Symposium Introduction

Ryan Newson’s Radical Friendship invites readers to step into the tradition of political theology and to examine the practice of the spiritual discipline of discernment in Christian congregations. He builds on voices from Aristotle to Romand Coles to create a framework for understanding the practice of discernment, and then he gives contemporary examples of how the practice is an embodiment of political theology.

As a Quaker, well-versed in practices of communal discernment like congregational meetings and committees for clearness, I was drawn to Newson’s Baptist framework. As a theologian, I was also drawn to his political theology, which builds upon the thought of Hauerwas, McClendon, and Yoder and offers helpful critiques of their theologies in the context of their lives. And as a friend (and a Friend) to Newson himself, I have been eager to see this book published, because I think it can guide Anabaptists and other Christians into deeper reflection and concrete action. Examples like Ann Atwater, C.P. Ellis, and Mission Mississippi might teach us what such a radical friendship looks like.

Political theology in the age of Trump becomes more necessary and important with each passing day. Churches need guidance for discerning together what political action and community change can look like so that they do not drown in the injustices done to people of color, LGBTQIA persons, low-income communities, and others. The work finds itself situated in a democratic context. Newson’s many and warranted critiques of liberalism, in dialogue with Sheldon Wolin, Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Romand Coles, and others, join his voice to the chorus of voices envisioning radical democracy. Newson’s view of democracy allows him to reflect on how local ecclesial spaces can continue the work of engaging local government. He understands how theological conversations around concepts like binding and loosing impact our understanding of power in both church and governmental spaces.

As Malinda Berry’s essay notes, Newson joins a tradition of Mennonites, Quakers, and others who look to communal discernment as an alternative to what Newson calls the “moral incompetence” of our day.1 This, however, is not to romanticize the practice of discernment. Anabaptists have a long, albeit quiet history of practicing communal discernment, but often one with limited success. I agree with his assessment that Quaker models of engagement can at times be too focused on civility over justice and politeness over radical honesty and true confrontation (157). In my own Quaker contexts, some of the Friends I know most committed to pacifism are also at times least committed to engage issues of justice and community organizing. Nevertheless, both Quakers and Mennonites have faithfully and continuously advocated for nonviolent engagement while also struggling on behalf of marginalized communities.

Newson’s work, which reminds us of the significance of this project in dire times, also calls for an honest look at power dynamics within ecclesial spaces. In Anabaptist communities, power can sometimes be a four-letter word. We have no problem referencing Wink’s Powers trilogy or understanding sinful structures in governmental and secular spaces, but we rarely want to address how even the process of discernment can privilege some voices over others. Newson begins to discuss power within the church in his interpretation of biblical texts on binding and loosing (Matt 18), but the conversation must go further than he takes it. How welcome do people of color, LGBTQIA persons, and other members of marginalized communities feel in church spaces, let alone invited to shape processes of communal discernment? Gender, class, and income-level often drive ecclesial discernment processes more than Christians would like to admit. Newson’s framework strikes me as a good, albeit idealistic, guide for radical friendship—perhaps I am too cynical, or maybe his Baptist spaces are just healthier than my Quaker ones.

What I appreciated most about Newson’s deeply theological yet concretely practical book is that Newson writes, to quote Hamilton, “like he’s running out of time.” This message matters because of our political climate, and because even revered theological teachers like John Howard Yoder were not immune from abuse of power and exploitation of the vulnerable. Newson writes as a voice for those who all of us with power need to continue to be advocating for in our spaces of influence. I appreciate a vision beyond liberalism or neoliberalism that turns inward to our local communities of difference as a vision for the world. May it be so.


  1. I especially have in mind the Quaker work Practicing Discernment Together by Lon Fendall, Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop and David Niyonzima’s global example of the Friends church in Burundi, Unlocking Horns: Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Burundi

Jonathan Tran

Response

Is Politics Fit for Friendship?

The political suggestions offered by Ryan Andrew Newson’s wonderful Radical Friendship made me think of an engagement taken up recently in Alasdair MacIntyre’s Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity: An Essay on Desire, Practical Reason, and Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 2016). There MacIntyre writes regarding Bernard Williams:

What his account of deliberation does preclude is this: that in the end I have to arrive at the right decision not just for me, here, now, but for anyone so situated. The objectivity that dependence on others can achieve is indeed objectivity, a rescuing of the agent from imprisonment within her or his subjectivity. I am not of course maintaining that we are all equally dependent on others for the kind of self-knowledge that we so often need in making crucial decisions. I am asserting that for all of us in much of our practical deliberation, we need to have a justified confidence in the judgments of others on whom we stand in close relationships, if we are to have a justified confidence in our own first-person judgments. Nor is it the case that it is only our understanding of ourselves that may be and often needs to be transformed through our interactions with such others. What we learn from them may include how to think about the objects of our desires in new and more adequate ways, so that on the one hand our desires are changed and on the other we envisage the alternatives between which we have to choose somewhat differently. And I am not maintaining—far from it—that the influence of others is always for the good. The qualities of mind and character of those on whom we come to rely matter enormously and someone whose family or friends or coworkers are unreflective or in love with money or power or celebrity may have to isolate and insulate her or himself from those others, if she is to deliberate well and to make good choices. Yet even with these necessary qualifications, a strong thesis emerges from these examples of situations of choice. It is that whether an agent’s deliberations and choices are or are not defective in various ways depends in key part on the nature of that agent’s social relationships and that an agent’s deliberations and choices may be most her or his own when that agent’s first-person standpoint is open to and informed by the third-person observations, arguments, and judgments of others. So our imagined agent, confronted by her choice between alternative careers, needs to consider what her social relationships are and have been, something that would not have been suggested to her by Williams’s misleading claim that “practical thought is radically first personal.” Indeed, she will now have to think in terms that will put her even further at odds with Williams. For if the strong thesis that I have proposed is true, then an agent whose motivational set—to use Williams’s term—does not allow that agent to learn in appropriate ways from others will be defective as an agent. For she will be apt to be motivated by desires for objects that she has only bad reasons or insufficiently good reasons to desire. (162–63)

MacIntyre is here talking about friends, one’s deep need for friends. MacIntyre had just then distinguished friends from family and colleagues, the former too close in on one’s desires and the latter too far off. Friends, like family and unlike colleagues, share enough in common that desires can be commonly held. Conversely, friends, like colleagues and unlike family, can intervene on disordered desire through what MacIntyre technically calls “the semantics of evaluative sentences,” ways of speaking that can check those desires. More colorfully, friends call us on our bullshit. The simultaneity of both our intimacy with friends and our separateness from them permits them keen insight into our lives and proves a necessary hedge against our regular tendency toward self-deception. The problem, then, with Bernard Williams is that his brand of moral expressivism, as sophisticated and otherwise alluring as it is, so prioritizes the self that friends are cut out of the picture, thence precluding the best prospects for the moral life.

Now compare this to the text of Williams that MacIntyre is engaging, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, where Williams writes about the Aristotelianism that comes to sit at the heart of MacIntyre’s account of friendship,

Aristotle’s theory means that when the agent reflects, even from the outside, on all his needs and capacities, he will find no conflict with his ethical dispositions. Here we meet again the many modern doubts that weaken this account. Our present understanding gives us no reason to expect that ethical dispositions can be fully harmonized with other cultural and personal aspirations that have as good a claim to represent human development. Even if we leave the door open to a psychology that might go some way in the Aristotelian direction, it is hard to believe that an account of human nature—if it is not already an ethical theory itself—will adequately determine one kind of ethical life as against others. Aristotle saw a certain kind of ethical, cultural, and indeed political life as a harmonious culmination of human potentialities, recoverable from an absolute understanding of nature. We have no reason to believe in that. Once we lose the belief, however, a potential gap opens between the agent’s perspective and the outside view. We understand—and, most important, the agent can come to understand—that the agent’s perspective is only one of many that are equally compatible with human nature, all open to various conflicts within themselves and with other cultural aims. (Routledge, 1993, 52)

It is curious that MacIntyre thinks he is in Ethics and the Conflicts of Modernity engaging Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy on just this point. But his hard turn to friendship as a check against the self-interested self makes it seem that he has not yet taken Williams’s critique of Aristotle seriously. For it is Williams’s belief that the harmonious self that Aristotle thinks so important is a fantasy. It is this fantastical self that MacIntyre thinks salutary in its role as friend. But if we have reason to doubt that the self can play this role for itself, then we have reason to doubt it can do so for others. In other words, the very reason that on MacIntyre’s account we need friends is the reason we can’t trust them. We do not necessarily become more ethically astute in relationship to our friends’ projects than we do in relationship to our own projects. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy is not exactly saying that we can no more trust our friends than we can trust ourselves, but it gets close to saying that. This leaves MacIntyre’s account of friendship question-begging as to the ameliorative role his engagement with Williams gives it.

I don’t know whether to believe MacIntyre or Williams on this. I think there are ways of reading Aristotle that make him less concerned with self-possession than MacIntyre lets on. Martha Nussbaum would be a case in point. But more to the issue, I don’t know that friends are more trustworthy than selves. (My saying that does not mean I would easily prescribe self-trust; I am saying that selves and friends are both trustworthy and untrustworthy.) Do we somehow become better in our moral judgments when they relate to others than when we relate to ourselves? Radical Friendship’s deployment of friendship for the good of politics makes me hope so. What could be more important? If friendship can help us be better citizens, more competently able to adjudicate complex phenomena like elections where the choices are what they were in 2016, all the better. But in order to do that, one enormously complex phenomenon, the friendship between one self and another self, would have to be able to positively inform another enormously complex phenomenon, something like a general election. I want to believe Radical Friendship and its MacIntyreian / radical democratic / baptist Aristotelianism that the complexities of one can answer for the complexities of the other. Radical Friendship offers us just a couple examples where they do, but the surprising rarity of examples (really just two are offered, or maybe one and a half, and at the end of the book no less) makes me wonder if the same Aristotelian problematic debated between MacIntyre and Williams obtains here as well. The paucity of examples is important because it can be interpreted as indicating that what is suggested in Radical Friendship is either not real or occurs only apocalyptically, and one cannot fashion a politics around the unreal or the apocalyptic.

Put the other way around, one wonders whether Newson’s proposal laid on top of most friendships can sufficiently capture what is going on in those friendships. What Radical Friendship does give us is an extremely attractive and beautifully lucid account of friendship and the political life, one of the best examples of this genre of theological ethics I have come across, one I would like to make required reading for every community of which I am a part. But I am left wondering if it sufficiently captures the fully orbed reality that is friendship. I am in agreement with Professor Newson that American political discourse is anything but fully orbed, and we have paid and continue to pay the price for its flatness. Can it in its current diminished state receive the good gift of friendships, the most fully orbed thing one can imagine?

  • Ryan Newson

    Ryan Newson

    Reply

    Distance and Apocalypse

    When I first visited Walden Pond, I was prepared to make quite a hike. Having absorbed the standard high school description of Henry David Thoreau totally separating from society in order to write Walden, I assumed I would have to walk for miles to reach his cabin. But as anyone who has been there knows, rumors of Thoreau’s natural isolation had been greatly exaggerated, at least in my own mind. A quick stroll from town and I was there. That Thoreau was so close to town seemed at the time to be a funny bit of trivia. It was not until I read Stanley Cavell’s reflections on Walden that this apparent tension—between separation and intimacy—took on a more purposeful dimension. Cavell suggests that Thoreau intentionally remained near civilization, making regular trips into town, because he wished to be separate enough to do his work and yet close enough to be seen.1 After all, you can’t clearly see something that is too far away, or too close.

    I was reminded of this experience as I read Jonathan Tran because he pinpoints a critical fault line in any discussion of moral discernment: the relationship between competencies available through friends and the competencies of the individual. If in our current context we recognize the multiplicity of the self, it is unsurprising that this awareness might make some of us yearn for something like “radical friendship.” Tran’s question—or Bernard Williams’s question—is why we should expect to receive from others what we sense is not possible or true of ourselves.

    I think one answer, to evoke Walden, could be found in the distance between myself and another. No matter how intimate—even in marriage—a distance remains between myself and the other with whom I am in relationship that allows me to see them differently, even (if not necessarily) more clearly. And so, one reason I tend to hope in the competencies of friends despite my own internal fragmentation is because of perspective, rather than friends being perfectly harmonious selves. For all her imperfections, a friend has the potential to see things of me that I cannot, owing simply to her angle on my own life. Of course, she can be mistaken, and is herself partial in perspective, such that one always needs the competencies of selves and friends together, working in tandem.2 But I think there is something to the idea that a friend’s judgment gets a kind of priority over my own, though not an automatic pass.3 Certainly Christians who affirm our deep tendency toward self-deception may find this suggestion at least plausible—those who have at one time or another resonated with this prayer from Augustine: “You took me from behind my own back, where I had placed myself because I did not wish to look upon myself.”4 I may simply be too close to myself to see myself clearly. After all, as Janet Soskice reminds us, “Know thyself” is not a Christian aphorism.5

    Both selves and friends are morally ambivalent, of course, and so this is complicated. Indeed, owing to the challenge described by Williams, trust in others in our context will likely remain haunted by the possibility of collective error. In the same way that Charles Taylor argues that contemporary affirmations of God are inevitably made in a context in which not-God is a live possibility, so do contemporary affirmations about the competencies of others presume the live possibility of their being untrustworthy—that we are a part of a kind of collective delusion.6 This concern might be therapized in the Wittgensteinian sense, but I doubt it can be dissolved. All this to say, I do not hold to the idea of the harmonious, unified self. Rather, I see the harmony of selves and the harmony of discerning communities as proleptic, tied ultimately to the eschatological harmony of the universe. Any competence found in the meantime—which I do think is possible, through practices like communal discernment—is nonetheless fugitive and anticipatory of this coming harmony (163–64, 193–97). As such, I am not as sure as Tran about the impossibility of an apocalyptic politics, both in this eschatological sense as well as the sense of uncovering that which was previously hidden but lurking just beneath the surface. I tend to think that all Christian politics are apocalyptic in this latter sense.

    Such an eschatological move only makes Tran’s closing questions more urgent, which push me to clarify how this account of friendship “touches ground” in our context, marked as it is by fraught elections, algorithmic control, and the worst among us filled with passionate intensity. Tran’s justifiable concern is with my relative “paucity of examples,” and whether this suggests a political project that is ultimately unreal. Of course, if the state of the political is as sick as Sheldon Wolin contends it is, then one should expect such examples to be rare. That is, Wolin’s argument about widespread political incompetence born of a near-total indebtedness to the logic of neoliberalism couldn’t be right if, when one looked around, examples that broke from that logic were legion.

    And yet a paucity of examples is not the same as a total lack, even if my own examples are indeed limited (I tried to choose examples that were publicly accessible, and representative of specific aspects of radical friendship). My suspicion is that such examples are often closer than we might realize, hiding in plain sight in our local contexts. I say this partly from experience, as to this point I have always found such examples in the places I have lived and worked—rural and urban, big and small, West Coast and East Coast. To be sure, these examples have been variant, and do not admit of any formula. But they have shared an interest in fostering political competence on some issue of interest, and have often done so effectively. I do not think the account in Radical Friendship either has or ever could sufficiently capture this reality, but it might serve as a kind of outline that does justice to it. In the best case, it will encourage someone not just to look for such examples, but to create them.

    To be sure, I do not think that politics “in its current diminished state” is well-equipped to receive the gift of such examples, but that is precisely the point. Rather, my hope is in their (perhaps inchoate) power to begin to transform this diminished state here and now, planting trees that might bear fruit in the future.


    1. Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden, exp. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1981] 1992).

    2. I have in mind what Marcia Pally has recently called “individuals-in-relation” or “separability-amid-situatedness.” Cf. Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016).

    3. Insofar as one agrees with Pannenberg that human nature is “exocentric,” meaning that we ultimately receive our selves from without, there may be added warrant to make this kind of move. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 80. Cf. also David H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

    4. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), VIII.7.

    5. Janet Soskice, “Imago Dei and Sexual Difference: Toward an Eschatological Anthropology,” in Rethinking Human Nature: A Multidisciplinary Approach, edited by Malcolm Jeeves (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 297.

    6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University Press, 2007).

    • Jonathan Tran

      Jonathan Tran

      Reply

      Separateness as eschatological or apocalyptic?

      I’m thankful for (if I may) Ryan’s thoughtful response. I think it addresses much of what I raise, and with subtlety and generativity. I suppose it does for me go to that question of what it means for Christians to think eschatologically about things (there is some recollection for me here that I intended a distinction between “eschatological” and “apocalyptic” in my use of the latter, but I don’t think I’ll get into that right now). And since Ryan brought up Cavell, I’ll jump on that wagon, which is a wagon I’ve frequently (maybe too frequently) ridden. Ryan brings up Cavell’s notion of separateness to highlight the critical distance that allows friends to speak into each other’s lives, that no matter how close we will always be separate and that separateness should be embraced as grounds for discernment. That is right. But Cavell’s main point about separateness is to point out the difference between us that obtains as a function of our commonality. Notice in my locution there “as a function of” where this separateness obtains because of our common life. Cavell gives us the strong sense that the difference between us arises exactly in that space where we are otherwise together. It is not necessary here to get into the technical features of this argument of his (one can find it in his early essay “Must We Mean What We Say?” in the book by the same name) and it is enough to say that this separateness is ameliorative but so only inasmuch as it is estranging. In the terms of this current discussion, we might say then that in friendship friends discover their separateness from one another; the quality of any friendship, thence, can be measured in two ways: 1. its abilities to embrace separateness for the sake of discernment and 2. its capacities to endure that separateness. I think Ryan’s MacIntyrianism is very keen on the first measure and I am asking now about his thoughts on the second and how that deepens his account of friendship (Cavell majors on the second while Williams largely abandons it). The question about eschatology may amount to a wonderment about how, and how much, Christians can achieve 1 and 2 and how their desire for 1 may overrun their attention to 2.

    • Ryan Newson

      Ryan Newson

      Reply

      Friendship and Ache

      I am grateful to Jonathan for clarifying the main rub of our conversation, and for his questions to me. I can only offer a few half-formed thoughts in response, but I hope they begin to move in the direction Jonathan is pointing toward. Indeed, what does it mean for Christians to think eschatologically about friendship, particularly in light of the separateness that obtains “within” whatever commonality we discover in this life? (I love the potential inverse of this insight: that there is no difference between us that is so wide as to completely obliterate some sense of our commonness, no matter how thin, how inchoate). If separateness can and should be embraced for the sake of discernment (1), what of the at-the-same-time estranging nature of this separateness that must be endured (2)?

      Thinking on this second point, which I believe is correct, I am moved to say it deepens this account of friendship insofar as it points to its limits. No matter how wonderful, how joined in a communion that simultaneously respects our distinctiveness, a kind of ache underlies the reality of friendship, or even the desire for friendship—of any of Aristotle’s types—that reveals the universe’s not-yet-completeness. The ability or willingness to endure this separateness for Christians, then, might be born of an awareness that the universe as a whole is groaning, awaiting redemption, and that we will only endure it for a time, not forever. I am tempted to invoke Irenaeus, but Romans 8 is really what’s on my mind. Friendship of the sort I’ve tried to describe does not negate something like tragedy in the human condition. Indeed, as Jonathan points out, in many ways it deepens it.

      Perhaps we could put it this way: To embrace 1 is to recognize the proleptic nature of friendship, but it is also important to embrace 2 lest we be tempted to think that prolepsis is the same as achievement. I am not sure if separateness will continue to be endured in this way even in the world to come. That is probably beyond what we can say, although I would love Jonathan’s thoughts on this. But at least for my part, I hope that when we are fully known it will also change the nature of our relationships to one another, such that we might have separateness without estrangement. In the meantime, friendships are like a sign of things hoped for.

      I certainly do place more of a stress on separateness as helpful for discernment, given that in our time and society it seems that we are suffering from a separateness of a different sort, not as a function of our communion but a sign of our alienation. But what seems clearer to me now is that this attention must not therefore neglect the irreducible separateness that will maintain even as we grow in friendship, and that we should be wary of those who suggest otherwise.

    • Jonathan Tran

      Jonathan Tran

      Reply

      Final Finitude?

      Ryan asks me about the extent of the separateness that obtains naturally between friends, especially if one of the features of separateness is estrangement. Indeed, this question is what I was getting onto with my wonderment about an eschatological account of friendship. At least in Cavell, separateness in community issues as a condition of finitude; because I and you occupy space/time differently, we can never be, no matter how otherwise friendly, the same person; you can never occupy me–nor I, you (Cavell characterizes modern philosophy as pathologically preoccupied with closing the distance between persons, what is often called “skepticism and the problem of other minds”). Separateness is not, critically, a matter of sin but finitude. The attempt to overcome separateness insofar as it proves an attempt to overcome/deny finitude would count as sin, indeed its telltale instance. The redemption spoken of in Romans 8 (which Ryan cleverly invokes) would at least on a Cavellian reading redress not separateness but the sin that catastrophically ensues in attempting to overcome/deny separateness. All this, however, only deepens the question, for what then do we do with the separateness that, as I have been getting onto, naturally obtains? Do that and its estrangements ever go away? If the answer is no, then one might suppose a Cavellian metaphysics fundamentally mismatched to Christianity. A different path might be found by following Ryan’s parenthetical Cavellian insight: “there is no difference between us that is so wide as to completely obliterate some sense of our commonness, no matter how thin, how inchoate.” Cavell on this point distinguishes himself from postmodern philosophies which begin with an originary difference which community is meant to overcome; in these cases, eschatological community very well might permanently vanquish difference and separateness (perhaps due to an obliteration of any space/time distinctions between persons). A Cavellian design of the kind intimated by Ryan would go in a different direction. In that case, the chief moral achievement as to separateness is not its eschatological overcoming or denial but its proper acknowledgment. To acknowledge the conditions of our humanness is to acknowledge the ways in which we are naturally constituted, what Christians call “created.” This has the effect in time of living into creaturely separateness and learning to abide estrangement through companionship. It is important to say here that just as separateness issues in estrangement it also issues in the possibility of subjectivity as one’s speaks oneself into the world; I think this is what Ryan ultimately means by discernment. Therefore an eschatological account of separateness then would imagine selves speaking themselves into being through the acknowledgment of their creaturely conditions. I want to say that such an account accords with a Christian understanding of worship and friendship in these terms would be the communal acknowledgment of these conditions and the total redemption of its denials, the communal conditions of worship. Eschatologically this would go on forever.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry

Response

Knocking on the Door of the Echo Chamber

Earlier this autumn, I was in a lunch conversation with a small group of folks where I work. As we munched on pizza and reflected on a recent presentation at a community forum, one of the students said something that continues to give me pause because of its haunting truth: he described himself as representative of a kind of Christian who encounters Anabaptism in a book and then does not quite know what to do with the inevitable disappointment that sets in when, after encountering Anabaptism in the flesh, said person finds it to be more complex, less radical, and heavily ethnocentric compared to what it appears to be in print.

Reading Ryan Andrew Newson’s book Radical Friendship: The Politics of Communal Discernment brought this conversation to mind because the communal discernment he is calling for takes place in enfleshed communities, dancing with the shadows cast by romanticized notions of Anabaptism. As I read, I kept wondering, “Has Newson actually participated in the kind of process he wants to see in the church? And if he has, how often has the process borne fruit that tastes good?” These are not rhetorical but genuine questions; I am very curious about Newson’s firsthand experiences with discernment because I am also tempted to look to this practice as a last, great hope for Christian congregations and denominations mired in unproductive, enemy-image-creating conflict. These questions also contour my primary points of feedback for Newson and his approach to communal discernment at this stage of his work. Assuming this is not the last time he will work with the topics and themes in Radical Friendship, in this essay I offer suggestions for what Newson might put in a second volume on this topic rather than a hollow critique about what should have been included in this book.

Before I continue, let me locate myself in the present discussion. This is not a mere recitation of a litany of social location. Rather, I do this to create a kind of transparent container for my comments—a clear, yet subtly tinted glass, if you like—so my concerns and critiques are more easily apprehended. I am a confessing Mennonite-Anabaptist Christian, having been born and raised in this tradition and then accepting believer’s baptism as a teenager. I have spent most of my life living in what we colloquially refer to as “Mennonite Meccas”—towns or cities where there are an ungodly number of Mennonites attached to institutions and organizations connected to Mennonite denominations, ethnic culture, and families of sometimes dynastic-like proportions. I have also been educated through a Mennonite system from ninth grade through seminary, with parents whose careers have been linked to this same educational system, putting me in close proximity to both John Howard Yoder and the aliveness of Mennonite Anabaptism. More particularly, I am from the “Goshen School” of Mennonite Studies, but from the J. Lawerence Burkholder rather than Yoderian side of the aisle. If you visit my faculty profile page on the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary website, you will see that I am a Black-white biracial woman who cares a lot about peace theology. Because of the mystical, alchemical fires of social location, I work with a different set of literature than Anabaptist scholars like Newson, and where our libraries overlap, I have a different interpretation of the texts. At the same time, I am very interested in political theology and discernment, so my comments here reflect both that keen interest and the different, but not unrelated, reasons why I think we (Anabaptist in particular and Christians in general) do well to theologically reconstruct discernment and make it a meaningful, dynamic process of healing and renewal among all kind of Christians in all kinds of communities.

I will proceed by highlighting the big ideas in Newson’s book that caught my attention, adding my critical appraisal of them. To begin, I affirm Newson’s basic definition of communal discernment as “the practice performed by Christians whereby one gathers with one’s fellow disciples and attempts to figure out what God wants an individual or congregation to do in a particular circumstance” (xviii–xix). Such a process, he argues, will help Christians participate in and develop radical democratic engagement. We need this kind of vision in part because the United States of America needs different types of sociopolitically involved Christians who register in our national consciousness at similar levels. Indeed, in our present moment and speaking for myself, we are in a situation where the most visible and vocal types of Christians do not represent the kinds of Christian communities I know and/or participate in.

Newson’s overall diagnosis of our current societal state of affairs leading to his prescription for communal discernment relies on Sheldon Wolin’s depiction and description of the Western political landscape as one populated by the politically incompetent evidenced by the decline of “civil society” and the increase of “average citizens ill-equipped to lead lives of flourishing” because they are “subject to the whims of various forces” (5). Referring to communal discernment as a “competence-building counter-practice for radial democratic engagement” (145), the substance of the kind of communal discernment Newson yearns for draws primarily on the theological perspectives of James McClendon, John Howard Yoder, and Stanley Hauerwas and works in at least three ways (Newson calls these patterns “counter-practices” of communal discernment):

  1. maintaining a stance of “patient receptivity” which counters political liberalism’s obsession with speed and efficiency (146ff.)
  2. being rooted in a community where one works for “structural change through local attention” fostering competence and appropriate awareness of our limitations rather than incompetence and overconfidence bred by trying to change “the whole of reality” (151ff.)
  3. living out the virtues of presence and courage by practicing “confrontation” which involves speaking to others when we perceive them to be in error thereby avoiding quietism when faced with injustice and cultivating relationships with Christians across the sociopolitical spectrum (153ff.)

What is not clear to me, thus raising a question of authorial intent, is if Newson shares Wolin’s internal critique of political liberalism or if Wolin’s analysis is convenient because the two scholars share similar discontent with the evolving telos of political liberalism. I characterize Wolin’s critique of political liberalism as internal because his constructions (i.e., fugitive democracy, managed democracy, inverted totalitarianism, etc.) all grow from his pilgrimage from liberalism to democracy (see his preface to the 2004 expanded edition of Politics and Vision). My reading of Wolin locates his primary concern and interest with raising our collective awareness around the ways post-World War II politics in the United States and throughout Western Europe combine both governmental powers (control, punishment, surveillance, etc.) and make liberal-democratic changes that open society at the same time (legislation and policy designed to curb discrimination). In short, Wolin argues we need radical democratic practices because liberalism’s version of and commitment to democracy has eroded.

As I read the literature, radical democrats working in a democratic republic like the United States, want to retrieve (small l) liberal (small r) republican values threatened by the bureaucratic and plutocratic turn of (neo)liberalism (i.e., liberal democratic republicanism’s non-monarchical, non-meritocratic character). Thus, they find a beauty and pragmatism in the politics of the small, local, bioregional, particular. That this strategic and aesthetic location dovetails with Yoder’s “messianic community” is, in my opinion, coincidental not predictable.1 Newson seems to be reading Wolin with Hauerwasian hermeneutics, thus he appears to follow a Yoderian line that church folk need not develop a theory of the state, only relate to the state on the basis of its existence, and thus my question. Phrasing my question as a question, I ask: Where is Radical Friendship located in political theory’s conversation about liberal, republican democracy versus radical democracy? And how does that conversation interface ecclesiology?

Newson’s book and perspective are, broadly speaking, Anabaptist (47ff.). While he does not claim to be speaking for all Anabaptists, he writes, “My focus is on a significant aspect of the ongoing Anabaptist argument that I think should be fostered” (emphasis his, 48). I am glad for his desire to contribute to such conversations because it needs advocates who can provide well-grounded, thoughtful accounts about and for communal discernment. Furthermore, Anabaptism is a living tradition with human beings actively practicing what they would deem Anabaptist discernment. For this reason I urge Newson to add to his bibliography Mennonite writings on this topic that have appeared in recent years. Three volumes fitting well within the scope of Radical Friendship are Sara Wenger Shenk’s Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: A Conversation about Tradition-Based Critical Education, Sally Weaver Glick’s In Tune with God: The Art of Congregational Discernment, and Ervin Stutzman’s Discerning God’s Will Together: Biblical Interpretation in the Free Church Tradition. While I know these three authors personally, I am also aware of their work because of my own project on the topic of communal discernment.2

While we both advocate for discernment from a political theological framework, Newson advocates for discernment because of its formational power for preparing Christians to be radical democrats, and I advocate for communal discernment as a shalom-making practice of nonviolence that requires training and skills.3 I take this approach because not only have many communities and congregations undertaken “discernment” resulting in distortions of the process ranging from spiritual and emotional abuse to good old-fashioned autocratic decisions made by tyrannical leadership with plenty of examples of quasi-meritocratic process in between. In other words, I believe that to actually work well (and be compatible with radical democracy), communal discernment has to become a way of life for members of a community. Given my interest in both the theological rationale for and actual steps in discernment processes, I confess to disappointment that Newson’s book did not mention with any depth discernment process design.

In my work, I outline four suggested skills and preconditions for participating in discernment because if such processes/practices are to be radically democratic, we absolutely must create venues to enable us to find our places and voices in discernment processes. These skills and preconditions involve (a) clarity about the process steps (I often recommend Water in the Desert Ministries’ model for spiritual discernment because they offer models for groups and individuals), (b) identifying people in the community doing discernment whose words, ideas, opinions, etc., carry more weight and influence than others because such people have a vibrant connection to God and/or because the group has afforded them authority on other bases (the Society of Friends uses the terminology of “weighty Friends” for the former), (c) the habitus of compassionate, nonviolent communication pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg, and (d) a particular form of circle process called “The Circle Way” developed by Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea.4 I am adamant about identifying skills and preconditions because without them, we tend to find ourselves at the whim and mercy of group politics, and we all know what Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy asks us to remember about groups.

This brings me to my questions about Newson’s view of the political and politics. My father taught political science for forty-one years, and as a graduate student I realized how much formative impact his teaching and scholarship had on my theological outlook. One example: he often remarked that politics is everywhere, especially and perhaps most insidiously in the church precisely because we think such things have no place in there. Over time, I have seen firsthand what he was talking about: while some Christians consider politics and theology to be antithetical to one another, I contend theology is political and politics are theological. How we allocate resources, what we believe about power, the way power is exercised in communities and society communicate our beliefs about one another, the entirety of creation, and how these things meet in God’s intention for wholeness and justice in the cosmos. When I encounter political theology, I notice that sometimes the discourse functions as a kind of liberation theology for straight white cis-gender men of Western European descent. As theologians in this demographic wrestle with things like social location, context, privilege, and postmodern epistemological labor pains, political theology liberates them from deep conditioning about what theology is and needs to be; Peter Rollins is a clear example. At other times, political theology includes apolitical theology of the Hauerwas/Yoder type, eschewing the call to be relevant yet wanting to be relevant all the same.

I feel heavy-hearted when I see these patterns in political theology because those who follow them are—to use Newson’s terms—unaware of the friends they could have made and learned from if they had realized they were living in echo chambers. And unfortunately, reading Radical Friendship has left me with this heavy feeling. Rather than engaging in apologetics to defend and Christianize Aristotle’s notion of friendship (which is highly exclusivist precisely because an inclusivist paradigm is so fraught and unpredictable), why not look beyond the familiar? Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s Rediscovering Friendship offers a helpful account of friendship’s theological, ethical, and spiritual power as also profoundly political. Barbara Ransby’s biography of Ella Baker carefully documents how Baker’s political praxis is a clear example of radical democracy, noting Baker’s political orientation put her on the margins of the Civil Rights Movement, ideologically speaking. Marian Franz’s decades of work in Washington, DC, lobbying for a federal peace tax fund, chronicled in A Persistent Voice: Marian Franz and Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation, offers an example of what becomes possible because of liberalism’s influence on our political culture.5 I could go on, but my point is simply this: when a political theology’s orientation, analysis, and commitments are so heavily shaped by one related set of voices, in this case Hauerwas, McClendon, and Yoder, I find I grow impatient, trying to determine what type of intervention might lead to a radical overhaul to the conversation.


  1. See Stanley Hauerwas, “Democratic Time: Lessons Learned from Yoder and Wolin,” CrossCurrents, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.crosscurrents.org/hauerwas200506.htm.

  2. Indeed, given John Howard Yoder’s own resistance to “communal discernment” when it came to questioning his so-called experiment in Christian sexual ethics, I implore Newson to find other Anabaptist Mennonite voices to give his argument more integrity.

  3. See Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Shalom Political Theology: A New Type of Mennonite Peace Theology for a New Era of Discipleship,” Conrad Grebel Review 34.1 (2016) 49–73, and Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Thinking of Myself as Your Servant Is a Bad Idea: Mennonite Education and the Problem of the Servant Leadership Paradigm,” in Education with the Grain of the Universe: A Peaceable Vision for the Future of Mennonite Schools, Colleges, and Universities, edited by J. Denny Weaver, C. Henry Smith Series (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2017), 164–80.

  4. Valerie K. Isenhower and Judith A. Todd, Listen for God’s Leading: A Workbook for Corporate Spiritual Discernment (Nashville: Upper Room, 2009); Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd ed. (Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer, 2015); and Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger and Theresa F. Latini, Transforming Church Conflict: Compassionate Leadership in Action (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2013). For the Quaker definition of “weight,” see Katherine Murray, “Weighty Friends,” Catapult Magazine, September 24, 2010, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.catapultmagazine.com/weight/article/weighty-friends/index.html; Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

  5. Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Redicovering Friendship: Awakening to the Power and Promise of Women’s Friendships, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001). Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 370. Marian C. Franz, A Persistent Voice: Marian Franz and Conscientious Objection to Military Taxation, edited by David R Bassett et al. (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2009).

  • Ryan Newson

    Ryan Newson

    Reply

    Theory and Overlapping Circles

    I deeply appreciate Malinda Berry’s questions and criticisms. Because my argument in Radical Friendship is limited in scope (and standpoint; more on this below), I am quite aware that much more could have been said—or even should have been said, although Berry charitably avoids the latter critique. What follows then represents only my initial reactions to Berry’s promptings, which I hope to tease out in future projects using the resources she points me toward.

    My aim in Radical Friendship is to explore the interrelations and creative tensions between communal discernment and political theology in a decidedly “Wolinian” register; Berry puts this well. This is part of the reason I did not go into more detail about the procedures of the practice. I saw that kind of work as vital but separate from my stated aim, although Berry makes a good case that this ought not be so. But my lack of attention should not be taken as lack of interest; I am very interested in the way communal discernment might function as a peacemaking practice in its own right, a “way of life for members of a community,” and I look forward to learning from Berry on this front.1 Berry then asks a direct question about my use of Wolin: do I agree with his internal critique of liberalism, or is he merely a strategic ally in diagnosing a sociopolitical problem? And wherever I fall in that conversation, how do I see that political debate connecting with ecclesiology?

    I share Wolin’s internal critique of political liberalism. This is not a wedding of convenience. I agree with his analysis of liberalism’s deficiencies, and for the reasons he provides: that it gives birth to unreceptive modes of power; that it trades in an economic logic that cannot help but translate everything into a fungible imaginary, including people; that it relies upon a hyper-individualist conception of society; and that it even now is giving rise to a unique form of social control that is hard to detect. Indeed, part of what I think Wolin shows is that the question of whether one critiques liberalism from the inside or outside is moot. Having made significant progress on the journey from liberalism to democracy (8), Wolin is able look back on the terrain covered and see that any criticism of liberalism is internal, any journey begun from within it, in that there is no “outside” currently available (cf. 129–40). True, Wolin’s journey began where it did, but on my read he came to see its manifestations going further back than he previously thought—to the Constitutional Convention, to habits named and manifested by Alexis de Tocqueville, and to the philosophical commitments embedded in these struggles.2 Thus, I share Wolin’s search for alternative practices of democracy that must be found, or in any case take root, within the eroding shell of neoliberalism. From here, whatever paths are taken or labels claimed are for me strategic rather than ideological.

    How then do I see this interfacing with ecclesiology? While Wolin’s primary concern is obviously these political questions, my primary concern is different: to engage these questions not from nowhere or for no people, but for Christians—indeed “baptists” (xviii)—bringing his analysis in service to the theopolitical question of faithful inhabitation of the world. I am working theoretically in the sense specified by Wolin, meaning that I am journeying myself, moving between two worlds and seeking to make sense of what I see as I go.3 I do not see this movement as arbitrary or coincidental insofar as I agree with Charles Mathewes that political participation, for Christians, can be seen as “one more form of love, of seeking communion, of seeking the Beloved Community” (197).4 I presume Christians are called to seek the peace of the city (Jer 29:7); the relevant question is what this looks like, what participation looks like—indeed, what Christians can (and cannot) faithfully participate in. For me, Wolin opens space for Christians to reconfigure and reimagine the kinds of politics available to them, beyond either participation in the system as is or a Yoderian politics-as-performance for a purportedly “watching world.” Thus, the connection is between an ecclesiology that is constantly looking to serve (and receive from) the world while retaining its practical distinctiveness and a political project that welcomes such moves.

    Now, on to Berry’s charge of my being in a theopolitical echo chamber. I am of two minds when it comes to this accusation. On the one hand, few people within an echo chamber recognize this about themselves, and thus I am open to it as a possibility. How else would I know this had happened other than by listening to the one making the charge? And while echo chambers can produce beautiful sounds (I’m thinking of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York”), they do so at the cost of being closed off to voices that would sing a different song altogether, or enlarge the chorus with richer, deeper, more complicated notes. Thus, my primary desire is to heed Berry’s recommendations for future friends, trusting as I do that the request is sincere and that these conversation partners will deepen the gains made in Radical Friendship, even by way of critique. Insofar as my interest is in discovering and describing practices that witness to the Reign of God in Jesus (rather than maintaining any kind of theoretical “school”), my reaction is gratitude.

    But on the other hand, I must confess that I wonder whether Berry is heavy-hearted simply because I utilize these voices—McClendon, Hauerwas, and Yoder—and if she’d rather I came to the table with different conversation partners altogether. I utilize these theologians because they seem to me to say something true, although I do not rely on them exclusively (one could be forgiven for getting the impression from Berry that I cite no one besides these three). Thus, while I welcome the opportunity to expand my conversation partners, this expansion cannot come with the absolute negation of my starting points, even as they are relativized. At the risk of performative contradiction, an image from Jim McClendon comes to mind, who argues that the remedy to echo chambers is not the relinquishing of one’s convictions, but rather participation with others. Even as one’s own center remains, our different circles may also begin to overlap without becoming identical. “The unity thus produced by the joint work of many workers may be . . . composed of disparate elements often juxtaposed in unexpected ways, and often displaying no resolution prior to the resolution of the cosmos itself. That it will nonetheless be unity is an assertion made in faith.”5 Put simply: taking part in an ongoing argument is not the same as being in an echo chamber.6

    Finally, and to end where Berry begins, I confess that my answer to the question of how much experience I’ve had with communal discernment is, “Not a ton,” although this is not the same as saying, “None at all.” I am not a Mennonite, but count myself among those annoying people who claim the label “baptist,” in the “Anabaptist wing” of the Baptist house (married, as I am, to a Baptist minister), and as such my interest in the practice has always been to reclaim how it should or might go, separate from how it has gone with the various Anabaptisms in our world.7 The danger with this, of course, is that one might come to love an idealized projection rather than any actual community with which one must deal.8 But in my own context, the danger I have seen is the total neglect of the practice for fear of its misuse. When haltingly remembered in times of great need, I have seen (and felt) firsthand that the muscles required to listen to one another had atrophied, such that we could not discern together well. All this to say, I suppose I perceive a need for something like this practice more than I’ve seen its healthy use. I do not know if it is possible, although I’ve heard rumors in other congregations, in history, and in scripture itself. The fleeting moments I’ve experienced it—as with democracy—only leave me thirsty for more, not out of a naïve desire to escape my finitude but rather out of a desire to see churches become all that they might be, however odd that might make us in the current political climate.


    1. Berry’s four skills for discernment seem promising, particularly the importance of identifying “weighty friends” in the community—those with authority—and the need for nonviolent/direct communication.

    2. Cf. his The Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); and Tocqueville between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

    3. Wolin, Tocqueville, 5.

    4. Charles T. Mathewes, A Theology of Public Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 161.

    5. James Wm. McClendon Jr., Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, [1974] 1990), 170.

    6. I have taken up the question of insularity in relationship to Nancey Murphy’s Lakatosian-MacIntyrean epistemology in “Postmodern Insularity? Epistemological Holism and Its Discontents,” in Practicing to Aim at Truth: Theological Engagements in Honor of Nancey Murphy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015); and in “Alasdair MacIntyre and Radically Dialogical Politics,” Political Theology 17.3 (2016) 243–63.

    7. On “baptist,” cf. James Wm. McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, [1986] 2002), ch. 1. Of course, I’m aware that being Mennonite today might not expose one to communal discernment as much as one might think; cf. Conrad L. Kanagy, Road Signs for the Journey: A Profile of Mennonite Church USA (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2007), esp. 102–5.

    8. Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). This critique is often waged against McClendon; cf. Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces: Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Bletchley, UK: Paternoster, 2003), 13–14.

    • Malinda Elizabeth Berry

      Malinda Elizabeth Berry

      Reply

      Response to Ryan Newson

      Ryan, thanks for taking on my questions and probing them a bit. There are a number of different directions I want to take this conversation, but I think I will limit my focus and scope to the thread about actual discernment processes. My question about your experience with discernment was and is a genuine one, Ryan. And I agree, that when it comes to discernment, having lots of first-hand, personal experience isn’t a necessity for wading into this conversation. Rather, I’m interested in what experiences have led you to believe in, or at least wonder about, the promise of such a practice for Christians.

      One of the challenges I experience in my practical work with discernment and group process is that, like other things, when there’s been a bad experience with process, the possibility of a better experience is rarely enough to bring people who have felt harmed back to the table. This is all quite understandable. A combination of faith, good facilitation, and trustworthy conversation partners can go a long way in providing the hesitant with a “corrective emotional experience,” but, more often than not, that’s a BIG ask. I’ve been stubborn in accepting this reality on several fronts, not the least of all because I’ve had and live a pretty functional life. My own resilience in the face of intersectionality’s oppressive manifestations is something I am learning not to either take for granted or project on to others (i.e., “Because I’ve overcome oppression, you should be able to as well”).

      Let me offer an example that’s been grist for my mill — my intention here is not to start a debate about the content of the claim (in fact, I explicitly don’t want to do that) — because it is part of my critique of your use of Yoder, McClendon, and Hauerwas. In 2009, a new level of analysis in the polarizing conflict that includes the place of LGBTQ+ Christians in Mennonite Church USA specifically appeared. Carol Wise articulated an argument that Mennonite process is violent  observing and lamenting, “I’ve come to the conclusion that process is how Mennonites justify and inflict violence. As long as we have a process, then somehow we have not engaged in violence. We have been fair, good, and kind people. It’s such a distortion. People trust it. And then it gets misused. I think it’s a powerful mechanism to carry violence, and I see it over and over and over again.” Carol is Wise by name and wise by nature, and I’m haunted by how truthful her claim is in a variety of different settings, contexts, and moments of crisis-based decision-making. In fact, her conclusion is evident in Rachel Waltner Goossen’s account of John Howard Yoder’s sexual violence and experiments. I’ve also been helped to turn to the World Health Organization’s definition of violence from their 2002 report on the intersection between violence and public health: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.”

      So, the grist I’m milling is this: How do we turn the tide on generations of process practices that justify and inflict violence in the name of keeping the peace? One way is by widening the circle of conversation partners, that much I am convinced of, and that is why I’m hard on you, Ryan. Because I think men like Yoder, McClendon, and Hauerwas have not known typically how to made room in the circle for loud, angry voices that have a legitimate complaints about the ways ecclesial decks can be so seemingly-benignly stacked against vulnerable people. This is why I boldly proclaim I read Reinhold Niebuhr as a Mennonite. He reminds me that, at the end of the day all we have is eschatological hope and the lovely disappointment of being human.

      But I wonder what you, Ryan, Jonathan, Jennifer, and others have to say to this challenge about the ways you’ve seen or heard about “discernment” and “faithful process” used to justify and inflict violence in the name of keeping the peace

    • Ryan Newson

      Ryan Newson

      Reply

      Response to Malinda Berry

      Thank you, Malinda, for these remarks, which themselves manifest a wisdom and sensitivity that I greatly admire. You identify a fundamental challenge when it comes to communal discernment, and while I hesitate to go into too much detail in this forum, I am going to try to respond to your closing question. I have indeed seen something like communal discernment used and misused in such a way that was profoundly harmful, in the name of maintaining a kind of “peace.” Two instances immediately come to mind.

      The first has to do with LGBT inclusion in a Christian institution of higher education. After a period of “discernment,” I was no longer allowed to teach for a school because of my being open and affirming—or more specifically, because I argued that one’s position on this “issue” should not be a determinative factor in being eligible to teach certain courses. This was not enough, and I was told that I was no longer welcome to teach there. Compared to the kind of daily aggression and overt violence done to LGBT people in and by the church, this was minor, but it hurt nonetheless. What stung most was the impersonal way in which the process was handled. Persons involved would deny their own agency in the matter by hiding behind the process itself. “I wish it could be otherwise, but the policy is thus, and procedure has been followed.” The notion that any kind of discernment worthy of the name had thereby been gained was to me a joke; one could convince oneself of this only by ignoring or silencing those voices who would say otherwise. Something had been (temporarily) gained, though, by deferring this argument for another time, another place: institutional stability. That you invoke Niebuhr, Malinda, is exactly right: At the time, I recall thinking, “So, this is what Reinhold was talking about!”

      The thought that came to me as I reflected on these events in relationship to communal discernment is that the practice is profoundly dangerous when seen as a kind of impersonal procedure or bureaucratic application of policy, for in such cases one can pretend as though a process was followed almost without human involvement, or only incidental involvement. It allows people to mask from themselves decisions that they have made, and adding appeals to God or scripture only deepens this tendency. I would add that this is not discernment proper, at least to me, but its shadow. Discernment-as-neutral-process makes it more likely that power will be exercised in such a way that is unaccountable and unreceptive, even while remaining polite and pleasant.

      The second instance happened during Divinity School. One night at 3am, I received multiple calls from a friend. A prominent youth leader in our church, with whom I had been close, had committed suicide. It seemingly came out of the blue and thus was a shock—but that shock was nothing compared to the revelations a few months later that he had been accused of several counts of sexual assault with boys in the congregation. As I reflected on this nightmare in the proceeding months and years, it struck me that there had been warning signs about this, which appeared more obvious in retrospect, but that they simply had not been dealt with. Or, they were ignored. Or, worst of all, concerns were left unspoken because it would have been impolite to do or say anything else. (In the South, it is considered extremely important to be nice, at least among a certain socioeconomic class). The church modeled a warning issued by my Divinity professor Veronice Miles, now at Wesley Theological Seminary. Miles argued in class that one of the greatest barriers to justice is politeness, because politeness can be “a form of avoidance (of pain, remorse, responsibility, etc.) that can become a barrier to delving deeply into questions about the nature of injustices, our complicity in keeping systems of oppression in place, and the impact of systemic oppression upon our lives.” That seemed to happen here.

      I think this event profoundly influenced my interest in communal discernment. I realized that the church in question had a stunted ability to proceed when facing such a daunting situation. I wanted an ecclesial practice (or set of practices) that would do much, much better, even if that meant sacrificing politeness. On this front, Malinda, I can only issue a hearty “Amen” to the need to create space for voices that are angry, loud, less articulate (one could add in this context, young). Whatever else communal discernment should be, it must not and need not proceed in the pleasant tones of a cocktail party or respectable Baptist committee meeting. Space must be given to those whose very presence is complicating insofar as they do not fit the standard definitions and narratives a community tells about itself.

      I hope I haven’t moved too far afield or gone on too long, but I am trying through these recollections to situate myself as I respond to your question—perhaps the only question that matters—as to how we might turn the tide on generations of processes that reinforce this kind of thing. Neither impersonal process nor a retreat back into polite avoidance will do. And we are in agreement that we must not leave communal discernment behind, however hard this will be for those wounded by it in the past. Then again, what may need repairing in such instances is the ability to trust a community again—any community—rather than a practice per se. But this is another way of saying that we need to make peace with our wounds. And ironically, I continue to have hope that healthy communal discernment can serve this end. Certainly something must be done, for the wounds, left untreated, will continue to invade the present, as Shelly Rambo has recently made clear to me. We must find ways to come to terms with our wounds, rather than pretend they are not there.1

      Interrupting the practice for the better, then, might incorporate at least these elements: 1) Always looking to widen the circle of voices present, leaving the circle open to other as-of-yet-unknown friends—in other words, moving to see difference as a gift rather than a threat; 2) Refusing to allow the practice to work as a procedure in the way specified above; 3) Noting that power dynamics are always brought to bare, and cannot be erased by putting one’s chairs in a circle; 4) Remaining constantly open to the possibility that the community, as a whole, has deceived itself and itself stands in need of correction—that no institution, even a church, is immune to this possibility; 5) Fostering virtues in people such that they are genuinely committed to finding the truth (as Eric Hall will argue); 6) Clarifying the sources of moral authority shared by those participating, utilizing them with nuance and care; and 7) Noting that there is a dialectic between dissent and communal discernment. Indeed, dissent should probably be seen as an integral aspect of communal discernment. Perhaps the first theoretical step toward recognizing this is to forfeit the idea that communal discernment must lead to consensus.


      1. Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017).

Eric E. Hall

Response

We Cannot Slap Our Way to Radical Democracy

The story of the real St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, as opposed to the cookie-loving reindeer-taskmaster, has become well-known, its antics making for good drama and revelry on the side of those who consider themselves orthodox Christians. Disturbed during the Council of Nicaea by Arius’s defense of a non-divine Christ, St. Nicholas crossed the floor of the council and slapped the soon-to-be rejected Arius across the face, an anecdote that we make sound as hilariously quirky as our overly political uncle arguing on Thanksgiving about the role of big oil in politics. Neither the council nor even St. Nicholas found the slap terribly benign, St. Nicholas repenting of the act while stripped of his bishop’s robes by the council in prison. The legend says that later that night, the robes were returned to St. Nicholas by the Theotokos herself on account of his contrition. Regardless, both the council and St. Nicholas were right in their assessment of his actions: in communal reflection, no matter what the disagreement, all sides must play their cards and offer their cases, which St. Nicholas threatened to disallow through his overly zealous and, yes, sinful, slap-happy ways. His sainthood perhaps partially rests on his self-recognition of this fact.

In general, though, the great apostolic councils of the church potentially confirm many of the senses in which R. A. Newson, in his Radical Friendship, discusses the emergence and structure of the kinds of deliberative communities that become necessary for fixing, even grounding, the contemporary social order in which we live, itself naught but a series of complex, interwoven practices of which many good ones have been intentionally shoved aside by liberalism. These councils represent groups of deliberative bishops, universal in scope, but often localized in position, sentiment and agreement, facing down questions with one another at the heart of the Christian faith—is Christ really or just a little divine, and how can we formulate that? (56–71).1 Is the essence of the Trinity another person, or does the generic term “person” form an essence?

And yet, at these councils, we find a dedication by the members of the constituencies comprising them, or at least by a large number of them, to a term that seems at least to take a temporary backseat in Newson’s book. I speak of a robust sense of the truth and, more importantly, a proper orientation to it. That statement is strong, and it is no doubt already open to great scrutiny. After all, what else could the product of the deliberative community, in consult with the Spirit, be? How else does truth emerge but in and through communities of discernment? It is a point that I will not soon abnegate and in which I find hearty agreement with Newson.

Still, a non-intellectualist and improperly defined grasp of the truth, will yield not a radical democracy in any particularly good sense; it will yield a radical pseudo-democracy, one given over to the terror and tyranny of the one who can slap the hardest and loudest, and it will likely continue to acquiesce to the liberal order so long as that order appeases its basic desires (23).2 I suspect that Newson will at least be sympathetic to this fear given his opening lines on President Trump, who seems quite frankly (like most any politician of the day—yes, I share the suspicion toward all politics that Newson aptly describes) to lack the same capacity of St. Nicholas to repent of his ways (9). Such persons will slap away, many of them in the name of “truth,” and they will do so until no one can slap back, precisely because all have lost both consciousness and a sense for what it means to exist within, be dedicated to, and find peace in the truth as properly understood. It is to this danger of democratic untruth that I hope to speak, drawing some conflict with, but I hope ultimately adding to the good work that Newson has already achieved, here.

Bullshit, Oratory, Sophistry, and Tyranny

We find some of our most preeminent senses of how democracy of any kind functions without a proper notion of truth in the works of Plato. Socrates, who is, indeed, always Plato’s mouthpiece, is not a fan of the institution, his general disposition toward it being summed up in a term redescribed by Harry G. Frankfurt in its namesake essay, “On Bullshit,” as a direct manifestation of bullshit. Let us explore this dark logic by moving from Frankfurt into Plato.

Our fine eyes and ears are not necessarily used to seeing the term “bullshit” just described written across the page within academic settings, and yet the onomatopoeic sense and visceral nature of the term does an excellent job of compelling us to leave our dogmatic slumber of bullshitting ourselves, which is indeed a common part of all of our lives. What does the term mean?

At its base, to bullshit simply means to speak in such a way that one’s statements may or may not be true, but one is unconcerned about the demands of truth either way.3 The bullshitter only considers the image that the speech produces in the listener concerning the speaker while he or she is speaking. If this concept seems to have some sort of familiarity, it should. We are confronted by bullshitting politicians (and that is not merely Trump, I’m sorry to say), marketers, students, professors, and, alas, even religious leaders on a nigh daily basis. Being engaged in the production of bullshit is a rather common endeavor concerning which none of us are immune but concerning which some are especially good. Hence do we have the perhaps unfair image of the “used car salesman” in the broader American set of images, who is the bullshitter par excellence.

Still, to help with this conception of bullshitting, a clarifying concept emerges from which we can better distinguish bullshitting: lying, which we oftentimes confuse for bullshitting, and truth-telling. I will deal more robustly with truth-telling at a later point. For now, let’s say that truth-telling is knowing a reality connected to a pertinent situation and speaking this truth communally. The truth-teller, indeed, cuts down the cherry tree and tells his parents about it. On the other hand, the liar is one who has at least a sense of the truth, if not knowing at least one truth completely. Rather than speak the truth the liar perniciously speaks in such a ways so that he or she does not conveys its opposite, or at least somehow calculatively redirects away from the truth.4 In other words, the liar distorts what he or she knows, drawing any interlocutors into a counter-narrative and falsity, likely for some sort of personal gain or protection while retaining the truth for him or herself. So what?

Bullshitting is neither truth-telling nor lying. It’s wholly unique in its relationship to the truth, even if we may be inclined at first to say a liar and a bullshtter are the same. But the liar at least knows the truth, deceiving with regard to it, and in this small way preserves a sense of the truth, but the bullshitter completely covers over the truth by way of a total disregard for it. What the bullshitter says may or may not be true, but what matters to the bullshitter is the image of looking like the bullshitter knows what he or she is saying without regard for the truth or falsity. The bullshitter offers whatever pleases the constituents’ ears, making the bullshitter a most dangerous person to encounter.5

Melding Plato and Frankfurt’s thoughts, we see that bullshitting takes place through two means in Platonic dialogues. In his The Gorgias, Plato constructs a famous set of analogies describing the relationship of oratory and sophistry, which I want to claim are species to the genus of bullshitting. Thus, like bullshitting, oratory and sophistry are modes of disingenuous speaking, each able to pander to a crowd.6 Oratory does so by pretending to know how to fix a particular problem, even if the orator has no knowledge of the actual issue at hand. Gorgias, one of Socrates’s interlocutors in The Gorgias, brags that he, unlike a doctor, can get a patient to take her medicine, even when the medicine—say, cauterization—is painful.7 Socrates believes this practice to be shameful because, rather than dedication itself to a knowledge of the actual good, it has a knack for convincing without any knowledge attached. So, he calls this form of discussion spiritual pastry-baking, which can pretend to offer nutrition, as a sort of croissant for the soul, where there is no nutrition to offer.8

On the other hand, sophistry pretends to know what the good life is and how to legislate it.9 The sophist will teach you for a hefty sum of money that, well, “your opinion is, like, your opinion, man!”—opinion being defined as “preference” rather than “reasoned idea on its way to truth.” Obviously, ancient Greek sophists did not speak like the The Big Lebowski’s Dude, but the colloquialism brings a cultural image to the contradictory truth that most sophists bought into: that there is no truth. (It’s an inconsistency that Socrates, Plato, and especially Aristotle heartily seize upon.) Socrates calls this mode of bullshitting spiritual cosmetics.10 In this context, cosmetics means the application of some external apparatus to the body, a girdle for instance, which in its application to the body uses anything but the proper methods of exercise and proper nutrition to try and reform one’s body image and look better without being healthier. Rather than legislating the difficult work of proper nutrition and exercise for the body and virtue for the soul, the cosmetics of sophistry offers you reasons for believing that, in the end, you’re just fine as you are with maybe a clever tweak here or there.

With all these terms defined, we come to the crux of this section. At least according to Plato democracies are always in the wrong, irredeemable. (I disagree for reasons to be revealed momentarily.) And they are in the wrong because of three sets of bullshitters to which Plato believes democracy, due to its emphasis on public opinion, inherently falls stray.

First, comes the tyrant. The tyrant is an orator, who, as a political opportunist, is able to discern the irrational wills of certain constituencies.11 This orator speaks to these persons in order to prop themselves up as leaders. As the horrendously evil political term is used prior to elections, these orators know how to “stoke the base” by being able to “read the market,” i.e., feed into the demands of the people who seek to elect them based on their pleasing words.

This process is, second, bolstered by way of certain sophists found in institutions such as the media, the academy, and even religious institutions. While many such persons fall into the above-developed sense of sophistry (my truth is my truth; yours is yours), the movement is a product of the instrumentalization of truth. Truth is simply a term to be manipulated, defined first and foremost by a political agenda (shown in forms of critical theory) or a sentiment (demonstrated in the emotivist outcomes of scientism), which seem to hold that all proclamations of truth are mere expressions of a will-to-power. Because sophists want their agenda to win, they must instrumentalize and use the semblance of truth to back their preferred agenda and, thus, offer seeming rationales for the tyrant they find most useful.

Third, and to top it off, there stands a tyranny of the people themselves. The people, who hold a certain amount of power in their capacity to mob together, accept the tyrant as their leader so long as this tyrant speaks the right and pleasing words, stokes their base, excites them by speaking to singular, predefined and acceptable issues, such as, on the one hand, “illegals” taking jobs and, on the other hand, on-demand, consumer-driven abortions. Dually, the people also filter these instrumentalized truths of the sophists, and develop them into rationales for their belief systems, adding the image of self-interested reason to the realities of rage, lust, and uninhibited appetite.12

I daresay that this situation fairly well defines our own, which the Trump-era has in many ways brought to its logical conclusion. It has illuminated processes in full that, in truth, far predated our current predicament. It is, more importantly, for these reasons that Plato, and likely Socrates, rejected the notion of democracy as well, and why we should at least be skeptical for any call to democracy without the right conditions in place, even and maybe especially those of a religious community. For it is not difficult to see the manner in which a charismatic leader of a small religious community can become a tyrant, bolstered and hated by certain sophists within the congregation, and obeyed by the people so long as those people receive their bread (not unfortunately in its Eucharistic form) and coffee. Many of us have experienced precisely this situation, and perhaps it ought to give some pause with regard to what Newson proposes.

Democracy Revisited

Yet, amidst these evil potentialities, I, with Newson, believe in democracy—even the radical, and perhaps non-liberal democracy for which Newson advocates. Unlike Plato, who advocates for either the tyranny of the philosopher king (Republic) or the Laws (Laws), democracy yet has an unmatched potential along with Newson to serve for the good rather than the ill of our world, however unlikely I think it is for that to happen. The main issue pertains to the conditions that must be in place, and the issue that is missing references not merely adherence to the Spirit, who is indeed important and even synonymous with what I’ll propose, but that of the philosophical life, which refuses to instrumentalize any truth therein gained for merely selfish purposes.

I have thus far harumphed about truth, insinuating that a dedication to a non-instrumentalized version of it as the key to any democratic undertaking. Now I will put finger to keyboard to illuminate the meaning. I am advocating for a notion of truth that has, in many ways, fallen out of fashion in the modern world, a certain form of realism, albeit of the critical variety (à la Bernard Lonergan) that rejects at least the conclusions of Kant while nonetheless seeing the truth of some of his ideas. It’s a critical realism that advocates that the world that we come to really know comes to us through our linguistic, cultural, traditional, and interpretive lenses, which themselves are a part of the real that we are trying to talk about such that we can talk about these structures truly.

Simply put: truth, in its primary sense, is naught but the ability to conceptualize the world as it actually is. It is the proper intellection of our world such that we can formulate concepts about it with one another adequately enough while using linguistic expression to help articulate and communicate truth. That is, truth is defined as something like the correspondence between world and idea, a notion of truth that I’m at least partially loathe using since the modern world is so bound to the empiricist ideas that the “world” is merely a set of empirical things “out there” to be collided with rather than known. I reject this empiricism as wholly contradictory.

That said, I know all the critiques of this concept of truth, some of which I will immediately address. Here are a few, followed by a baseline to any response, which could be cultivated more precisely in light of the realities of each critique.

The relativist argues that there are no truths, and that truths are only ever cultural-linguistic expressions of things as related to us. This point can be affirmed in whole only by ignoring the fact that the statement expresses an absolute truth-claim about the role of culture and language.

The empiricist argues that the sole form of truth worth paying attention to is that form which can be empirically verified or falsifiable, tested (or able to be tested) and retested for material consistency. However helpful the sciences are, this notion of empirical verification, when applied to itself, falls short as empirical verification as a truth-construct can never be empirically verified. It belies a conceptual verification at the heart of philosophy and theology.

The rhetorician merely claims that the term truth functions in a certain way culturally, or that any refutation of the above ideas are mere rhetorical, and not real, refutations. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander, and the notion of rhetoric is then devalued to the point of being relativistic, which has already been refuted.

So, critical theorists, operating along similar cultural-linguistic lines, rightly add the element of power, proclaiming the truth a linguistic construct helpful for the promulgation of a will-to-power and only a will-to-power. It can certainly be that. All truth is politically based. Again, either this reconstruction is true, or it is itself a function of a will-to-power, which means there is no need to listen but to continue to press what is best for myself.

Finally, the Heideggerian wants to ignore the notion of truth as correctness and reformulate it as the event of the emergence of metaphor in language. I take this less as an insight and more as a phenomenological observation that coheres well with truth as correspondence. After all, one either observes this phenomenon correctly, allowing us to take it seriously, or not.

Forgive the caricatures above, but they must do for now as I end my brief cavalcade of critiques and counters with the observation that in each and every one of these cases, the same question can be asked, which all forms of realist philosophers have been asking since Aristotle: do you mean what you say? Because if you mean your critique, you think there is something real in what you are saying and conceiving, believing that one’s words and concepts are corresponding to a way that things actually are, even if non-empirical. And if these words and questions are merely a set of rhetorical tricks, then your inquiry into them ought to yield a distinct set of ideas to which the critic could intellectually and willfully assent, which actually describe and organize well a worldview. In other words, truths.

I do not bring this point up to somehow suggest that it is easy to find the way to truth. I happily concede that all of these above critics offer ample and profound insight into the rejection of such a view. To seek and receive truth requires patience, love of the truth over self, and, frankly, community, which is my whole point in writing this. I rather bring this point up to pose truth as a goal, the pursuit of which ought to define the human life, if not especially the Christian life. And one that, if we are to take democracy seriously, we must have as our baseline.

To return to Socrates and Plato, philosophy is a craft, dedicated to the tool of dialectics which seeks to rid one’s soul of foolishness, be it in the form of wrong opinion but especially in thinking one is wiser than one actually is. Philosophy is, in fact, directly compared to physical medicine in The Gorgias, which is a regenerative craft dedicated to ridding the body of disease.13 Foolishness, overabundant belief in our wisdom, alongside a belief that we cannot but offer selfish interpretations of the truth, are the soul’s diseases, making philosophy a medicine for the soul that must rid us of these errant views and place us on a right track with regard to it.

Another way to state the same is to say that a philosopher is a person who, whether speaking rightly or wrongly in any particular case, cares in general for truth, wants to get things right, clarified, known, and thus be rid of false views. The person, in fact, has staked his or her identity not on any one judgment, and certainly not in the pretense of knowing the full truth in itself; this person has staked an identity on the orientation to the truth of everything about everything, which he or she will never receive.14 The philosopher recognizes that one is partially within the truth while simultaneously being partially outside of it, and that one ought to desire to become more fully a part of the truth. The philosopher also recognizes tools for seeking truth are, of course, intelligence and honest self-assessment, but that the primary tool is dialectics, or reasoned dialogue, in and through what we might rightly call, with Newson, a discerning community: a cohort of similarly oriented persons who, partially in the truth and partially outside of it, seek not to win debates but to be illumined, brought into a self-transcending truth through one another’s insights. The philosopher, in other words, will always give up any particular view for a truer view through dialectic discernment in a truth-seeking community.

It is this philosophical love for the truth that is at the heart of where I seek clarification from Newson, which I see at the heart of any functional democracy, one not merely given over to tyranny on the three fronts above defined. In other words, Newson rightfully focuses on phronesis, contextual claims to truth, and provisional application of these truths by a discerning community, all of which I have a nigh absolute sympathy toward. Unless, however, the discerning community is a community of philosophers, even in a theological context—unless a community of discerning individuals has had a philosophical and intellectual conversion, placing the truth before winning, and predicating their identities on a love for gaining truth over sounding intelligent or right, the community will be bound up with the vicissitudes of democratic tyranny. This condition—intellectual conversion, placing the value of truth before one’s desires—is the sine qua non of a functional democracy, even in its most radical varieties.

Not Solely Scripture but also Philosophy

I’m well aware that the critiques and suggestions that I’ve offered are of a philosophical rather than theological variety, at least on a first read. My concerns, however, are actually theological in that the reasoning I’ve used is co-opted, taken up, and incarnated. Truth, whatever its immediate source, always finds its ultimate source in Christ, the Logos of this world, and the one through whom all is made—at least this forms an inherent part of my belief system. Christ is the unity of scripture and reason bound together in faith—defined as the reorientation to the really real—as two sides of the same coin. It is for this reason that I offer the example of the great councils not as a counterexample to Newson’s Anabaptist development of a discerning community, for which, other than perhaps the well-read Newson, there may be no immediate concern to jump into the thought of, say, Plato by those who feel themselves otherwise entirely scripturally bound; but these great councils do, at least, form a necessary counterweight (49–56). For the councils, dedicated to a truth emergent from both scripture and reason, give a fuller picture of what the discerning community needs to be: converted to a dedication to the truth, the Logos, the Christ, to whom both scripture and reason point. As said, the proof is in the pudding with these councils, for they show us that even a saint cannot advocate for an oratorical tyranny, dismissing the proper procedures out of anger, without consequences. Truth must have the center stage, and all who orient themselves to such must eventually acquiesce to its loving power.


  1. The conditions for communal discernment offered by Newson are bound up with communality, humility, contextuality, and what I will call intelligent uncertainty. I believe Newson places a rightful emphasis on Aristotle’s notion of phronesis.

  2. I speak of the reduction of all things to an economic logic, which both Newson and I lament, but that I think is at least a part of the desire of the people themselves.

  3. Harry G. Frankfurt, “On Bullshit,” in The Importance of What We Care About (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 124.

  4. Ibid., 132.

  5. Ibid., 133.

  6. Plato, “Gorgias,” in The Collected Works of Plato, edited by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 520a–520b, pp. 862–63.

  7. Plato, “Sophist,” in The Collected Works of Plato, edited by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 268c–d, p. 293.

  8. Plato, “Gorgias,” 518c–d, p. 861.

  9. Ibid., 519b–d, p. 862.

  10. Ibid., 464b–66a, p. 808–9.

  11. Plato, Republic, in The Collected Works of Plato, edited by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 560b, p. 1171.

  12. Ibid., 561b–c, p. 1172.

  13. Plato, “Gorgias,” 518c–d, p. 861.

  14. Plato, “Symposium,” in The Collected Works of Plato, edited by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997) 203d, p. 486.

  • Ryan Newson

    Ryan Newson

    Reply

    A Center That Does Not Hold

    Eric Hall’s reflections are at once fruitful in pushing my own thoughts into further and needed avenues, and are worth consideration in their own right. I appreciate his willingness to reflect on my work on communal discernment and radical democracy, and can only say a hearty “Amen” to much of what he writes. Indeed, in the months since the publication of Radical Friendship I have been haunted by the continued spread of anti-Christian, anti-democratic forces that threaten the kind of faithful, truthful competence that Hall and I both value, and which have made me wonder if certain things I assumed or implied (in this book, anyway) ought to have taken center stage.1 These things relate to the question of truth in a “post-truth” world, and how people come to value truthfulness at all. I hope in the following to provide some of the clarification that Hall seeks, or at least begin an interaction (a friendship) that may move us toward that clarification over time.

    I would like to start my response where Hall ends: with an affirmation of truth not as a concept free-floating above creation (or free from human embodiment, emotion, interactivity, politics, sociality) but as incarnate—made meat. Truth is everywhere in our God-soaked world, and where found it is not destroyed but perfected by grace,2 as Hall implies in his Thomist closing lines. More in agreement I could not be. However, if truth really is incarnated, if it really finds its “ultimate source in Christ,” then it seems to me that this changes the question of truth for those who find themselves making this confession. Or rather, it puts that question in a different frame.

    What I mean is, it is indeed true that truth “must have center stage,” but if truth really is fully incarnated in Jesus, then that center is not exactly stable or safe. Augustine’s beautiful prayer about rest aside,3 it seems to me that to affirm this is to affirm that Jesus gives the form and content to our understanding of truth, rather than the other way around. As such, the truth at center stage is living and wild; a truth that is on the move, and beckons us to follow; a truth that is not a proposition but a relational reality inescapably experienced in and through the Other.

    And so my first clarification about truth of the sort that Hall asks for—one that I am pretty sure he would affirm—is that my view of the truth is that it is a living, crucified-and-resurrected reality that spurs us on to find traces of that truth in the world, in via. My assumption throughout Radical Friendship is that without this conviction, one would never bother with such an annoying, fraught practice like communal discernment in the first place. With this conviction, however, one’s identity is put into a more precarious situation precisely because this truth is in no one’s possession, but is ever ahead of us and seen through a glass, darkly. When Hall speaks of truth as a goal, he offers his profoundest insights in this regard.

    Still, Hall might fairly wonder if what I have said here is enough, or if I remain some kind of relativist, perhaps having drunk too deeply from the Wittgensteinian well. While I am generally sympathetic with the critical realist project, I remain convinced that truth for the Christian is always “relative to” a particular narrative, a particular person, and indeed my own embodied, encultured apprehension thereof.4 Such incarnated truth, then, marks out a center that does not hold us down and force a confession—indeed, does not allow us to get ahold of it at all (cf. John 20:17)—but is marked by self-limitation and humility of the profoundest sort (92–97). As theologian Jim McClendon put it, echoing Blaise Pascal, this is a truth not of the philosophers (at least in the Enlightenment sense) nor even of the theologians, but of Jesus Christ, who is the ground not only of being but of adventure.5

    This leads to the question of how to be oriented to this truth. Hall rightly argues that the real rub is the creation of a community of people (“philosophers” in the classic sense) who care about the truth at all. Absent this, any community’s discernment processes will be at the whim of the hardest slapper in the room; or the most rhetorically proficient; or, perhaps most troubling at present, the one most skilled at propaganda—the best bullshitter. How are we to find, discover, and foster a love of truth in this sense? Even more, how am I to notice, let alone care about, the kind of internalized “bullshit” that Hall rightly fears—what we might call, with Willis Jenkins, my own moral incompetence (2–7)?

    That indeed is the challenge, for how do you make someone see something they cannot see, or care about something they do not care about? For just this reason does Hall name this kind of shift “conversion.” But it seems to me that to be oriented to the truth in the sense specified above will require not just “intellectual” conversion (insofar as “intellectual” conjures hyper-cranialized cognition) but the kind of embodied, impassioned conversion brought on by participation in particular practices and forms of life that “rewire” me anew toward the truth—that is, Jesus.6 It is precisely for this reason that I explore communal discernment at all, which I am happy to admit may well require or presume the more ancient, holistic conception of philosophy as a communal practice involving an entire way of life.7

    The bottom line: if truth is living and active rather than static, then the kind of competence we should expect ought to be equally active and adventuresome. Thus, my comfort with uncertainty, and rejection of the chimera of certainty (67–78), is (hopefully) part and parcel of a christological view of truth itself. If truth is a person, then orientation toward the truth—and one’s neighbor—does not require certainty; quite the opposite, it will be a formidable stumbling block along that path.

    Whether this provides any of the clarification Hall wants I do not know, but I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify to myself the kind of desire for the truth that is required if communal discernment, let alone radical democratic practice, is not to go down some dark paths. In the spirit of friendship and gift-exchange, then, I would like to end with a counter-question for Hall—a “counter-danger,” if you like. Granted, most philosophers who have supported democracy through the ages have been viewed with suspicion, or as likely giving rise to a far-worse set of circumstances. Plato is representative of this suspicion, but he is by no means alone. But Plato would seem to represent a different threat as well: that of the beneficent autocrat who is able to rule over the masses by virtue of his knowing the Truth—the Truth not as it is entangled with the everyday world of ordinary people, but beyond that. While beneficent rulers are preferable to anarchy, I remain wary of any autocratic rule in form, no matter how beneficent, not least because it manifests a kind of unreceptivity that seems to inexorably lead down the path of true dictatorship (let alone the christological factors to consider; cf. Luke 22:25–27). My question is simply: Is it not possible that even—perhaps especially—communities of “philosophers” can manifest forms of rule that continue to slap their way to order, motivated not out of a crass will-to-power but rather out of genuine commitment to disciplining the unenlightened? History seems replete with examples of just this happening, and the horrors that can result—and not always because they were not interested in the truth, but precisely because their vision of the truth itself allowed, even demanded, this praxis.


    1. I explore some of these questions in greater detail in my forthcoming Inhabiting the World: Identity, Politics, and Theology in Radical Baptist Perspective (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2018).

    2. ST I, Q. 1, Art. 8, ad 2.

    3. Confessions, I.i.

    4. I learned this way of speaking from Brad J. Kallenberg, “The Gospel Truth of Relativism,” Scottish Journal of Theology 53.2 (2000) 177–211.

    5. James Wm. McClendon Jr., “The God of the Theologians and the God of Jesus Christ,” in The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr., vol. 2, edited by Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), §36.

    6. Cf. Park Markham, Rewired: Exploring Religious Conversion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2007).

    7. Cf. Pierre Hadot, What Is Ancient Philosophy, translated by Michael Chase (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

    • Eric E. Hall

      Eric E. Hall

      Reply

      “Yes!” to Newson

      “Yes!” That honestly comprises the first word that came to mind after reading Newson’s response to my concerns, which ought to be noted as standing in diametric opposition to Barth’s “No!” to Gollwitzer. Perhaps our concerns are nowhere near that debate, and I’d adamantly suggest that our fame as theologians in the 21st century are even further. But I actually suspect that our concerns are similar, at least in a sort of transverse way: with me offering a Gollwitzerian “Yes!” to a Newsonian openness. Newson’s final insight needs addressing most fervently–those concerned with borth conversion and age tyranny of the philosopher king–and an address to those concerns will have to wait, like a Hobbit for a nap, until the end of the great journey of this response, so long as “great” is understood as long-winded.

      First, I’d raise a couple of points of clarification, especially concerning the nature of truth, its Incarnational status (which I have been duly invited to address and for which I am most excited). To begin, are propositions incarnational? Yes, but only insofar as we reject nominalism, which is a view that Newson seems at least open to with some important caveats. I will beckon Newson to develop and outline these concerns even further in future discussion so that we might, as already stated, have a both/and.

      For those unversed in the positions of the history of philosophy, nominalism emerged as a critique of both language and the concepts that such language claimed to denote: universals. (To those already versed, you will find my definitions wanting in a scholarly sense. Think of this as a brief genealogy of concepts and how they affect us.) Its point is to show that universal concepts have no part in reality and merely form a way by means of which we denote “things” in the world for the sake of, say, their usefulness, their “ready-to-handness.” Things are ontologically individual as such and can only be generalized by the human mind by way of a certain forcefulness in language and for the sake for convenience, which is why most critical forms of dialogue emerge within a nominalist framework, including accounts of social structure and constitution of our worlds. Nominalism more readily sees a space between what we claim to know and what the world is, which is a downright important attitude and one that I’d at least not be willing to give up.

      What such nominalism fails to see is that it means its own words. Words are things, beings in the world, realities the reality of which we can know. We could only claim otherwise if we totally and completely give into Descartes’ and modernities’ (read nominalisms) mind/body split, relegating words to a place of inter-communal description at best (which is true enough) and a will-to-dominate others at worst. (Get a person to see the world my way and I can control that person.) Again, positions of truth can be seen and must be seen here, but we can only see them and take them seriously if they’re meant in truth, as something other than merely a will to dominate. That is, we can only take them seriously if we see the words and our words about words denoting a reality in which we can participate, discuss, and use to either properly or improperly describe the world around them.

      Realism in its Medieval sense can be rightly be rejected, at least under the right circumstances. We need no more naive realism that relies on a direct and unmediated confrontation with the world, at least if that’s what realists in the middle ages meant. (I actually suspect it is not). But realism in the sense of taking our words as denoting something of the real, which takes shape and form in an embodied concept–which is also embodied in things and in words–must be accepted in some form, and that rightly necessitates propositions, which point to concepts, which pint to the being of things. Or, as Augustine beautifully states the same (as it’s his position I’m cribbing) “For God is more truly thought than He is uttered, and exists more truly than He is thought.” (Augustine, On the Trinity, IV, 4.7)

      Propositions, from a critical realist sense, are already incarnate in some meaningfully real way, and only a nominalist attempt to relegate them to something like “mind,” by which is meant “something totally different than bodiliness” and a position arguably taken up in much of today’s academy, states otherwise.

      I say that because there’s at least a remaining suspicion on the part of Newson that propositions as wielders of truth tend to posit something other than an Incarnational position, and his suspicion is absolutely right when propositions take on the tenor of nominalism, either historically or as contemporarily conceived. But at least when clarified from a critical realist position, we have saved the incarnational possibility of words as embodied articulations of concepts, while nonetheless allowing for a real and substantive hermeneutics of suspicion, to harken back to the Westphal/Caputo debates that inculcated me into philosophy and theology. (I obviously more directly side with Westphal holding much love for both persons.)

      Can words, though–articulations of the order of the cosmos, understandings of the reality undergirding all (and make no mistake, that is what I’m claiming words convey)–be even more incarnate than they already are? Well, yes, especially what that word is the Word, the Christ who comes to us to set our words not only formally upon the way to Truth but materially as well, by telling us what the Word of words is.

      What does the Word of words tell us? For one, he tells us that we’ve been getting words wrong.
      After all, Jesus–or perhaps better stated, Joshua–reinterprets the word “Messiah” or “Christ” and some of the messianic expectations that came with it. Specifically, he reinterpreted the words tied to David’s nation-building extension of Joshua’s–the book of Joshua’s Joshua–and Moses’ entrance into the promised land. Jesus, of course, sends his disciples into the promised as well with a new word: the gaul, offered him on the cross, to tell his disciples to be peacemakers and take up their crosses.

      The prince of Peace revises the meaning of messiahship, to say the least, and we ought to be steadily aware of the conversion of its meaning. But the conversion isn’t total rupture with the word as it was spoken, for Moses rightly note YHWH the Lord of life (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) in his equivalent to the Sermon on the Mount, and David properly recognizes the humility of the messiah, that the messiah is not supposed to be one who serves himself but the God who sends him. The words of old are transformed by the Word, but never discontinued.

      Even more so, however, does Jesus show an absolute unity between Word, words, and person. The words he speaks not only reflect the Word which he is but delineate the meaning of his actions, which bring the Word back to the world which has forgotten this original Word’s meaning. In speech, thought, action, and being, Christ is the Word of words that totally and thoroughly Incarnates and redirects the words we speak, a point I believe I can be happy in sharing joyfully with Newson.

      That is, the words we speak do not always align, then, with the Word, something that I very truly mean in the critical realist sense in which I’ve been talking. And for them to express the Word in its fullness, we must give ourselves over to the Word and the communal discernment the Body of the Word continues to imbibe in Spirit. And yet, the words we spoke are not gone, and they were not completely wrong, they simply missed the full mark, which can only ever be discovered in faith as opposed to made by way of the strong hand of the philosopher king or existentialist alike.

      For instance, I want to take up a word that Newson beautifully reflects upon in his work both implicitly and explicitly: violence. The world we live in is violent, which is a word that we would like to push out of the forefront of our consciousness. However, our lives–all of them, for finite life must feed on finite life–depend on a form of outsourced violence, whether it’s from our dependence on farmers (who plough fields, killing inumerable animals in the process), to ranchers (who kill our cows and the predators who threaten them), to police (who subdue our human predators, which we come to know as criminals), to military (who fight wars we pretend we don’t want), to politics (which simply villainizes the “opposition” in an attempt to win favor). “Violence” as a word should be well known and even further acknowledged by we who pretend not to exist in such. But violence must also be seen aright. Rather than with the Babylonians or Rome, who saw violence as the fount of Being (and we could argue that perhaps this is where the philosopher king goes wrong as well, as stated by Newson), we need to see with the creation narratives and the Christ who returns to them the word’s proper reinterpretation: that violence, while real in a sense, is a disorder, something that ought not to have been and that ought not to be here. In Christ, we see the truth and reality of violence through the real Word, who, in refusing to confront violence violently, giving himself over to it instead, shows us that God did not create with such violence in mind. We come to know that the violence that we thought undergirded our being ought not to have been, and that we need to rethink and re-appropriate our relations to it. I believe that this point, more than anything, is what Newson proclaims our communal discernment to lead us toward, but only if we can affirm the stark realism of these words denoted above and as reinterpreted through faith in the Word.

      Dear Lord, speaking of words, mine are becoming long. I end with a couple more words in mind, one’s that we might frutifully take up together. What are the words we speak to one another in communal discernment? Are they infinitely manifestible by whatever reality we so desire, or do they point to the Word? And if they point to the Word, is the Word itself dynamic, or only we in relation to it? Or, perhaps most difficult of all, what constitutes the nature of the conversion at stake here, because there seems to be at least two: intellectual and religious? (Newson astutely picks up on this dual conversion, but we might even add a third: moral, which insinuates the capacity to act on what one finds to be the Truth of truths.) I believe these are interesting points through which we might turn to more conversation, but I’d be happy to pick up any point of this long discussion in at least my attempt to respond to Newson’s astute response. For friendship is indeed emerging, here, both philosophically and faithfully.

    • Ryan Newson

      Ryan Newson

      Reply

      Further Up and Further In?

      I had guessed that asking Eric to reflect on the concept of truth and its relationship to the Word made flesh would be fruitful, and I wasn’t disappointed! I want to let Eric’s words about nominalism sit where they are, as I think they are worth deeper reflection than I can provide in such a short amount of time.1To the notion that the Word of words does not rupture what comes before but transfigures it, I can only nod in hopeful agreement. In the debate between Justin Martyr and Tertullian, Justin wins in a landslide. (And if Justin is correct—which he is—then it provides one more reason Christians can and should participate with people of other convictions in various projects in the world, democratic and otherwise).

      Instead, I want to briefly consider the final questions Eric asks, which I would love for him to take up himself (longwinded or not, I’m still listening!). What are the words spoken to one another in communal discernment? Are they infinitely malleable, or do they point to the Word? If one accepts something like Eric’s argument, then it seems that they must point to the Word in some way, even if implicitly. But I want to say something like the words spoken during communal discernment are particular speech-acts in so far as, different from whatever (truthful and helpful) analogy they may have in the world, they consciously invoke Jesus as an active participant in the proceedings. Indeed, when Christians are promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus speaks this in the context of gathered disciples discerning when and if someone should be “loosed” from the community for a time (Matthew 18:20). As such, when felicitous, they consciously point to and seek to be faithful to the Word. On this point, I must continuously remind myself that this Word is Jesulogical in nature—the logos took Jesus-flesh. Jesus does not manifest a wider reality of which he is simply a part; Jesus shows the fullness of this liberative logic.

      I don’t know if I’m happy with the phrase “point to,” however, which leads to Eric’s question about the Word and dynamism. The reason I chafe at it could be my general discomfort with stasis, or perhaps it’s my thoughts above, but “point to” suggests to me that we are in motion and changing (surely the case) in relation to an unmoving, unchanging Word. I could be reading too much into that phrase, but I do want to argue that Jesus the Word is dynamic, in eternal movement. This would not imply for me that God’s character changes (it is love all the way down), but it is a push back on those strands of the tradition that stress eventual, eternal rest, at least if rest is taken to be a static position.

      This definitely needs to be interrogated further, especially since I do not therefore affirm process metaphysics. But if something like it holds, then I think it might situate a response to the question of conversion in relation to communal discernment: it is to begin a journey with and after the God whose name is “I will be who I will be,” through which one will eventually be transfigured as one follows, in every relevant respect: intellectual, religious, moral, and otherwise.


      1. As I read, I kept thinking that John Bowlin’s argument about natural law would be relevant to this conversation. Cf. John R. Bowlin, “Nature’s Grace: Aquinas and Wittgenstein on Natural Law and Moral Knowledge,” in Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein, eds. Jeffrey Stout and Robert MacSwain (London: SCM, 2004), 154–74.

    • Eric E. Hall

      Eric E. Hall

      Reply

      “That Rug Really Tied The Room Together.”

      Dr. Newson–I feel like you’ve opened a can of worms. These are some of my favorite questions to think about. I’ve wanted to keep the conversation focused more fully on your insightful book, but I cannot turn down such a tantalizing invitation, so please allow me to commence with what is now going to inevitably be my Habilitation, all with the promise of allowing you the final word, my friend. So, with your permission, I will try to tie the basics of my thoughts on these points together, offering something of a Lebowskian rug to the many objects in this room. In the spirit of dialogical and loving truth-seeking, invite you afterward to the same.

      In western intellectual history, I’d name five basic philosophical family resemblances bound up with the concept of God, maybe six, depending on just what the heaven German, romantic-influenced thinkers like Hegel, Schelling, and Schleiermacher were up to. (That’s a different discussion.) We have classical theism, which I’d stand behind under certain conditions (I will discuss those briefly), defined by way of the analogy if Intellect or being; voluntarism, which the Protestant churches have tended to depend, seeing God as will as opposed to intellect, and where I suspect the point about God’s character, but not necessarily essence, remains the same emerges from in your post; there is deism, which is the only sense of God that is actually “static” in the way the term is usually rhetorically used, and which I sense in Newson’s response; there are process concepts, which are offshoots of theism and deism in a rejection of voluntarism, which I’d sum up by describing as demiurges who remain a part of their creation and for whom special revelations are at best metaphorical traditions that point to a similar reality; then there are hermeneutic concepts that, in deference to but in a correction to the wiley nature of the voluntarist God, understand God as the event of our reinterpretation of our world. (a sidenote: I use the metaphors of, respectively, Miyagi, Jersey Shore, Retired Oprah, Hippie Aunt, and Joan of Arc in my latest book, Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God to discuss these concepts.)

      By saying that God’s character remains constant but not necessarily God’s essence (my interpretation of what you’re saying), I interpret you in one of two ways: by way of voluntarism or hermeneutic thought, although I know that process thought could say something of the sort as well. From the voluntaristic side, Calvin sees God not as an intellect but as a will–or, more profoundly, a will willing itself. What Calvin means is something like the following analogy. As humans, we will, and a will naught but a desire as brought to action. But we can have at least two forms of desire, first-order and second-order. First order-desires are immediate and imminent, defined not so much by what we want to be (good at poker, for instance) but what we actually are (lovers of ice-cream.) Second order desires are reflective desires, characteristic of identity. As said, I may want to become good at poker (I don’t, but I do love ice-cream, obviously). And for the sake of becoming good at poker, I may have to temporarily put down my desire to eat ice-cream to practice my pokering, submitting my identity not to first-order desires but to second-order desires. In this case, my will is to become good at poker, and the better I become at it, the more I want to become better at it such that I enter into a virtuous circle that has taken a second-order desire, playing poker, and habituated it into a first-order desire and my will.

      This metaphor applies to God, with or without the poker.

      God is a will to remain faithful, according to Calvin, which means that God wills to be who God is–a God for us–for all eternity. (That is, God is good at poker and wants to be good at poker.) Thus, we can count on and trust in God not because God is a constant essence but because God is constantly willing God’s faithfulness, which is inseparable from the will of God, and willing it for us and for our salvation. Nevermind (or please do mind) that the stringent monergism and notion of double-predestination emerges precisely from this concept of God–after all, how else could God be trusted to be for us unless God controls the whole of the cosmos, including the damnation of some and salvation of others?

      With voluntarism in mind, The hermeneutic sense, concerning which I have far more sympathy, reevaluates this idea. At least from the standpoint of Jüngel, God is not an essence but a will willing itself. But this means that God cannot be distinct from God’s own self-revelation, which is the event of Christ contemplated in the Spirit that transforms our worlds. (I suspect you might have some sympathies here, too, Dr. Newson.) That is, we know the will of God for us through Christ, which is love, and that love, which comes to us in faith as the concave of God to our convex reception of it (Jüngel), transforms our worlds, blowing up its assumptions, where we stand, how we operate, and what we become: sinners to sinning saints; haters to on-the-way-to-love. (it is not so clear from either Ebeling or Dalferth’s standpoint that God is only love, but that’s a discussion for a different time.)

      I believe that voluntarism in its primary sense must be rejected, and I imagine most anabaptists given their historical ties to and rejections of both Zwingli and Calvin (who are, in terms of God-concepts, very similar thinkers), would reject the same. If we are to take anything seriously from this God-concept, it must be that transferred to us by way of the astute hermeneutic thinkers. But as close as I’ve been to these thinkers both intellectually and personally, the question remains for me: why get rid of the notion of essence? In that, one also gets rid of the notion of truth, which I’d argue is intellectually dishonest (that is, is it true that there is no truth? And again, if I’m merely employing a rhetorical trick, it would seem that all language, even that language that claims the there is no truth is merely a rhetorical trick and cannot therefore be taken seriously. This, actually, is the only way I can read Derrida: with a sense of humor that he understood all of this and pressed the point to its core, never wanting to be taken seriously–a point that I completely respect about him–asking us not to take ourselves so damned seriously either–a point that I even more completely respect about him.) I believe that one can have something of a both/and here.

      In fact, to tie my two posts together, voluntarism and its offshoot in hermeneutic thought, rely on a nominalistic view of the world, the likes of which I’ve already ardently rejected. For Calvin, as with his precursors in Ockham and Scotus, maybe even a small portion of the angelic doctor in Aquinas himself (which John Milbank astutely notes), God must be free. For if the conceptual meaning of God stands for the highest possible reality, those things that are free are more real than those which are bound. The God of voluntarism cannot be bound to even God’s own nature, which is why Calvin opts into the language God being a will willing itself rather than being an “essence” willing itself, namely, theism. And I think the same is true for Jüngel, with the exception that there is no distinction between God’s will and God’s self-revelation, which is seen not through the lense of an arbitrary “faithfulness” but in terms of Trinitarian love that we’re being constantly comported to in Christ. (Amen!)

      But is any of this true? Is there a Christ, and does that Christ have a meaning? (I’ve already interpreted the term in my previous post, and I think I’m correct about it, the pint of which I will become momentarily). Is there violence, and do we understand what it means? Are the above portrayals about one God-concept in the west true, either in description or content? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then we’ve already opted not for nominalism, which sees our words as arbitrary and socially instantiated markes of an absolutely individuated world, but for realism, which sees that, in our speaking, we at least lean-in toward the True, which means that we recognize the truth in things. But to see the truth of something is to see what it is in its essence.

      What, after all, is an essence? It’s the “order” of something, an answer to the question, “what?” or “how? And how does truth relate to essence except as a creative appropriation of an essence such that we come to see what that thing is? To see in truth is to formulate the “what?,” “how?,” or “why?” of something, gather evidence that would either affirm or reject the formulation, and ascent to that formulation if the evidence pushes us in that direction. (Please note that “evidence” is never reducible to something so silly as the empirical, although the empirical certainly forms important evidence in empirical matters.) Nothing is so clear cut and dry, of course. As I said in my original response, we have biases that push us into wanting to see certain things as true and others as not, so we remain critical realists and not naive realists. But realists we are because any other position, at least any that want to take their words seriously, espouse at least indirectly a realism.

      I get why this term is rejected. When we hear essence today, it sounds rigid. “We’re binding something to our mere language, no? And then we have the audacity to proclaim it true!”–positions that we hold and that we ironically expect to be understood and respected while disrespecting the truth-potential (that which allows us to take something seriously) the language undergirding them. While I believe we tend culturally to be rigidly anit-rigid, I still get it, and as I’ve already admitted: we likely always exist in some error, but I must be able to see truth in order to see the truth of error. That is the part of today’s forms of nominalism I take very seriously. But to define nominalism, dynamism, stasis, or anything else and take these definitions seriously in some way, shape, or form, is to claim to see into their essence. And to claim that we cannot see into the essence of anything is (you probably know my argument, here) to at least implicitly claim to know what the essence of an essence is and to reject it, which is self-contradictory. All serious talk depends on essence of some sort, which is naught but a description and explanation of the ordering of something as it is as opposed to as we want it to be.

      Essence, then, does not mean some boring and static thing out there to be uncritically confronted. There can be no real distinction between an essence and the actions or functions or energies of an essence. (This comprises my biggest issue with the formulation of God in terms of essence and energies, which I understand at the level of piety but tend to reject at the level of consistency.) Essences are always essences in action. Moreover, to reject another move, oftentimes felt on the process side, an essence does not need to denote pure individuality. Relations, while not the constitutive part of an essence, are real such that no finite essence exists merely in itself but in a web of essences that are both mutually reliant and ultimately reliant, namely, on that essence who is eternal and self-creative activity in love. I’d at least reject the reduction of an essence to either a noun or incorruptible individual. But let’s bring this back to the main discussion.

      I hold that God’s character is consistent not because God is a will willing itself, which is true enough so far as it goes; but it needs to go further in stating that, if we know what a will is, and we ascribe it to God, then we are giving God an essence (God is a will) that we can either accept or reject. So we’re better of starting with God is the Truth of all truths, willing and sustaining things in their truth through God’s own Truthfulness. Or, rather, God is Truth itself willing the good of all things through God’s being. God is an essence: the Truth of all truths. And I feel compelled toward this definition, as did Augustine, because of the everpresent realism I keep ballyhooing about–our taking language seriously as that which participates in the Truth, even if imperfectly. In other words, if I reject nominalism, I also reject voluntarism, accepting instead a realism that must posit God as the unchanging essence and Truth of all identities. (a most bold proclamation that I hope you’ll pick on.) For theism, which says that these statements can only be true because there is a Truth undergirding all truths–a constancy that allows all things to be cognized in their coming, being, and passing–while also sustaining them both in identity and being as they come, exist, and pass.

      Here I speak philosophically, stating upfront that I will reinterpret this all theologically. Eitehr way, God’s character is, thus, bound up to God’s essence, (of which the Word is the full reflection). Insofar as God is eternal (a contentious point for some to be sure), so too is God’s character eternal; and insofar as eternality signifies unchangability, God’s character is unchanging because of God’s essence, which is ultimately indistinguishable from God’s essence based on the premise of divine simplicity (another contentious claim today, alas).

      Does this mean God is static? It all depends on what one means by the term. Certainly God, even philosophically, is not an essence disunited from God’s actions; God’s essence is Truth, but we might deuce that this Truth sustains all things in their truth (essence), meaning that the world, even philosophically, can only be because it is sustained by the dynamic energy of the philosopher’s God, who supplies energy and sustenance to the rest of the cosmos by finding infinite interest in how awesome it is to be God, supplying energy for the comings and goings of the rest of the world through this divine solipsism! (My interpretation of Aristotle’s prime-mover, which actually forms the basis of many erroneous attempts at theologies of glory on behalf of Christians, including Calvin.)

      Of course, this isn’t good enough from a Christian perspective, for we do not come to God only by way of Truth as intellectually seen, as true as our intellect ascends in grace to the divine. We also come to God by way of Christ, who calls the Great I Am “abba.” I will refrain from my desire to express my Christology even in part, other than to point to the traditional formulation of Christ as fully divine and fully human and all of its beautiful and wonderful Trinitarian precursors and implications. What I will instead say is that, if we come to know the fullness of God through Christ, and I can hold no other in spite of certain imperial pushes toward an absolute pluralism, then we know God no longer as merely the philosopher’s God, ontologically close to us in our sustenance, but conscientiously distant in that God merely thinks about God’s self; rather, we now know and even become even more bound up with the divine both ontologically and conscientiously. As Christ moves in the world–as one who will not offer a violent hand against violence, taking upon himself his cross; as one who heals the leper, calms, the sea, and beckons the tax-collector, prostitute, and entirety of creation back into fullness of communion–so do we know God the Father: as self-giving, Trinitarian love.

      But as with all truths of reason (the philosopher’s God), they are completed not totally rejected in faith, bound up as it is to the self-revelation of God in Christ through the Spirit.

      For this reason, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger beautifully writes,

      This God of the philosophers, whose pure eternity and unchangeability had excluded any relation with the changeable and transitory, now appeared to the eye of faith as the God of men, who is not only the thought of all thoughts, the eternal mathematics of the universe, but also agape, the power of creative love. (Introduction to Christianity, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004, 143.)

      The character of God is bound up, I believe, to the essence and non-stasis of God, and while we can see the essence of God dimly in the concept of Truth, we know the full essence of God through the Son, Christ Jesus, who came and continues to eternally come to us. I’d add that, in Christ, it is secured for us that we need not fear either love or truth, for in Christ, Truth and Love are indistinct so that, in God’s character, God is truly love, continuing to sustain us and save us in love. And, in solidarity with the hermeneutic concept of God above, only without a semblance of nominalism, God, as the Truth, continually calls and draws us back to the Truth of God’s love in and through God’s directly expressed essence known through the love of Christ.

      Our worlds, thus, continue to be dynamically opened by God in the loving search for the True, and in our truthful Love toward one another, which, indeed, does not merely point to (a very astute and proper critique you have here, Dr. Newson), but participates in, the constant movement of the divine love and truth toward us. But the dynamism of God is, indeed constant; and our dynamism, which misses the mark of God in oh so many ways, is in constant flux. The eternal Word is, thus, just that: eternally and truly love; our contingent grasp onto such must be constantly and dynamically unfolded in time. After all, the times change, and so we must always be willing to reinterpret the times, so long as one doesn’t mistake that for anything other than a continual search for the truth). We also change, moving from being closer to further from the truth of love, from self-centered to self-giving.

      But God’s essence is God’s creative movement toward sustenance and salvation for us in Christ and through the Spirit. God is–in character and essence–an eternally abiding and self-giving love.

    • Ryan Newson

      Ryan Newson

      Reply

      Moving Toward One Another

      “God’s essence is God’s creative movement toward sustenance and salvation for us in Christ and through the Spirit. God is—in character and essence—an eternally abiding and self-giving love.” I love this. I have mulled this over for the past few days, and I want to offer only the briefest of responses by connecting this thought to communal discernment. Namely, how does or might the practice of communal discernment either give rise to a claim like this, or lead Christians to move toward one another and neighbor? I ask this for a specific reason: because I have less of a stake in maintaining any of the theological schools listed above or finding my fit in a typology, however helpful it remains, than I do in trying to understand how such conversations touch ground, or (better) emerge from certain practices, or don’t. This is what one would expect given my commitment to the “baptist vision” of the Christian life, neither Catholic nor Protestant, that proceeds theologically from the perspective of the community of faith reading scripture as though its words were meant for them, really and actually. (This, of course, is all the theologian Jim McClendon).

      It seems to me that the practice of communal discernment implies, and may even require, a view of God who—by God’s own choice—participates in human affairs, one might say kenotically, and who invites us to participate alongside God in working for justice and healing in this world. I’m not sure it easily squares with visions of God as impassible, unmovable (in the colloquial understanding of that term!), or static. Most of what you say seems to fit with this vision, though indeed put into categories likely not normally employed by first-order theologians! (No fault with that, of course). The benefits of this work are enormous, as it clarifies and sharpens our way of speech about God and Christian practice. Indeed, a major temptation in the baptist world is something like anti-intellectualism, and I do not want to feed into that here. Still, I do see a temptation with this kind of language, which would be something like a temptation to overconfidence in saying more than can be said; or perhaps more to the point, a temptation to put the cart before the horse—doctrinal statements before practice, before the lived experience of the practicing community and speech arriving from there. I do not mean to say this of you, Eric, but more so of myself and our kind generally (theologians, and dare I say, white dudes), and I continually stand in need of reminding that, as Timothy Gorringe put it, Christ did not bequeath to us a set of doctrines or truths but a community, “founded on betrayal and the survival of betrayal.”

      All this to say, insofar as these reflections move folks toward one another, toward neighbor, and toward Christ, I’m in. And if my ways of speech and thought and action are changed in this process, I hope and trust that these changes are the fruits of God’s continued work in the world.

Emily Dubie

Response

Sandy Baskets and the Ambiguities of Judgment

Sandy Baskets and the Ambiguities of Judgment

 

In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the presbyter sent again saying, “Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.” Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went to meet him and said, “What does this mean, abba?” He said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.” They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.1

 

Pointing toward the sand leaking surreptitiously behind him, Moses protests his brothers’ deliberative gathering. The sayings of the desert fathers and mothers are replete with such critiques of judgment. Yet, as Ryan Andrew Newson convincingly demonstrates, life with others demands decisions about action. How do Christians—burdened with their own sandy baskets—determine faithful forms of engagement with those both within and without their confessing communities? In his critical retrieval of Anabaptist practices of communal discernment, Newson offers a hopeful resource for Christians and their neighbors who face the perplexity of judgment and action. In what follows, I listen for the ways Abba Moses illumines and troubles Newson’s proposal by considering the moral ambiguities of judgment, the temptation and wisdom of procedures, and divine deliberative action.

Before returning to Moses, however, let me recount Newson’s argument in brief. Newson explains that communal discernment is a congregation’s effort “to figure out what God wants an individual or a congregation to do in a particular circumstance” (xviii–xix). Through “patient receptivity” toward the Spirit in scripture and the neighbor, the community studies, prays, and deliberates together, waiting for consensus about the contextually situated good (61, 146). What is discerned, however, always remains provisional, open to amendment, and “without pretensions to certainty” (68). As Newson shows, retrieving this practice offers a mode of resisting liberalism’s undermining of citizens’ capacities for political engagement. Communal discernment trains Christians in the skills of radical democracy and displays a mode of moral reasoning that undercuts proceduralism.

So what then of Abba Moses? Why does he decline to participate in his community’s process of discernment? By all appearances, the gathered brothers are readying to ban the guilty monk from their midst. (This pattern and debates concerning its appropriateness are evident throughout the Sayings of the Fathers.) When called to participate, Moses declines, effectively loosing himself from the community rather than the guilty brother (64). Yet his brothers persist in appealing to him—demonstrating the deferral of decision and openness to correction that Newson exhorts—and Moses’s arrival pronounces judgment upon their own practices of judgment. The monks receive this word and amend their readiness to judge their brother.

Placing this story alongside Radical Friendship illuminates what I appreciate most about its treatment of communal discernment: Newson refuses to let this practice be a certain solution to what he calls political incompetence. Rather, it offers only a fragile possibility for cultivating political agency. In referencing the work of Traci West, Newson explains that, like all practices, communal discernment is susceptible to sudden moral reversals and can occasion harm rather than aid.

In other words, Moses here anticipates that the very process designed for the healing of a monk and the community will intensify damage. We might say that he took a guess (informed by long familiarity) that his brothers’ eagerness to judge did not proceed from a patient love that desired their fellow monk’s good. While it seems that he was right (as suggested by his brothers’ humble responsiveness), he could have been wrong. Only God’s inscrutable verdict decides.

While not explicitly developed by Newson, an Augustinian approach to such characteristic malformation of practices (as means of injury, then flourishing, and then back again) clarifies this dynamic. In an exhortation to correct neighbors connected by “the necessities of life,” Augustine observes how the same external action can proceed from virtue or vice. Refraining from correction, for example, may be due to a lack of willingness to expend energy, the fear of causing offence, or the desire to protect one’s own advancement. These disordered forms of self-love contrast with a proper love which waits for a more fitting time, desires to prevent sin from worsening, or delays to avoids harm.2 However, the obscurity of these internal dispositions destabilizes confident moral conclusions based on observations of a person’s actions (even one’s own). Thus, practices of judgment are rendered morally ambiguous, awaiting the disclosure of God’s own (presently hidden) pronouncement.

And yet, despite the steep risk of error and the very real harm that may follow, the conditions of life together demand of judgment. While the desert aphorism may at first appear to exhort the cessation of all judgment, a second look suggests that flat dismissal cannot be its meaning. Moses comes with his sandy basket at the persistent bequest of his brothers, and he indicts himself only. Foregrounding the uncertainty of his pronouncements about others in light of his sin, Moses reluctantly judges through his sandy trail.

Newson also offers a nuanced critique of judgment, drawing a distinction between being judgmental and making judgments. The former evaluates the self over others in pride, usurping God’s prerogative, while the latter responds to Jesus’ exhortation, “Judge for yourselves,” through proper discernment (102). The necessity of arriving at such decisions becomes plain when I consider my own congregation and its deliberations, occurring admittedly in vestry meetings which I do not attend. But I hear reports on Sunday mornings, and I think gratefully of those who assemble monthly to do the difficult work of listening and discerning. Should we install a security camera? Should we welcome homeless neighbors to sleep on our property? Should we repair the hundred-year-old building? Should we call the police when people act violently? These questions range from the mundane to the weighty, and in the shared labor of attending to their contours, we are (in the best cases) knit together.

But as the story of Moses shows us, and as Newson recounts, even the best expressions of communal discernment still are vulnerable to human fragility and disorder. Such processes need voices from outside to call for restraint, especially in regard to the weakest members. Newson elegantly captures this dynamic by a chastened theological anthropology overlaid by a Foucauldian attention to the operations of power. Together, this underwrites his emphasis on the contingent quality of even the best efforts of the gathered, listening community and, thus, the necessity of building in modes of revision.

Yet this same anthropology (woven through with circulations of power) casts doubt on the possibilities for sustaining such a practice. Newson is right to note that the common inability to imagine the healthy functioning of this practice is due to its neglect (106). Newson himself names only a handful of examples (including, curiously enough, individuals), such as Mississippi Mission and Ella Baker. And the most prominent case—namely, concerning John Howard Yoder—points only to failure and obstruction.

Newson identifies Yoder as “an (ironic) exemplification of the potential pitfalls of ignoring the practice—or better, of the continued presence of power in its employment, which requires the attention by all involved” (91). Yet it remains unclear to me how Yoder exemplifies the dangers of ignoring the practice. Rather, Yoder shows the real possibility for harm in deploying the practice. He displayed the abuse of power that he theorized to combat: in other words, knowledge of ethical criteria is no guarantee. I applaud Newson’s efforts to extricate manipulations of the practice from its potential value. Yet it is precisely cases like Yoder that make the relative fairness of liberal procedures so attractive: those with little power are less exposed to the vagaries of the group and its most persuasive parties.

Thus, it seems fitting to offer a brief defense of procedures. As Newson notes, these creatures of bureaucratic rationality seduce by their facade of certainty and impartiality. Deference to them eases individual responsibility and ensures a degree of impersonal distance. Yet procedures do not fall from the sky: they originate in someone’s (or some committee’s) practical deliberation. They are the result, more often than not, of the very discernment that Newson wants to commend.

More pointedly, procedures often rectify harm. This is how we have Offices for Institutional Equity and professional codes of ethics. Of course, it is when such moral rules and their institutional associates become the only (or even the primary) guide for judgment that we find the deep impoverishment of ethical deliberation. As idols, then, procedures must be rejected. But as the product of the practical wisdom of foremothers and forefathers, they might be received as handrails for judgment, always requiring ongoing revision. Even the practices of communal discernment as Newson proposes will themselves over time ossify among particular people in particular places, and thus Newson insists that God must be trusted over procedural certainty (43).

It is on this note—of trust in God over procedure—that I would like to conclude. Newson explains that God is the central actor in communal discernment. The community waits to know “the dynamic will of God” (2), “what God wants” (xviii), “what God requires” (xix), and “how God would have [a congregation] move in some particular circumstance” (47). Any pronouncement on this matter always stands before the question: “How do you know that the Spirit of God has so decided?” (57–58). While Newson provides deft accountings of human deliberation, the operation of God’s own pronouncements (and their accessibility) would benefit from further development. We know from Newson’s descriptions that God is present to the gathered community by God’s Spirit, in scripture, and in neighbors present and absent. But can any more be said?

I’d like to suggest that an explicit development of a Barthian account of divine command might add further density to Newson’s theological framework. In reading the book, I could not tell whether or not this was already implicitly in place, perhaps as part of a general inheritance from postliberal theology. Of course, if this line is developed as I think it should be, it would in the end result in further questions. How does one hold together the human creature who is always a beginner, confronted by the command ever anew, with the one who learns virtue, who gets better at hearing God and neighbor over time? Does Newson’s critique of the idol of certainty extend even to the learning of such skills for political competence? Only a thicker account of divine action—in directing and upholding the human creature and her wobbly moral judgments—can say.

In the meanwhile, Moses continues to drag an old basket of sand behind him.3


  1. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, edited by Benedicta Ward (London: Penguin, 2003), 85.

  2. Augustine, City of God (Hyde Park: New City, 2012), 1.8.

  3. I am grateful to Kyle Lambelet for his feedback on an earlier version of this essay.

  • Ryan Newson

    Ryan Newson

    Reply

    Creative Participation and the Ambiguities of Procedure

    Abba Moses threw me for a loop. In placing before us this humble witness—who lived during a period marked by at least as much political upheaval as our own—Emily Dubie asks us to take seriously the ambiguities of judgment. While there remains a difference between judgment and judgmentalism, Dubie rightly argues that this distinction does not mitigate the dangers inherent to any discernment process, communal or not. Our sin follows ever behind us; everywhere we go, there we are. As such, my initial reaction to Dubie’s use of Abba Moses was to remember anew that communal discernment cannot go well if it is not marked by humility. Indeed, Dubie made me wonder whether every discernment process should always be preceded and followed by confession. Any judgment, insofar as it leads to some kind of “loosing” from the community, is as much a judgment on the community itself as on the individual.1

    Moses also demonstrates the importance of dissenting voices within the discerning community, something I mentioned infrequently but requires much more clarification on my part. Granted, this is tricky. The gadfly and the pariah might not look that different from one another. But noticing that difference is a key to healthy communal discernment, insofar as true discerners will not only tolerate but seek out voices that challenge and disrupt.2

    But there’s more. Dubie’s use of Abba Moses reveals a feature of communal discernment I completely neglected: the importance of creativity. Discernment should not (or need not) be a rote participation in a series of endless, monotonous conversations. It can, and in the best cases probably should, foster creative participation in and even meta-critique over the entire process. Moses did not simply show up and say, “I have also sinned. I can’t judge.” He engaged in prophetic witness to the community itself, and the form his participation took suggests that he knew that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling images.”3 Dubie rightly notes that Moses here doesn’t refuse the discernment process, but participates in it even as he passes judgment over it. Of course, such a stress on dissident, creative speech comes with dangers of its own, not least failing to listen oneself to the wider community.4 In any case, Abba Moses injects a needed dose of creativity into the practice of communal discernment that is often woefully lacking in such descriptions, including my own.

    Besides the witness of Abba Moses, I found myself most interested in Dubie’s brief defense of procedures, and the question of their relationship to practical deliberation. Dubie is profoundly correct that the sexual violence of John Howard Yoder reveals not so much the danger of ignoring communal discernment (as I put it) as of deploying it, even if poorly. Indeed, the limits of the practice might ultimately rest with factions in the discerning community that resist the process itself—or more deeply, resist a parallel struggle that is likely happening within each discerner as well. Besides a commitment to the truth (as Eric Hall called for), perhaps what is also needed for communal discernment to go well is a commitment to the notion that one might be wrong, and a willingness to interrogate one’s own desires throughout the process.

    Dubie is right: procedure is alluring precisely because we hope it can avoid these downfalls, better protecting the less-powerful from the outsized influence of the most persuasive voice in the room (another concern shared between Dubie and Hall). But I remain suspicious that the “relative fairness of liberal procedures” can be chimerical, hiding past decisions from ourselves and enabling us to avoid the reality that we ultimately make the decision at hand; no procedure can replace the question of who and how it is applied. Following Ted Smith’s reflections on law, I think of procedure more as reflective, “the means and medium by which [a political body] reasons about its most basic questions.”5

    This does not mean I am against procedure per se, nor certainly wider policies that hopefully issue from practical deliberation. As Dubie notes, procedure is important precisely when it is connected to, born of, and powered by the engine of practical deliberation (and creative prophetic dissent à la Abba Moses), as it can be. I am rather against the particular form of proceduralism that has run amok in our contemporary context—has become an idol, as Dubie puts it—whereby we hope that right procedure can save us without a constitutive culture of practically engaged discerners to receive it, practice it, and form it.6 Procedure is important, but secondary. What is more, the moment a procedure is set may be a moment of profound danger insofar as it tempts us to assume we are done with the work of politics in the broad sense, able to simply relax and implement whatever policy following proper procedure.7 It is not so. Even agreeing to right procedure only begins rather than ends the work of practical communal deliberation.

    Finally, Dubie pushes me to say more about the God I clearly assume is within, behind, and above the practice of communal discernment. I cannot pursue all of the many avenues for exploration found in her last paragraph, but an initial, purposely suggestive response is in order. One of my (unstated) assumptions is that one cannot hear God’s command prior to or separate from engagement in particular practices that enable it to be heard. One of those practices includes communal discernment, but it is not alone. Nor are such practices contained within the church, I hasten to add. And so the “more” that can be said, for me, begins with a God who is willing to be known through such means, and thus is rightly called kenotic—self-limiting, self-humbling—all the way down (93–94). Excellence in the Christian life is paradoxical, on this view, in that it mirrors Christ’s humility in a way that is a kind of competence, but of the sort that would have been foolishness to Aristotle. The questions and challenges that issue from these claims abound. I hope Dubie can help me sort them out, and correct me where I’m confused.


    1. I make clear in the book that by “loosing” I never mean “total shunning,” but rather entering into a different kind of relationship with a person (107–10).

    2. I am assuming here the so-called “fallibility principle”; cf. James Wm. McClendon Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 112.

    3. Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Noonday, 1961), 34.

    4. On listening and the dangers of speech, cf. Romand Coles, “‘To Make This Tradition Articulate’: Practiced Receptivity Matters, or Heading West of West with Cornel West and Ella Baker,” in Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2008).

    5. Cf. Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 49. Cf. ibid., 46–58. Smith’s original quote speaks of “law” and “the state.”

    6. I tried to describe this difference in terms of a politics of tending and intending, following Sheldon Wolin (14–18).

    7. Traci West made a similar point during a panel at the Society of Christian Ethics in January 2017, discussing (not coincidentally) the sexual violence of Yoder and procedures capable of addressing such abuse now and in the future.

Christian Early

Response

The Politics of Bodies and Love

A Response to Ryan Newson’s Radical Friendship

In Radical Friendship, Ryan Newson argues for the urgency of practicing friendship in a world that is fragmented, and becoming frighteningly more so every day. The argument is set within the backdrop of Trump’s rise to the presidency of the United States—an event that left most of my political theory colleagues shell-shocked and dumbfounded. Newson suggests that the event unveiled something that had previously been recognized only by some: we have, whichever side you might find yourself on, become morally incompetent to discern together what is good. Theological resources and responses—some more helpful than others—have failed to point us to something concrete, bodied, and substantive that we can do here and now. In the absence of our ability to navigate our waters, we find ourselves endlessly chasing stories of Russian conspiracies, White House chaos, and other . . . let’s just call them “covfefes.”

Newson’s claim is simple: learn to practice communal discernment the way the old Anabaptists—or “baptists,” as James Wm. McClendon would like it—did it at Schleitheim. The point is not the Schleitheim document as much as it is the kind of working together that it took to produce it, but one significant conviction did emerge. Together, the early (Ana)baptist community discerned something radically countercultural in a time of conflict: that loyalty to Christ was incompatible with taking up the sword. With this example in mind, Newson argues that communal discernment is a “powerful” practice (McClendon’s term) in that it does something. It impacts the shape and texture of the world: it slows time down in a world hooked on speed, it connects to that which is local in a world unmoored and unhinged, it confronts the structures of injustice in a world that no longer knows how to tell the truth from smoke and mirror propaganda (fake news). Communal discernment, in sum, unmasks and engages the powers and principalities of our age by bearing witness to the peaceful Reign of God in a world tempted yet again by violent and coercive demagoguery1

Newson argues that we begin to live towards a different kind of world, a world characterized by communal discernment, a “gathered” world—imagined and named by followers of Christ as the coming kingdom or reign of God—by cultivating friendships that blur and destabilize the boundaries between insider and outsider, church and world, disciple and enemy. This is why the language of ekklesia is better than the language of polis—an ekklesia has a more amorphous shape and more permeable boundaries between insiders and outsiders than a polis and its citizens, so it better names the shape of the gathered world. Communal discernment within the ekklesia offers an alternative to the current political options. It is, he says, “a third choice between liberalism and authoritarianism: a competence won through friendship.” (Note to the reader: Liberalism = Enlightenment, authoritarianism = Carl Schmitt.)

I summarized those claims because they deserve to be said succinctly and to be heard clearly with all of their force. What comes next in this response essay comes from a fellow traveler down the alternative road. I too want to find my way between Liberalism and Authoritarianism, and I wonder what that road might look like. Specifically, I find myself becoming curious about the links between the three concepts of communal discernment, friendship, and moral competence—what exactly are they, how exactly do they relate, and how do they relate to other possible ways of framing our current crisis and our alternatives?

One place to begin the line of questioning is the sense that I get from Newson that if I cultivate friendships, particularly if I cultivate friendships with those with whom I disagree, then I will also and at the same time acquire the capacity for communal discernment and moral competence. I am not convinced that is true, and I want to explore some potential complications I see arising.

What is it exactly that cultivating friendships with others gives us? One possibility here is that cultivating friendships with those who hold different points of view puts us in a position to be able to recognize and acknowledge difference. An argument can be made for acquiring the empathic capacity to take on the perspective of the other as if it were one’s own. Friendships give us the ability to stand proxy. Alasdair MacIntyre could be a guide here, especially in his discussion of disability and communal deliberation.2 MacIntyre argues that political structures that aim at the common good must make it possible for the abled and the disabled to have a voice in communal deliberation. The only way to ensure that the disabled have a voice is if some are able to stand for them during deliberation. All of us, at certain times in our lives, experience disability to an unpredictable degree. Consequently, our interest in how the needs of the disabled are voiced and met is not a special interest as such but a common and shared interest grounded in a shared humanity.

This line of reasoning, appealing to a shared interest grounded in the abled/disabled human condition of vulnerability, seems subtly different from reasoning that attends to the friend/enemy distinction. Perhaps I am bumping up against a slight difference between philosophical and theological lines of reasoning; nevertheless, a question arises: how might we relate these two lines of reasoning? To me, attending to disability has the distinct advantage of bringing the human body into full view from the beginning, and I worry about the tendency in some theological reasoning to let the body (conveniently?) disappear. The litmus test for MacIntyre, of course, is the ability to speak on behalf of someone else’s point of view and needs during deliberation. Perhaps the notion of friendship could be made more concrete with this in mind so as to make the connection between friendship and moral competence clearer in the context of communal discernment. I would, at any rate, be interested in hearing Newson talk that possibility out.

I want to pursue my point about the tendency of the body, particularly the gendered body, to disappear from theological discussions. From Newson’s treatment of the example of Schleitheim, I have a good sense of the concreteness of communal discernment, but I worry about exceptions and counterexamples. What of a single prophetic voice standing against the overwhelming (and from all appearances moral) majority of the community? In the grips of unconscious psychological dynamics, communities might be tempted to scapegoat the voice or voices that insert disturbances and instability with respect to the shared convictions of the group. This was how the (Ana)baptists were (at least initially and perhaps still) seen and treated. But no community can protect itself from those psychological dynamics—even Mennonites, once the persecuted and excluded, are now having to face up to their own exclusions of the LGTBQ community. This is broader than Mennonites, of course, because it relates to latent tendencies in human psychology. The LGTBQ community has suffered and is suffering tremendously for speaking up. Entire families, churches, and denominations are in the midst of being torn in two. One might be permitted to hope that friendships across convictional differences would turn the communal discernment from its agonistic tone to something more eirenic, and that an “Acts 15 / Jerusalem Council” decision would be forthcoming, but that hope has so far been largely deferred.

Moreover, I am curious about the book’s side-stepping a more sustained discussion of John Howard Yoder’s treatment of the Rule of Paul.3 On the surface, it seems like an ideal text for discussing communal discernment—except that it happens to have been written by John Howard Yoder and that the facts of his years abuse of multiple women are now unavoidable. I confess that I feel deeply ambivalent about Yoder, and I understand the side-step for the purpose of not being diverted from the central claims of the book. The way to support a path around Yoder would be to say that you do not need Yoder to make the claims that you are making. Fair enough, but I am still not sure that in this case you get to choose: the Yoder discussion would touch the central claims and defining terms of the book—would it not?—and if so then the path around Yoder is not really open.

I do not know yet how to talk about Yoder; and I have not yet seriously begun the work of sifting through his ideas to be able to tell for myself how many of them are impacted by his abuse of women. For me, the answers will likely be somewhere between “the biographical is separate from the theological, so I can keep it all” and “everything is so entangled that Yoder’s writings have been irredeemably poisoned, and so it must all go.” The problem is that I do not even know how to proceed to do that work, and I suspect that Newson doesn’t either. So it seems to me that the clarity and moral competence that Newson is calling for is one which neither he nor I have ourselves—well, at least, I don’t.

I want to pause here for a moment and take note of the fact that once we opened the discussion to the body, the sense of the (moral competency) crisis has shifted. Initially, I mentioned the voice of the disabled, after which the discussion turned to concerns of the LGTBQ community and its struggle to gain legitimacy in the eyes of a resistant majority, and now I have landed in the midst of issues relating to sexual abuse. Notice the felt intensification: abled/disabled, majority/minority, abuser/abused. What are we to think now of the notions of friendship, communal discernment, and moral competence?

To take a specific example: what are we to do with those whom we have admired and held to speak authoritatively when we come to discover that their actions have been sexually abusive? This is incidentally a crisis that all of America faces. Here is a list of names: Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Louis C. K., Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Roy Moore, and of course Donald Trump. If we want to include folk from other parts of the world, I could mention Tariq Ramadan and a host of others. These names are just the tip of the iceberg as the #MeToo posts testify.

These men are not really enemies—they are monsters4 Once that language lands, it becomes clear that the depth of the contemporary moral breakdown, which, I agree, is now apparent for us all to see, requires that we open up the affective and psychological register for discussion. We need to look inside and talk about shadows; we need the language of the psyche as well as the language of powers and principalities. Until we name what is going on inside psychologically, I am not sure that we will have the skills to navigate between the Scylla of Liberalism and the Charybdis of Authoritarianism—friendships notwithstanding.

Here is a suggestion: we do not know how to act or to think (i.e., moral incompetence) in part because we are not attuned to how we feel (psychologically unaware). Somewhere in the mix of the feelings that we have towards John Howard Yoder (and Roy Moore and Al Franken), I suspect, is disgust. Disgust is a boundary maintenance psychology.5 It seeks to purify by throwing up and throwing out. It starts with food, but as the anthropologist Mary Douglas helps us to see clearly, notions of purity are also inextricably interwoven with normative communal integrity—the shared body, the body politic—which is to say that issues of disgust on the psychological register and issues of morality on the normative register cannot be separated.6

Reflecting on this connection between psychology and morality, Richard Beck identifies two opposing motivations concerning the boundary between inside and outside: “Disgust erects boundaries while love dismantles boundaries.”7 Love is a suspension of disgust, it embraces instead of excludes.8 Beck argues that we cannot ultimately eliminate disgust (we cannot exclude exclusion), but what we can do is to regulate it in a bodied way. What I am suggesting, and this is what I want to propose to Newson, is that the alternative path between liberalism and authoritarianism needs to be deepened psychologically through a “politics of love” that is sensitive to the concrete, bodied dynamics that I have noted: abled/disabled, majority/minority, abuser/abused. Without that deepening, I worry that the connections among the three terms of friendship, moral competence, and communal discernment begin to float freely off the ground of this world.

I will leave that for Newson to hammer out. I will say, however, that I do not think Aristotle’s categories of friendship (utility, pleasure, and virtue) are particularly helpful here. Instead, I find myself much more drawn to, for example, Jean Vanier’s concepts of “meeting” and being “present-with” in his exploration of becoming human, which have the advantage of being grounded in full acknowledgment of our bodied—visible and invisible—suffering.9 They are not necessarily in competition with Aristotelian categories of friendship, but they carry a more humanly rich tone—they are more sonorous—and call me back to myself in a way that I find healing. And perhaps that is what we really need: the healing that comes from being human together, gathered by the Truly Human One, the Christ, who is Jesus of Nazareth.


  1. Cf. Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1984), Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Powers that Determine Human Existence (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1986), Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1992), When Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998).

  2. See Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).

  3. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Nashville, Tenn.: Discipleship Resources, 1992).

  4. See also Claire Dederer’s recent article “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men,” Paris Review, November 20, 2017. Dederer reflects insightfully on the visual art of Roman Polansky and Woody Allen

  5. See Paul Rozin, et al., “Disgust,” in Handbook of Emotions, edited by Michael Lewis et al., 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford, 2000), 637–53.

  6. See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 1966).

  7. Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2012), 88.

  8. See Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1996).

  9. See Jean Vanier, Becoming Human (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1998).

  • Ryan Newson

    Ryan Newson

    Reply

    Discernment, Dissent, and Disgust

    All practices are double-edged. That is, they can at once enable human flourishing and stoke our most destructive tendencies; they are necessary to human life but also open to profound abuse (127). Each practice is probably unique in how it specifically “goes right” or “goes wrong,” but none escape this essential ambivalence. It is in this register that I hear Christian Early’s call to describe the psychological contours necessary for communal discernment to be life-giving in the way I clearly assume it can be. Early describes an embodied, “internal” commitment that might help prevent communal discernment from devolving into “unconscious scapegoating and marginalization,” as well as describe precisely what might be happening when the practice functions poorly, as it obviously can. I am deeply sympathetic with this critique—one that (I think) does not negate my argument so much as flesh it out—and will thus attempt to say a few words in response to Early’s insightful comments and promptings.1

    Early is aware of the haunting possibility that communal discernment might become a subconscious vehicle for prejudice and a means of suppressing dissent. On this front, Early’s connections between disgust and “binding and loosing” are fascinating. At first glance, even voicing this concern may lead one to reject communal discernment out of hand, as we may wish to appear always and forever free of disgust. But Early warns against such a move. Especially with the evocation of John Howard Yoder, we are reminded not only that disgust is sometimes not wrong, but that it is the fitting and right reaction to certain situations. Indeed, if I hear reports of sexual assault, as well as the way such allegations are routinely swept under the rug, and am not disgusted, this is a sign not of moral maturity but bankruptcy.2 The real question, paraphrasing Aristotle, is how to feel disgust with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.

    Early argues that we need a politics of love that can regulate disgust as both important (or ineliminable) and always in danger of reflecting nothing more than engrained biases.3 Of course, it can be hard to decipher when the one sort of disgust has veered into the other, especially on one’s own. No matter how much I may agree about the kind of psychological commitments necessary for communal discernment to go well, I will always need others in this quest. It is a necessary but not sufficient element of Christian discernment. And yet, Early forcefully reminds us that communities can be led by engrained biases as much as individuals, as is quite evident with the question of LGBTQ inclusion and the church. Indeed, I have seen this happen firsthand. I have been excluded by Christian institutions for being open and affirming—including while I was writing this book!—in a manner that reflected, it seemed to me, engrained bias and fear rather than any process of moral discernment. As such, I am quite sympathetic with this concern.

    In light of this reality, Early asks for further clarification about the connections between friendship, communal discernment, and disgust. Two thoughts come to my mind. First, we must remember that those with whom we disagree remain creatures made in the image of God. They are not monsters, but “flesh like my flesh, brain like my brain, soul like my soul.”4 To this degree am I wary of the rhetoric of monstrosity, no matter how fitting it may seem in certain instances. Those who have seen people deemed monstrous based on stereotypes or misinformation will know the danger here. But it is also here that friendship can help. Friendship at least carries the possibility of converting visceral feelings of disdain for an other to feelings of solidarity; it has the potential for “them” to become “us.” Indeed, many may resist this entering into relationships with “others” precisely because they sense that to do so might awaken the “stirrings of unpursued possibilities in oneself that exceed one’s identity.”5 So, remaining open to relationship with “others,” perhaps drawn together by a shared project in the world, is one place I see these factors coming together.

    Second, regarding communal bias, I believe the check on this must be the kind of humility born of the live possibility of being broken open by a new Word from God, including from a dissident voice in the community, the community’s past, or the outside. Communities that are not “prepared to be surprised” (194–97) are probably more prone to arbitrary exclusion, marginalization of any dissident voice, and scapegoating. Of course, there no prophet-in-general, no dissidence for its own sake. Just as healthy communities must remain open to the prophetic voice, so must we recognize that there can be no prophetic word without a community to hear it, at least potentially. Even so, it is also important to note that differentiating prophetic dissidence and communal disturbance can be more difficult than some realize. It is tempting to always frame this conversation in terms of marginalized prophetic minorities, but the danger of such groups being unhelpfully disruptive, or disruptive for the wrong reasons, is no less real. I daresay the Freedom Caucus provides such an example in US Congress.

    All this said, and as helpful as these avenues of exploration will be (I trust Christian Early himself will lead us on this front!), I’m not sure how much more can be said in advance about this. It’s possible for the church to stand in need of profound disruption; it’s possible for the church to rightly “loose” a voice from its midst. At this time, I remain convinced that whatever caveats are in order, in our current cultural moment it is crucial for Christians to reclaim the collective power potential of the discerning community, risks and all. Christians need to find some way to hold together both communal discernment, recognition of the movement of the Spirit, and patient attention to those challenging the community through new experiences.6 Early’s closing paragraph portends perhaps the best way for these factors to be held together: in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we are assured is uniquely present in the face of the other, particularly the most vulnerable. Whatever one thinks about communal discernment, we had better be careful how we treat dissident and outside voices, for in loosing such voices we should remain open to the possibility that we are loosing angels unawares (Heb 13:2).

    Now, and finally, a brief word on Yoder’s sexual abuse. If I have picked up on anything over the past few months from my female friends and colleagues, it is that this is a moment for men to listen, to learn, and to begin to unlearn. This includes theologians such as myself indebted to male theologians whom I know only through their writing, but who are implicated in sexual violence—both overt and egregious as well as not-yet-known and subtle. So I will not say much.

    I have clearly learned from Yoder, including things that still seem true to me. That I cannot deny. One might say, “Well, unlearn them,” but this misstates the problem. The damage has been done, and I can deny that only by way of being untruthful, or hiding the evidence. The focus must be prospective: What will begin to bring healing and justice to a world and to a church that is sick, systematically infected by patriarchy and sexual violence? After the most important and immediate task of justice for Yoder’s victims and prevention of sexual violence going forward, what do we make of Yoder’s arguments about a discernment process he himself stifled, ignored, thwarted, and disdained when the time (eventually) came for it to focus on him?

    Going forward, it seems to me that communal discernment must attend to at least two factors that Yoder neglects if it is to avoid underwriting thought patterns that ignore, apologize for, suppress, or discourage reporting of sexual violence. The first is attention to the complications of identity and embodied desire that Early unpacks. The second, more significant factor is the continued presence of power in communities of discernment (86–87). Yoder’s ecclesiology left little room for the possibility that churches themselves will manifest the structural sins of one’s culture if left unaddressed, particularly with regard to sexism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy. Yoder’s realized eschatology makes recognizing the church’s sinfulness a struggle, even a surprise. We need critical tools that allow us to both recognize the power of ecclesial practices as well as the reality that they do not carve out pure spaces in a fallen world. Any practice, not least communal discernment, will manifest sins like patriarchy if left implicit, as Traci West shows.7 The world comes to church. This is all but a way of saying that anyone working in this thought world, including myself, needs to better receive (or receive anew) the gifts offered by feminist and liberation theologians.8 I stand ready to listen and be corrected on this front, in service—hopefully—to a more just society and a more faithful witness to the nonviolent Reign of God.


    1. I welcome this critique in part because I affirm what Jim McClendon called the “three stranded” method of Christian ethics, whereby every theological program (whether recognized or not) presupposes convictions concerning the metaphysical, the social, and the organic—or as Early would have it, psychological. Eric Hall and Emily Dubie can be thought of as asking me to clarify the metaphysical convictions behind my argument, whereas Early focuses on the “body” strand. Cf. James Wm. McClendon Jr., “Three Strands of Christian Ethics,” in The Collected Works of James Wm. McClendon, Jr., vol. 2, edited by Ryan Andrew Newson and Andrew C. Wright (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), §26.

    2. In this I am reminded of a thought experiment by Brad Kallenberg illustrating that “objective,” detached descriptions can be deeply problematic, as with the person who casually mentions he leapt over a cadaver during his afternoon jog. Cf. Brad J. Kallenberg, “The Descriptive Problem of Evil,” in Physics and Cosmology: Scientific Perspectives on the Problem of Natural Evil, edited by Nancey Murphy et al. (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 2007), 297–322.

    3. Such regulation is needed especially if one agrees that some form of exclusion is an intrinsic temptation of all human communities. Certainly, the tribalism of current American politics reflects this danger.

    4. James Wm. McClendon Jr. and James M. Smith, Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 173.

    5. William E. Connolly, Identity|Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, exp. ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1991] 2002), 166.

    6. It strikes me that these factors are all at play in the narrative arc involving Peter and Gentile inclusion in Acts 10, 15.

    7. Traci C. West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 112–13.

    8. Hilary Scarsella, “Not Making Sense: Why Stanley Hauerwas’s Response to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark,” ABC.net, Religion and Ethics, November 30, 2017, http://home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/11/30/4774014.htm.

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