescriptive to reclaim ascetic practices puts us in the position of Abba Lot, rather than Abba Joseph.  In your example the young monk is already doing “the hard work of the ascetic” and refusing “to play by the seeming consensus of the society”, so how does replacing one set of ascetic practices for another mean one will achieve aflameliness? 
    My reading of Abba Joseph’s comment is that the young monk’s practices are done by rote, instead of from anything that leads to transformation.  That Abba Lot thinks the practices themselves are the transformation, instead of the transcendence of being infused by the Spirit which MAY come from the practices.  As Scott points out, many people have found the flame of the Spirit outside of asceticism.
    Indeed I suspect the reason we have these writings, and why they speak to you, isn’t because they are written by ascetics, but because they are written by those who were aflame.  If these were the writings of ascetics, who were not aflame, then I doubt they would have outlasted the warmth provided by their literal burning on a cold desert night!
    You are right that we need to root our practices in simplicity, mutuality, and service, for I think Abba Joseph’s lesson for we neo-anabaptists is to locate our practices in serving, not in simply doing.
    Thanks for the conversation.


    1. David, thanks for your comment.

      I really appreciate the reminder that the texts we have of the desert were not so much written by those who had become aflame, but because they had become aflame.

      I also think that the Abbas comments were an invitation into a way of life.

      The guy I spend most of my academic writing with, John Cassian, has an interesting introduction to ascetic practices. He uses the metaphor of a farmer to remind the monks that the practices themselves do not cause transformation. Rather, they prepare the ground so that when transformation comes we can receive it.

      Great stuff David, thanks!

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