Symposium Introduction

The publication date for Becoming a Christian in Christendom was November 01, 2016.

I feel badly for Jason Mahn that this book emerged in the immediate aftermath of a nation struggling to understand itself, as it elected one Donald J. Trump to the American presidency. Some of the most compelling writing of the closing days and weeks of 2016 was about what this choice told us about ourselves, who we were and what we mean to each other. The national election – the thematic genre argued – gave us the opportunity to make decisive choices about our future, moral choices that exceed the coordinates which appear on electoral ballots. What kind of nation will we become? What are American values, and are we willing to pay the price for our partisanship, for our tribalism, for the respective sense of self-righteous clarity that our values (justice or freedom, social responsibility or individual choice, globalist expansion or identitarian withdrawal) are the best way to mark out who we are and what matters to us.

Central to this discussion was the idea that “to make America great again,” we must protect, at all costs, the central role that Christianity has played in our national narrative. It is to hold the line against the threat of religious pluralism to what Mahn calls the “redundancy” of American Christianity. Religious diversity dilutes not only the dominance of Christianity in our culture, but also challenges the presumption of the role that Christianity plays in the myth of American identity.

Luckily for us, Mahn offers his readers an opportunity to take up again, in this specific context, questions that have haunted American Christianity for generations. And I say American Christianity because, based on Mahn’s telling of the story, these forms and communities of faith have a unique struggle, due to a shared cultural and historical attachment to the American project, which has used Christianity as the vehicle for its geopolitical aims. The resultant dynamic then, is a variation on Christendom, a religious form of political life and identity in which, as Mahn argue, Christianity is assumed and normal, making the idea of becoming Christian in America a redundant feature. To be American is to be Christian. This means that most Americans, by virtue of this sense of being American, spend very little time actually complementing and discussing amongst themselves what it means (or what it would mean) to be Christian. They don’t actually consider what this identity demands of them, in both their private and public lives, what kinds of commitments follow from this claim, and what must be different about their lives and communities (in relation to others within our social world), pursuant to this claim.  Without this kind of collective deliberation, individuals and communities do not practice Christianity. They ignore teaching, instruction, and formation that is so central to becoming Christian because they do not see the need for it. Love for God is wrapped up in love for country, and is already present and represented in their allegiance to the values of American civic and cultural life.  Indeed, one wonders (and I think Mahn’s book is very helpful on this score), whether one can truly become a Christian in Christendom.

The anxiety such a conclusion produces within the theological framework of American Protestantism specifically in which faith is understood as decision, choice, and conviction is what inflamed so many of the sources for Mahn’s book: John Howard Yoder, Søren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Stanley Hauerwas. But make no mistake: Mahn has his own ideas about how all this fits together, and so goes beyond simply another trendy ‘criticism of Christendom.’ This is not a “250 pages about the giants” followed by “50 pages of vague, underdeveloped ideas that will be explored in a subsequent volume” book. This is a piece of constructive theological ethics in the best sense of the genre.

Mahn’s central premise (following Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer closely) is that Christianity and its communities are radical alternatives to the Christianity of American culture. What that alternatives look like (and whether they will be appealing to American Christians) are always the tricky parts of projects like this. The contours of this alternative are stark. Mahn’s Christianity is a skinny one; the church is a remnant community that is equal parts radical and ordinary, whose values are governed by principled commitments to peacemaking, hospitality, and a self-conscious inclusivity towards others, all of which are powered from internal awareness of its own particular (and peculiar) justification. Christianity is a strange, cruciform faith, and as such, will not be appealing to those in power, or those who hope to gain proximity to wealth or fame. Christendom does and so it will always be funded, it will always be televised, but a Christianity that is not normal, assumed, or ‘for everybody’ will always operate at the margins, for the marginalized. It is a community of fools, of losers. In a social and political when social and political life is constantly diluted to a childish distinction between winning and losing,  Christianity finds moral clarity of resistance in these times of trouble by turning back to

“a shared witness to a God whose majesty takes the form of a servant-hood, a god who is revealed in the depths of human suffering, a God who would rather die than kill…The church is strange because it is a church of the cross, and the cross is strange because it is the cross of God.” (343-344)

Reading this symposium will help you understand, not just what happened in American Christianity in early November 2016, but more importantly what the church of the cross, the church of the foolish, must do in order to become a community of resistance, not just against Trump and the dark forces swirling around him, but also against the dynamics of the American myth that privilege it within our culture.

Myles Werntz

Response

Beyond A Negative Ethic

Assessing Jason Mahn’s Becoming a Christian in Christendom

In Jason Mahn’s Becoming a Christian in Christendom, we are presented with a vision of Christian life which is deeply needed, most particularly in our post-election world. It would seem, on the face, that we are living in an America which is on the other side of Christendom, for in the recent election, religious convictions scarcely registered as a campaign issue or as a prevailing reason for voting. For the first election cycle in recent decades, a candidate’s religiosity or lack thereof was scarcely mentioned in this election cycle, though voting patterns remained relatively stable.1 The significant intergenerational fights among conservatives not withstanding, overtly religious aspects of the election hardly registered.

But Mahn perceptively points out that the overt prominence of Christianity as a public good is only one of the faces of Christendom. One might very well avoid the sorts of crass appeals to “Christianizing the social order” which vex one form of Christendom, be they in the form of moral appeals or overtly confessional ones, but fall prey to a much more subtle version. The other form, accommodation, hosts Christianity within the limits of certain habits of mind of a liberal democracy—choice, taste, “sphere sovereignty,” to name a few. In either case, whether by overlaying Christianity maximally on top of our world, or by framing the terms of the faith within the habits of the state, Christendom constitutes the temptation for Christians in both overt and covert ways. No sooner do we retreat from imposing the faith than we are confronted by the opposite side of Christendom: Christianity as one option among others.

The conundrum that Mahn identifies here is put thus: it does not matter in one respect which direction you choose with respect to your resistance to Christendom, for Christendom is no longer the superstructure of American society; it is the seedbed, the soil, the water, and the wind, making opposition as such determined by the totalizing form of Christendom. For me to engage in some form of Christian witness which seeks to be “not world” is still to be living out witness by taking “world” as the pole against which witness is articulated.

There are many virtues to Mahn’s work, most notably his diagnosis of Christendom, but the one I want to lift to the surface now is precisely how I think he points to a resolution of a common problem for those of us invested in the questions he raises here: how to have a Christian witness without ressentiment. As Nietzsche famously argued, Christianity made a virtue of suffering, of humility and of rejection precisely because it found itself on the brunt end of cultural rejection; in framing Christian witness in this “negative” kind of way, Christian witness repeats the doctrinal ressentiment which Nietzsche saw in an ethical key, as a mirrored image of that which it opposes. The negative trope is certainly faithful to Scripture, for Christians are to be those who seek “another city” (Heb 13:14), who are in the world, but not of it, children of the light and not darkness, named by life and not death. The concern that is raised here, though, is that if Christian witness is solely framed in terms of “not world,” “resistance,” or being “against,” Christian witness offers nothing but a parody of that which is already a pathology.

In different ways, the two major varieties of Christendom critics employed by Mahn (the Lutheran trajectory of Luther-Kierkegaard-Bonhoeffer, and the “anti-Constantinian” neo-Mennonite trajectory) both come into view only as negations of world. The Lutherans, working within the context of two-kingdoms theology, affirm God’s providential work through the state, with the common ground of a governed world the setting for Christian witness; the positive, identifiable Christian statements about Christ are situated within the ineffable limits of state authority. The Christian in this situation is called to “work diligently against the sacralization of nation-states—against the glorification of abstractions such as ‘freedom,’ ‘patriotism,’ and ‘political necessities’—and maybe, even against the church itself” (119). Having distinguished between the two kingdoms in order to desacralize the state, the Lutheran trajectory finds itself now forced to articulate Christian witness as a kind of negation of that state.

A similar dynamic emerges in the “anti-Constantinian” work of the neo-Mennonite trajectory. Long criticized by the magisterial Protestants as “sectarian” (to use James Gustafson’s famous charge), the new-Mennonites posit their recovery of the Christian life over against the corruption of the church by political power and privilege. As Mahn notes, “the persistence of Constantine’s trap also makes it difficult to imagine what a successful disavowal of Constantine might look like . . . if the ‘free church’ model for Christian community is to contribute to a solution, then it must designate more than the lack of coercion, more than the official uncoupling of state-church communions, more even than an endorsement of believer’s baptism” (153). Negation, more prominent as an ethical theme in these writers, posits positive Christian behaviors as “not-Constantinian,” such that Constantine is always lingering in the church parking lot, as without his ghost, these churches would lose their orientation. The prevalence of “nonviolence,” for example, among the writings of both Yoder and Hauerwas is perhaps the best example, for “nonviolence” tells us nothing positive about an ethic other than it is not characterized by violence, ambiguously defined.

The figure whose writing is situated within both of these groups is the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His presence, both among the explicitly Lutheran figures of Luther and Kierkegaard, and among the “anti-Constantinian” writers is telling: while Bonhoeffer shares features of both of these camps, he ultimately, I think, works in ways which pulls their strengths out of a negative frame.

Mahn notes rightly that Bonhoeffer, though unreservedly Lutheran, in his Discipleship and Life Together, bears many resemblances to the work of the “anti-Constantinian” theologians in his emphasis in these works on the nature of the church. Consonant with the work of Yoder and Hauerwas, Bonhoeffer identifies in these two books in particular that it is in the cloister of the church that Christians learn how to be Christians. At times, in the hands of the neo-Mennonites, this language of church identity tends to give credence to Gustafson’s charge of withdrawal and quietism, but this is not what Bonhoeffer has in mind. By being pulled into the life and language of a common life of worship, Bonhoeffer is suggesting that in order to be scattered into the world for witness, the church must first be gathered, that the Christian must have the “day together” (ch. 2 of Life Together) before it can have its “day apart” (ch. 3 of Life Together). This first move toward Christian community, Bonhoeffer suggests, is necessary, for it is the same way that Christ calls—drawing them together into fellowship with one another, so that they might be sent out again. Likewise, as Bonhoeffer details in Discipleship, the call of Christ, which breaks apart natural communities, establishing a new fellowship of discipleship, but not as a monastic withdrawal from society. Rather, Christ’s call to fellowship is a moment in the ongoing trajectory back into the world as the witnesses of Christ.2

What happens in this formative space is that, in relinquishing their place in the world, the Christian also relinquishes the impulse toward opposition as a first movement. For as a member of the world, the Christian’s field of vision is dictated—as Mahn suggests—by the totalizing gaze of Christendom, which encompasses both east and west, both choice for and against it. By dropping out of that contest entirely, a new vocabulary is able to enter in, one which first operates by unlearning. In the Christian community, Bonhoeffer suggests, we do practical things like submitting to common song, common prayer, common meals—activities which resituate the self into a different sociality than the state, namely, the body of Christ. Subsequent to being introduced to this new kind of corporate life, the Christian is able to reengage their life in the world under new terms.

The new terms under which the Christian engages the powers of Christendom do not then look to the dominant culture to take their cues (as indicated in the very name “anti-Constantinan”), but will look alien to those who are unwittingly forming Christian witness as a matter of reaction. Rather, the Christian way into the world will be one of anticipation, of expectancy and Advent. As Clark Elliston has suggested, Bonhoeffer’s vision of prayer is akin to that of Simone Weil’s, emphasizing attention, waiting, anticipation, as opposed to imposition. In that anticipation, the Christian will look strange, even to a Christianized culture which knows the words of Scripture but not their mode of living.3 By living by anticipation, the Christian will be led down a diagonal road of discipleship, looking here like accommodation, there like withdrawal, for the Christian cannot know in advance what public form their witness will look like until Christ calls.

Put differently, the Christian witness will advance in opposition to even a Christianized situation, but not because it first seeks out a specific program of opposition. For if opposition is the first word, then Christian witness operates as a subsidiary of world, but if Christ is the first word, then Christian witness in the world will be one which embodies a different source than the state, deriving its energy and center from the call of Christ and not opposition to the world. In this way, the Christian response to Christendom is one which, in the words of Dorothy Day, “begin now in the shell of the old, to rebuild society,” and which will let the angles of opposition and conflict emerge on that basis.4

Mahn’s work, in using Bonhoeffer as the focal figure whose work figures into both wings of the opposition to Christendom, signals that this Christian witness will likewise be an ecumenical work. Reading Kierkegaard alongside Hauerwas, and the magisterial Reformers alongside the radical ones, has the effect of filling out the twin aspects of Bonhoeffer’s vision. Lutherans, emphasizing the inseparability of church and world under a single governance by God, dovetail with the Radical Reformers’ emphatic sense of ecclesiological priority. In this, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, a growing chorus of thinkers have revisited the hard lines of the Reformation with an increasing sense that old divisions are simply that—old—and that fresh positive rethinking of Protestant identities is needed. In that sense, though Sattler and Melanchthon might recoil at the notion, it is conceivable that this dynamic of retreat-and-engagement found in Bonhoeffer might be the dynamic which can pull these divergent strains into a single movement. This is not to diminish all ecumenical difficulties as mere sociological oddities: as Mahn notes, the Radical tradition tends to work out of a low Christology emphasizing the repeatability of the life of Christ, while Lutherans center on a high Christology, in which discipleship is a penitent, frail venture of grace. Here, as well, the ecumenical exercise of receptivity leads these two readings to recognize that these are twin emphases within a common canon: the Jesus who sends his disciples out to do and teach as Jesus did and taught is the same Jesus whose grace makes this life of discipleship possible.

The deformations of Christendom will not be undone by reacting against them, for in this way, Christians only become a mirror to Christendom, not an alternative to it. In a society which finds itself in the paradox of simultaneously having lower church attendance and increased identification with Christian-y values, Mahn’s work is a welcome, ecumenically-attuned invitation into rethinking how Christian opposition might not be rooted in opposition so much as in something entirely new, built not in reaction, but in anticipation of the work of the Spirit among the people.


  1. Pew Research breakdowns of post-election voting revealed that voting patterns among various varieties of Christians were not significantly different than in previous elections: http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/how-the-faithful-voted-a-preliminary-2016-analysis/.

  2. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “a call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation,” such that the terms of engagement are changed, in Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 62.

  3. Clark J. Elliston, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ethical Self: Christology, Ethics, and Formation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), 105–52.

  4. Dorothy Day, All the Way to Heaven: The Letters of Dorothy Day (New York: Image, 2012), 458.

  • Jason Mahn

    Jason Mahn

    Reply

    Response to Myles Werntz

    I am honored by the fact that a scholar whose own work on ecclesiology and peacemaking I deeply respect would take the time to read and reply to my book. That Myles Werntz has read and responded to me so generously makes me double-honored.

    Werntz notices the pivotal role that Dietrich Bonhoeffer plays in my book in bringing together two distinctive responses to the problem of acculturated and accommodated Christianity, or what I, following Søren Kierkegaard, call Christendom. Like many from historic peace churches, including radical ecclesiologists / witness theologians (whom I, perhaps unhelpfully, call anti-Constantinians), Bonhoeffer understands Christians to be called to follow the Sermon on the Mount quite literally, that is, called to active peacemaking in a world where wars and rumors of war abound. Like Luther, Kierkegaard, Dorothee Soelle, and other “theologians of the cross,” that is, those who find God fully and scandalously revealed in a dead Palestinian Jew, Bonhoeffer’s final conviction that “only a suffering God can help”1 dovetails directly with his final musings about a “this worldly” or “secular” form of Christianity.

    Both of these impulses—a radical calling from the ways of the world and a calling to a radical this-worldliness—can be seen in Bonhoeffer’s elevation of costly grace, a grace that calls one out to follow Jesus and do the work of peacemaking and also calls one more deeply into grace (forgiveness, empowerment, God’s very self), in order to sustain and embolden that work. While I unpack costly grace along these lines and use Bonhoeffer as a mediating figure, it is Werntz who effectively associates the two sets of critics of Christendom with the dual-movement of “retreat-and-engagement.” Because retreat or “withdraw” from the world leads to a re-formation of self’s relationship to dominant culture and nation, such re-formation sidesteps the need to negate “the world” altogether. Instead, re-formation leads to reengagement, as the particular “angles of opposition and conflict” between Christian discipleship and worldly concerns unfold by their own accord, leading the Christian down a “diagonal road of discipleship, looking here like accommodation, there like withdrawal.”

    Werntz couches these insights as thinking alongside me, but I also hear in them an implicit critique of an overemphasis in my work on the first movement, the movement of retreat, and on the posture of negation in general. In order to spur further conversation, I want to try to defend negation as best I can, conceding in advance that any myopic focus on Christianity as “anti-Constantinian” or non-violent is bound to make unpassable the diagonal road of discipleship. Still, I wonder whether the nationalism, neo-liberalism, and nominal Christianity into which mainline Christians such as me have been so thoroughly formed does not warrant—maybe necessitate—what can otherwise be seen as an over-emphasis on withdraw and negation.

    For starters, I find the particular iteration of Christian acculturation plaguing many today to be far more similar to Kierkegaard’s Christendom, an all-accommodating and vague gesture at “Christianity,” perhaps akin to the moralistic, therapeutic deism into which contemporary teenagers are formed,2 than to, say, the forthright coupling of church and state that characterized Roman Christians in the fifth century or German Christians in the early twentieth. Witness the fact that 80 percent of white evangelical voters casted their ballot for a candidate for whom historic Christianity and the Bible mean next to nothing. The problem of Christendom is for us a problem of redundancy: Why become a Christian when a person can so easily pass as one? Who needs the church when we have cultural osmosis and lip service about a Christian nation or Christian values? In Metz’s words, Christianity has become

    a form of bourgeois religion in which “Christian values” arch over a bourgeois identity without really affecting it in terms of a possible transformation or a promised fulfillment. Under the cloak of a merely believed-in (but not lived) faith . . . Christianity easily becomes the religious alibi for bourgeois innocence and the guarantee of a good conscience.3

    The privilege enjoyed by nominal Christians is found precisely in Christianity’s assumed compatibility with the politics of empire, with unbridled capitalism, with just about anything. But if this is so, then what is needed is first and foremost an understanding of what Christianity cannot and should not shelter under its sprawling umbrella. Christians must learn to know that from which they are called. I thus think that “negation” is absolutely essential, lest we continue merely playing with and chattering about an inconsequential faith.

    I feel this need for Christian “withdraw” and for being called out especially when my own tradition, Lutheranism, promotes vocation as a helpful theological staple, especially among undergraduate students. (I am a participant in this work, and so the following is something of a self-critique.) As is well known, Martin Luther democratized the concept of vocation. No longer characterizing the exclusive work of priest, nuns, and monks, vocation now characterized the work of anyone who filled an office for which he or she was qualified. This sanctifies necessary, dignified work that was previously thought merely profane. But it also meant that Luther could assure the prince’s soldiers that when “being a soldier, going to war, stabbing and killing, [and even] robbing and burning” are required, then Christians ought to perform these vocations and not have a guilty conscience when they do. Indeed, the work was God’s own.4

    In light of Lutherans’ capacious understanding of vocation, heirs of the Radical Reformation rightfully ask whether lethal violence (including war) is compatible with the central teachings of Jesus and his own willingness to die rather than kill. They argue that Christians ought to restore the New Testament’s usage of vocation, which means to call persons into a radically new and spirit-driven Christian community that is set apart from the dominant order. I have tried to listen to this critique well and give it place in my own work. Negation is not the last word, but often it should be a first and powerful one.

    Finally, let me suggest that even truthful interpretations of the life and theology of Bonhoeffer depend on giving his own withdraw into the pacifist community of Finkenwalde its due—a consideration that might seem like overly-emphasizing “negation,” but only because Bonhoeffer’s engagement with the world (and with a plot to kill Hitler) has largely dictated dominant interpretations. I agree with authors of the book Bonhoeffer the Assassin?5 when they argue that Bonhoeffer as co-conspirator has essentially overshadowed Bonhoeffer as pacifist. The politically realistic Bonhoeffer, the Bonhoeffer who finally gets his hands dirty in an assassination plot, is commonly lifted so high as to overshadow the Bonhoeffer submitting to common prayer and shared songs in Finkenwalde as a way of “resituating the self into a different sociality than the state” (Wentz). So hungry are North American Christians for examples of fully-engaged, no-nonsense, realistic heroes of faith that we essentially forget that one of our favorites also argued that “the renewal of the church will come from a new type of monasticism,” and who underscored Jesus’s calling to pick up your cross (not your gun) and come and die (not kill).

    Werntz and I agree that effective cultural-political engagement of Christians requires a thorough formation that will be new and creative rather than reactionary and world-negating. Where we might differ, at least by degree, is the extent to which we see that such formation will primarily entail a re-formation, at least of the legion of us already schooled in neo-Christendom. Unlearning the normalcy and normativity of nominal Christianity requires attention to a different politic, as Werntz so gracefully describes. It depends as well on some sense of what we leave behind when coming into discipleship.


    1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 479.

    2. Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

    3. Johann Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Postbourgeois World, trans. Peter Mann (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 76–77.

    4. Martin Luther, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved” (1526), trans. Charles M. Jacobs, in Luther’s Works (American ed.), vol. 46, ed. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967), 95.

    5. Mark Nation, Anthony G. Siegrist, and Daniel P. Umbel, Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging the Myth, Recovering His Call to Peacemaking (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).

    • Myles Werntz

      Myles Werntz

      Reply

      Myles…to Jason

      Thanks, Jason–I think we’re in fundamental agreement here on the question of *if* re-formation is necessary: absolutely re-formation must take place. My main question concerns the nature of that re-formation, whether it must be done in opposition to a deformed vision of Christianity, or in some other mode. My concern is that if it is done in opposition, what emerges is nothing more than a reaction which mirrors the privation; to model our formation off of what we *do not* wish to be is to never have a positive vision of what should be.

      My sense is that it may be better to simply forgo relevance in favor of fidelity, but with this caveat–formation in the New Testament is done not only with reference to some cultural idiom which is recognizable to them (Jesus’ use of agrarian life, and Paul’s use of civic life). Looking sideways at that which we want to distinguish ourselves from (i.e. pathological instantiations of Christian life) seems to be a temptation here to be avoided, whereas reference to cultural idioms seems unavoidable–we are always Christians somewhere.

    • Jason Mahn

      Jason Mahn

      Reply

      Jason….to Myles (again)

      Myles, you’re very wise. Even as I was writing this book I was aware that the critique–the unmasking or deconstruction–of acculturated and accomodated Christianity threatened to overshadow any positive description of the ways faithful Christians might and do actually move about in the world. In many ways, I think that temptation stems from the nature of second-order theological reflection. While fidelity (or witness?) is the leading attribute of many of the communities and churches that I lift up, it is not necessarily the leading attribute of my reflections on those communities vis-a-vis the broader cultural landscape. I’m here reminded of a comment made to me at the end of a teaching gig in Holden Village last week. The participant responded to my somewhat ideal description of Christian politics with something like this: “But that’s not the way it actually is in the actual world. Political progressives don’t want to touch religion. Religion means conservative, or at least status quo.” So I continue to struggle with the difficulty of articulating a Christian ethic/politic that is a “positive vision of what should be” without sounding unaware of just how different that politic is from what passes as Christianity today. I recognize the problem of mirroring that which one opposes. Yet I am also aware of the way positive, faithful visions alone might end in nods of agreement and maybe sentimentality but not conversion–a radical turning from and toward. What do others think? Do others who reflect critically on the state of contemporary Christianity struggle with these issues as well?

    • Jason Mahn

      Jason Mahn

      Reply

      Jason…to Myles

      At risk of belaboring this strand of the conversation, it occurs to me that the back-and-forth between Myles and I might be best characterized through the question or whether–or to what degree–formation by and into “authentic” Christian community always already involves a re-formation, at least for adults inhabiting Christendom. I write this a few pages from the end of my book: “Acculturated and accomodated Christianity has become such a normal state of affairs that more faithfully inhabiting the faith will entail as much unlearning and resistance as it takes avowals, commitments, and decisions. It will be less like learning to ride a new, tricky bike and more like unlearning to ride a ‘normal’ one.” The footnote sends you to this youtube video,

Heather C. Ohaneson

Response

Visible, Hidden; Dominant, Distinct

 The Paradox of Christianity, Continued

One of the most stinging claims that Jason Mahn levels in Becoming a Christian in Christendom is that “for Americans in the present moment, there is very little difference between identifying with Christianity (as our culture conceives it) and identifying with nothing at all” (27). While I appreciate Mahn’s attention to the themes of spiritual formation and Christian particularity, and his Kierkegaard-inspired critique of the shallow expression of a diluted Christian faith that gets lost in the crowd, I would like to emphasize or at least uphold the alternate Kierkegaardian option of a seamless Christianity in which modern knights of faith imitate the incognito of Christ, the strange ordinariness that marked his extraordinary appearance on earth.1 To be clear as well as fair, this is compatible with Mahn’s own project; indeed, in various places including “The (Hidden) Visibility of the Church” and following sections (233–38), Mahn touches upon some of the ideas that I will address here.

On my proposed view, Christians are genuinely different from “the world,”2 but theirs is a reconciled difference, a difference that blends in. Importantly, the type of distinction that I am envisioning does not leave its bearers immune to suffering or persecution; perhaps, in this schema, such Christian suffering will be subtly borne rather than obnoxiously fought as, say, in some of today’s culture wars. In the language of Kierkegaard’s existential framework, the mostly elusive goal is a rare religiousness in which common aesthetic values—the values that characterize the life of the masses—are canceled and elevated, repudiated and redeemed. In part, this dialectical recuperation explains how, even in her genuine individuality, the knight of faith (the church of faith?) can slip into the crowd of aesthetes, exhibit a jolly gracefulness, and act as if she belongs there. Such a way of life hinges, precariously perhaps, on the paradox of Christ, who is described in Colossians 1:15 as the image of the invisible God. (What does the image of something invisible look like? Is it a visible image or that oxymoron of an invisible image? An imprint that may be traced? Hands and feet with the negative space of nail marks?) Without excusing the forms of contemporary Christianity that are unhealthily conflated with the dominant values of the dominant culture, such as “Christian supremacy,” in all its parallels to white supremacy (see Mahn, chapter 2), Christians’ Constantinian capitulations (witness the 2016 election), and what Jeff Sharlet unveils as worse than superficial secularity in his Esquire article, “The Ministry of Fun,”3 I wish to point to the somewhat hidden advantages of a quiet Christianity alongside the sometimes all-too-clear disadvantages of displays of faith that are overly proud of their distinctiveness. In short, I would like to venture a micro-vision of what it would look like for the church to live both meekly and rigorously. We might have to squint to see such meek rigor and rigorous meekness, and not only because my space here is short.

In reading the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, do you ever get the sense that God enjoys playing hide and seek? Is God toying with Moses (even in a kind way) in those famous Exodus episodes (in chapters 3, 33, and 34), sometimes revealing, sometimes obfuscating the divine identity? As in, you may see me, but only my back? You may know my—unpronounceable, untranslatable—name? Or what about the implication of Jeremiah 23:23–24, that in being omnipresent, the LORD may see all things without being perceived? Moreover, back on the mountain of God in 1 Kings 19, why does God use “sheer silence” (kol demamah dakkah) to speak to Elijah, and why is that questionably audible revelation preceded by mountain-splitting wind?

It may be said that one way in which Jesus Christ resembles the LORD is that Jesus hides in plain sight and is apparent in absence. Thus, the perspective of the people in Luke 4:22 (“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”) is counterbalanced by the story of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, where Jesus “came near and went with them [two of his followers]” while “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vv. 15–16). As a reader, I find Jesus’ concealment in this scene torturous, especially given his physical closeness to the men. Is there a lesson that twenty-first-century followers of Christ can collectively learn about how to comport themselves—how to walk alongside others—from this curious episode where Jesus seems to conceal himself willfully—though not lastingly—from his companions? (See Luke 24:25–27 and then vv. 28–32 for the continuation of the story and Jesus’ “slow reveal.”) Are there times to be invisibly distinct and when should those moments be punctuated with particularity that is visible, costly, and achieved? Lastly, in allowing for visible differentiation at all, we are breaking from de Silentio’s picture of the person of faith as commensurate (or not incommensurate) with das Man. What is the cost of that departure?

The advantages of a quiet, servile Christianity may themselves be difficult to discern, either because there are not many instances to which to appeal or because the examples that do exist are overlooked precisely in their gentleness. Two positive aspects of imitating the self-emptying meekness of Jesus (on the personal or institutional scale) are in not brashly drawing attention to oneself or one’s church, not even in times of service, and in inviting attention by paying attention to others for their own sake. One gives others a substantive reason to be interested in one’s faith by, surprise, following the biblical commands of magnifying God, practicing counterintuitive ethics (such as forgiveness), and living peaceably, even in hostile lands. The avoidance of pride and the beckoning to closer consideration are intertwined, as a healthy lack of self-interest is an attractive trait.

The inverse holds for displays of faith that read as overly proud or self-aware of their distinctiveness. That is likely why some Christians have the reputation for being obnoxious or arrogant. Their holiness gets lost in their “thou.” By drawing attention to their separation from others, even inadvertently, they distract people from the savior to whom they should be pointing. For example, I once had Christian neighbors who were very eager to proclaim their belief to me, so much so that their zealousness seemed to be more about them than about Jesus (or me).

What is a model writ small for an uncompromising-yet-compassionate church? How can readers, adorers, and scholars of Kierkegaard cast a constructive vision of what single individuals do when gathered together? Can the unseen knights of faith ever see each other? In Fear and Trembling, after briefly analyzing recognition and hiddenness aesthetically in modern drama, de Silentio posits the examples of two lovers who are willing to suffer silently in their unrequited love. He then writes, “What a pity that here two persons, both of whom are hidden from their respective beloveds, are also hidden from each other; otherwise, a remarkable higher unity could be brought about here.”4 That higher unity of hiddenness is what we are to seek and unfold. If I had to use a single image to represent such collective hiddenness, I would point to behind-the-scenes women in churches—those womanning the kitchens and fellowship hours, and faithfully overseeing ministries on the margins, as well as, of course, the pervasively seen-but-unseen wives of prominent pastors. When do they ever make a fuss about themselves?

Mahn tackles the issue of visible church politics, and does so with Kierkegaard in mind. Presenting the Anabaptist opposition to Constantinian Christians, he writes:

Anabaptists emphasize the visibility of the church against those church traditions (Lutheranism is one) that think of the “real church” as a heavenly, invisible reality, and “real Christians” as known only to God’s inscrutable judgment. Even Kierkegaard, who critiques his earlier avowal of hidden interiority as the locus for authentic Christianity, gives little indication of what a visible, counter-Christendom community of Christians might actually look like. Instead, he largely portrayed real Christians in images of individual renunciation, anguish, and martyrdom, which are repeated mantra-like through his latest newspaper articles and attack essays. (235, original emphasis)

This passage and similar discussions that highlight fissures within the Church caused me to think of the need for visible distinctions among Christians, especially in contemporary America. It is not only that Christians can serve as witnesses to those outside the faith tradition by being different from them; it is that they stand to spur one another on by being different from one another. But are we to expect a resolution between the Anabaptists and the Constantinians, and if dissonance remains, is the overall Christian witness diminished?

Having addressed visible church politics, Mahn turns in the following section to hidden church politics. There, he examines Bonhoeffer’s critique of a merely purported theology of the cross:

Bonhoeffer lampoons that so-called Reformation theology that calls itself a theology of the cross but “whose signature is that it prefers a ‘humble’ invisibility in the form of total conformity to the world.” Without a distinctive political shape, one that takes up space in the world, and so, offers a visible alternative to politics as usual, the church quickly becomes indistinguishable from dominant society as such. (237)

These two passages on the tension between ecclesiastical visibility and hiddenness form the greatest challenge to the position that I am upholding. True meekness in the manner of Christ may be legitimate, while nominal meekness may function as a protective strategy, covering up an easy conformity. The trick, I believe, is not to use nominal meekness to excuse the call to true meekness!

Even more than on the road to Emmaus, the way forward may be unlocked in the cross. Continuing to reference Bonhoeffer, Mahn writes, “Bonhoeffer (again, as a theologian of the cross) knows that God remains hidden the very moment that God discloses Godself in the cross and among the oppressed. He follows Luther in confessing to God: ‘Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.’ Bonhoeffer’s true church is not invisible, but it is still hidden, glimpsed only in unlikely places, and some that seem irreligious” (237–38, original emphasis; cf. 104). Much more needs to be said to describe what the hiddenness of sacrificial service looks like, and how such hiddenness should be achieved;5 or perhaps silence is more useful for approaching Christian visibility. Stuck somewhere in the paradox, I will salute a church that is hidden but not invisible, a church that thrives in unlikely places, even culturally dominant ones.


  1. Here, the touchstones of Kierkegaard are the treatment of Jesus throughout the Philosophical Fragments and Johannes de Silentio’s famous description of the knight of faith as so common as to be mistakable for a tax collector in Fear and Trembling, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 38–41; cf. Mahn, 78–79. An exemplary passage from PF reads: “He [the god] will appear, therefore, as the equal of the lowliest persons. But the lowliest of all is one who must serve others—consequently, the god will appear in the form of a servant. But this form of a servant is not something put on like the king’s plebian cloak, which just by flapping open would betray the king; it is not something put on like the light Socratic summer cloak, which, although woven from nothing, yet is concealing and revealing—but it is his true form. For this is the boundlessness of love, that in earnestness and truth and not in jest it wills to be the equal of the beloved, and it is the omnipotence of resolving love to be capable of that of which neither the king nor Socrates was capable, which is why their assumed characters were still a kind of deceit” (trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985], 31–32, original emphasis).

  2. “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18–19 NRSV).

  3. In this piece, Sharlet, who acutely observes that fun is “the next stage of the prosperity gospel,” makes several comments in line with Mahn’s argument, including the following: “Superficial, yes, but by design. Every few years, the secular press produces an astonished report of a preacher who embraces pop culture. But this is an old story: Each era of American Christendom gives rise to competitive strains of faith, one that curses the culture, one that coddles it. Sometimes the latter is liberal, but more often it reveals the shallowness of liberalism’s aesthetic trappings, the ease with which secular music and fashion and art can be repurposed to serve a religion of control—over sex, over emotion implicitly political,” “Rich is the latest avatar of a tradition common to Christianity and capitalism . . . ,” and “Rich remains relentlessly upbeat even as he appropriates a hip-hop culture suffused with suffering and pleasure alike. It’s a theology of gentrification: the gritty city as a site for ‘authenticity’ made over to house a gospel with little mention of the cross, an urban ministry of spotless cool” (Esquire, Aug 26, 2016, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.esquire.com/news-politics/a48039/rich-wilkerson-pastor-kanye-west-kim-kardashian/).

  4. Fear and Trembling, 85.

  5. Matt 6:5–6.

  • Jason Mahn

    Jason Mahn

    Reply

    Response to Heather Ohaneson

    I am incredibly grateful for Heather Ohaneson’s discerning and moving musings on how Christianity ought to entail a “reconciled difference, a difference that blends in,” how Christians ought to “exhibit a jolly gratefulness,” and embody “a strange ordinariness,” and do so out of humble imitation of a savior who so grippingly “hides in plain sight” on the road to Emmaus and earlier on the cross. In all of this, she perceives a priority and (over-?) emphasis in my own work on the need for contemporary Christians to stand apart from what I perhaps too broadly refer to as dominant North American culture—an emphasis on what critics of Constantinianism call the visibility of the church. But she also rightly perceives that I do not want clear visibility to be the last word. If her first word is about the commensurability (or invisibility) of Christians, and my first word is about their necessary distinctiveness (visibility), both of us move toward the necessary hiddenness of individual Christians and the Christian church, to a Christianity that is revealed precisely in its quiet humility. Both of us, too, link the hiddenness of discipleship to the one whom disciples follow, to Christ the Incognito, as Kierkegaard puts it, and to the God who hides in his cross, as Luther mysteriously suggests.

    Kierkegaardians might explain our different starting places by noting that Ohaneson takes her cues from Johannes de Silentio’s description in Fear and Trembling of the way a knight of faith looks (at least to the unconverted) exactly like a bourgeois philistine, while my project (focused as it is on Christendom, then and now) begins with Kierkegaard’s final attack on the Danish church for being all-too-invisible. The two of us would meet in Anti-Climacus’s Practice in Christianity, which roots Kierkegaard’s emerging attack on the church in a Christology of incognito incarnate. I’ve also taken my ecclesial bearings from Bonhoeffer, who criticizes other Lutherans (most notably, the German Christians giving allegiance to Hitler) for blending into the crowd, and yet muses at the end of his life about what a thoroughly this-worldly or secular (and, I would say, sacramental) Christianity might look like. (Incidentally, additional texts that have been instrumental to my use of visibility, invisibility, and hiddenness include an essay about sin by William Cavanaugh and Ronald Thiemann’s posthumously published book about secularism and/as sacramentalism.1William T. Cavanaugh, “The Sinfulness and Visibility of the Church: A Christological Exploration,” in Migrations of the Holy: God, State and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 141–69; Ronald F. Thiemann, The Humble Sublime: Secularity and the Politics of Belief (London: Tauris, 2013).[/footnote)

    Were Christians to comport themselves in such a way that their faithfulness were strong but hidden, their identity would cease to be directly perceivable (and they certainly wouldn’t and couldn’t brag about it), but neither would it be indistinguishable from those nominal Christians (most of us?) shrouding themselves within a culture that relegates “Christianity” to all that is normal and nice. Ohaneson and I both want to retrieve such hidden faithfulness or faithful hiddenness, and must do so over and against self-promoting visibility, on the one side, and an everydayness or “first immediacy” (Kierkegaard) that has very little to which to bear witness. For Kierkegaard, as Ohaneson knows, Christians’ particular at-homeness, their particular way of being joyfully and gracefully immersed in God’s world, comprises a second immediacy, a return to the world as God’s, having also been weaned from presumptions of possession through what de Silentio describes as the “double-movement” of faith.

    Here are three questions that might spark further conversation. I invite Ohaneson to respond to any that she finds generative.

    First: Is hiddenness the best term for what both of us are after? It does have the advantage of picking up on the biblical theme of a God who hides (see Isa 45:15, which Luther quotes when describing a God “revealed” on the cross), but it also suggests a kind of hiding and then finding, a shuttling between invisibility and visibility, that fails to do justice to the simultaneity of revelation as concealment, and vice versa. Would something like sacramentality—the idea that everyday people doing everyday things with everyday materials (not only water and bread and wine but also brooms and soups and bedpans)—better articulate the way Christian holiness can be found in, with, and under the profane?

    Second and related, why does Ohaneson invoke silence, instead of hiddenness, as “more useful for approaching Christian visibility”? Is this switch from the ocular to the auditory a change in metaphors for expressing the holiness of ordinary service? Or is Ohaneson very literally suggesting that Christians stop talking about themselves? Would such silence entail the end of “ecclesiology”—or perhaps the silencing of only those radical ecclesiologists who talk so much about the holiness of the church? Johannes de Silentio (John of Silence) talks quite a lot about the silence that should accompany the mundane mystery of faith. What else can be said about silence in this context?

    Finally, I am intrigued by Ohaneson’s seemingly offhanded comment about the need to explore visible distinctions within Christianity so that different kinds of Christians can “stand and spur one another on by being different from one another.” She notes that such engagement across well-worn fissures within the church is important especially in contemporary America. (I take this to reference culture wars rather than traditional ecumenical differences.) I was struck by this comment largely because, at least on the surface, it is almost the opposite of what I write in Becoming a Christian in Christendom about the relativizing of internal Christian distinctions vis-à-vis the church’s difference from culture at large:

    Ironically, the most visible distinction between “the church” and “the world” might just distinguish all political partisanship on the one side—distinctions between conservative and liberal, democrat and republican, friend and enemy, right and wrong, white and black, the haves and the have-nots, sinners and saints—and, on the other side, those whose courageous, repentant solidarity with Christ, and with the suffering and sin of others, tears down every other partition. The church inhabits a politics beyond all partisanship, one that provides a visible alternative to the very self-righteous divisions that otherwise rule our world. Its central practice is the confession of all that Christians have done and left undone, the sins of their community and of the wider world. Solidarity in suffering and sin truly sets Christians apart. (239)

    My comments no doubt idealize a single body of Christ where there is neither Jew no Greek, neither Trump-defender nor Trump-hater, in ways that are unexemplified by a single congregation, not to mention the entire Church catholic. Alternatively, and following Ohaneson’s prompting, how might a more intentional and realistic encounter with intra-Christian difference make Christianity stand out in and through its very ordinariness?

    I look forward to further conversation.

Kyle Roberts

Response

Thin Christianity in the Age of Trump

: Is Authenticity the Problem?

No one knows for sure how or why Donald Trump got elected, but one thing we do know is that evangelical Christians had something to do with it. It’s by now common knowledge that 81 percent of self-identifying evangelicals voted for Trump, even if many of those held their noses while doing it. And they weren’t alone: the majority of white Protestant and white voters also cast their lot a candidate whose xenophobic, misogynist, racist, and nationalist tendencies were no big secret.

Jason Mahn’s Becoming a Christian in Christendom is an important and timely book for this strange and strained political, religious, and ecclesiological season. His book isn’t about Trump, but he does address the problem of white supremacy and its relation to conservative American religion. That 81 percent kept banging around in my head.

Mahn’s thesis is that, despite numerous reports to the contrary, the cultural and religious situation of the United States is still rightly described as Christendom. Our Christendom differs from Constantine’s Roman Empire or Kierkegaard’s Denmark. We’ve got the formal separation of church and state, for one thing—though that tradition stands on thinner ice these days.

Mahn explains that our version is “Neo-Christendom,” one in which Christianity becomes “an acculturated and accommodated faith, something that offends no one because it has such little substance” (xxv). Christianity, in this setting, is no longer a “distinctive and discernible subculture in its own right.” Instead, it is “little more than a cipher, an empty adjective that can be added to nearly any aspect of mainstream culture” (8).

Our Christendom is a thinned-out version. It’s been dissipated and disseminated through the forms and institutions of culture, but it’s still there. In short, Neo-Christendom is what happens when you take a very thin, superficial version of Christianity and marry it to right-wing political ideology, neo-liberalism and unbridled global capitalism, extreme libertarian impulses, triumphalist nationalism, and white supremacy.

This blending of religious, political, and economic ideologies drives our collective identity, our social anxiety and conflicts, and our religious and political life—and of course our religion and politics are notoriously difficult to disentangle.

To take a psychological turn, one could surmise that the context of neo-Christendom allows the use of traditional Christian language to mask more insidious motivations. It’s a context where Donald Trump cannot recite a single Bible verse, and yet he can be extolled as the clear candidate of choice for Bible-believing Christians.

Neo-Christendom is a social, cultural, and religious structure that creates the conditions for righteous self-deception; for many of those who are swept along the current, their more insidious motivations may be buried beneath conscious awareness.

In Mahn’s analysis, the theology that undergirds this thinned-out Christendom is a theology of glory; a theology that proclaims with relief that we’re on the other side of the cross, that the death of God is long past, the dark night of the soul is over, and Holy Saturday is a faint and distant memory. A theology whose Jesus is not a demanding prophet and suffering servant, but a confirmation of blessing for the already-blessed and the promise of eternal security for the elect. Surely now God desires to bless his beloved with prosperity, material comfort, security, in short, to give them the desires of their hearts.

Mahn makes clear his indebtedness to Charles Taylor. The Christendom of the United States can best be understood as a by-product of the current stage in our Secular Age. In this contemporary era, transcendence and mystery are squelched by immanence and pragmatism. Regarding Christianity, the riches of the long, winding, and binding theological, doctrinal, and moral traditions are replaced by the values of the Enlightenment: freedom and liberty, individual rights and individual expression, justice (as fairness), equality at all costs, progress at all costs, and the priority of “authenticity.”

This last one, authenticity, captivates Mahn’s analysis and fuels his critique of progressive Christian movements, such as the postmodern or emerging church (now passé, in terminology at least) as well as liberal mainline Christians that seek a Christianity After Religion.1 On Mahn’s analysis, progressive Christianity, at least those expressions that pine for “authentic” spirituality and existential meaning, contribute equally with fundamentalists to our superficial religious situation called Neo-Christendom.

Mahn subjects progressive Christianity to Taylor’s weighty analysis of the secular (and secular religious) age. Taylor argues that the Enlightenment valorizing of authenticity emerges from a shift to individualism, to inwardness, and to freedom of expression. The turn to authenticity, even when well-meaning and perhaps even when necessary, overlooks, ignores, or even suppresses the particularity of religious traditions and the binding cohesive effect of shared morality and ethico-religious authority.

For Mahn, Christianity After Religion forms of Christianity capitulate to the desires of individual religious consumers. Progressive churches may set aside the rigorous requirements of Christianity to gain the attention, respect (and tithes?) of religious seekers. Their religiosity corresponds to their desire for self-realization. More traditional or authoritarian forms of Christianity that saddle them with regulations, expectations, and demands, and that put forward a high cost of discipleship, risk alienating these spiritual questers. But the cost of capitulating to the quest for authenticity is a superficial faith and, cumulatively, a religion susceptible to commandeering by sinister forces. And so, many progressive Christians cheer the “death” of institutional Christianity, insofar as it signals the arrival of an age of authenticity.

In his chapter on “The Age of Authenticity” in A Secular Age, Taylor offers a “double assessment” of the turn to authenticity, one in which he urges caution in either damning the interest in authenticity or uncritically endorsing it:

It is tempting for those out of sympathy with this turn to see it simply in the light of its illusions; to see authenticity, or the affirmation of sensuality, as simply egoism and the pursuit of pleasure, for example: or to see the aspiration to self-expression exclusively in the light of consumer choice. It is tempting on the other side for proponents of the turn to affirm the values of the new ideal as though they were unproblematic, cost-free and could never be trivialized. Both see the turn as a move within a stable, perennial game. For the critics, it involves the embracing of vices which were and are the main threats to virtue; for the boosters, we have reversed age-old forms which were and are modes of oppression.2

Taylor’s careful articulation of the two ditches in terms of coming at the question, or the problem, of the “age of authenticity” helps me formulate a question as I read Mahn’s assessment of progressive Christianity.

Put most bluntly, I wonder if Mahn is guilty of succumbing to one side of the double-temptation that Taylor articulates. In Mahn’s analysis of the forces that lead to the superficial, thin veneer of Christianity in Neo-Christendom, a trivializing of authenticity could quickly lend itself to the mocking of important gains in modern society and in much of the Christian church, too: affirmation of LGBTQ rights being an obvious example.

If we are to understand the quest for authenticity in the most generous sense, I cannot help but appreciate the many ways this Enlightenment value has contributed positively to the human experience. Authenticity can be easily mocked for its linkage to individualist self-expression (as many conservatives are want to do). But it is conceptually tied to other modern values like tolerance, epistemic humility, appreciation of genuine diversity, respect for an individual’s understanding of sexual identity. It should also be understood in the broader context of attempts to dismantle systems of patriarchy, sexism, homogeneity, exclusivism, epistemic certitude, trenchant and legalistic moralism, and so on.

Mahn laments the loss in our Neo-Christendom of tangible, covenantal communities, particularized, “thick” theologies, and deeply shared moral codes. But it’s at least worth noting that authoritarian institutional religions (churches, denominations, etc.), whether through embedded hierarchical structures, deep and unflinching creedal traditionalism, or biblical authoritarianism (i.e., inerrancy), are often the modes of faith best known for promoting particularity. And they are often (though not always) the modes of faith whose moral codes, patriarchal policies, and exclusivist soteriology are the most oppressive.

It seems reasonable to suggest that the surest way (though not the best way) to sustain an expression of faith rooted in the particularities and depths of Christianity, such that they are able to be countercultural, is through the wielding of authority, whether that authority is funneled through tradition and doctrine or through Scripture.

If the answer to the religious superficiality of neo-Christendom is to become more deeply Christian—and I do agree with Mahn in this—then the solution should not be to become more authoritarian and to disregard the more individualized quest for spiritual meaning and for authenticity.

It seems to me that Mahn is at least implying that authority is the best antidote to the superficiality of “authenticity.” But I wonder if the two, authority and authenticity, don’t work better as a necessary dialectic? And I wonder if we should be careful, in the attempt to regain a deeper and thicker Christianity, not to dispense with hard-won Enlightenment values, including epistemic humility and the recognition that Christian particularity is only one version, even if we think it might be the best one, of meaningful religious life.

Insofar as authenticity is an expression of consumer capitalism, or extreme political libertarianism, and so on, then it is to be rejected and countered with a deep theology that generates tension or friction with those cultural temptations and that can help withstand the temptations.3 But insofar as authenticity is itself a countercultural expression, perhaps we ought to learn to harness it in the service of a better, more epistemically honest and vulnerable Christianity?

Early in his book, Mahn references Kierkegaard’s point that genuine, New Testament Christianity does not simply happen as a “matter of course” (as in cultural Christendom). Mahn then suggests that forms of progressive Christianity (referring to my book on Kierkegaard, as an example) are guilty of conflating Christianity and cultural progress in the very way that Kierkegaard warns against.

But in this Trump era, progressive or liberal Christianity and progressive politics is no longer evolving “as a matter of course.” It may be that progressive Christianity, including the sort that has disconnected from ecclesial traditions, may be well-suited to play a new role of generating friction against a cultural backlash that is increasingly polarized, alarmingly hostile to minorities and immigrants, xenophobic, homophobic, fear-mongering, and pandering to authoritarian impulses. It will take an effort of theological, political, and ecclesial resistance to ensure that several crucial social values, many of which find their source in the Enlightenment shift, do not slip away from us too easily.

I agree with Mahn that diving deeper (though critically) into our theological traditions is a necessary response to the religious superficiality of neo-Christendom. But we dare not dive so deep that we can’t come up for air, or that we get irrecoverably lost in the weeds of our particularity.


  1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York: HarperOne, 2013).

  2. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 480.

  3. I thank my friend Dan Liechty for the term “friction” as a concept designating religion’s countercultural potential.

  • Jason Mahn

    Jason Mahn

    Reply

    Response to Kyle Roberts

    “In view of the errors of the ‘German Christians’ and of the present Reich Church Administration, which are ravaging the church and at the same time also shattering the unity of the German Evangelical Church, we confess the following evangelical truths:

    1. ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6).

    […]

    Jesus Christ as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture is the one Word of God whom we have to hear, and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

    So begins the Barmen Declaration, the 1934 statement of faith by Confessing Christians in Germany that essentially asserted that Jesus alone is Lord—and so Hitler ain’t.

    I begin with the Barmen Declaration in a response to Kyle’s Roberts’s penetrating critique to my work because it suggests one very particular method of resisting “Christendom”—meaning here the accommodation of historic Christianity to the point where it accommodates and justifies an alternative politic, whether that accommodation be perpetuated by “German Christians” in the 1930s or the 81 percent of white, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians who voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

    Roberts and I fundamentally agree on the problems plaguing Christianity in the United States today and the need to recover or repurpose more creative, distinctive, and faithful ways of embodying the tradition. Both of us take cues from Søren Kierkegaard’s resistance to Christendom in our diagnoses and prognoses. Indeed, I think that our commonality makes our differences more pronounced.

    Roberts here reminds me of all that I risk losing—“freedom and liberty, individual rights and individual expression, justice (as fairness), equality at all costs, [and] progress at all costs”—if I do not adequately distinguish the Christianity that I seek to recover and repurpose from an authoritarian, anti-Enlightenment, anti-progressivist tradition that remains not only not life-giving but also fundamentally at odds with the good news of Jesus. I thus want to join Roberts in distinguishing authoritarian religion from what he (more comfortably than I) calls authentic faith. I will here make three further distinctions which extend Roberts’s insights but also push back in what I hope are helpful ways.

    1. Authority and Authenticity

    Roberts writes, “It seems to me that Mahn is at least implying that authority is the best antidote to the superficiality of ‘authenticity.’” This impression concerns me. I also have tried to describe what Roberts helpfully calls the “necessary dialectic” of authority and authenticity. Early in the book, I describe two sides of America’s neo-Christendom:

    Part of what is means to live in a “Christian” culture is that we end up accepting a formal system of customs and rituals that script our lives before we fully consent to them. We may need to embrace the free and authentic commitments of individuals in order to move ourselves and others beyond the entrapments of Christendom. . . . [But a] second danger is equally pressing: if a primary “script” of the newest forms of Christendom is that we determine our own future direction for ourselves—that each of us gets to author our own lives—then simply choosing whether or not to be Christian may be just as culturally determined and accommodating. (29)

    That intricate difficulty—namely, the fact that choice for authenticity and away from prefabricated traditions may be equally scripted and prefabricated—necessitates a “dialectical” response to America’s Christendom. Or as I put it in the book:

    If our supposedly “Christian” culture were exhaustively defined by one of the two extremes—either our unreflective repetition of canned rituals, or uncritical faith in free-floating individual choices—then our path forward would be fairly straightforward. But in this awkward moment of its shifting forms . . . our neo-Christendom remains tenacious and manifold enough to require both responses simultaneously—even as they pull in opposite directions. (30)

    Roberts is right in perceiving that I am more interested in one side of this solution—the side he describes as bending to authority but that I would describe as the undergoing of communal formation in order to be (re)formed into disciples. If Roberts emphasizes the other side, my guess is that that is because he was formed at a conservative evangelical institution (presumably, with a heavy dose of authority/authoritarianism), and has moved toward liberal Christianity (see page ix of his Emerging Prophet book) while I, having traveled in mainline liberal churches for most of my life, am more aware of how one can get lost in the “air” of widespread expressive individualism no less than in the “weeds” of dogma and custom.

    I do wonder whether putting the matter in terms of authority and/or authenticity helps. At least to me, those terms seem so weighted as to lose the potential for dialectic altogether. Who wouldn’t want the fresh air of freedom, equality, rights, and self-expression over the weedy “regulations, expectations, and demands” of authority? (No one in my church circles—including me.) This brings me to a second important distinction.

    2. Enlightenment and Romanticism

    When introducing the “age of authenticity” that clearly emerges in North America since the 1960s, Charles Taylor notes that its invention was considerably earlier—in eighteenth-century Romanticism.1 In retrieving “authenticity,” Roberts connects the term, not to Romanticism, but to the Enlightenment. Now, authenticity is just capacious, ambiguous, and merely suggestive enough of a term (Adorno thus calls it “jargon”) to be traced back either to the ethics of the Enlightenment or to the aestheticism of Romanticism—and that is partly why it’s problematic. In light of this discussion, however, it matters significantly whether the distinctively romantic connotations of authenticity—as well as of individual expression, depth, and meaning—are recognized. Without doing so, I fear that any defender of authenticity can too easily traffic in romantic diads and thus sustain yet another “stable, perennial game.”2

    What I mean is this: Romantic artists and romantic (liberal) theologians too easily invoke open and creative authenticity by debasing structure, conformity, dogma, and determinacy. Schleiermacher, the founder of liberal theology, does this in his defense of Christianity against its cultured despisers no less than do cultured despisers such as Byron or Schlegel.

    There is something of those same weighted categories in Roberts’s concluding provocation: “I agree with Mahn that diving deeper (though critically) into our theological traditions is a necessary response to the religious superficiality of neo-Christendom. But we dare not dive so deep that we can’t come up for air, or that we get irrecoverably lost in the weeds of our particularity.” Is modernity always pure air, and religious particularity always weeds? If so, a stable, romantic dualism is created by which the life-giving power of creativity and authenticity gets promoted over and against authority and authoritarianism. This may partly explain why Roberts uses the latter two terms to describe the religious formation that I propose, even though I do not and would not use those words. Does his own romantic apologetic finally need them? It also helps explain why I would not characterize my own theology as conservative (not even close), but I may and have characterized it as postliberal—even though that term is now even more passé than the emerging church explored by Roberts. Postliberal theologians are also postromantic. They resist playing individual freedom against formation in and by the community called church. At best, they creatively and critically conserve the best of tradition, and often put that tradition to progressivist politics, as Hauerwas does with peacemaking, or the Barmen Declaration with resistance to Nazi idolatry.

    3. Politics and Religion

    This brings us to a final distinction, one that I can make quickly and ask Kyle Roberts what he thinks. Roberts helpfully and rightfully claims that “progressive or liberal Christianity and progressive politics” is needed more than ever in our increasingly xenophobic, homophobic, fear-mongering, and authoritarian era. I could not agree more. The question that I raise for Roberts is about the “and” of liberal theology and progressivist politics. Do progressivist politics always and clearly emerge from liberal theology, meaning here, theology that finds its “crucial social values” in the Enlightenment? The Barmen Declaration suggests another site of resistance. Confessing Christians very conservatively and with authority resisted the lordship of Hitler by proclaiming the exclusive Lordship of Christ. Might not our own desperate need for radical political resistance be rooted in something similar? How dependent are progressivist Christians on Immanuel Kant or Thomas Jefferson if they have Dorothy Day and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—not to mention Jesus?


    1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 473, 475, 476.

    2. Ibid., 480, quoted by Roberts.

Mandy Rodgers-Gates

Response

A Faith That Confronts . . . or a Faith That Comforts?

I can hardly imagine a timelier book than Jason Mahn’s Becoming a Christian in Christendom. As I wrestled with the reality of a Trump presidency in its early months, reading Mahn’s book was no less than a balm to the soul. I do not exaggerate. Two factors combined to make it such: its content and its form. Regarding content, Mahn is as astute in his diagnosis of the problems plaguing North American Christianity as he is inspiring in the vision of discipleship he paints. Perhaps even more importantly, he manages to communicate all of this in clear, fluid language, avoiding unnecessary academic jargon, and making his work accessible to undergraduate students and beyond. (At one point, he even defines “reify.” I nearly broke out in applause.) At a moment when the division between the more and less educated feels especially acute, the thought that I could give a chapter of this book to read to some of my non-theologically educated, conservative evangelical family members felt like a gift and a reason for hope. Hope for academic theology, hope for the church in the United States.

One of the primary theses undergirding Mahn’s book is that despite appearances to the contrary, we are still living in Christendom here in the United States (i.e., all of those books with the word “post-Christendom” in their title may have been a bit premature). It turns out that Christendom can shape-shift to take increasingly subtler forms, such that what looks like secularization turns out to be the other side of an accommodated and acculturated Christianity. Or to put it another way—as Mahn does—the relationship between secularization and Christianity is not a zero-sum game, where more of one means less of the other. And Constantinianism, like unfettered capitalism, seems to co-opt even the best efforts at resisting it.

So what are we to do? The first step is to recognize that we are not the first to encounter these challenges to Christian discipleship, and we will not be the last. Mahn deftly moves between Luther, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer, drawing them into conversation with modern day “anti-Constantinians” like Yoder and Hauerwas, as well as “radical” Christian communities (such as those associated with New Monasticism). Sixteenth-century Wittenberg, nineteenth-century Denmark, and Germany in the 1930s each offer an important perspective on what it means to “become Christian” in the midst of Christendom, in its varying forms. (As a side note, one contribution Mahn’s book makes—almost an incidental one—is his pithy summary of insights from such complex thinkers as Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer.)

I begin my commentary, hoping to invite further discussion, by examining the two categories that serve as a heuristic lens for Mahn in engaging the thinkers listed above: “anti-Constantinians” and theologians of the cross. The first group, which includes Yoder and Hauerwas and a certain side of Bonhoeffer, emphasizes the life and teachings of Jesus and their “followability”—the fact that disciples of Jesus are actually called to live like him. Mahn loosely associates this view with a “low Christology”: the emphasis here is on the human Jesus, where the cross is seen as the paradigmatic moment of Jesus’ nonviolent resistance to the empire. On the other hand, theologians of the cross—including Luther, Kierkegaard, and another side of Bonhoeffer—emphasize the scandal of the cross and the revelation of God in such a lowly and unexpected place. This view can be associated with a “high Christology,” as it underlines what Jesus reveals to us about who God is. Each group has its corresponding critiques, then, of accommodated and acculturated Christianity. I cannot list all of them here, but briefly: anti-Constantinians critique a view that would limit Jesus’ social ethic to certain elite groups or to a particular historical context—or any other theological approach that mitigates our need to follow in his footsteps; theologians of the cross critique a theology of glory that attributes to God the characteristics of power and prestige valued by society and the inability to see God in humble and even scandalous places.

One way to view the common thread in these two approaches is that they resist a faith that merely comforts Christians in the struggles of this world, instead pushing toward a faith that confronts not only the world, but also how Christians are living in the midst of it. In my studies on suffering and death, I have often wrestled with these two sides of the gospel, which reflect two aspects of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) itself. On the one hand, there are consistent calls throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as the witness of apostles like Paul and Peter, that direct us to “take up our cross,” to lay down our lives, and to identify with Christ in his suffering. On the other hand, there is a real hope and comfort communicated by both the Evangelists and by Paul, one that promises resurrection from the dead and God’s defeat of sin, evil, and Satan—not to mention death itself—through Christ’s death and resurrection. More pointedly stated: does the gospel comfort (and bring life)? Or does the gospel confront (and bring suffering)?

Engaging this tension becomes even more important when we consider the significance of the gospel as “good news to the poor.” There is a saying in liberation theology: if our gospel is not good news to the poor, then it is not the gospel. It is not good news. Some questions, then, that come to mind: in what sense do the visions of the gospel presented by anti-Constantinians and by theologians of the cross, respectively, offer good news to the poor? Does one hold more promise for this than the other? Or do they somehow complement each other in this area if we hold them together? In other words, can an emphasis on a faith that confronts be good news to the poor? Do we preach a faith that comforts or a faith that confronts? And does audience matter? I invite Mahn’s response to these questions, even as I offer some of my own thoughts here.

I do think that audience matters, and one of my own critiques of Yoder and Hauerwas is the lack of acknowledgment of audience and thus engagement with thinkers beyond their own context. Certainly, Hauerwas understands himself as a theologian and ethicist working in a particular community on concrete issues. Hence, the ad hoc nature of much of his writing. However, when asked how Christians ought to regard the poor, I have personally heard Hauerwas say—in a classic quotable one-liner—“What you’ll find is that the poor are just as big of SOB’s as the rest of us!”

While I understand the impulse behind these words—to resist a romantic idealization of the poor—and am sympathetic to it, they also betray a denial of the power and privilege central to Hauerwas’s take on the gospel. I do not mean here that Hauerwas is unaware of his own power and privilege. Rather, I contend that in order to speak of giving up power and submitting oneself to suffering as central to the gospel, one must assume that there is power to give up and that one can choose to submit to suffering. This assessment is reinforced by Mahn’s own summary of Hauerwas’s unique take on resistance to Constantinianism, which ought to include “coping with tragedy, enduring pain, abiding in silence, trusting God, remaining patient, and knowing how to die well” (Mahn, 139). I agree wholeheartedly with Hauerwas that white American Christians resist these kinds of formations. My question remains, how is a gospel that emphasizes “enduring pain” and “abiding in silence” good news for the poor?

To illustrate my point, I offer an example from the preaching of Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Romero preached of the need for ongoing conversion (much like Mahn’s characterization of Luther on repentance) and preached conversion for all. That is, even as he confronted the power structures and violence of the powerful, he also called on the poor to personal repentance. At the same time, he understood the suffering of the poor and took that into account in his preaching. In a sermon on the significance of the cross in the Christian life, he spoke of penance and the different forms it will take in different people, speaking specifically of fasting as a form of penance:

Fasting in developed countries where people eat well will be different from the fasting that takes place in the underdeveloped countries where people live their whole lives in fasting. In the one situation, penance is lived by adapting an austere lifestyle when one is surrounded by wealth and also by living in solidarity with those who suffer. In the other case, penance is lived by working for a more just world in those places where people live their whole lives fasting. This is penance—this is doing the will of God.1

Romero was specifically concerned that the poor would think that living into the will of God meant passively accepting their own suffering and the injustice that perpetuated it. Thus, he made a distinction: the wealthy and comfortable are called to penance via austerity and “giving up,” while the vulnerable—who have little materially to “give up”—are called to turn toward God by working for God’s justice.

Thus, while I agree with Hauerwas (and Mahn) on the mal-formation of white American Christians in their willingness to suffer, I want to resist any notion that Christians are called to suffer just to suffer, or even called to suffer merely for the sake of resisting empire (or other political configurations). I submit that we resist empire—and are willing to undergo suffering as we do so—specifically in order to resist the suffering inflicted on the vulnerable by empire and to be in solidarity with them. That is, we suffer in order to liberate the vulnerable—to take the “crucified peoples” down from the cross, in the words of Jon Sobrino—and to witness to the God who is on the side of the vulnerable.

Now, to direct the question to Mahn: how does he see his own vision of discipleship—and concomitant critique of Christendom—as good news for the poor? I raise the question in part because there is little distinctive in the vision Mahn lays out that would indicate a particular commitment to the poor and marginalized. The four aspects of Christendom he emphasizes include an “exploitative economy that cheapens human giftedness,” but in summarizing the flipside of these four in a constructive vision, he characterizes the Christian community as “a distinctive and alternative social politic, where it commits to cruciform nonviolence, appreciates gifts by giving them away, and knows its boundaries well enough to acknowledge and learn from those on the other side” (Mahn, 325–25). In other words, no direct commitment to the poor is articulated as central to the identity of these communities. One possibility is that there is no general or abstract way these views offer good news to the poor, but only concrete communities in their particular contexts that make such commitments. That seems to me a Hauerwasian kind of answer, but one that does not fully satisfy me.

I have primarily focused on the anti-Constantinians, but I want to briefly acknowledge the contributions of a theology of the cross in our understanding of the gospel as good news to the poor. While Mahn rightly points out that more is shared between liberationist theologies and anti-Constantinians than is usually acknowledged by either side (Mahn, 130n19), there is also interesting overlap between Latin American liberationists (my particular area of interest) and theologians of the cross. The central point I want to highlight is an understanding of God as revealing Godself in humble and lowly places. Both theologians of the cross and Latin American liberationists understand this peculiar form of revelation as not incidental to its content. Revelation through that which is humble and despised in the world is not an accident, nor is God somehow constrained to reveal Godself to us in this way. God does not stand neutral, but chooses this particular way precisely because it corresponds to God’s character. In Latin American liberation theology this is known as “the preferential option for the poor.” Luther’s views on the peasant revolts notwithstanding, a theology of the cross has a similar trajectory.

I would like to conclude with a quote from Mahn and word of thanks to him. He sums up what I take to be a primary motivating force behind the book with the following words:

The danger of Christian accommodation to ill-fitting politics and cultures is perpetual. To become Christian in the face of this danger demands vigilance and ongoing negotiations, rather than the good luck of being born at this time, followed by the straightforward selection of an untarnished tradition. (Mahn, 323)

Being immersed in academic theology, I see continual evidence of the temptation to think that choosing an “untarnished tradition” can solve all of our problems—whether this “untarnished tradition” be postcolonial, Barthian, Anabaptist, or Thomistic. Mahn does not let any of these traditions escape the difficult call to become a Christian, nor does he allow them to underestimate the temptations they will encounter along the way. In short, Mahn’s book gifts each of us with the challenge to become a Christian: to recognize that task as a lifelong one, requiring patience and courage, and to be vigilant of the ways any cultural or political configuration can co-opt our Christian discipleship and Christian communities for its own purposes. And for that, we can be grateful.

  • Jason Mahn

    Jason Mahn

    Reply

    Response to Mandy Rodgers-Gates

    I am humbled and helped by Mandy Rodgers-Gates’s generous reading and incisive critique of my work, and am grateful to learn something of her own work with liberationist and feminist theologies and with marginalized populations. I want here to respond to her central questions as directly as I can, knowing that her questions will stay with me long after this exchange. Those central questions include this pivotal one: “In what sense do the visions of the gospel presented by anti-Constantinians and by theologians of the cross, respectively, offer good news to the poor?” And this: “Can an emphasis on a faith that confronts be good news to the poor?” And again: “Do we preach a faith that comforts or a faith that confronts?” And finally: “Does audience matter?” Working from the last (and easiest) back to the first (and hardest), I’ll here sketch some initial responses.

    Does audience matter? Yes. As Rodgers-Gates rightly senses, my book is primarily addressed to white North American Christians (or what I call potential or “would-be” Christian disciples—including myself), whose cultural and political positionality constantly tempts them to mistake God’s grace with economic, racial, and cultural privilege. My central project of lifting up a more countercultural identity and call to radical discipleship in a culture that so easily normalizes and inoculates Christianity is for them—that is, for us. Many of Rodgers-Gates’s critical questions ask how my project would need to change if I were also addressing those who do not enjoy the economic and institutional power that I ask other would-be Christians to confront. (I almost wrote that I ask them to “give up” that power, but I do not think that that is possible given the intricate shape-shifting of our neo-Christendom.) Asking about those whom I do not address (the poor) is fair, although I wonder whether there is also a place for a particular theology for the affluent, given that North American white “Christianity” is not simply normal or normative but a particular tradition with its very particular difficulties of acculturation and accommodation.

    Do we preach a faith that comforts or a faith that confronts? From what I wrote above, it would seem like the task is simply to keep different audiences straight and pitch the gospel differently in order to comfort the afflicted and to confront—and maybe afflict—the comfortable. Although Rodgers-Gates forms the question as an either/or, her own response indicates ways that any single articulation of Christian theology (and the one gospel it unpacks) must both confront and comfort, even if different audiences will hear each differently. She writes of “these two sides of the [one!] gospel, which reflect two aspects of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) itself.” She then forwards a powerful quotation from Romero in which the same call to penance could be answered by the rich by living more simply and in solidarity with the poor, and answered by the poor through active liberative undertakings. That the poor’s work for justice constitutes a kind of penance—a radical turn toward the will of God—overturns associations of that word with the expiation of guilt and prevents one from having to clearly divide victims from victimizers, offering grace to one and summoning repentance from the other. I find something of that same dual-function of a single gospel in Bonhoeffer’s promotion of costly grace—which is costly because it calls a person to leave her prior life behind, but which is grace “because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.”1

    Can an emphasis on a faith that confronts be good news to the poor? It is one thing to consider how the gospel can and should be heard differently by white North American would-be Christians verses, say, communities in Ciudad Juarez ravished by feminicide.2 It is another thing to consider how my particular focus on a faith that calls the comfortable to discipleship might itself be heard as good news to those struggling to stay alive. I can only admit my shortcomings here. I have not yet fully considered how, for example, my chapter on “Free Grace in a Culture of Cheap” might make commitment to the poor a chief component of the necessary resistance to the commodification and abuse of God’s grace. That rediscovering giftedness and grace can lead to solidarity with the poor is suggested by Gustavo Gutiérrez when he describes how grace spurs action, and how many “Latin American Christians are attempting to live the gratuitous love of God by committing themselves to a liberative understanding.”3

    Finally: In what sense do the visions of the gospel presented by anti-Constantinians and by theologians of the cross, respectively, offer good news to the poor? Rodgers-Gates hears the strain in my voice when I try to include liberationist and feminist critics of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder under the overarching banner of anti-Constantinianism. (I strain less when relying on the recent insightful work by Karen V. Guth.4 I also find feminist theorists such as Judith Butler and postliberal theologians such as Hauerwas to mount similar critiques of liberalism and the independent, autonomous self it forms—although I can only mention that here.) These potential pairings notwithstanding, Rodgers-Gates is certainly correct to assert that the marginalized and oppressed ought not be lumped in with my primary audience, those needing to unmask and dismantle the intricate acculturations and accommodations and privilege that others have labeled anti-Constantinianism and that I call neo-Christendom. If my own articulations have anything to offer here, it is that they portray contemporary North American Christendom in ways that disallow any simple choice for renunciation or “disestablishment,” and so do not promote “sacrifice” as a leading Christian virtue in ways that rightfully trouble feminists and others concerned with the already disestablished. But that isn’t much, and I want to think more about how an anti-Constantinian perspective can and should proclaim good news to the poor.

    I agree with Rodgers-Gates when she writes that a theology of the cross shares a trajectory with Latin American liberation theology, and thus suggests that theologians of the cross might more clearly offer good news to the poor. I’ve read Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation through feminist and liberationist appropriations,5 and this helps unearth the socio-political ramifications of finding God on the cross, that is, among the poor, oppressed, and persecuted. Unlike anti-Constantinians, who sometimes exclusively focus on the socio-political form of the church, theologians of the cross attend to theology proper; they know and speak of a God who reveals Godself in rather scandalous places, at least according to those of us accustomed to portraying God according to our own privilege. That God is found at the margins of established power and among the seemingly God-forsaken is no less socio-politically consequential than the political theology of the radical ecclesiologists.

    And it is good news to the poor: God has chosen to be among them, one of them. It is also hard (but still good) news to the powerful: In hearing the gospel, they find God among the poor and so hear the call to unmask and dismantle all those economic, nationalist, racial, and cultural structures that prevent them from being with the poor and (thus) enjoying God. Rodgers-Gates’s comments might suggest that I have reversed an order of priority here insofar as I have called North American Christians to confront Christendom so that they can properly hear the gospel rather than portraying God’s good news to the poor in such a way that first-world would-be Christians leave all that keeps them from receiving the costly gift.

    I look forward to more conversation about these important matters.


    1. Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 43–45.

    2. See Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juarez (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011). I commend this book for considering suffering and salvation in ways that parallel that of Rodgers-Gates.

    3. Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011), 109.

    4. See her Christian Ethics at the Boundary: Feminisms and Theologies of Public Life (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

    5. See, for example, Mary Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (Albany: SUNY, 1997), and Walter Altmann, Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).

Paul Martens

Response

“America First” and the Future of American Christianity

On January 20, 2017, President Donald Trump offered the following summary statements in his Inaugural Address:

We gathered here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first—America first.

And later:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.

There should be no fear. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.1

If Jason Mahn ever was looking for a terse display of the deep problem of American Christianity—“the easy blending of Christian discipleship and mainstream American values” (ix)—he would have no trouble finding it in President Trump’s Inaugural Address. Yet, if Mahn is correct, the boldness of President Trump’s demand for total allegiance to America may also be quite healthy for American Christianity: it openly forces the question of the relationship between Christianity and America because it brashly proclaims in the light of day what is practiced surreptitiously by the majority of American Christians every day. And it is these everyday economic, political, and social practices of American Christians—regardless of who occupies the Oval Office—that Mahn is seeking to reform, to bring in line with the countercultural faithfulness of a people seeking to follow a God willing to die on the cross.

I. Preliminary Orientations

As is already evident by my frequent adjectival use of American to modify Christian, this is a book fundamentally focused on and concerned with the idiosyncratic Christian embrace of America. To that end, the first two chapters argue that America is neither secular nor post-Christian, but exists as a form of Christendom in which Christian privilege is extended even to those who hold Christianity at arm’s length . . . as long as one does not overtly choose another religious allegiance (especially Islam). For those who have read John Howard Yoder’s The Priestly Kingdom, Mahn’s argument evokes echoes of Yoder’s argument concerning the “ever new shape of establishment,” with its various evolutions of Constantinianism into “neo-neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism.”2 As it stands, Mahn draws directly from the work of Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Dorothy Day among others for some of his basic theological postures. What is unique and fascinating about Mahn’s argument, however, is that he attempts to illuminate and interpret Lutheran resources (especially but not exclusively Luther, Kierkegaard, and Bonhoeffer) and familiar Lutheran theological themes (e.g., grace and theology of the cross) in a way that resonates with the kind of discipleship that has been associated most closely with radical Catholics and Anabaptists (and neo-Anabaptists) in recent years.

There are two aspects of Mahn’s argument that I will engage in some detail below but, before doing so, I offer a quick comment on the structure of the text itself. As already indicated, the initial chapters outline why Mahn believes calling America a form of Christendom is still appropriate. Here, he makes the case that it is nominally Christian in diverse ways, including its unreflective repetition of rituals, its uncritical faith in free-floating individual choices, and its general cultural captivity. The second part of the book then introduces three kinds of theological resources for addressing the prevailing problems with American Christianity: Kierkegaard’s critique of nineteenth-century Danish Christendom; Bonhoeffer’s resistance to nationalist ideology; and Yoder’s and Hauerwas’s critiques of Constantinianism. By the conclusion of this second part, it is clear that communal formation—the kind advocated by groups like the Ekklesia Project and Jesus Radicals and practiced by communities like the New Hope Catholic Worker Farm and Rutba House—is also constitutive of the therapy required to heal American Christianity. The third and final section of the text then moves to examine how these resources can be marshaled against four specific challenges to Christian identity and discipleship in America today—economics, politics, war, and Christian supremacy. By the end of the argument, Mahn has called for nothing short of a Re-formation of American Christianity that is both profoundly ambitious and bracingly honest about the challenges involved.

As one might expect, Becoming a Christian in Christendom is a sharp provocation. To use Kierkegaard’s terms, it elevates Christianity’s minor premise—works—in order that its major premise—grace—is not taken in vain. There is much that is both challenging and constructive here; it is a genuinely good book with which I have profound sympathy. All that said, there are two insightful moments in the text that I want to address: Mahn’s claims that (1) American consumers are “not nearly materialist enough” (170) and (2) Christians must learn to understand themselves “to be adopted into God’s own family” (317). Each of these moments are radical but, to my mind, not yet radical enough. I want to press each of these moments just a little further in order to open up vistas on three further issues—the global violence entailed in American consumption, the global nature of the church, and the problematic nature of a fixation with Constantinianism—that do not yet receive sufficient attention in Mahn’s argument.

II. In Search of a Materialist Christianity

When assessing America’s consumer culture, Mahn notes that it is common to hear critiques that suggest Christians are too attached to material things, too “materialistic” (169). Rejecting this critique, Mahn suggests that consumerism is driven by the addiction to purchasing, not to the things themselves. He continues:

Consumers seem not nearly attached enough to the materiality of God’s good creation—they are not nearly materialist enough. Indeed, Christianity in America has become a largely spiritualized faith where the faithful too readily abandon care for the earth and its “material goods” for the promise of some heaven light years away. Such a spiritualization of the Christian faith only exacerbates our proclivities to buy and discard, while providing a convenient cover of being spiritual, not materialistic. (170)

Mahn’s observation here seems entirely correct to me. This “neo-gnostic” form of Christendom fails to recognize that caring for creation is an essential element of Christian discipleship. Yet, I want to press Mahn’s insight in two directions.

First, to preserve the materiality of creation from the ravages of American consumerism, Mahn turns to Norman Wirzba and a strongly Lutheran description of creation as gift, as part of a “gift economy on all sides” (189). This turn is an important but also insufficient step toward caring for the materiality of God’s creation. What I mean is that, aside from the manifold difficulties with the notion of a gift economy that Derrida has raised in various ways, I worry that the notion of gift is insufficient to resist American consumerism, since its greatest achievement is maximizing and capitalizing on the gift of God’s own son, the greatest gift to humanity.

My instinct here is to resist an emphasis on the notion of gift, or at least a sole emphasis on gift, simply because it tends to foreshorten the horizon of creation’s materiality to my reception of the gift. Rather, I want to highlight the recognition, noted in Genesis 1, that all the rest of creation is good in the eyes of God before humans arrive on the scene—that is to say creation is not merely God’s gift to us, it has its own integrity and relationship to God apart from humanity. Glibly, one might say that if a tree falls in the Canadian taiga and no one is there to hear it or cut it up into fire wood, it still matters (and one may also reference two sparrows to the same effect). Less glibly and further to the point theologically, creation is not merely a gift to me, but a gift to all that exists—both other humans around the world and all non-human life. Appropriate reception can only be understood within this comprehensive context. Genesis 1:29–30 intimates the extent to which the non-human world is a co-recipient of God’s gift exceptionally well:

God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (NRSV)

In effect, what I want to suggest (and I recognize that I can merely suggest in this context) is that contextualizing human materiality within the broader materiality of creation requires thematization beyond gift alone. When speaking about God’s relation to creation, for example, Aquinas places God at the center of the discussion in a different manner:

God imprints on the whole of nature the principles of its proper actions. And so, in this way, God is said to command the whole of nature, according to Ps. cxlviii 6: He hath made a decree, and it shall not pass away. And thus all actions and movements of the whole of nature are subject to the eternal law. Consequently, irrational creatures are subject to the eternal law, through being moved by Divine providence; but not, as rational creatures, through understanding the Divine commandment.3

Aquinas’s narration has its own difficulties, but at least it refuses to let creation be gifted and subjected to the whims of humans alone. Again, the language of gift should not be purged, but it must be honed in such a way that the materiality of creation leads organically to disciplined existence within one’s appropriate place in the world (and this is analogous to what climate and environmental scientists have been trying to say in their own way for decades already).4

One further note on American consumption and the destruction of creation is in order—American consumption and its global environmental consequences are deeply intertwined with American politics and war in a manner belied by the neat divisions in the third part of Mahn’s text (and I suspect Mahn is fully aware of this as well). Let me illustrate: although there is no doubt that environmental degradation has been occurring at an increasing pace since at least the Industrial Revolution, it is undeniable that there is a profound acceleration of human stress on the environment post-1945: “the human enterprise switched gears after World War II.”5 Upon closer examination, it is not the entirety of the human enterprise that switched gears; rather, only a small fraction of the world’s population switched gears. Specifically, the post-WWII acceleration was driven almost entirely by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.6 To provide some background: the OECD is the organization that replaced the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), which was formed to aid in the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the US-led plan to rebuild Europe after WWII and to secure Europe against communist expansion. Much later, alongside the collapse of the USSR, late-twentieth-century neoliberal economic policies led to a twenty-first-century globalization of consumption patterns already well-established among the OECD countries. In effect, the bulk of the anthropogenic environmental impacts we have come to understand as constitutive of the current era emerged in about thirty-five US-led countries during a mere half century in an attempt to counter the threat of communism.

Therefore, in a not-too-subtle irony, it turns out that the American attempts to create a peaceful postwar world have yielded a kind of violence just as calamitous as—and certainly more comprehensive than—WWII. This violence is a slow, structural violence, “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all . . . a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales”7—climate change, acidifying oceans, toxic drift, and the list goes on. In current discourse, the Anthropocene is also the name given to the era defined by this slow violence, this “long dying” that is claiming the lives of humans and nonhumans alike with increasing efficiency.

The second extension of Mahn’s insight concerning the materiality of Christian existence I want to press builds upon what I have already noted above. In short, because of its focus on and concern with American Christianity, the book lends itself well to emphasizing the turn to virtuous communities as the sources of moral formation and social change. There has been much excitement about this turn post-MacIntyre, whether in the writings of Hauerwas8 and friends or in the more recent and much ballyhooed “Benedict Option” offered by Rod Dreher.9 What is often lost in this self-cultivating turn, however, is (a) attention to the extensive material consequences of one’s everyday actions and/or (b) recognition of the global nature of the church and its interconnectedness. Both demand more attention than most particularly American-focused arguments can offer. For example, no American community made up of Christians that wear clothes which are sourced in a manner that toxifies soil and laborers, are fabricated in sweatshops, or are constructed of non-biodegradable/non-recyclable materials can be virtuous in a holistic sense. The same can be said of the consumption of food, electronic devices, building materials, and the list goes on. Yet, because most of these destructive and exploitative activities that serve us frequently occur beyond American borders, they are rarely part of the calculus of American moral virtue. Many of the exemplary communities mentioned by Mahn are, in fact, conscious of this reality to some extent and I wish he would display how they address these challenges for the purpose of bringing his argument to its logical conclusion.

In this vein, one more element of Mahn’s re-formed American Christianity needs additional attention: the Christian responsibility for addressing a significant amount of the economic, political, and military oppression experienced around the world that has been brought about through an America First foreign policy that goes back to colonialism in its original forms (and here one might think about Manifest Destiny, the slave trade, gunboat diplomacy in the Pacific, the frequent CIA interventions in Central and South America, or the far-reaching Cold War economic policies noted above as examples). Yes, Mahn notes that Christians must confess their complicity in social sin. This is great, but a more radical materialist Christianity is needed because (a) confession is merely the beginning and it provides little constructive guidance for moving forward in light of having already accrued the economic and social benefits of our sins and the sins of those who came before us and (b) the calculated hiddenness of so many of our social sins—especially on a global scale—can all too easily lead to omission. American Christians have benefitted from surreptitiously sanctioning an America First ideology in international relations (even in the absence of open conflict) for decades; any attempt to cultivate virtuous communities that ignores not only the global nature of the suffering church but also the global reach of American oppression is merely polishing the inside of the cup while the outside of the cup is coated with the blood and tears of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked.

III. Constantinianism and Christian Supersessionism

Mahn’s book is full of brilliant surprises and—shifting gears considerably from the above—one of them is its attention to Jewish-Christian idiosyncrasies within the broader conversation about interreligious relations. Of course, Luther and the Lutheran tradition are historically tied to some pretty terrible anti-Semitic activities across the past centuries. Mahn does not sidestep this history and there is much in this conversation I would like to engage. In this context, I will limit comments to extrapolations from his concluding position:

Christians also come with a stronger, more paradoxical truth claim—namely, that the Christ in whom Christians see God and to whom they commit themselves and bear witness himself models radical openness to others. . . . When Paul describes non-Jewish Christians as new shoots grafted onto an older tree, as guests in the house of Israel, he likewise teaches what being good guests entails: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom 11:17–18). Those who want to be good hosts must first learn to be good guests. Christians encounter those of other faith traditions and no faith tradition with humility, awe, and graciousness because they understand themselves to be adopted into God’s own family. (317)

Again, I fundamentally agree with Mahn’s conclusion. This is the Pauline text that must be at the center of any Christian identity claim and its humility must course through all Christian theological claims. I think it is also telling that these are the final words in Mahn’s argument that then set up his conclusion. Against this background, the comments that follow are suggestive at best and what I want to propose on this basis may seem petty to some. Qualifications aside, I believe the assumption that Constantine stands as the watershed moment for Christian political reflection—an assumption affirmed implicitly in Mahn’s book—may be self-referentially problematic. If this is true, it is a recognition that would fundamentally reframe how Mahn and many of his allies conceive of political theology. In short, I have begun to wonder whether framing the options of Christian faithfulness in terms of the binary implied in the contest between Constantinianism and anti-Constantinianism is itself a form of Christian supersessionism, even if expressed negatively.

What I mean is simply this: if Christians are guests in the house of Israel, perhaps they also ought to recognize that desires for a divinely sanctioned king are not new to Christians and neither are resources for internal resistance to the temptations entailed in these desires. Looking back to a pivotal moment in the biblical text, one finds Israel struggling with the desire for greater unity and strength. They wanted to be just like every other people; they demanded a king to govern them and fight their battles; they were dreaming of a future David. In this context, the following answer is attributed to God in 1 Sam 8:11–15:

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day. (NRSV)

This is, at the very least, a critical response that crystalizes the costs of seeking to rule the world on its own terms (an axiomatic entailment of the Constantinianism epithet). I take much of the rest of the Old Testament narrative—especially 1 and 2 Kings and the prophets—to be a critical examination of the consequences of embracing these costs. This narrative, however, is no mere morality tale; it is a polyphonic dialogue, complemented and complexified by the wisdom literature, that seeks to cultivate ways of serving God faithfully in the midst of varying circumstances, including and perhaps especially exile. Christians are grafted into this story and are a continuation of this story. Embrace of “Constantine”—whether in the form of Theodosius, Charlemagne, Ben-Gurion, Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or Vladimir Putin among others—is merely a manifestation of an old temptation, namely, the desire for a king among the nations to fight our battles. The answer to Constantine is not, therefore, merely an anti-Constantine position, but a constructive and necessarily polyphonic dialogue about how to “seek the peace of the city”10 in ways tested and explored long before Constantine arrived on the scene. Sometimes that allowed serving in the Babylonian court; sometimes it meant settling down, building houses, planting gardens, etc. Sometimes it even meant returning to the land of one’s ancestors.

Yoder, himself probably the greatest contributor to the elevation of the language of Constantinianism in the twentieth century, eventually came to see that Judaism and Christianity shared—and continue to share—more in common here than usually recognized.11 In this light, I want to suggest that fixing the theological and ethical dispute around Constantine is a kind of historical and ethical Marcionism that attempts to discard the root to which Christians are grafted. Further, to fix the theological and ethical dispute around Constantine simplifies a rich history into a binding dualism: either pro-Constantine or anti-Constantine. To this end, Mahn’s text itself spends dozens of pages making the case that the name “‘Constantine’ names the deeply seated assumption that God is directing history through civic authorities” (152). I want to agree with Mahn (and I have in the past), but does not the Christian canon provide both a no and a yes to this claim? It would certainly feel very strange to read the Genesis account of Joseph convincing Pharaoh to store up food for seven years in preparation for the impending famine with the underlying assumption that God does not work through civic authorities. On the other hand, it would certainly feel very strange to read the brief account of King Ahaziah—“He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, because he followed the ways of his father and mother and of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin”12—and assume that God always works through civic authorities.

To follow Jesus is to accept considerable prescriptions and proscriptions specific to Christianity. Yet, to crystallize Christian political options around Constantine effectively simplifies what radical discipleship means by suppressing the constructive visions of social existence cultivated through centuries of Jewish struggle. Yes, the power of empire with its “chariots and horsemen” is a tremendous temptation, not merely to Christians and Jews, but to all people. Yet, there are occasions—at least according to Walter Rauschenbusch, John Ryan, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other faithful Christians—when civic authorities have been appealed to precisely because they can serve as agents of God’s kingdom. That is, it is through their laws that the poor, the over-worked, and the oppressed can be preserved from the ravages of capitalism, greed, and racism that Christians themselves covertly participate in. Certainly, this is not the only way that God’s work is accomplished in the world, but the healthy sense of Christian humility urged by Mahn would have to acknowledge that these attempts to “make history turn out right,” to use a familiar Yoderian phrase, may be neither Constantinian nor anti-Constantinian. They may simply be prudential and integrally coherent Christian attempts to seek the peace of the city.

IV. Concluding Affirmations

Stepping back from the specific engagements discussed above, I again want to affirm the tremendous insightfulness and usefulness of Mahn’s book. It is a text that I used in my upper-level undergraduate Christian ethics course this year and I have absolutely no regrets. It is not merely accessible and intelligent, it is a healthy mix of provocation, encouragement, and exhortation. And, even if my critique of the false binary implicit in the Constantinian claim is correct, Mahn is still right to argue that Christians are social animals that are formed by their communities . . . so those communities better be intentional about their role in forming Christians impervious to the temptations of national idolatries. It is my hope, however, that those communities are also sufficiently humble in their theological and ethical self-understanding. And, it is also my hope that this humility will allow those communities to see beyond the usual American horizon, to see and work to alleviate the rich cocktail of suffering and oppression served in their backyards and across the globe, the cocktail poured out indiscriminately on humans and the rest of creation by the world now caught up in the American dream.


  1. “President Trump’s Inaugural Address, Annotated,” NPR, January 20, 1017, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.npr.org/2017/01/20/510629447/watch-live-president-trumps-inauguration-ceremony.

  2. John Howard Yoder, The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 143.

  3. See Thomas Aquinas, ST I–II, q. 93, a. 5.

  4. Another and perhaps more fruitful direction to pursue is found in Michael Northcott’s The Environment and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Northcott’s dependence on Barth and the triadic relationality between God, humans, and nonhuman creation leads him to turn, in his own way, toward a form of Thomistic natural law ethic of care for the environment.

  5. Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 369.1938 (2011).

  6. Steffen, “The Anthropocene.”

  7. See Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

  8. See Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethics (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) for the basic foundation of what evolves in his subsequent writings.

  9. See Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

  10. See Jeremiah 9:1–9.

  11. See John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, ed. Michael G. Cartwright and Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2003).

  12. 1 Kings 22:51–52.

  • Jason Mahn

    Jason Mahn

    Reply

    Response to Paul Martens

    Before raising incisive and insightful critiques of my book, Paul Martens traces the structural fault lines of the book as a whole. In some ways, both of his main concerns—concerns about whether understandings of creation as “gift” adequately resists America’s rampant consumerism and exploitation, and whether repeating the “binary” of Constantinianism and anti-Constantinianism may not reproduce a Christian supremacist logic that I otherwise try to resist—indicate ways that the structure of my book may sometimes fail the interlocking themes it is meant to support. I will here respond to his two main examinations (dividing the second into two sections) and invite his further comment.

    I. Gift

    I am both struck and helped by Martens’s critique of my reliance on language of gift and grace when trying to resist gnostic forms of American Christianity that essentially spiritualize (that is, de-politicize and de-ecologize) the faith, and so fail to resist its easy alliance with a neo-liberal, consumerist economy. Martens notes that “the language of gift should not be purged, but it must be honed.” His brief invocation of an alternative Thomistic natural law tradition (and its Barthian parallel) suggests that gift language, when taken alone, will fail to resist American Christians’ seemingly endless proclivity for “maximizing and capitalizing” on the gifts that they assume can be used—and even used up—however and whenever they wish.

    I agree that gifts, precisely in being free and unconditional, are risky ventures. Can Christians receive and reconceive the earth as gift without taking that gift in vain—which today entails the vanity of vanities of burning fossil fuels, orchestrating monocultures, and otherwise abstracting monetary economies from God’s Great Economy?

    Both Martens and I are concerned with consumerist and anthropocentric understandings of the natural world. Where we differ, I suspect, is the degree to which we think proper understandings of God’s grace/gift can hold in check the vanity of exploitation, or whether grace must be held in check by other understandings—whether by natural law, uses of the moral law, or something else. In many ways, this is an old argument between Lutherans and Reformed or Catholic understandings concerning the relation between grace and law and human striving, although the stakes become (even) higher when considering environmental justice.

    I appeal to gift to resist neo-gnostic Christianity in a chapter entitled “Economy: Free Grace in a Culture of Cheap.” As the name suggests and Martens notices, I here draw primarily on Luther’s understandings of free grace, of gift as utterly unearned and unconditioned. (The subsequent chapter, “Politics,” draws primarily on neo-Mennonite/pacifist traditions, followed by a chapter on war that combines magisterial and radical reformation insights through the mediating figure of Bonhoeffer.) While the Lutheran tradition might seem like an unlikely source of resistance against commodification and exploitation, I also lift up the way that Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer—and Martin Luther, too—distinguish cheap grace from costly grace, distinguish a “gift” that can be commodified and exchanged and manipulated from gifts (such as renewable resources) that keep on giving when received with care and gratitude. While the temptation toward cheap grace (and cheap oil and cheap labor) is intrinsic to this tradition, so is resistance to it.

    In other words, each Lutheran resists abuses of God’s gifts exactly by distinguishing gift from its simulacra. Derrida notwithstanding, this venture is valuable, and may be worth the risk. It is that diagnosis of the cheapening of grace, not the danger of “gift” itself, that I also find in the eco-theology of Norman Wirzba, although it is I and not Wirzba who connects passages such as the following with a Lutheran emphasis on free grace:

    To live intimately and sympathetically with the earth is to see that we are surrounded and sustained by gifts on every side and to acknowledge that the only proper response to this unfathomable kindness is our own attention, care, and gratitude. . . . Working with the earth and making oneself vulnerable to its mysterious ways is to understand in the fiber of one’s bones the difficulty and the hard-fought character of life. Grace is not cheap, nor does life come easily. . . . [And yet] we [often] deprive ourselves of an appreciation for the costliness of God’s good gifts, if we see them as gifts at all.1

    Martens perhaps rightfully interprets this appeal to gift—gift as resistance to the commodification and exploitation of that gift—as simply too paradoxical to be workable. I’m not sure. If American and other first-world Christians are to do more than float along within the economic and political currents of our day (sometimes environmentally-friendly, usually anything but), in what should they anchor their resistance? I think “gift” is a strong candidate, especially when one understands recipients thereof as including non-humans, as Martens suggests. But if “honing” the language of gift entails appealing to natural law or moral law in order to mitigate the risks of taking the gift in vain, does this not present gift as something less than that which, qua gift, should elicited gratitude and care? The gift of the earth is not something that can be used irresponsibly and still be considered gift. How close are Martens and I here? I would appreciate further comment from him on this very important issue.

    II. Constantine

    I expected Martens, who in the past has keenly critiqued Yoder, to appeal to Constantinianism, and to Anabaptist assumptions based on his first hand experiences with related communities,2 to raise questions about my own appeal to Constantine while developing my political theology. My initial and perhaps too-defensive explanation for wielding something of a stable Constantinian/anti-Constantinian “binary” is the fact that I understand at least half of my book as introducing “Anabaptist” categories such as Constantinianism to mainline and mainstream Christians who do not otherwise know of or use them. Leverage against the easy blending of empire and Christianity can come (perhaps too easily?) from invoking one particular time and place by which the two became conflated. “Constantine” is shorthand for that “moment.”

    For their part, Hauerwas and especially Yoder are upfront about how “Constantine” is meant to be a heuristic devise. For Yoder, the conversion of the fourth-century emperor names a “provocative paradigm,” a “conscious anachronism and oversimplification”3 that is nonetheless useful for getting out from under widespread assumptions about our so-called Christian culture—a concern that my book as a whole takes up. Martens calls my book “sharp provocation.” Could I have retained the provocation without also repeating something of Yoder’s “blunt names”4 of apostasy and heresy to describe the “fall” from early church faithfulness into Constantinian accommodations? Perhaps so, and Martens himself may be able to point the way forward here.

    I am aware of and try to resist the ways that Constantinianism and what I perhaps unhelpfully call anti-Constantinianism threaten to become a binary. In the chapter on contemporary critics of Constantine, I include “anti-anti-Constantinians” (that is, liberationist and feminist critics of Hauerwas and Yoder), precisely because I see these meta-critiques of the anti-Constantinians to improve upon—rather than reverse—resistance to the church’s acculturations and accommodations. Throughout the book, I also move back and forth between Anabaptist accounts of discipleship and Lutheran theologians of the cross (those who underscore the scandal of worshipping a crucified God) largely because the latter move us away from some of the epistemological and ethical purity implied by Yoder’s blunt names. Finally, in my chapter on war, I settle on a Bonhoefferian peace ethic rather than the pacifism of Hauerwas or Yoder because I sense in the latter something of a binary between a nonviolent church and a violent nation, a binary that is often solidified by appealing to a nonviolent, pre-Constantinian church. Drawing on Judith Butler’s far less blunt diagnosis of violence, I write the following:

    While Yoder suggests that the world’s violence is best diagnosed and held at bay from the alternative, presumably less violent place called church, Butler assumes that nonviolence itself “denotes the mired and conflicted position of a subject who is injured, rageful, disposed to violent retribution and nevertheless struggles against that action.” (267, quoting Butler, Frames of War, 171)

    Bonhoeffer’s final musings of a church fully immersed in the (violent) world, distinguishable only but decisively by its humble repentance for violence and sin, describes the communal analog of what Butler here imagines for each subject. If I have underplayed the way this Lutheran realistic peace ethic goes beyond the pacifism of anti-Constantinians, that is because Lutherans are inclined to skip the peace part altogether, justifying lethal violence by appealing to a world of sin. From my own experiences within these circles, I sense that blunt language and binary categories are needed to resist all-too-nuanced explanations for why Christians should be violent in a violent world. In this sense, the issue is not so much whether one can be sharply provocative without them, but whether Christians lose any edginess, any distinction, from a violent world without some bluntness or binary. I invite Martens to respond to this.

    III. Supersessionism

    I wrote above that I expected Martens to raise questions about Constantinianism and anti-Constantinianism. What I had not expected is his illuminating connection of that issue with the issue of Christian supersessionism—the idea that the Christian church triumphantly surpasses and suppresses the religion of Judaism in becoming a new and improved Israel. I critique supersessionistic understandings in my final main chapter, “Religion: Guests in the House of Israel,” and Martens rightly notes that the claims therein serve as the culmination of much of what comes before. Martens, however, asks whether my earlier appeal to anti-Constantinianism does not essentially undercut my critique of Christian supersessionism. In his words: “I have begun to wonder whether framing the options of Christian faithfulness in terms of the binary implied in the contest between Constantinianism and anti-Constantinianism is itself a form of Christian supersessionism.” By too neatly dividing the faithfulness of pre-Constantinian and anti-Constantinian Christians from the compromised ideology of Constantinians, critics of Constantine essentially (and anachronistically) relegate the complex political negotiations of ancient Israel and contemporaries Jews—including, importantly, their “desires for a divinely sanctioned king”—to a pervasion of, or fall from, authentic Christianity. In short, binary distinctions between faithful and fallen Christians risk relegating Jews and Judaism to the latter.

    I hope that I can avoid these risks, convinced as I am that becoming a disciple of Jesus in neo-Christendom involves in part the unmasking and dismantling of Christian supremacy, including Christian anti-Judaism. There is a lot to say here; for now, I will ask two questions to Martens in hopes of advancing the conversation:

    First: As Martens notes, John Howard Yoder, the principal anti-Constantinian theologian of the twentieth century, “eventually” came to revisit the very schism that divides the two religions. What does Martens make of this? Does his “eventuality” mark a turn from Yoder’s Constantinian binary to a fuller inclusion of Jewish religious and political thought into Christian identity? Or (my hunch): Did Yoder’s anti-supersessionism emerge from and complement (or even help secure) his anti-Constantinianism? Thinking about the relation between Yoder’s own anti-Constantinianism and his anti-supersessionism might help reconsider whether or why they, according to Martens, seem to pull in opposite directions in my own work.

    Second: Is the problem of supersessionism primarily a problem of religious exclusion, in such a way that the solution is to revisit the divisions between traditions, as Yoder (and Martens?) assumes? In my book, I instead portray Christian supersessionism as inclusion run amok: Jews are seen as almost Christian, minus the good parts. If a sort of backhanded half-inclusion better names the problem of Christian anti-Judaism, then the solution would seem to come by re-emphasizing that which makes Christianity qualitatively unique, permitting Judaism and other traditions to do the same. And if this is true, could not Christians decide that the peace ethic of Jesus is central to their own tradition—that they really are called to love their enemies, and that Constantinianism really is “apostasy” (Yoder)—even if the Jewish tradition into which they are grafted has a different center of balance, a different canon within the canon? I am aware of just how easily any emphasis on Christianity’s qualitative uniqueness can devolve into Christian supremacy, or even get mistaken for the Marcionite idea (so popular among everyday churchgoers) that the “Old Testament God” is violent and judgmental while the “New Testament God” is gracious and forgiving. But again, that confusion, that slippage from the qualitative uniqueness and incommensurability of traditions (even of those who share histories and scriptures) to their ranking and the superiority of one, seems to me to involve the erasure of difference rather than an exclusionary wielding of it.

    I am not sure about any of this. Paul Martens has made me think further and anew about many important issues. I look forward to learning more from him.


    1. Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 72; quoted in Becoming a Christian in Christendom, 189.

    2. For example, Paul Martens, The Heterodox Yoder (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), 147.

    3. John Howard Yoder, Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 155.

    4. Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 316.

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