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Manicheanism versus Augustine
Justice, Traditions

Brethertonian Thinking

According to Luke Bretherton, theologians, in forgetting that prophetic critique presumes eschatological affirmation, have yet to understand what the work of theology comes to.

For this occasion, let me address one of the big contributions Christ and the Common Life makes, and then let me highlight a critique of the contribution. The contribution is to theological method and comes variously under the titles “pneumatological” and “eschatological” political theology. 

It has to do with what the book calls “Manichaean thinking” and follows a conviction held throughout Professor Bretherton’s work. The idea goes something like this. When one looks at some human state of affairs and asks, “What’s going on?” (90) one will, when looking with proper theological lenses, discover problems of some kind or other. Manichaean thinkers make a big deal of these discoveries and set the work of theology to discovering problems and delineating their meaning; the point of this is to help Christians avoid the problems, especially when they have roots in and consequences for Christian faith. What makes this method theological is the prominent role the theological lenses are given. Without these lenses, the problems cannot be seen for what they are. So, for example, the Manichaean thinker might ask, “While it looks good, what’s really going on with humanitarianism?” The application of Christian concepts like “blessings” will provide lenses which question humanitarian notions of beneficence (70–74). Without those lenses, humanitarian beneficence skates by uncritically, as if beneficence were rooted in Christian charity, or deadlier still, Christian charity is merely a species of humanitarian beneficence. This critical distinction allows Christians to rightly relate to humanitarianism, which can now be dealt with as the problem that it is (i.e., humanitarianism threatens central Christian commitments by proclaiming itself an extension of Christianity or as Christianity’s judge and jury). Going forward, armed with distinctions enabled by theological concepts, Christians will know to keep humanitarianism at arm’s length. This is a crucial realization given how humanitarianism would otherwise be given a free pass (i.e., Who doesn’t like humanitarianism?). Manichaean thinkers pride themselves as keepers of the fold, and the best among them remain vigilant against wolves in sheep’s clothing. Dividing the world between sheep and wolves is what makes them Manichaean—they see the world in binary.

Manichaean thinkers, according to Christ and the Common Life, know just enough to be dangerous. The danger of this problem-finding method in Manichaean thinking becomes apparent when contrasting it with the kind of theological method Bretherton exemplifies in his book. The Brethertonian thinker, like the Manichaean thinker, begins by asking, “What’s going on?” The Manichaean thinker and the Brethertonian thinker agree that properly answering that question requires theological concepts of assessment. But the Manichaean thinker weaponizes concepts in order to criticize. Brethertonian thinking goes beyond criticism. It similarly asks, “What’s going on?” and also uses theological lenses to do so. Upon discovering problems, however, it responds, “So what? What did you expect? Did you think there were patches of this world not harmed in some form or other by sin? Do you suppose Christian life to be lived in those patches?” 

Returning to our example, Brethertonian thinkers are not surprised to find problems with humanitarianism, not because humanitarianism stems from a bugaboo secularism but because humanitarianism falls under what scripture thematizes as the redemption of all things (Col. 1:19-20). Those surprised by humanitarianism’s limitations have forgotten that Christian concepts tell “a story about a God who comes to a people in debt bondage and makes a way where this is no way” (339). Under this description, it is neither particularly novel to find problems, nor is it some feat of theological genius to figure out their meaning and implications. The trick is not finding the problems. The trick is making sure the problems don’t take over the show. The Brethertonian thinker thinks in terms of the whole story and deploys Christian concepts under its discursive framework while knowing that concepts have meaning and use in continuity with the broader story they tell. 

The issue with weaponizing concepts for critique is that doing so cannot help but miss the story and, therefore, misuse the concepts. The Augustinian issue with Manicheanism is, in the story it tells, evil trumps God. The programmatic issue with Manichaean thinking is that it thinks the world is ruled by wolves, and it fixates on small-minded tasks like safeguarding Christianity. It weaponizes concepts like “blessing” to show all that is wrong with humanitarian beneficence, when the point of the concept is rather to say that even something as sinfully pretentious as humanitarian beneficence can be converted to be more than its pretensions and conclusions. Afterall, Bretherton reminds us: “The prophetic no must be premised on some form of eschatological yes” (60). If so with humanitarianism, so also with market capitalism, nation-states, federalism, populism and so forth. None of this is to deny Christian witness its critical edge; it is only to say that critique needs to be put in service of the whole story.

From what I can tell, Bretherton’s theological method, what I have called “Brethertonian thinking,” is funded by three things. First, the Augustinian story already sketched. Part of the advance here is how his Augustinianism, a mainstay throughout his work, differentiates him from those Augustinian liberals for whom Augustinianism bears aesthetical/ontological constraints without doxological/confessional entailments. Second, a description of the Holy Spirit “as an active person undertaking this dynamic, threefold work of animating and healing, generating new life, and consummation, both in the church and in the world” (130). When looking at the world under this description, one sees—in good Barthian fashion—problems in light of the Holy Spirit’s redeeming activity. Such looking and seeing is what it means to participate with God, which includes but is not exhausted by overcoming the world’s problems. This work of looking and seeing—call it “the work of hope” or more basically, “democracy”—is constantly tempted to despair. Hence, why we tend to settle for Manichaean thinking. Third, practical experience in democratic organizing that cannot afford the conveniences of hard Manichaean distinctions, especially where those distinctions compartmentalize personsas either wolves or sheep. There is simply too much to be done and too much commonness to be sought (430–31). This work—hermeneutically disposed to seeing what others avoid—surely sees problems, but it does not sit around and fixate on them. 

These three things work in tandem. The Augustinian story frames how one thinks about the Holy Spirit. Pursuing the Holy Spirit and trying to participate in her work fleshes out Augustinianism and, especially in the face of despairing temptations, informs what Augustinianism theologically concludes. It certainly is the case that the first two inform the practical experience, determining the possibilities and limits of its hopes. But it is just as well that the practical experience puts demands on the first two (458–60). The practical work of politics (remember the three conditions the book begins with: need, difference and power) pushes the theoretical bits to do work and likely employs them only insofar as they do. In other words, the proof of Bretherton’s Augustinianism and pneumatology is in the practical pudding. 

Now, I will examine a critique of Christ and the Common Life’s theological method. Brethertonian thinking problematizes theologies that valorize the world. Bretherton’s idea is that insofar as the Spirit is in the world, valorizing the world to the church misinterprets who the Holy Spirit is and what she does, and, in turn, misinterprets the world and the church. In order for this pneumatology to get off the ground, however, it needs to privilege the church as uniquely positioned to provide criteria by which the Holy Spirit is discerned, in the world, in the church, or wherever. Unless one thinks the Holy Spirit is an argument, invocation alone will not do. To claim something like, “Humanitarianism is pretentiously beneficent yet the Holy Spirit has blessed it” requires prior judgments about who the Holy Spirit is and what she does. Such judgments are made by utilizing community-governed criteria for what counts as the Holy Spirit, and those criteria prescind from historical and textual descriptions passed on as exclusive possessions of the church. The application of those criteria involves reasoning that is analogical in form, explicitly the mode of reasoning Bretherton thinks he needs to resist (132–33). To say X is of the Holy Spirit is to predicate X in terms of the Holy Spirit: “thisX looks like that sort of thing we call the Holy Spirit.” 

The Holy Spirit is in the world, but the criteria for her adjudication sits in the church, squarely so, as a function of the world’s having yet to lay claim to the Holy Spirit. No doubt judgments, including judgments about criteria, are open-ended, but criteria at the point of application cannot be. Criteria can certainly be misapplied or turn out to be inadequate, but, without workable criteria, participation in the Holy Spirit will be mired in equivocation, which is fine for Augustinian liberalism but not for something as rich as what Bretherton advances. 

Those who valorize the church-world through what he terms “an ecclesiocentric and clerical approach” (132fn41, Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh are named) might feel inclined to do so as a way of stressing the church’s privileged responsibility for the very concepts Bretherton correctly assumes necessary for telling God’s story. They are not denying the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world so much as denying the Holy Spirit’s presence in its speech. This may all come to no more than furthering the dyadic thinking Bretherton favors over binary thinking (233–39), but it also complicates what counts as Manichaean thinking. 

The Underside of Populism

Populism seems to have at least these advantages: it privileges practical reasoning over theoretical; it binds us to place; it recognizes modernity’s political gains; it does not posit reactionary declension narratives; it affirms “common folk;” it avoids elitism…It also gave us President Trump.

Unresolved Tensions: Common Humanity vs. Ethnographic Frameworks

At stake is the very possibility of democratic politics. Without minimizing or devaluing the experience of oppressed and marginalized communities, the way forward—as Luke Bretherton has convincingly argued—necessarily entails nurturing some form of cohesive social vision.

Dreaming of a democracy driven by the preferential option for the poor…

Bretherton’s robust yet flexible understanding of democracy and politics offers the promise of engaging diverse others in constructing the common good for all, with particular care for the destiny of the poor and vulnerable…[but] I need to hear Bretherton witness to how the process of decentering the canon became foundational for building a Christian political theology.

Brethertonian Thinking

According to Luke Bretherton, theologians, in forgetting that prophetic critique presumes eschatological affirmation, have yet to understand what the work of theology comes to.

The Author’s Response

Situated on this eschatological middle ground, political theology must reckon with how we live in a time when the kingdom of God is present, creating moments of transformation and rupture…To speak truthfully, political theology must also speak to the quotidian joys and everyday struggles that make up the ordinary time of our lives.

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