Symposium Introduction

The problem of creation and grace has a long history of contention within Protestant and Catholic theology, involving not only internecine conflict within the traditions but fueling, as well, ecumenical debates that have continued a dogmatic divide. This volume traces out that conflict in modern Catholic and Protestant dogmatics and provides a historical genealogy that situates the origin of the problem within different emphases in the thought of St. Augustine. The author puts forward an argument and reconstruction of the problem that overcomes the longstanding abstractions, elisions, and divisions that have characterized the theological discussion. What is called for is a reclamation of the reading of Augustine in Aquinas and Luther, a recovery of an ethical metaphysics, and a Christological reconstruction of being and otherness as the path toward a concrete union of creation and grace.



Waiting on Waiting and Being To Be

LET ME BEGIN BY acknowledging I do not get this book. By that I mean three things. First, this work seems to emerge from conversations of which I am not a participant. I find myself on the outside. Claims made lack the fuller context to help the outsider (or at least me) understand why they matter. For that reason I find myself puzzled by much that is in the book, unsure I grasped it sufficiently to engage it. I need the larger context—why does Davis find so much illusion in Christian theology, past and present, and what does his proposal actually fix? Second, I do not understand many of the criticisms and interpretations Davis sets forth of the theologians he identifies as central to his argument. Third, something profound seems to be occurring in the text, but I do not get the point of the argument. I do not know what a theologian does next after reading Waiting and Being. To quote Wittgenstein, I do not know “how to go on.”

Perhaps my acknowledgement will be read as a harsh critique, or as suggesting something less than flattering of Davis’s work. If so, neither is intended. The book is obviously written by a very intelligent author. It is a smart book from which I learned a great deal. It deserves to be published and widely discussed. But I must let Davis and the reader know up front that I do not think I get the point.

I will begin by stating what I think the point might be in order to invite Davis to clarify where I misunderstand it. I will then take up each of my three reasons why I do not think I get Waiting and Being.

The Argument

The main thesis seems to be this: Protestant and Catholic doctrines of creation and grace fail to “attain a concrete, social mediation of grace’s union with creation” (25). Hegel provides the key analytical tools used to identify, and perhaps, correct the errors. The most important move in Davis’s argument, and I think the most controversial, comes on page 21. Davis uses Hegel’s contrast between intuition and concept as the means to assess four theologies: Roman Catholic neoscholasticism, transcendental Thomism, nouvelle théologie, and Protestant theology. For Hegel, intuition is a “subject’s apprehension of its immediate identity with nature.” Concept is “the subject’s free and constructive activity in relation to nature” (21). Davis then states, “When intuition has priority, the subject stands in fundamental distinction from nature as equal in differentiation. But with the priority of the concept, the subject’s activity is the constructive basis for apprehending the field of empirical differentiation” (21). The former, per Hegel, “lacks any critical concept.” The latter results in the concept’s unity and domination of nature, but it is only an “abstract and negative” unity because it lacks the “content provided by intuition.” With this hegelian grid in place, Davis then reads the four theologies. Nature correlates with intuition and grace with concept. Catholic theologies of nature and grace emphasize intuition and thus the unity of the subject with nature, but for the three examined Catholic theologies the correlations differ. For neoscholasticism, the concept is “extrinsic” to intuition, and so grace is extrinsic to nature. For transcendental theology and the nouvelle théologie, the concept is intrinsic to the intuition, and thus grace to nature. The result for all three is the subsumption of grace to nature and the lack of a critical concept on nature.

Protestant theology, like neoscholasticism, has a critical concept (grace) but it loses intuition and thus its concept remains abstract and negative. All these doctrines produce “the illusory union of creation and grace in contemporary theology” (chapter 1) that underwrites the bourgeois subject. Davis seems to find illusion everywhere in contemporary theology, and his project is to counter it. The remedy is a “concrete, social mediation” of the concept with intuition or in theological terms—grace with creation. The remainder of the book examines Catholic and Protestant theologies of grace showing their illusions (chapters 2 and 3). Then Davis presents an archaeology of the problem, noting how both Protestant and Catholic errors originate from the early Augustine and are, in part, corrected by Luther and Aquinas (chapter 4). The work concludes with a “reconstruction” that unites “creation and grace as a social relation.” The consequence seems to be this: the church must live beyond any sense of its identity or opposition (no church world distinction.) All ecclesiocentric efforts at theology are mistakes that only continue the problems of abstract and negation unions of creation and grace. Instead, “The church serves the kingdom. . . . The most urgent task confronting the social reality of the church at present is to live into the reality of a social relation beyond the bourgeois opposition of the subject and nature, the individual and the universal.” What does this mean? “It will compel the church to live concretely beyond the fantasized performances of the abstractly and negatively determined ‘identities’ that divide us from one another. It will force us to disclaim as self-serving the idea of a church whose witness is not physically invested in and devoted to the civic, legal and political well-being of the social relations that sustain it” (136).

On Not Getting It

I do not object to anything Davis sets forth. I do find the argument a bit too tidy and Hegel’s role overpowering, but who wants to be “bourgeois”? Who wants to affirm “fantasized performances” or identities that divide? Who denies that the church’s witness is not “invested in and devoted to the civic, legal and political well-being of the social relations that sustain it?” Davis is mightily upset with someone and something, but I do not yet know who or what it is so I do not know if I should be as well. Here is where my first reason for not getting it emerges. Who are the culprits advocating the bourgeois subject, fantasizing performances of identity, and neglecting the civic, legal, and political well-being of our social relations? If any of the four theologies he identifies are guilty of this, it is a guilt for which they would be both surprised and penitent. But no serious case was made that they were guilty. In fact, all the theologies noted would side with Davis in that such errors should be avoided. The question I think they would pose is the question not if but how. Do the neoscholastics or ressourcement Thomists seek to abandon the civic, legal, and political well-being of neighbors? (Sometimes I wish they would.) If Davis is upset with them it cannot be because they abandon these social relations, but with how they approach them. Did Barth, Rahner, de Lubac, or Schleiermacher do the same? For an argument that seeks to avoid a “negative and abstract” engagement between grace and creation, Davis’s work has an abstract feel to it, but that may be because I do not yet get it.

He does clarify a bit who upsets him in the footnotes, which leads me to the second reason I do not get it. I do not understand his presentation of some theologians with whom I am familiar. First he notes another temptation for what I think is a fantasized performance of identity that perpetuates the bourgeois subject, and then he cites the culprits in a footnote. First the temptation: “Another lure, which has gained traction in recent theology, seeks an alternative to this social fragmentation in the immediate metaphysics of the intuitive unity of the other with reality, calling this the unity of grace with creation.” The culprits are de Lubac, Balthasar, Lindbeck, and Frei (133 n. 15). I do not understand what is meant by the “metaphysics of the intuitive unity of the other with reality,” and I do not understand how the authors he cites would recognize themselves in his description. Could Davis tell me more plainly how these theologians have misled us?

Several other interpretative moves puzzle me:

  1. Does de Lubac, who questioned the potentia oboedentialis, see the will as a passive potency?
  2. Does Luther affirm the “social reality of personhood” in opposition to Catholic thinkers? What does that mean?
  3. Is it so readily apparent that Barth takes “Kant’s critique of metaphysics for granted and interprets the legacy of Protestant theology in its light”?
  4. Where does Barth emphasize “spontaneous self-determination?”
  5. What does Davis mean by Augustine’s “ontology of participation” and how did the distinction between intellect and will disrupt it?
  6. Is the distinction between Augustine and Aquinas on God as self-determination versus God as esse sustainable?
  7. Does Augustine have a “competitive account of the God-world relation”?
  8. Is the split between self and nature only bourgeois? Was it never present prior to modernity? What is the bourgeois

Only so much can be done in a book, but these interpretive moves construct his argument and I did not find adequate evidence for the interpretation or a careful explanation of what these interpretive moves mean. I am not arguing they cannot be defended and explained. I am asking that they be clarified so I might decide if I should accept Davis’s metanarrative.

Finally my third reason for not getting it—what should we theologians do next? If Davis is correct about the deep illusions in modern theology, what are we to do? Clearly all discussion of the identity and mission of the church is not off limits for Davis himself sets forth some ecclesiology. Clearly he does not want to abandon the church for the kingdom and repeat nineteenth-century liberal theology. Clearly not all divisions should be foresworn, for Davis himself does quite a bit of dividing. So what is the point? How do we avoid the illusions Davis identifies, reject fantasy, offer concrete social mediations, and fulfill the metaphysics of waiting and being?

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    Joshua B. Davis


    A Response to D. Stephen Long

    Steve Long’s response to my book is so probing and inquisitive as to find it difficult to know where to begin. I am very appreciative of his statement that there seems to be something “profound occurring in the text,” and yet I admit to feeling a bit chastened by his admission that he does not quite get the point. The easy move, of course, especially for a theologian with a first book, eager to charge forward and convert the world, is to defend the book as best he can. The more difficult approach is to sit with these tough queries and accept, not just that you may have failed in your task (that goes without saying, no?), but that its how you sit the questions and move on from them that makes you better or worse.

    Long’s most persistent question to me here—“how to go on?”—is, of course, the right one to ask, and not just because he confesses he doesn’t see the point. And it has only dawned on me in the last two weeks just how it is that this question is exactly the one I’d hoped the book would raise. After all my initial rush to defend the book has subsided, there is a veritable sincerity to this question that cuts to the heart of theological truth. I think that Beattie’s questions to me do the same. I am not sure that I have a “right” answer to this question, but I know what it is that the book is groping to say. So I hope that, if I make my case for why I think the questions that I’m raising in the book are important, in a way that Long can better see what I’m working toward, we might begin to think together, in fact to live in some new way together, toward a response that may begin to be adequate.

    Long has done a fine job of summarizing the basic structure that underlies my argument and I am glad that he registers no major objections to it. I think he may overestimated Hegel’s role, though. It was somewhat risky to appeal to Hegel’s arguments on this score, since it may appear to hitch the book to Hegel’s larger project. But, in fact, I have no real intentions of proposing something particularly “Hegelian.” I think there are a number of different ways that I might have inflected the same theme: for example, through an economic model based on Marx’s account of commodification and the labor theory of value; or an “Oedipalization” model drawing from Freud, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, or Irigaray. In fact, I read almost exactly the same point Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of emotivism, his indictment of Nietzsche, and his commendation of Aristotelian virtue—in each he seems to rely implicitly on his reading of both Hegel and Marx. I wanted Hegel, though, because the form of his argument was elegant (“tidy”), and thus more conducive to the “severe style.”

    In connection with this point, I would like also to say a word about what I mean by bourgeois selfhood. The word can so easily function as an epithet, but I don’t use it for that reason. I use it because it says all that so many theologians want to say about “individualism,” but in a way that underscores the specific socio-cultural conditions that produce that individualism, but the economic realities in particular that sustain it. What I am interested in is ensuring that these conditions are at forefront of our concerns about grace and creation, but specifically in order to show how those realities determine, in an unavoidable way, the structure of our self-awareness. So in answer to the question about illusion: it is not so much that I find illusion everywhere in theology, as I do not think that theology (or philosophy, psychology, social theory, etc) is sufficiently aware of how thoroughgoing the determination of our consciousness is by this fragmented social reality. What is illusory is the way our social relations habituate us to believe that our freedom, selfhood, power is derived from somewhere other than those relations. Freedom, power, selfhood—we do not recognize the extent to which each of these are conceived by us in terms of the legal concept of the right to private property—as an ontologization of the jurisprudential distinction of person (persona) and thing (res), that what it means to be a self is established by what is excluded from one’s own dominion.

    What I am doing, in short, is reading the preoccupation in modern theology with unifying creation and grace as an attempt to resolve the fragmentation and alienation that this bourgeois social relation produces. The trouble is that the solutions, intuitionist or conceptual, remain abstract unions—and because they’re abstract they wind up reinforcing, or transcedentalizing, the fragmented social relations within which the union is thought, which conceals the investment their position has in perpetuating the problem. The proposed solution, in effect, not only requires the problem but produces it.

    So what I want the book to do is lead the reader to an encounter with that abstractness. To see that there is no move outside of these bourgeois conditions that will not always already have been produced by them. The only possibility we have is to encounter the impasse, and to relentlessly expose ourselves to the inescapable reality of this fragmentation, and through that exposure to suspend its “law,” and elicit—not new modes of thought, but new patterns of life, desire, habitation that are not premised on this alienation.

    On the one hand, I think these are the only conditions within which we can really think a revolutionary politics. But it means that a revolutionary politics must be inevitably wed, not to critical theory, and not even to revolutionary practice, but to the long, slow, process of formation in a way of life that can, through its relentless exposure to the problem, be ordered to a truly critical union. The great paradox of the revolutionary today, then, is how to produce the patterns of a revolutionary culture. I don’t think there is any way, however, that one who is committed to this can prescribe its outcome.

    The narrative I am laying out in the book is one of a struggle to recognize the unity of grace with creation as a social relation rather than either some transcendental aspect of experience or immediate ontological constituent of existence. I want to show that this struggle to articulate the social dimension of grace and creation tracks directly with the attempt to differentiate the will as a discrete faculty from both the intellect and desire. The will is so important not simply because it is with it that we act concretely in the world, in history, but because it is by looking at the nature of the will in both its freedom and determination that we can see what it means to truly affirm the radical positivity of created existence and to participate in the creative act itself. The move I want to make, beyond all the figures with whom I am in conversation, is to say that the will is the “faculty,” that set of psychic operations, of otherness itself—the native, active capacity we have as human beings to affirm or reject the positivity of the otherness of all being.

    But the last chapter of the book is really devoted to showing the entirely unique and unsubstitutable relation we have to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I will not here repeat the elements of that argument, which is given programmatically in only the barest of terms in the book, since I did so in response to Craig Hovey. But I believe it will suffice to say only that this relation is premised on our affirmation of a relation to him as entirely unsubstitutable, as utterly unique, and as such absolutely other to us. What we discover in this relation to him is that entirely new terms of unity come into view, not through the negotiation of identity and difference, but through a radical affirmation of the positivity of otherness itself. I think that this social relation is not at all abstract. It is actual anywhere that the power of these negative modality of determination is broken, and actual specifically as the work of God in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the social relation that is the expression of this actuality —but is by no means its essence or fulfillment—is the church, wherein we learn to name this pattern of revolutionary transformation for what it is and are formed into its patterns of desire and way of life. This is why I am happy to to avow the label “ecclesiocentric,” so long as I get to at least do a considerable amount of work to say what I mean by it.

    I know that this leaves a considerable number of your important questions from the list unanswered. And I hope that we might deal with them in some detail in the comments.

    In sum, however, I think the question you’ve asked me is the truly decisive one—and I think, in the end, it is not finally any different than Beattie’s. It is the one that matters most of all. My answer to your Wittgensteinian question is to give my best Wittgensteinian answer: “The way to solve the problem you see in life, is to live in a way that will make what is problematic disappear.”1

    1. The remainder of the quote reads: “The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life’s mold. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit into the mold, what is problematic will disappear.”

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      D. Stephen Long


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      I am deeply grateful for Joshua Davis’ response to my frank acknowledgement that I did not understand his work. I feared my response might be read as glib and dismissive. When I read an important work and do not understand it I usually assume it could be one of (at least) three possibilities. First, I do not have sufficient background to make sense of the argument. Second, the argument is profound but is not yet fully developed. Third, the argument obfuscates because there is nothing going on. It masquerades as profound, but in the end it says nothing, and falls prey to something like Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of some philosophy in his 1986 essay, “On Bullshit.” Let me say that my inability to “get” Davis’ argument has to do with the first and second points above. It has nothing at all to do with the third. I feebly attempted to make that point by asking for more context and, as Davis noted, acknowledging something profound is going on here, which made it all the more frustrating for me that I did not yet get it.

      Davis’ response clarifies the argument for me at certain points. I overestimated the influence of Hegel. There is no “hegelian grid.” I was wrong about that. Of course, addressing the convoluted nature/grace debates with Hegel’s concept/intuition distinction means this book has a difficulty factor that few theologians could pull off. It is, as several have noted, an “ambitious” project. Such a project cannot be finished with one slim volume as I am sure Davis would admit. I see this book as a promissory note on future work, both theoretical and practical, that I look forward to reading and digesting.

      I would like to hear more about the other means by which the same theme could be “inflected.” Is the point that our depictions of grace too often are “reifications?” Is this where the fantasy and illusion lie? If so, I am confident Davis is correct, but I continue to wonder about the specificities by which we do this as theologians, and especially how the theologians Davis identifies do it. I assume there are distinct differences in their manner of doing so – the extrinsicism of the neoscholastics is not the same as the collapsing of the concept and intuition among the nouvelle theologie. Davis sees something here that is important. I too want to se it, but my vision still remains cloudy – I think I see people walking but they look like trees (to use a biblical image).

      I found this explanation by Davis very helpful: “So what I want the book to do is lead the reader to an encounter with that abstractness. To see that there is no move outside of these bourgeois conditions that will not always already have been produced by them.” Here is where I begin to see more clearly. It appears to be something like MacIntyre’s claim that every ethic assumes a sociology, and in turn confirms the social relations emerging from it. Theology and its grace/nature debates do the same. So if we assume we have resolved them without attending to that sociology, we are mired in abstraction. If I am correct about that then it also helps me make sense of his final paragraph in his response to me as well as his quotation from Wittgenstein. I take it the point is this: As long as we have a self constituted by its current social conditions, we will be incapable of viewing grace as something other than a fantasized projection of freedom and power on to a realm of grace that finds salvation but does so by overlooking the social fragmentation occurring around us. If that is correct, then I think Davis could have responded to me by saying that we do not know how to go on is itself a gift. In other words, if we think we know how to go on, without of course the actual social conditions changing, then our going on is no going on. We will know how to go on when in fact we can go on. So part of the “solution” is waiting on a solution, but this is in no sense quietism for the waiting that is necessary is one that attends to the actual “being” surrounding us. Am I getting closer to getting it?

      I made several mistakes in reading Davis’ difficult but intriguing book. I read it in conversation with the “apocalyptic turn” in theology that tends to eschew ecclesiology. I find that turn potentially avoiding the hard work of the kind of social mediation Davis calls for here. I am glad to see that he does not neglect ecclesiology as a key component in the social mediation he calls for. Mind you, I get as discouraged with the state of the church as anyone else, but it is one of the only places I know where something like Davis’ project could be worked out. I now see him calling us away from any illusory satisfaction that we worked it out simply because we attend the Eucharist or participate in other ecclesial practices. That is an important reminder, although I would caution considering that any theologian would be unaware of the reminder. Throwing a wrench into such an ecclesial machine is nonetheless salutary.

      I also assumed he was more indebted to Hegel than the work requires.

      I think there is a difference between Davis and me that I should still confess. I don’t think I am looking for a “revolutionary politics.” Maybe I should be, but it does not drive theological work for me in the way I think it does Davis. I am uncertain the task of theology is revolution: truth, goodness, faith, justice, peace . . . , yes, but revolution? Should we as theologians directly intend to produce a revolutionary politics? Will it produce habits that prevent us from seeing the beauty in those who came before us? I confess I may be wrong here and am open to being corrected. Perhaps this is one reason I do not get it as well, one of my own abstractions?

      I am in Joshua Davis’ debt for his patience with my lack of understanding. He read my response with generosity and charity for which I am grateful. I hope his response, and now my continuing desire to “get it,” helps clarify matters.

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      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to D. Stephen Long


      Thank you for continuing to question the work and, in particular, for the issues you’re pressing me on. I think you’re really touching on the ones that are key for me, but which this forum has taught me I am going to have to spend a considerable amount of time thinking through more effective ways to present in the future. There is a certain precision to the intuition/concept framework, but precision is not the same as communicative, explanatory, or illustrative.

      This leads to some thoughts in response to your question about how this could be “inflected” into a different idiom. I tried to do a bit of this in my initial reply to Beattie, by putting things in “Lacanese.” And I can elaborate on the other idioms I mentioned in my response. However, having mentioned ‘Oedipalization,’ as I have written it out with reference specifically to the repressive and dominating role of the nuclear family in Deleuze and Guattari, it reads too fraught and jargony, unhelpful for clarification. I will just focus on Marx and MacIntyre and perhaps some of these other issues will emerge if the conversation develops (or I can develop them in an essay).

      On commodity fetishism: I am thinking of the way that the social labor involved in the production of a goods and services is concealed and misrecognized when those products are commodified in market exchange. Their relativity of their value as commodities is wrongly assumed to be the objective realization of their value—that is, that its value is determined absolutely by the relativity of market exchange.

      Though I may have to do more work than I can here to substantiate the claim, I think MacIntyre is making the same basic point. At root, I take his point to be that our public ethical discourse is simply commodity exchange. All of our af-filiations, our movements toward commonality, are not even the parochial interests of “clans” or “tribes,” but of the incoherent attempts to conceive of the unity of the whole of ethical and political life from to the common right of “mutual exclusion, our unique, non-totalizable differentiation from the whole (private property). (MacIntyre doesn’t lay it out specifically in these terms, but it seems to me that arguments like these from Marx and Hegel have had a significant influence on him.)

      What I want to do is to begin to think the reality of grace in its irreducibly social dimension, an aspect that has been occluded by the struggle to adequately distinguish willing from “intellection” and “desiring.” It is the specifically social dimension that the will brings into view in a distinctive way. In fact, I want to think through how it is that grace is a particular kind of creative social act, one into which we are caught up, and which is realized through our own cooperation, an act that unites us in a common life that is not premised in any way on the negation of the positivity of difference or desire, but is the irruption of unheard of creative possibilities in and through our relation to Jesus of Nazareth. (In this sense, there is something “apocalyptic” that I want to maintain in my work—but you are right to see that there are some other distinctive elements that I want to bring to that conversation.)

      So when you say, “part of the ‘solution’ is waiting on a solution, but this is in no sense quietism for the waiting that is necessary is one that attends to the actual “being” surrounding us,” I want to say absolutely. And then I want to begin to spell out what attending to the being that surrounds us actually looks like, and that is where the other connotation of “waiting” comes into play—service. I am so glad that Tina mentioned Weil’s “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” because this passage in it is, I think, very relevant to what I am after (I can’t seem to get the block quote to recognize the paragraph breaks—sorry):

      “In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail (the miraculous stone vessel which satisfies all hunger by virtue of the consecrated host) belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralysed by the most painful wound: “What are you going through?”

      The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction. For this reason it is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way.

      This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. According to some legends the Grail was made of a single stone, in colour like an emerald.

      Only he who is capable of attention can do this.

      So it comes about that, paradoxical as it may seem, a Latin prose or a geometry problem, even though they are done wrong, may be of great service one day, provided we devote the right kind of effort to them. Should the occasion arise, they can one day make us better able to give someone in affliction exactly the help required to save him, at the supreme moment of his need. —Simone Weil, Waiting on God, trans. Emma Crauford (Fontana, 1959)

      Out of this attending to God, to one another, to the world, comes a radical transformation of ourselves and our relations to one another. I am wanting to talk about the church as the actuality of the social relation sustained by this creative power of positive affirmation—resurrection, grace. I want to say that the church is not the realization of this social relation, but that the relation is truly actual within and for it. So the church is the place in which we are incorporated into this way of being, which takes root in us over time and transforms us into people for whom this “waiting” is a stable disposition for the way we live and act in the world.

      I have written so much now at this point that I should likely not go on. But I have to address your query about “revolution.” My point is that, living according to such a social relation, and with a conscious awareness of shaping our lives according to a pattern of and desire for unity that is not in any simply a reiteration of private property relations, will be “revolutionary” by default. This word “revolution” is one that I’ve only recently begun to use to describe what I am up to, and I should have said so in my earlier response to Craig, who also asked about it—saying that he didn’t really see it there. When I use it, I am quite consciously doing so in the way Herbert McCabe does, specifically at the end of Law, Love, and Language. I won’t rehearse his argument here, but only say that in the context of describing the similarities and differences between the Marxist and the Christian, he notes that it must be admitted that the Christian is finally committed to something much more radical, if for no other reason that the Christian recognizes an irreducible ethical demand for a revolution not simply in our social relations, but in our bodies. This, he says, is what we mean by the grace of the resurrection, “the final revolution.” He then says, in one particularly salient passage:

      “The christian will maintain that however attractive other movements may appear at the moment, and however important it may be to support them, in the end, because they settle for less than the final revolution, they will be found to betray their own purpose and fulfill a reactionary role. Christianity is, in a sense slightly different from Debray’s, ‘the revolution in the revolution,’ constantly calling the revolutionary to his own purpose. Christianity alone, because it is the articulate presence of Christ, the future of mankind [sic], cannot (however hard it sometimes seems to try) wholly betray its mission. As it seems to me, like St. Peter and the twelve, we remain christians because there is nowhere else to go: if christianity is not the revolution, nothing else is. (p. 172)



Waiting for Concrete Others

I’M GRATEFUL TO BE part of this symposium centered on such a fine book by a talented, young theologian. I’ve chosen to focus on Davis’s constructive project, since that is what strikes me as most important and also a crossway of both great wisdom and some difficulties.

At times, Davis acknowledges that he is working against himself, especially as he feels pressures toward abstraction. He says we need concrete affirmation of the other and not an abstract reconciliation between doctrines of creation and grace at the conceptual level. We need “new forms of thought” that differ from the kind of analysis he admits to offering under the “social pressures of academic theology” (133). I see this as a serious challenge that I am not sure Davis succeeds in meeting. In the end, we have a beautiful yet still abstract plea for concreteness. This will be my main point of contention in what follows.

I am sure that the “social pressures” of doing theology in a certain way include expectations for writing a doctoral dissertation that is mostly a survey and leaves the positive and constructive work to the final eleven pages! I sympathize deeply with this problem; but there is something in Davis’s overall thesis that belies the complaint. What I have in mind is the claim that modern attempts to unite nature and grace tend to share common assumptions that perpetuate the problem. Rather than a conceptual solution to a doctrinal problem, Davis wants an ethical movement away from it and toward others in concrete affirmation of social relations made possible by creation and realized by grace. It’s a sophisticated thesis, but is weakened considerably by Davis’s own inability finally to escape the powerful “social pressures” that give us abstract accounts.

So in the spirit of avoiding negative and abstract accounts of nature and grace—and especially their unity—I want to keep on the lookout for what is positive and concrete.

Davis’s example of an original, intractable constraint for thinking about these topics is the “bourgeois self.” It is a concept of the human person that Davis takes over from Gillian Rose’s analysis of Hegel against Kant. This self is founded on the logic of property rights and so has a bounded geography and an impenetrable spatiality. The analogue at the level of society is fragmentation, division, and alienation. Davis’s study, like much recent theology, is driven by an ethic: a vision for other-centered community that overcomes modern individualism.

In the end, there is an abstractness to the other-oriented language in which Davis follows Levinas. Does the love that creates all things entail my love for all others equally? Or are there specific others whose material and historical existence makes exceptional claims on my love (the poor, widows, orphans, foreigners, enemies)? Jesus answered the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with a narrative full of material and historical contingency. Davis claims to want this kind of embodiment, but doesn’t break very far out of the abstract in which we might imagine Jesus answering with “Everyone is your neighbor.” (Or instead of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can imagine a parable called the Good Person.)

Davis acknowledges the problem and wants to “allow the immediate experience of social reality to reconfigure the significance of the critical concept of grace” (133). What he provides is a framework for thinking about our social experiences with others, but there is very little actual social accounting.

It is no surprise, then, that Davis’s account of Jesus is entirely devoid of narrative detail. There is nothing of the life of Israel, of Abraham, David, or Jeremiah, nothing of Jesus’s birth or life. We have a rather creedal account of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is properly Chalcedonian. This is ironic for a book that wants to rely on actual social relations—real-world, embodied identities—that are not abstractly determined.

What of Jesus Christ’s identity? Davis writes that “His identity is the universal positivity of every identity” (131). With this, Davis is guarding against construing Jesus Christ’s identity as a generality, which is of course very important to do. But how does “universal positivity” work for a man from Nazareth in the first century? I suppose it means that everyone is someone from someplace at sometime. And if God elects one people (Israel), it is in order to be a blessing to all since all people are this or that people, not no-people. This is very good. I am not sure, though, that this is enough to “allow the immediate experience of social reality” to give us the contours of grace in and for these social relations.

I was left wondering what role the cross and resurrection play. Davis has almost nothing to say about atonement. (What he does say is confusing. For example, I have no idea what this sentence is referring to: “The act in which [Christ] gives himself away coincides immediately with the act by which God bears us into existence” [132]. What is the act? Is it the incarnation, the cross, divinization, or something else?) The resurrection is important because Jesus Christ can encounter us as alive. This is not wrong; it is very good. But the lack of narrative detail is noticeable. Are not we numbered, for instance, among the crucifiers (“Crucify Him!” we shout in church during Holy Week)? The return of the one we killed is not obviously good news—we ought to fear his revenge until he appears saying “peace.” God’s “others” are ourselves and the narrative of the cross discloses us as lethal enemies who receive mercy rather than wrath.

This, it seems to me, is a different sense of “other” than we get from the doctrine of creation. In a way, it might feel far from Davis’s project. The gospels are full of narrative and historical detail that are theologically significant. Davis, of course, does this too but differently—his historical detail is the detail of theologians; the doctrines he discusses do not arise from a material narrative (unless we include creation, I suppose).

Staying with Christ and creation for now, I think that Davis’s account might be augmented through a more direct christological reading of creation. Robert Jenson, for example, looks to Luther’s Logos theology in which God’s utterance goes forth in the act of creating. When creation comes into being, this is an ethical act of obedience to God’s command, “Let there be . . .” Jenson approves of this movement, this antiphonal back-and-forth between command and obedience, preferring it to a more strictly platonic, metaphysical notion of Logos as being. Davis discusses God’s act of creating to be the creation of the other—God’s absolute otherness to the creatures God creates, but also creatures who are others to each other. The natural desire of such creatures is love for the others, fulfilled in the love of God in response to God’s love of creatures. This is a powerful way of talking about creation that, in my view, will be further strengthened by the Luther/Jenson focus on speech or, perhaps better, singing—creating sings the antiphonal response to God’s singing creation into being by itself coming into being. Creation is a love song.

I don’t know how Davis might respond to this proposal, but I can see it having at least two benefits. First, not only may existence be thought of in moral terms (uniting nature and grace), but this formulation allows for the priority of goodness over existence. Davis sees creation as establishing the possibility of grace, but if creation is a love song, there is a loving movement that precedes creation and therefore is not bound by the existence of things. As Dionysius claimed, even non-beings desire God even though they may not desire to exist. “Goodness extends to things both existing and non-existing; whereas existence extends to existing things alone.”1 This is a non-competitive arrangement of grace and creation that accords with Davis’s key concerns and is parallel to Thomas’s unity of God’s act and God’s being. Here, God’s being is love, but for Dionysius God’s goodness is more fundamental than his existence, while for Thomas, this applies to creation: “[G]oodness extends to existing and non-existing things, not so far as it can be predicated of them, but so far as it can cause them.”2 One question I have is whether Davis’s argument that “God’s creating is an ethical action” (126) sustains the fullness of the priority of grace that he affirms in Luther. Might we instead speak of social relations that precede creation if God’s goodness reaches even things that do not exist?

Second, creation comes most fully into its own through worship. While created others are, to me, concrete (material and historical, Davis would say) rather than abstract, how is my awareness of them cultivated and extended? What is the non-abstract means of the grace in which God rescues me from modes of self-protection that are “miscarried” and attenuated and delivers me to modes of self-giving love for other beings for whom my will to live will finally only be a function of other-directed love? Amidst Davis’s beautiful account of selves and others, I found myself wanting to hear about practices that embody that social relation. Without instrumentalizing it, I am suggesting this is what worship does. I sense that Davis’s suspicion of Aristotelian habitus makes him too cautious of identifying practices, just as he shies away from identifying the church as the social relation of unified humanity. I next want to press Davis on this point.

Following language in Lumen Gentium, Davis writes that “the church is not this social relation,” by which he means the social embodiment of the unity of grace and creation. Instead:

The church is the sign and instrument of the unity of humanity, but it is not the reality of that unity. The church participates in God’s reign and is now a sacrament of it. Like our faith, it is the expression of the actuality of God’s dominion, but it is not its realization. The church serves the kingdom: it looks in anticipation for its being, seeks an awareness of its presence, serves its flourishing, and waits for its completion. In each of these ways, the church recognizes that it is co-missioned by Christ to live its life as the expression of God’s fidelity to the existence of the other. (136)

It seems to me that some of the most pressing questions are elided by this abstract account of the church. How do we actually look with anticipation of the kingdom? What are the material ways we do that? Are there better and worse ways of looking? What would it mean to try to improve church life and practice in order to better look for God’s kingdom? What concrete advice would Davis give to a church? Likewise, what kind of sacramental theology is at work in claiming that the church is a “sign and instrument” of humanity’s unity but not its realization? Shouldn’t we instead say that the church actually embodies humanity’s unity in many ways that are more than signs? We await the final realization of the social unity of humanity, but are not Jews and Gentiles in fact even now one in Christ? If the work that is yet to be done is an outline of an agenda for the church, then what are the kinds of practices that enrich church unity and also make the church’s already admittedly limited and partially achieved unity meaningful as a sign to others?

Davis rightly speaks about having an awareness of our dependence on God as absolute other for our existence, and how this is necessary in order to see other creatures in their otherness. Can we say more about this awareness and how it is cultivated? There is much to the argument that the will is perfected through willingly receiving the love of another. But, again, what are the forms this takes, especially in the life of the church?

We are finally given only hints: prayer and dialogue, which are both forms of waiting, though this is waiting that is also actively serving others. I wanted much more of this kind of thing from the book since only in the final four pages do we get what amounts to practices that are positive and concrete. We get more of Davis’s agenda for the church’s politics, including questions about our food, labor, children, the sick, and poor, and “our” total commitment to reforming the broken systems. I am not sure who the “we” is here—is it the church or society? Does Davis contradict his earlier assertion that the social embodiment of the unity of grace and creation is not the church when he writes that “The union of grace with creation is a church that lives to express in the world the flourishing of life that God desires for all” (136, my emphasis)?

*  *  *

I have raised what I hope are fruitful questions and objections to what I nevertheless deeply affirm about Davis’s project: a genuine openness to receiving others in Christ as a practiced and practicing discipline of waiting that is bound up with our very existence. The bourgeois self is obsessed with self-preservation that negates rather than affirms the existence of others and polices its borders like gun-toting Minutemen or wall-building Israelis. But in a world that “received him not,” the Son of Man is given a place to lay his head as grace opens us up to the others God loves, especially Christ himself.

The drive to self-preservation takes a modest position as that which I desire in order to continue to live for another. The will to live is only as intense as my love for things and people other than myself. And not only to live, but also to know and to desire what is true. We are kept from only willing the truth to be something we want, whether for its identity with ourselves or in its miscarriage of self-preservation—the bourgeois self’s desire for a life, a creation, without others.

Nietzsche famously pegged Christianity as the opposite: negatively construed, self-preserving reactivity. He was wrong about this, but right about much else. In one of my favorite passages, Zarathustra declared, “We love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving. . . . I would believe only in a god who could dance.” I suspect Davis would agree. Christianity confesses that all share in God’s life. The life of creatures simply is the living that eternally flows from the ever-living God, the source of everything that exists, the giver of all good things. How should we respond to this giving of life, to this grace? We not only rise to praise the one who gives all of these things to us; we also, by our rising, make known to ourselves and to others our gratitude for our existence and theirs.

  1. The Divine Names, chap. V.1.

  2. Summa Theologica, I.5.2. reply to objection 2.

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    Joshua B. Davis


    A Response to Craig Hovey

    Thanks to Craig Hovey for focusing entirely on the constructive proposal of my final chapter. So much of that final chapter is programmatic for my future work, and only really skims the surface of themes that are fundamental and carry a lot of conceptual weight. What is more, it is in the work done in that chapter that I understand my work to open out directly, with a certain concentrated intensity, onto the most urgent matters of political, economic, and social life with which the church must now be deeply engaged. So he is certainly right to press me more in that directly, and I agree with that assessment.

    He notes at the outset that he is sympathetic to my frustration with the pressures toward “abstraction,”that he most definitely understands those pressures in the context of a work begun as a dissertation. I think one of themes that has emerged for me, quite unexpectedly while thinking through these responses to the work, is a struggle with what it means to do theology within academic structures. I am deeply appreciative for Hovey’s bringing this out and focusing so closely on it. He sees me working against it, from within, and he’s right. But he he also doesn’t think that I sufficiently defend against it.1I offer a couple of responses.

    First, I believe that some confusion results from my use of the word “abstract”to describe the union of creation and grace in contemporary theologies. Insofar as he rightly sees me struggling to move this conversation into a new register altogether, he equates my focus on the problem of abstractness with a desire to reject “abstraction.”There is an important difference here for me between describing a discourse as “abstract”and the nature of abstraction. If I were to reject the latter in favor of something more “material”or “practical,”I would be trading on a distinction between theory and practice that I am working hard (even if perhaps not always effectively) to say is itself abstract. We pit theory against practice in the way that we do, I am saying, because of a deeper structural fragmentation from nature and one another. “Practice,”thus, comes to function as one of these profoundly illusory words that we invoke to “connect”a discourse to concrete existence, while occluding that it only does work at all if it too is abstract. To name an argument as abstract in favor of having “the practical”do all the heavy lifting would not quite get to what I am after and continue to prop up, I am arguing, a multitude of other dualisms: fact/value, knowledge/faith, object/subject, etc. This is what I really wanted to come into view by framing my argument with Hegel’s critique of relative ethical life in Kant (theory) and Fichte (practice).

    For these reasons, I am not particularly anxious about abstraction, and I would in fact like to do some little part in making helping us to be less uneasy about it in contemporary theology. Thinking itself is abstraction, generalization, universalization. I think it is an integral and necessary aspect of all concrete, vital engagement with the world—that is, when it is done well and united with ethical action and social reality. This is especially important in theology, but it is precisely in theology where abstract-ness seems most troublesome. So it is not abstraction that troubles me as the way attempting to think theologically in opposition to abstraction cuts us off, fundamentally, from the political risks and ethical responsibilities that make for good theory.

    Second, in tandem with the first point, Hovey critiques the book for failing to achieve the concreteness its sets out for itself. As he puts it, “Rather than a conceptual solution to a doctrinal problem, Davis wants an ethical movement away from it and toward others in concrete affirmation of social relations made possible by creation and realized by grace. It’s a sophisticated thesis, but is weakened considerably by Davis’s own inability finally to escape the powerful “social pressures”that give us abstract accounts.”This is a potential problem, and a severe one, if I am only interested in getting out of theory and into practice. But, as I’ve noted, I am very much aware that this would simply perpetuate the separation.

    What I’m really looking to bring into relief is the recognition that, at the very root of the problem, is the misrecognition, the delusion, that there is some place authentic “site”—be it our “freedom,” “the void,” schizoid difference—that is exempted from or in excess of the determination of our thought by the social relations of bourgeois private property right. The book is arguing that the social pressures to abstractness in the accounts of the unity of grace and creation are themselves, function as evasions of this fragmentation. I don’t want to escape these social pressures, but to name them, bring them to consciousness, analyze them, inhabit them, and thereby to destabilize, transmute, revolutionize, and overthrow them.

    The point I want make is, I think, much more comprehensive and radical: all our theological thinking is permeated by the reality of our fragmented and incoherent social relations, relations founded on the absurd attempt to universalize private property right. Where we do not theorize this reality, we remain inevitably uncritical of it—we presuppose it, perpetuate it, and are made slaves of it. Despite the very real advances de Lubac, Rahner, Schleiermacher, and Barth made in the doctrines of creation and grace, the unions they achieve are merely relative and abstract. They are established within the terms of separation established by bourgeois social life, and this has the unfortunate effect of rendering that very contingent and relative social structure into the ontological code of reality. And the different ways in which this encoding plays out, within the Catholic prioritizing of immediate intuition (creation) and the Protestant prioritizing of the mediated concept (grace), only repeats in an endless, futile, and vicious circle the originary supposition of a schismatic social life.

    Making this argument commits me to the risky proposition of conceding that my own work here is abstract. But that it is so wittingly, deliberately, subversively in search of a theory adequate to the problem. I am working very hard to inhabit this situation in such a way as to be therapeutically diagnostic: to produce a kind of neurotic anxiety in theological self-awareness about that dimension of reality it is currently constructed to defend itself against and, within that recognition, to wrestle to construct new ways of moving forward.

    (Incidentally, this claim should reframe our understanding of the continued division of Catholic and Protestant churches, and opens up the possibility of experiencing that division as a symptom rather than cause of this more complex social fragmentation that arises from internalizing the Roman jurisprudential distinction between “person”and “thing”(from which neither party an claim to be except from responsibility). The implications of this claim for ecumenical relations and political theology seem to me to be revolutionary and I intend to development them (concretely!) in forthcoming work.)

    This is what I hope would be salutary in the constructive chapter about the emphasis on attending to “otherness”in its positivity and of the fundamental role this otherness plays in the doctrines of creation and grace. Though I know this category is still abstract it nevertheless names what the current configuration of unity must name but cannot, an otherness in excess of mere “difference”(which must always be configured immanently in terms of identity) and in relation to which transcendence is the most basic expression of worldly affirmation.

    This is the point I intend to make with regard to the otherness of Jesus of Nazareth. The concept of “otherness”allows me to show that, uniquely, in the case of this one crucified human being, we are confronted with a proclamation of resurrection that poses to us the possibility of affirming the positivity of his otherness: i.e., to recognize that this man’s otherness to us is absolute and (using Frei’s word) unsubstitutable. Affirming that absoluteness coincides immediately with the affirmation of ourselves, in our own otherness to God and one another. While denying that absoluteness preserves the negativity upon which all immanent identity is constructed—and which ironically it is the peculiar task of bourgeois subjectivity to universalize: viz., that what is real about him is that which he shares with all of us, the dissolution of all identity (death). The affirmation or negation of life itself is, in an entirely objective way, now cast entirely in terms of our relation to this man and his uniqueness.

    Hovey is right that there is little narrative detail here. If I were doing Christology, I would be obliged to account for the person and work of Christ in a way that shows who this unsubstitutable person is and what he did in his work. My concern is here only to show that the uniqueness and unsubstitutable nature of our relation to Jesus locates us necessarily in a distinct social relation, and is unthinkable apart from it. In other words, it is not the content of the narrative that I am concerned with, but with showing to abstract thought that its relation to him is absolutely unique and entirely non-abstract. It is a peculiar kind of “speculative”strategy. I am most keen for my readers to see that the irony in denying the absoluteness of Jesus’ otherness is that it necessary condemns every social unity to pure abstractness.

    On the church as the social relation of unified humanity, I really want to affirm that the church is a unique order of social relations. I only want to reject the idea that this social relation is realized in the church. I believe that the social relation is an actuality and that the church participates in it, but I do not think that the church is the fullness of that reality or that when that fullness is realized it will be as “church.”I do want to maintain with Lumen Genitium and with specifically Herbert McCabe in mind, that reality of the church is the sign of the eschatological unity of all humanity, that this reality has taken root, established a “beachhead”in Louis Martyn’words, in the world in the church. It is first from the church’s proclamation of the good news about Jesus of Nazareth and then from its living more deeply into its new relation to him that we are inculcated into a new way of living together in the world. I simply don’t want us to confuse the radical transformation of the social, political, and economic life in the world that I think this requires “getting the world into the church.”

    Finally, on this point, Hovey wants more from me about the ecclesial practices and political dimensions that I understand to be essential to this understanding of the unity of grace and creation. So do I! My work in this chapter is programmatic. Beyond metaphysics, it touches on Christology, Pneumatology, and Ecclesiology, but most immediately it addresses matters of theological ethics and political theology. I am looking for a truly radical ethical and political action. I do not think that even the most “radical”of contemporary continental philosophy has really perceived that the degree to which their own analysis presupposes the structure of bourgeois social relations. Žižek’s “non-all”and Badiou’s ontology are clear iterations of transcendentalized private property relations, at least as I read them. I think the only real alternative is sacramentally embodied in the way of life that is the Christian church, but I think really working through what this means will involve us in thinking from the standpoint of our involvement in sustainable patterns of resistance, even defiance—patterns, though, that we live out for the world and its life. Perhaps that is the final “rule”(cf. Beattie) we must learn to break.


    1. Hovey mentions two points of misunderstanding that I do not want to address in the main body of my response. I want to address two further points where Hovey misunderstands me. First, Hovey makes the parenthetical remark:““The act in which [Christ] gives himself away coincides immediately with the act by which God bears us into existence” [132]. What is the act? Is it the incarnation, the cross, divinization, or something else?” The act is the act of creating (“bears us into existence”). And the sentence states quite explicitly that Jesus’ act of self-bestowal in the cross is identical to the divine act of our creation.

      On another point, Hovey writes:“I sense that Davis’s suspicion of Aristotelian habitus makes him too cautious of identifying practices, just as he shies away from identifying the church as the social relation of unified humanity.” I am neither suspicious of Aristotelian habitus nor shying away form identity the church as the social relation of unified humanity. Regarding habitus, I know of no other way in which to talk about what is entailed in learning anything at all. What I object to is the using the idea of the infusion of the habitus of charity to describe the grace of justification, which requires making an act of charity the form of the theological virtues. I have no problem saying that justification excites us to charity, and neither does Aquinas, who insists that it is produced in us immediately by God’s operation in grace. However, I think that Luther (as read in the Finnish interpretation) is exactly right to object to this as an account of justification, which we must describe instead in terms of a social relation to Christ, saying that it is Christ himself who is the form of faith (and the other theological virtues), and that it is our union with him that justifies us prior to the act of charity and is expressed in it.

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      Craig Hovey


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      You’re working hard, Josh! Let me admit that I’m struggling to understand what you’re saying about theory and practice (and abstractness and concreteness) and why I’m finding it so unsatisfying, so far as I do understand it. Maybe it strikes me as overly clever to say things like “showing to abstract thought that its relation to [Jesus Christ] is absolutely unique and entirely non-abstract.” I may simply be missing something and I can’t really decide whether it is worth arguing the point further. Then again, the otherness of Jesus is something I’ve thought a lot about and written on at book-length, so I feel I should be able to understand what you’re getting at better. Hebrews say that Jesus is like us “in every respect” (2:17) so that he might do the things that are unique to his office. With that in mind, I can’t fathom holding onto either Jesus’s uniqueness or otherness apart from his narrative, nor can I see the use of an argument against an abstract-concrete binary that also spurns the concrete.

      Stepping back from the discussions here (and you’ll have to forgive me for going here), I’m struck also by how much effort you’re putting into explaining yourself. This is not itself a critique, but I’d be interested to hear you reflect on being misunderstood so much. You make claims about your work: that it is radical (especially), revolutionary, and severe—these hadn’t really occurred to me. That has led me to think more generally about how our work is understood and received by others. For example, I was initially most drawn to your moving account of waiting and (although abstract) your emphasis on concrete others in the book. But it appears that what I liked best was actually a misunderstanding. I know that’s a very general comment, but I’d be interested in your thoughts about this process, considering that this back-and-forth can sometimes be a rare thing in our discipline.

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      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Craig Hovey

      Perhaps it is too clever, though it is a cleverness I cannot claim as my own. It is an argument made by others, to which I appeal on pp. 21-26—others who worked much harder at it than me and who continue to be misunderstood. They have convinced me, though. Perhaps the problem lies in my presentation of the argument. At the very root of this discussion, I have to admit that.

      But let me make another attempt, and respond to your queries on both counts by quoting one of these people who’ve worked so hard to make this argument, a woman who’s earliest style and written voice are far more difficult and demanding than anything I have written here (though perhaps bled a bit too into my own)! This is taken from a later writing, and an essay that was originally spoken. I offer it because, though still difficult, it may be illuminating and/or spark some further discussion between us:

      “. . . the presentation of otherness has a motility which the post-modern gesture toward otherness is unable to conceive. For the separation out of otherness as such is derived from the failure of mutual recognition on the part of two self-consciousnesses who encounter each other and refuse to recognize the other as itself a self-relation: the other is never simply other, but an implicated self-relation. This applies to oneself as other and, equally, to any opposing self-consciousness: my relation to myself is mediated by what I recognize or refuse to recognize in your relation to yourself; while your self-relation depends on what you recognize of my relation to myself. We are both equally enraged and invested, and to fix our relation in domination or dependence is unstable and reversible, to fix it as ‘the world’ [or, what is the same in these circumstances: “theory” and “practice”] is to attempt to avoid these reverses. All dualist relation to ‘the other’, to ‘the world’ [to “theory” or “practice”] are attempts to quieten and deny the broken middle, the third term, which arises out of misrecognition of desire, of my and of your self-relation mediated by the self-relation of the other.

      Second, this dialectic of misrecognition between two self-consciousnesses yields the meaning of the law that is inseparable from the meaning of Bildung (education, formation, cultivation), inseparable from the processes by which self-consciousness comes to learn its investment in denying the actuality of itself and other as always already engaged in some structure of recognition or misrecognition, in some triune (triple) [and here is where I would begin to respond to you about Jenson] relation to its own otherness and to the self-relating of the other . . . The law is the falling towards or away from mutual recognition, the triune relationship, the middle, formed or deformed by reciprocal self-relation” (Gillian Rose, “The Comedy of Hegel and the Trauerspiel of Modern Philosophy” in Mourning Becomes the Law, 74-75).



Things Usually So Strange

Nature and Grace, Reconsidered

WHAT ARE WE? What sort of thing is a human being? If, as Christianity has always taught, we can only answer this question relationally, by attempting to say what it means to be creatures of a particular God, then we must first get some traction on the ways God relates to us if we are to get any traction on the question of what it means to be “us.”For theology, anthropology follows from economy, if the latter is taken as a name for that primary relation of exchange in which the Creator gives himself to a creation.

Here, though, the difficulties become seemingly intractable. If we are, ontologically, what we are in light of God’s way of relating to us, then it seems we are various, both as a kind and even as individuations within that kind. To take an example from Saint Paul that has generated some of the most contentious writing and preaching in the history of the church, God seems to play the role of a cosmic Rebecca, giving birth to hated Esaus and beloved Jacobs. If God “will have mercy on whom he will have mercy”(Rom 9:15) then is there any “we”that joins the being of the “twins,”the one predestined for glory and the one for destruction? Is a human the sort of thing loved by God, or despised? The only fitting response, and the one that the Apostle is building toward in these chapters of Romans, is that somehow, perhaps beyond the horizons or our conceptual vision, God is relating to all the Jacobs and Esaus in the same fashion. One of the great theological innovations of modern Protestantism, accomplished in Karl Barth but anticipated in Friedrich Schleiermacher, was the christologizing of predestination, so that the single Christ is both twins at once, the one whom God curses as the sin of the world, and the one whom he elects for everlasting life.

If, at least in the minds of many, Barth’s analysis solves the Romans 9 problem of double predestination, and in a way that goes beyond not just Calvin but also Luther, Thomas, and Augustine, it allows us to see a new problem, plaguing Protestants and Catholics alike, that runs at an even deeper level of the human question. In the decades leading up to Vatican II, Henri de Lubac and Karl Rahner were both, in different modes, outlining the problem of an anthropological division that runs not between but within humans. Again, the trouble begins with a divergence in how God acts toward us. God seems to relate to us in one way in creating us—call this the natural human—and in another way altogether in bestowing grace upon us—call this the supernatural human. If creating and grace-giving are unrelated divine activities, then the “we”formed by them is not one creature. We are two. Thus humans may indeed, as Barth insisted, be one in the Christ who is God’s redemptive act; but if this act names us in a way that is unhinged from who we are as creatures God called into being, then what is the human, exactly, who Christ has redeemed? In Thomistic language, grace would seem to have destroyed, or at the very least replaced, rather than perfected our nature.

Joshua Davis names this problem with a new clarity in his book Waiting and Being. If creation, and our existence as creatures, is to be meaningful, where are we to find that meaning? For Barth, he says, “we know God surely only in Jesus, and because of that knowledge we also know ourselves to be God’s creatures.”1 This reverses the older method of seeking an understanding of creation as the “supreme and final ‘Whence of all things.’”2 It does so, however, only by filtering dogma through the lens of epistemology. Barth, that is, is less interested in the unity of God’s acts towards us, and more in the unity of our ways of knowing those acts. Davis says, and it seems to me that he is right to say, that “both Schleiermacher and Barth take Kant’s critique of metaphysics for granted and interpret the legacy of Protestant theology in its light,”which is to say in the light of a transcendental subjectivity.3 The result of this, and here I am interpreting what seems to be the direction of Davis’s argument, is that Barth succeeds in unifying creation and redemption, or nature and grace, only by collapsing the former into the latter. We sinners know God only through God’s gracious revelation, and for Barth this epistemological revolution is an ontological one as well: God’s only act toward us is redemption. Nature and grace are one because there really is no nature, only grace.

De Lubac diagnoses the split that runs between nature and grace as one, for Catholicism, that diverges from the Protestant split between sin and redemption, and instead layers human beings with a natural and a supernatural calling. Here nature and grace are not so much opposed to one another as simply unrelated. So does God see us as oriented to a natural existence, or to a supernatural one? De Lubac argues that such a bifurcated scheme lends itself to, among other problems, a disastrous evacuation of meaning from the being of the world. In Davis’s words, de Lubac’s reparative theology insists that “human beings in their actual existence have no other end than the vision of God.”4

Even as de Lubac and others challenge the splitting of nature and grace, however, they fall into a kind of doctrinal incoherence, so unifying the two as to lose the classical definition of either. “The fundamental mistake that animates”this Catholic theology “appears to be that possessing a singular, supernatural destiny entails an affirmation that creation is graced a priori.”5 Davis argues that grace is precisely God endowing creatures with gifts that exceed their nature, “God’s fidelity to the being of the other whom God has created.”6 In this case the distinction retains an importance, and de Lubac’s nouvelle théologie is weakened by dissolving it almost entirely.

Davis’s research on the current state of the problem is packed with insight, even where his wrestling with individual thinkers lacks a certain nuance. De Lubac in particular is a more complex figure than the account of him offered here, as he sometimes sounds more like Rahner, as Davis reads him, subsuming grace into nature, and sometimes more like Barth, making nature a kind of lack that is inseparable from grace in view simply of this lack. “Between nature as it exists and the supernatural for which God destines it,”de Lubac says, “the distance is as great, the difference as radical, as that between non-being and being.”7 How literally he intends this analogy is, it seems to me, a resolved question. But this perhaps only further bolsters Davis’s critique: the best of twentieth-century Western theology identified the dilemma but was unable to offer a clear and coherent formulation of the relationship of these two orders.

Here it may be only a slight exaggeration to say that what these two thinkers in particular represent is the endgame of the great division of Western Christianity, which, at least from one angle, was only ever about the lines between nature and grace. If Barth’s (dialectically rich) attempt to unify them in terms of a nature-consuming grace and de Lubac’s (paradox-laden) attempt to unify them in terms of an a priori graced nature, then both have the character of brilliant failures, and then perhaps, even as we continue for the foreseeable future to live with ecclesiastical divisions, we can note that the theological division has already run its course, finally showing itself as an inadequate polarity. (Of course, as an Eastern Orthodox-leaning Anglican, it is relatively easy for me to make such a bold claim!)

If Davis charts the current dilemma with helpful clarity, his moves backward, through Augustine, Thomas, and Luther, and forward, to a constructive proposal that leaps tantalizingly from Gillian Rose’s Hegelianism, are both a bit too rushed to be persuasive. For the move backward, he follows existing research and attempts to parse the Pelagian and non-Pelagian moments of the great theologians, without realizing that on the question of the relation of nature to grace, what precisely it is that we take to constitute Pelagianism is the entire question. On the move forward, he proposes a turn to a social outworking of the relation of nature to grace, analogous to a Hegelian social outworking of the uniting of intuition with concept. But the analogy, however suggestive, is painted here in such broad strokes that it is unclear just what the scheme accomplishes, finally.

On the latter, however, there is a hint of what he might mean by social unification that seems to me to be worth developing, and I will attempt to do so here, though I make no predictions as to whether or not Davis will approve of my construction.

Davis points out, again with admirable insight, that Barth seems to think of Christ as a unit of divine revelation, or perhaps a “‘person,’in the Roman jurisprudential sense.”8 In other words, he makes the incarnation a kind of encompassing account of God that separates him out of any social exchange with his Father.

Barth lost sight of the fact that the second hypostasis of the Trinity is a relation, the social relation of Sonship. . . . The Son is the relation begotten eternally from the Father. Jesus Christ is the historical, material, and temporal manifestation of that eternal relationship in God. In Christ, Christians become participants in this eternal relationship of Sonship. . . . A full articulation of the unity of grace and creation in these terms will demand coming to grips with the full social implication of our relation to God in Christ.9

If we begin from the observation that Jesus Christ is not primarily an object for Christian knowing but a manifestation of divine relationship, then we have, it seems to me, built precisely the kind of doctrinal context necessary for imagining the linking of nature and grace. The Catholic and Protestant divide reveals itself in this case to be a shortsighted one, arguing, in Johannine terms, about the relative priority of the Logos through whom all things came into being versus the Logos who became flesh. But if we recognize that the Logos itself has no “priority,”but is only a distinct “object”at all as first an eternal relation, then the key question can no longer be which of the two takes priority, Logos-as-nature or Logos-as-grace. Both are secondary in a double sense: first, because time, inclusive of both nature and grace, is a moving image of eternity; second, because in eternity the Word is of the Father and not the other way around.

There is a certain voluntarism lurking in this Western “loss of sight.”The Protestant temptation is to call redemption an act of God not modeled or grounded in any prior act, and the Catholic temptation is to say the same of creation. Both assume that in order to be truly free, God must act once in history in a way that has no beginning beyond history. Even creation out of nothing, if this “nothing”is taken to be a blank slate for God’s positing of being, rather than in Sergei Bulgakov’s sense of “nothing but God,”can take the form of a prejudicial bent for foundational acts of the divine will.10

If, on the other hand, God’s relation to the world in creating it and in gracefully redeeming it has its beginning in the eternal relating of the Father to the Son in the manifesting light of the Spirit, then there is no ultimate moment of divine choosing at all, either on earth or in heaven, since even in heaven the Father’s choice to be in relation to the Son is intertwined with the memory of always having been in such a relation. The creating of a world is never a foregone conclusion for a God who is already a perfect relating of persons, but neither is it a moment of oppositional novelty in an eternity of worldlessness. Rather, it is a fitting expression of loveliness birthed by an eternity of love, loving, and belovedness. Likewise, the redeeming of that world from its own self-imposed prison is not simply a illumination of forces already present within creation, but neither is it an utterly unanticipated act of God that shatters or replaces or destroys the natural order. The existence of the world is at one and the same time an excessive gift of God, and yet one that “fits”with, as Thomas says, or is “deeply characteristic of,”as Barth says in one of his more Trinitarianly aware moments,11 a God who is eternal love. In the same way, the redemption of the world is neither fully new nor ontologically embedded in creation, but is an excessive event consistent with a God who tends to act excessively.

The “Romances”of John of the Cross provide a possible, if somewhat heterodox, pathway for this sort of drawing together of the two doctrines.12 The poem begins “in principio,”where the Word “lived in God / and possessed him / in his infinite happiness”along with the Spirit, since “the Love that unites them / is one with them.”The Father tells the Son he wishes to give him a bride “to share our company, / and eat at our table,”a bride who will rejoice with the Father in the loveliness of the Son.” The Son accepts the gift, and the poet’s language here uses fluid pronouns to play with the interweavings of love: “I will hold her in my arms / and she will burn with your love” (3). My arms, your love: creation will burn with the Father’s love for the Son, but also the love of the Son in whose arm’s she rests for the Father whom he loves.

From these very words, the heavens and earth are fashioned, but differently. The heavens “in gladness,”the earth “in hope”(4). From the very beginnings, that is, the earth is characterized by a certain “lowness,”a lack. It is the lowness, the distance separating the earth from the loves of Father and Son, that initiates the excessive grace of the incarnation, rather than a fall within creation. The poem, in fact, makes no mention of sin, only suffering and a longing for the divine presence, culminating finally in the Nativity, with Mary gazing

in sheer wonder
on such an exchange:
in God, man’s weeping,
and in man, gladness,
to the one and the other
things usually so strange

John could be accused here—and in fact I have leveled the accusation13—of more than a hint of gnosticism, as though creation were itself a kind of fall, and thus stood in need of redemptive grace simply in view of its difference from God. However, it seems to me now that there is something else at work here. John’s poetry is, from beginning to end, expressive of a yearning for God that is inseparable from our very creatureliness. The soul is, as he puts it elsewhere, “fired with love’s urgent longings.”14 Nature awakens in a longing for its supernatural lover, and thus always calls for an excessive and beyond-natural gifting of that divine presence. John is very close to the Eastern Fathers here, for whom sin, for all its seriousness, is not the primary distancing agent between us and God, only the negative one.15 We were made ontologically different from our Creator, yet longing for nothing beyond a consummative union with that Creator. Cain’s sinful suffering is but a weakened and diluted manifestation of the true human suffering present in Eden: the suffering of one who longs for the God beyond her nature.

In this case it is not that creation is a priori graced, but that, made to rejoice with the Father in the Son and to embrace the Son so closely as to burn with his love for the Father, we cry out in the depths of our nature for grace. God heard this cry in Eden and gave Adam and Eve to one another as companions; he heard it again Egypt and called to Moses; he heard it again in Nazareth and announced himself to Mary.

This brief sketch might offer the doctrinal footing for the “relational unity”that Davis is looking for in his book. The church, he says, is fashioned in the image of that Son who is what he is only in relation to the Father. As such, the church is the community that names the desire that fills all creation, and also lives out an account of this hope’s fulfillment in Christ. The church lives its witness to the ultimate identity of creation as the guest at the Trinitarian feast. Its life is the manifestation of the non-opposition between creation and grace, because its calling is to show resurrection to be the transformative power that perfects, rather than abolishes, the life and death it gathers up. Creation and grace are not a polarity, but not because grace is most basically nature, or because nature is non-differentiable grace, but because the church’s earthly relational life is a fitting bodying-forth of a heavenly relationship, a holy longing of a Lover, and Beloved, and their Love.

  1. Joshua Davis, Waiting and Being: Creation, Freedom, and Grace in Western Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013) 74.

  2. bid., quoting Barth’s doctrine of creation in CD III.1.

  3. Ibid., 75.

  4. Ibid., 38.

  5. Ibid., 51.

  6. Ibid., 128.

  7. Henri de Lubac, The Mystery of the Supernatural, trans Rosemary Sheed (New York: Crossroad, 1998) 83.

  8. Davis, Waiting and Being, 81.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 43ff. The process theologians’ critique, though misguided in more or less obvious ways, is, it seems to me, right in leveling this challenge on uncritical accounts of creatio ex nihilo. See especially Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (New York: Routledge, 2003).

  11. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, trans G. T. Thompson (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) 50.

  12. John of the Cross, Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, rev. ed., trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS, 1991) 60–68.

  13. Anthony Baker, Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (London: SCM, 2011) 268–69.

  14. “The Dark Night”1, from the same collection, 50–52.

  15. On the proximity of John to the classical Eastern tradition, see David Bentley Hart, “The Bright Morning of the Soul: John of the Cross on Theosis,” in Pro Ecclesia 12:3 (Summer 2003) 324–44.

  • Avatar

    Joshua B. Davis


    A Response to Anthony Baker

    I want to thank Tony for his thoughtful and probing reply to my work. I appreciate very much his concern to highlight the wider implications of my work, even where he wants to put serious questions to me. I especially appreciate that he does this in a way that avoids bogging us down in interpretive minutiae. I am especially grateful that he casts points of tension and disagreement in terms of a positive dialogue between us about his own reconstruction of the question. I take this as a gesture affirming my intent to reorient this issue toward an explicitly ethical, apophatic, and dialogical frame. At least, that is the spirit with which I receive it.

    But before addressing Baker’s constructive response to my work, I want to focus the bulk of my reply to what Baker does not discuss at all about my book, the thesis: that the key to any coherent theology of creation and grace, the source of its separation or its unity, lies with how (or even whether) the distinction of the operations of the will are conceived in distinction from those of desire and the intellect. A large portion of the book, the last half of the second and third chapters, as well as the whole of chapters 4 and 5, is devoted to illustrating the central importance of the will to both the doctrines of creation and grace, as well as highlighting the confusions that result from failing to attend to it. Now, Baker is at not all alone in eliding this topic. Not one of the other three participants even broaches it! I focus on it here in response to Baker because he alone comes closest, noting: “If Davis charts the current dilemma with helpful clarity, his moves backward, through Augustine, Thomas, and Luther, and forward, to a constructive proposal that leaps tantalizingly from Gillian Rose’s Hegelianism, are both a bit too rushed to be persuasive.” The will is not mentioned. But it is in the last two “rushed” chapters that the will takes center stage.

    Perhaps it would be helpful, on the other side of the ground I am attempting to clear in the book, for me to restate in different terms the matter to which the will is key. As I note in the opening chapter, modern theology is faced with a diremption that Bonhoeffer identified early on between “being” and “event,” which could only be successfully unified in social existence. Bonhoeffer took his cue from early sociology and unfortunately followed Weber (along with Troeltsch, Seeberg, and Grisebach) too closely in thinking of social relations as the factual actuality of otherwise abstract values, which had the unintended effect of preserving the problem he wanted to overcome and simultaneously concealing that preservation from view.1 By contrast, when I insist that resolving this diremption is at the center of modern theology’s preoccupation with “nature and grace,” and that if any further discussion of it must focus on the centrality of the will, I am talking specifically about bringing into relief the operations of human psychology by which we actualize what we value (desire) and determine their validity (knowledge).

    When Baker objects that my argument in the final two chapters, charting the place of the will in Augustine and Aquinas (ch. 4) and an alternative constructive proposal (ch. 5), are too hurried to be convincing, I take him to mean something to the effect that the argument is too idiosyncratic to be passed over without marshaling considerably more evidence in its favor. It is a sharp and even irenically stated criticism that would oblige me to a great deal more textual analysis were it in fact true that my claims are idiosyncratic. (Beattie was not so irenic, calling my analysis at some points “superficial,” which is, frankly, a rather bold claim to make in a reply that otherwise conspicuously focuses on matters of style and avoids any mention of the book’s thesis.) I have two responses to this.

    First, one of initial prompts for this work came with my conviction, acquired mainly through my work on the theology of Augustine with J. Patout Burns, that the Augustine of the historians and the Augustine of the theologians are rarely if ever the same. Where historians are keen to emphasize the considerable amount of development transformation and development that is apparent in Augustine’s theology on a number of issues, theologians hardly mention or even account for the significance of those shifts. Mention may be made occasionally of Augustine’s unfortunate late adoption of “double predestination” (a misnomer) as though it were some kind of anomaly in his thought, with no account given or even awareness of the fact that there is an extensive body of uncontroversial literature charting the developments of Augustine’s conceptual development from the early to the late work, and which links those developments directly to his pastoral work in specific controversies. Apart from any reference to this historical work, positive reference to Augustine’s work by theologians almost inevitably point to his earliest, most Neoplatonic metaphysics. On the rare occasions that a theologian does acknowledge these developments, as Michael Hanby does in a footnote in Augustine and Modernity, it is mainly to argue that the development does not matter because (the unfinished, unsystematic, and openly tentative) De Trinitate supplies the ontology that holds it all together. From the historians’ perspective, however, whatever sense can be made of Augustine’s various iterations of a theme shows an unmistakable development from his early to late work and moves in direct response to specific contexts, circumstances, and controversies.

    In the case of Aquinas, as ought to go without saying, numerous conflicting interpretations abound with clear ideological inflections. It is true that I refrained from introducing too much of that conversation into the book (though I intend quite soon), but I signaled as clearly as possible where I stand on those questions (i.e., with Keenan, Klaubertanz, Landgraf, Lonergan, Lottin, and Lozzio), just as I did with Augustine (i.e., with Burns, Dihle, Kahn, O’Connell, and Sorabji). I understand my own work in the book to develop their arguments in ways that both support their positions by showing their salutary implications for theological doctrine and by showing how it illuminates the wider context within which problems of creation and grace are understood. All of this is to say that, with regard to the question of developments in both Augustine’s and Aquinas’ thought, what strikes the systematic or constructive theologian as dubious may be the result of insufficient familiarity with a set of assumptions that are taken for granted among historians. So what one theologian considers rushed may be to a historian simply staking a position within a longstanding scholarly exchange.

    Second, because my concern is not to develop a textual defense of work pioneered by others and to put it to work for the first time (apart from Lonergan and perhaps Klaubertanz) to explicitly doctrinal work, I elected to concentrate with a certain intense “severity” (see response to Beattie on style) on the significance of the will itself in order to bring it clearly into relief and thereby to show the confusion that results from its occlusion, as well as the resolution to the very thorny issues it brings. And in each case, this resolution is one that is unavailable to desire or knowledge alone, apart from consideration of the will as the distinctive faculty of a positive social relation.

    Where I think this is most riskily carried out in the book is with Luther. This is the case, on the one hand, because the Finnish interpretation of Luther is controversial among Lutherans. However, I believe that they have sufficiently documented a subaltern nineteenth-century liberal influence on the interpretation of Luther that imposes a fact/value, nature/self split on Luther that he did not make himself and that continues in the positions of those who object to their work. But the primary reason I think my work on Luther is risky is because I read his polemic on justification as essentially metaphysical, a point that is surprisingly consistent with the same assumptions that animate Augustine’s and Aquinas’ advances in the theology of grace. In essence, I think there is compelling reason, once we have understood what Augustine and Aquinas are doing with “operative grace,” to affirm that Luther is doing nothing more controversial than drawing the inevitable conclusion. Despite whatever cherished anti-metaphysical investments are attached to Luther’s theology, we see that not only is this his basic point (and one that he shares with both Athanasius and Anselm, too), but that he opens up new avenues for preserving the social dimension of Augustine’s theology of grace that were obscured by Aquinas’ overarching natural law scheme. This recasts the relationship between Luther and Aquinas as one that is not simply about the reading of Paul. They are largely in agreement about that. Instead, it is about Luther’s insight that the scholastic notion that the form of grace (faith, specifically) is charity can only be an abstract, negative claim. Aquinas most certainly meant concrete ethical action, but failed to see that charity is never generally realized apart from concrete content—and does so specifically within a social relation. Luther makes that connection. He recognizes that the form of our deification/justification is not simply “charity” (and he does not deny that our deification elicits charity), but the specific person of Jesus Christ. Hence, Luther insists that union with Christ is real union with God, and that this right (social) relation is expressed as faith, charity, and hope. I simply see no way that, at least on this point, Luther can be wrong. It is an entirely Trinitarian point, which understands the Son as the image and Word of the operation that the Spirit enables in us.

    It is in this way that we can conceive our being ordered to an end (telos) that we both desire and know, but are incapable by our own natural powers of attaining. This is the reason that I insist the will is the “faculty,” the set of operations ordered toward the positive affirmation of otherness. It is this very otherness, which is revealed in its absolute positivity in the resurrection, that we simply cannot rightly conceptualize, much less live into when priority is given to the intellect and desire.

    Now, to Baker’s own sketch of the doctrinal basis for the relational unity I am after in the book, let me say I am wholeheartedly in agreement with him when he says: “Creation and grace are not a polarity, but not because grace is most basically nature, or because nature is non-differentiable grace, but because the church’s earthly relational life is a fitting bodying forth of a heavenly relationship, a holy longing of a Lover, and Beloved, and their Love.” To the degree that I understand what Baker wants here for the church’s internal relation to the triune life of God, I fully embrace it. But I fear that, as much as I value the speculative, poetic Trinitarianism in Baker’s proposal, I find that it moves too quickly to the abstract register. In doing so, I think it repeats the problem of theoretical unity, which is to conceive of a unity that in effect transcendentally stabilizes a social relation that is concretely fragmented. Baker clearly affirms my rejection of Barth’s failure to see that Jesus Christ discloses a social relation that is eternal and temporal, not a (legal) person. But Baker does not attend to the dimension that is more important to me, and which I believe is integral to a genuine account of unity and truly transformative in my proposal. That is that God’s willing is not a “choice” but the very act of positively constituting otherness as such. I want to insist that we know the one eternal act by which God is God and are drawn into the eternal relation of the Son to the Father through the absolute relation to Jesus Christ that is established, provoked, and nurtured by the Spirit. Our relation to Jesus is one in which we affirm the positivity of his otherness as absolute, and in that affirmation know ourselves as positively determined by God in our own otherness.

    1. This is, I think, the right place to reply to Beattie’s challenge to my claim about Bonhoeffer with reference to the work of Catherine Lowry LaCugna.

    • Avatar

      Anthony Baker


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Thanks for the reply here Josh. The moves you make here and in your reply to Beattie regarding the role of will fill out your aims in the book in some really helpful ways. I saw in the book how you are using will as a sort of bridge device to get us from what what/who we are to what/who we desire. I didn’t see then, as I am beginning to see now, how that was connected to the move regarding concrete social relations.

      One of the places I think you misread Thomas—though whether it’s your reading or that of those historians you cite I couldn’t say, since you’re right: I don’t know them—is in considering “charity” to be an abstraction, and to take Luther’s Jesus as more concrete. I take them in just the opposite way. What Thomas accomplishes, in light of a long scholastic debate on whether charity is or is not the Holy Spirit, is an account of human interaction that participates in divine action, without either being or not being that action. When a friend loves me, she is doing a divine thing in a human way. This a kind of differential repetition of Christ’s charity, which is already a differential repetition of the Eternal Logos’s charity. What this gives us in an account of grace that perfects nature, rather than either replacing or dissolving itself into the nature it meets.

      Now, the will is of course central to all of this. That scholastic debate centered on the question of whether my will needed to be involved at all, if the charity expressed through me is simply the Holy Spirit. But you only need the will to act as a radical bridge in your sense if you consider participation of this sort to compromise divine otherness. I think, it fact, you do. My notes on your book send me to page 126, but I don’t have the text with me at the moment to quote you.

      Now, the distinction you make using Romans 7 between knowledge and desire on one hand, and will on the other, is really helpful. But I think you draw it a bit too sharply. Instead of saying Paul’s narrator here (whether it’s “Paul,” or “Saul,” or “Adam”) knows the good and desires the good but lacks the will to do what he knows and desires, I think Paul leads us to a place of seeing how all these faculties fold back on one another: in an important sense, I only know and desire a good action or a relationship with another when I find the will to act. And yet I am already anticipating that act when I know and desire it beforehand.

      I’d put the matter like this: the absolute otherness of Jesus that our will leads us to affirm is in danger of being the “purest” of abstractions, if our willing is not anticipated by the way our knowing and desiring are already sharing in his life.

    • Avatar

      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Anthony Baker

      Thanks, Tony. I apologize in advance for the long reply.

      Before responding directly, I want to flag in our discussion the important points Tina has made and make sure that I continue to feel their pressure on me as I respond to others. I don’t think I’ve done the job of really attending to the issues she’s raised, at least not in the way that I wish I had. In my eagerness to defend book against her very strong, and important critique—and with real excitement to talk with people I respect about ideas I am passionate about—my “defense” too easily slipped into defensive. I’m not happy with that, want to acknowledge it, and make sure to flag those issues for myself in my responses with others moving forward. I know that Tina will be replying soon, amidst all the other demands of life, and I hope at the outset of our exchange here to remain attentive to them.

      The other initial point is one that I should have taken the time to acknowledge before now: though its true the focus on the will fell through the cracks, that could very well be because I didn’t make my case or make it well. Given the argument I’m making, it could be a point in its favor, or just a convenient ruse to insulate myself from critique. I’m committed to not using it as the latter. I just want to keep these things at the forefront moving forward as a way ensuring that I am appropriately honest, modest, and humble.

      The reading of charity as abstract is my move. I completely agree with your assessment of what’s at stake here for Aquinas. And I really appreciate your pointing out that it is a distinctively human activity of loving — that it isn’t, as Augustine had it, just God’s love loving God in us, but our own love doing the loving (“…with God’s help”). Now there’s something right here that I’m not tracking with what you’re saying, because I think that it is just this that Aquinas gives us in the shift from the Prima pars to the Prima secundae. I think this is exactly what his recognition of the will as a distinct faculty makes it possible for us to think — and to thereby have a notion of freedom that isn’t reducible to an intellectual determinism or a Pelagianism. So I think I’m tracking with you completely.

      Where I want to put a serious question to Aquinas is with the claim that charity is the form of the theological virtues. I don’t want to deny charity its place. I just think that, if it is truly a super-natural virtue, an infused rather than acquired habit, then we have to say that justification, right relation to God, is the actuality presupposed by the act rather than its effect. Aquinas on justification is really interesting on this because it is like the production of the charitable act and justification are perfectly coincident. I like this, but I think it ends up working like a regulative ideal, an intellectualist “ought” that must be perpetually imposed on reality. To put it in intellectualist terms: it means that our goodness (justification) is the result of our rightness (a point Keenan really drives home, though not with reference to Luther). I think Luther makes the right metaphysical point, then, in texts like “Two Kinds of Righteousness” or the “Heidelberg Disputation” when he insists that this gets things backward because even Thomas acknowledges that, with supernatural charity, doing the right action depends on the actuality of a prior goodness (i.e., God “operates” in us to produce our “cooperation”).

      Even so—and if I’m following you, this is what you’re saying—making Christ rather than charity the form of faith reverts to Augustine and Lombard, effectively making that charity into simply a predicate of Christ’s. Our love isn’t ours; it’s God’s only. I came to school this morning without the book or I’d look it up (along with the passage you mention on p. 126), but I think this the point on which I want to end the fourth chapter, with this really fascinating situation where we can see Luther as a certain advance within the western tradition beyond Aquinas, but in a way that simultaneously reverts to the Augustinian-Lombardian tradition, which Aquinas had himself already moved beyond. So when I turn to the final chapter, I’m asking the question of what it would look like or mean to draw both of these together, and how does it mutually transform both and fulfill them.

      It’s there that I really try to cut loose, feeling like having glimpsed this vista, the whole thorny, gordian-knottiness of it begins to slacken and the discourse can start to really come into its own by embracing what it had been internally constructed to exclude. And where I think some really interesting possibilities emerge in thinking through the integrally ethical—or maybe axiological is the better word here, as jargony as it is—nature of metaphysics.

    • Avatar

      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Anthony Baker

      Also, I failed to respond to this: “I’d put the matter like this: the absolute otherness of Jesus that our will leads us to affirm is in danger of being the “purest” of abstractions, if our willing is not anticipated by the way our knowing and desiring are already sharing in his life.”

      Yes, I think you’re right about this. I don’t want to say something different from this, as far as I can tell.



Taking the Linguistic Plunge

ONE OF MY PHD STUDENTS, Nick Mayhew-Smith, wrote a scintillating book titled Britain’s Holiest Places, which subsequently formed the subject of a BBC television series. He is doing a PhD because, while researching that book, he became fascinated by the relationship between the earliest British saints and the natural environment, to such an extent that he suggests the conversion of Britain entailed the conversion of the landscape. An interesting curiosity is the extent to which these early saints were willing to strip off and plunge into the chilly waters of Britain’s oceans, rivers, lakes, and wells at every opportunity, as if they experienced a particular closeness to God through immersion in water.

I live on a houseboat on the tidal Thames in London, with a lower deck that rests just above the surface of the river. I spend many hours sitting there, watching the birds and the changing tides, seeing how every season opens up new horizons and different patterns of water, trees, and sky. Last year, I finally decided to take the plunge. I eased myself off the deck into the cold and murky water at high tide. At first I was startled by the strength of the currents, but gradually I gathered up the courage to let go of the deck and swim out into the river. Although I lack the hardiness of those ancient saints, summer swims in the Thames have become one of my favourite pastimes.

There is a vast difference between sitting on the deck gazing at the river, and swimming in that cold, swirling water. The former is an activity of observation and attentiveness, involving sight and sound and subtle smells of vegetation and sometimes something worse lurking in the water, but allowing for a certain detachment too. The latter is an intense experience that affects all the senses and absorbs all one’s attention. There is the edge of fear about the strength of the currents and the possibility of large fish or strange objects hidden in those muddy depths. There is the completely different perspective that emerges from looking up from the water at the sky and the trees, while feeling the exhilaration of swimming with the tide or the exhaustion of swimming against it. Then there are the moments of rolling over onto my back to float beneath the setting sun, when I share the same chronological time as every other inhabitant of London, yet I inhabit a parallel universe to that of the evening commuters rushing home on the crowded underground.

What, you might be asking, does this have to do with Joshua B. Davis’s book, Waiting and Being? Well, Davis’s book is subtitled Creation, Freedom, and Grace in Western Theology, and therefore it has a great deal to do with how theology provides a lens for the experience and interpretation of nature. The book is a theological quest for a way of experiencing “the union of grace and nature” as a “historical and material” manifestation of the unity of God and the creature, in which grace is understood as an “actually existing social relation” (112).

Davis musters the great names of the Protestant and Catholic traditions in a comparative reading of their theologies of nature and grace, with a critical perspective informed by Hegel and Gillian Rose and cameo appearances by Terry Eagleton, Simone Weil, Emmanuel Levinas, and a number of others. So, between the covers of this slim book, we encounter a cornucopia of theological riches, from Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther to Blondel, de Lubac, Barth, von Balthasar, and Rahner (to name only some), who are shown to be examples of various shortcomings in theology’s representation of the relationship between nature and grace in creation.

The failure of recent theology to put right this error, despite its strenuous enquiries into the “acute divisions—between freedom and necessity, nature and consciousness, phenomena and noumena—that shape our modern consciousness of the world,” can be attributed to “our failure to perceive [that] the abstractness of our theologies of grace depends to a significant degree on understanding the intimate connection drawn in contemporary theology between the separation of grace from creation, on the one hand, and modernity’s dissociation of any inherent meaning from nature, on the other” (11). Davis sets out to heal this theological rupture by suggesting that the limitations that in various ways affect the theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther “point the way forward to a complete understanding of the union of grace and creation as an actually existing social relation” (5). This is an urgent task because “The experience of opposition so characteristic of modernity raises the question of the relation of grace to creation to a particularly acute pitch” (17). Phew! All this in 137 pages with a great deal of extensively referenced and painstakingly analyzed comparison and argument along the way.

I have no doubt that this book makes a significant contribution to contemporary systematic theology. I would include it in an undergraduate reading list as a fine example of the sources and methods used by systematic theologians, though I would also warn my students that the ambitiousness of the task results in sometimes impenetrable density of argument, occasional superficiality, and significant gaps. However, the book also raises for me a question about the whole enterprise of systematic theology, and I’ll return to that question. I was told that this should not be a book review, and so what follows is more impressionistic than analytic, more by way of personal response and critical dialogue than by way of objective engagement and argument.

I was excited about reading this book because I am substantially in agreement with Davis about the need for a historically and materially rooted theology of the unity of nature and grace that flows from the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and the essential sociability of the human creature made in the image of the Trinitarian God. I have recently published a book that reads Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Lacan in engagement with one another, in a quest to rediscover what it would mean for theology to speak of a graced creation whose being participates in and is conditional upon the being of God, so I expected to find much in Davis’s book that would inspire and challenge me anew. While I did indeed glean many insights and learn a great deal from reading it, I also found myself floundering amidst minutely observed philosophical questions and theological comparisons that risk perpetuating the abstractions Davis claims to be challenging. I ended up feeling that I had been unable to see the wood for the trees, and daunted by the challenge of going back to find out what I’d missed in the arguments.

My agreement with this book is with its motivating quest for a way in which “the unity of creation and grace can appear once again in a fresh way, outside of (even if coincident with) the established and debilitating parameters” (26). I would agree with Davis’s argument that this hinges upon our capacity to affirm the absolute otherness and dependence of creation in relation to God, originating out of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Like Davis, I seek a theological vision of relationality beyond the bourgeois concerns of modern theology, and I am inspired by his suggestion that all this emerges from the insight that “Grace is God’s fidelity to the being of the other whom God has created” (128). Yet I have a problem with this book—with the gaps in its sources, with its style, and with the way in which its aim is expressed and pursued. So, first the gaps.

There is a passing reference in the book to Catherine Keller (whose failure to take seriously the importance of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo makes her guilty of “bourgeois subjectivity” apparently) (26). Apart from this nod in the direction of a process theologian (not acknowledged as such), one searches in vain for the most significant theological movements of the last half century, which have attempted to address the historical materiality of grace in terms of social relations—including feminist and liberationist theologies, environmental theologies, and a host of contextual theologies arising out of different historical cultures and material conditions. For example, I had no idea what to make of the claim that “the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer is alone in contemporary theology in recognizing that reconciling the transcendental and ontological starting points for theology must be done in terms of concrete social relations” (3). This is a claim that appears to ignore a range of contemporary theologies such as Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s influential 1991 work on the social Trinity, God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life. Maybe all of these fail in different ways, but I am puzzled as to why they are not even granted a hearing. Of course, every theological project must draw certain boundaries and establish certain parameters, but I am mystified as to why a theologian would bracket out such a substantial field of contemporary theology of such potential relevance to his project, without any explanation as to why he has done this. It leaves me wondering if this is because the dominant androcentric tradition—everywhere in evidence and nowhere challenged in Davis’s book—remains so sure of its status that it has no need to offer any justification for itself, even in a work that claims to be seeking a fresh approach to central theological questions. This brings me to the question of style.

Davis quotes de Lubac’s observation in 1942, that:

If our people of France—and by that I do not mean only what are termed the working classes, or the masses—have lost in so large a proportion the sense of the Sacred, is it not first of all because we have not known how to maintain it in them, to protect it against other influences? Much more, is it not because we have more or less lost this sense ourselves? (35)

If one takes such questions seriously, then surely we theologians have to ask who we do theology for, and that in turn determines how we do theology. This is a question of style, but academic theology’s substance is its style. We theologians are, like our postmodern secular counterparts, artificers of language, for we have no other medium in which to express ourselves. One might hope that our theology flows from materially engaged practices of worship and social relations, but academic theologians are wordsmiths first and foremost. Yet how do we enable that language to become a medium of connectivity and sociability, not only in terms of our human relationships but, even more fundamentally, in terms of the broken connections between nature and grace that manifest themselves in the disconnection between words and the world? In other words, how can theological language become a medium that in some sense expresses the material world of liturgy, prayer, social and personal relationships, and environmental interactions that nourish and sustain the person who does theology? (There is an astonishing lack of environmental awareness in a book that is about God’s creation. Nowhere does Davis include the wonder and vulnerability of the non-human creation in his discussions of social relations).

The kind of transformation Davis seeks requires a transformation in theological language. Beyond the logistics of systematic theology, we need to rediscover theology as poetry, as a language of desire and imagination refulgent with the inarticulate suffering and yearning of the flesh. Such language is not lacking from the theological tradition. It is there in the mystical lyricism of the Church Fathers, in the vernacular theologies of the medieval women mystics, in the hymns of Methodism, and in the poetic passions of Pentecostalism. It is a language that emerges anew when theology enters into conversations outside its own disciplinary boundaries—when we do theology as intercourse rather than as discourse perhaps, in language that speaks the body and allows fertile consummations to emerge from our encounters with one another. Davis writes from an Anglican perspective that learns from Richard Hooker that the church is “a society ferociously committed to the exceedingly difficult and concrete demands of charity, unwilling to compromise the complex struggle that that commitment involves” (6). This is, says Davis, an “erotic passion” that also animates Augustine and Rose, both of whom “ran headlong toward the great problems of thought and confronted them with gravity and uninhibited creativity” (2). Davis’s book most certainly has gravity, but where is its “erotic passion” and its “uninhibited creativity”?

My recent book (mentioned above) concludes with a chapter that compares the language of Catherine of Siena with that of Thomas Aquinas. I argue that—contrary to Lacan’s representation of female mysticism as a form of hysteria—Catherine is every bit as much a theologian as Thomas, though she is more doctrinally orthodox than him in her fidelity to the effects of the incarnation on language. While Thomas strives to purge his theological language of all imagery and emotion in his service to Aristotelian philosophy—the marriage between nature and grace, reason and revelation, philosophy and theology, is more a meeting of minds than a sweaty entanglement of bodies—Catherine plunges into the visceral depths of the metaphorical body of Christ. Her prose is drenched in blood, swarming with desire, teemed with the presence of bodies that are both the sublime mystical bodies of Christ, the church and her own transformed soul, and the fleshy bodies of the poor and the suffering, the desperate and the dying, her personal bodily struggles, that formed the substance of her daily life.

This brings me back to where I started. We theologians need to take the linguistic plunge. Instead of standing on the deck discussing the view, we need to strip off and plunge into the turbulent waters of grace, and from that watery medium we need to learn to describe the world and our task within it differently. This requires a change in language, for if language does not constitute our world, it certainly constitutes the lens through which we interpret and understand the world as it is constituted by God through the grace of creation. But this also brings with it a certain sense of surrender, and here my swimming metaphor begins to break down.

To swim in a river or an ocean is to enter a medium other than the natural habitat of the human creature. Water is a dangerous medium for earthbound creatures, and it would be naïve to think one could simply go with the flow and emerge unscathed at the other end. One always has to keep one’s head above water or to come up for air. Yet the underlying point of Davis’s book—if I read him correctly—is that grace is our natural habitat. We should swim in grace the way a fish swims in water, so that it would fill the horizons of our vision with no sense of a realm of “nature” beyond it or separate from it, yet with a consciousness of the absolute otherness of God within and beyond all that we can know within creation. And here I come to my last problem with this book—its stated aim.

Is it possible or even desirable for a theologian to come to “a complete understanding” of anything, let alone of that most unfathomable and wondrous of truths—“the union of grace and creation as an actually existing social relation”? That we experience this union in manifold material relationships of love and desire is beyond doubt, and that we experience its rupture in the violence that surrounds us is also beyond doubt, but at the very heart of the theological tradition at its best is the recognition that the closer we come to experiencing the fullness of God’s grace within creation, the more deeply conscious we become of the mystery of which we are a part. Far from a complete understanding, this entails a letting go of the desire to understand, a surrender to the grace of God, and a new way of looking at the world in which all that we know becomes “as straw” in the face of what we know we do not and cannot know, even though we can love and desire it with all our hearts. Far from seeking “a complete understanding” of anything, surely the task of theology is to unravel all claims to human understanding in the face of the divine mystery in whom we nevertheless live and move and have our being?

If fallen knowledge is that which knows the difference between good and evil, our theological striving is the overcoming of that dualism in a movement towards the relational, non-competitive unity of beings within creation and of creation with God that Davis describes. Yet this is also a movement that is historically conditioned and inescapably caught up in the dualisms that flow from original sin (however we understand that) through all our ways of knowing and being in the world. The epiphanies of grace that offer us a glimpse into a different way of being and knowing can never become complete understanding, because theology must muddle along in the murky waters of sinful history with all its besetting dualisms that tempt us along the way.

This movement towards a grace that never arrives in the fullness of knowing is implicit in Davis’s emphasis on the importance of “waiting,” understood in terms of Weil’s idea of attentiveness as a patient waiting upon the other, which is both “apophatic and dialogical” (5). Indeed, “waiting” is part of the book’s title, and yet I do not sense a truly apophatic mystery of waiting at the heart of this book, and that is what it lacks for me. This is a lack that it shares with so much academic theology. To allow such a lack, to be ultimately wordless and impotent in our own unknowing before God, requires a sense of authorial letting go, of relinquishing control in order to surrender to wonder and mystery. Perhaps that reluctance to let go explains the careful selection of sources, and the bracketing out of so many unruly and disruptive voices that today emerge from the margins and, in books like this, remain part of the unacknowledged hinterland of systematic theology. I suspect this can be attributed to the fact that Davis’s book is based on his doctoral dissertation, and the academic system requires conformity to its rules. Nevertheless, I hope that since now he has shown that he knows the rules, Davis will also decide to break them.

The quest for a new theological vision requires a new theological style, one that speaks from the margins, from the realm of vulnerability and liminality where matter and spirit/nature and grace encounter one another in the mystery of the sacramental imagination expressing itself in many different voices in many material contexts. Systematic theology with its abstract philosophical underpinnings has a place in the curriculum as part of the history of ideas, but there are other ways of doing theology that might be more suited to the questions we ask today, and there are other voices and voices of otherness that have something to say if they are allowed to speak and be heard.

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    Joshua B. Davis


    A Response to Tina Beattie

    I want to begin by thanking Tina Beattie for taking the time to read and respond to my book. It is no small investment for an established scholar to read, reflect, and respond in writing to a young scholar’s work. I am grateful to all four participants for their engagement and will look forward to the conversations that unfold over the course of the days to come.

    That said, I do have significant objections to Beattie’s interpretation of the scope, ethos, and implications of my work. I hope to flesh out these objections in what follows, but to do so in a way that is nested in my response to what I believe is a truly salient critique. In doing so, however, I cannot fail to note that Beattie’s reply does not address the content of my argument, much less its thesis. She focuses specifically on my style, and does so in a way that lifts out what she believes are two important implications of it. First, she argues, I have essentially fed my own flesh to the beast I had hoped to slay. My highly abstract rhetoric inscribed a performative contradiction into my text, one that is at cross-purposes with the stated animus of the work (e.g., “where is its ‘erotic passion’ and its ‘uninhibited creativity’?”) and its goal (e.g., “Is it possible or even desirable for a theologian to come to ‘a complete understanding’ of anything”).

    But Beattie’s second point, which is really the implicit sense of the first, is more significant and potentially damning. In fact, I suspect that her willingness to chalk up her stylistic objections to the fact that the work began as a dissertation is more a sign that she has elected to be judicious rather than hostile to the young scholar in pointing out absolutely pivotal problems with regard to gender, race, sexuality, domination, and exploitation. As she says, “academic theology’s substance is its style.”

    I want to acknowledge, at once, that I do not take such criticism lightly, nor do I think it is ancillary to the question of content. I recognize and affirm that if my argument has any validity at all, if my final constructive proposal matters at all, it will only be because it is meaningful for the concrete concerns that Beattie isolates. However, I am not at all prepared to concede that theology’s “substance is its style.” I see such a statement as the apotheosis of abstract bourgeois delusion, as the kind of ironic inversion we in the academic class like to believe is “subversive,” but which merely hides the truth that even our righteous opposition is a weapon in the master’s arsenal. Because of this, I think Beattie makes two mistakes in her assessment of the book and its style. She assumes that the work is uncritically naive about the significance of style in general and is thus unaware of its profound significance for either reinforcing or resisting logo- and phallocentric domination in particular. While I will never presume to be innocent of complicity with that domination, it is simply not true that the book is unself-conscious about style and does not challenge the accepted “rules” of normative discourse.

    First, a brief word about experience and context is in order. I was keenly aware from an early age, often in only vague inklings, of the physical and psychological toll the women I have known throughout my life have paid for subsistence in a world ordered by the patterns of male desire. Without knowing exactly what was happening, much less how to make sense of the experience, I witnessed how women I cared for deeply were coerced into complying with the inhibition of their desires, and I realized over time with shame how I, too, participated in that coercion, and how even my frustration with their complicity was fed by the same patterns of desire. I now teach theology at a seminary of the Episcopal Church in which literally one-half of our most recent graduating class are women and one-third of that class identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. I learn to hear the gospel in new and expansive ways from listening to the stories of how they struggle just to endure the demands of the bureaucratic ordination process with its intense pressures to conform to its often impossible and contradictory demands. I watch my wife, a priest, and other women of the seminary eagerly devote time to the question of how to dress as priests, a question that would never carry the same stigmatizing implications for the men, specifically as a way of learning to live into the authority they will carry as presbyters of the church. I see the LGBTQ students struggle to navigate the public life of a priest with integrity, and know that many choose instead to hide who they are for fear that demanding probity of the system will rob them of a ministry produced in them by the Spirit.

    So contrary to Beattie’s conclusion, even as I do have a certain stake (beyond a dissertation) in showing that I know the rules of the dominant theological discourse, I am hardly naive about their costs and know that the relationships in which I live and work define me and summon me to a responsibility to break, indeed to revolutionize, those rules. I am well aware, though, that Beattie’s claim is that I am unwittingly reinforcing them. It is this point that I confess most discourages me about her response. I am much less concerned that she elides my argument than that she does not recognize in it where and how I have already begun to break those rules. Most discouraging of all is that she did not see the significance of how I was doing so. After all, it is one thing in this theological climate to accuse Schleiermacher and Rahner of propping up a modern, bourgeois selfhood, but it is quite another to levy that charge at de Lubac and Barth. It is one thing in contemporary theology to repudiate the organizing concepts and commitments of modernity, and it is quite another to argue that the central theological concept in which we have sought to be rid of its fragmentation—the unity of grace with creation—is the primary site for its perpetuation. It is one thing to argue that Protestantism is the epitome of modernity, or that the “foundational,” “apologetic,” or “analogical” structure of Catholic thought is idolatrous, but it is quite another to argue that these patterns of thought are merely malaise, symptoms of a much deeper pathology. It is one thing to argue for the Catholic priority of charity or the Protestant priority of faith in justification, but it is quite another to argue that both are partial diagnoses of this more fundamental malady.

    Second, seeing how what I am after in the book is more than a facile repetition of Hooker’s so-called “middle way,” or even a commonplace form of Hegelian sublation, means recognizing the significance of exactly what is going on in the book’s style. Beattie is right to call attention to it. From her position of partisan advocacy for what is excluded from the discourse, not only is the kind of argument I have produced of no particular use, but it appears to occlude the real-world bodies of the poor, elderly, exploited, dominated, gay, lesbian, queer. She is pressing the issue that how the book argues, how it speaks, not only reinforces that symbolic order of domination and exploitation, but fails even to recognize that it is through our performative, rule-breaking use of language that we create the possibilities of new ways of life and social relations beyond that order. I think Beattie is nudging me, in Lacan’s terms, from the subservient discourse of university knowledge-production for “the master” (the phallus, the logos), and into the excessive, confounding discourse of the split subject, the hysteric.

    But what she does not recognize (or, it seems, even consider) is that my discursive style is, in fact, specifically ordered to function much more like that of the analyst. She would have me shift from occupying the place of “knowledge” (S2) that reinforces the arbitrary totality of the master signifier (S1), and take my place in that discourse that enunciates the truth the master and his knowledge suppresses. It is an important move Beattie is urging, because it means, as she sees it, ceasing to be a passive instrument of domination and learning to become an active agent of its confounding. Though it is true that the book does not speak from the position of the split subject, it does quite deliberately work, performatively, to occupy the place of surplus desire (joissance, objet a) as it is produced and configured by the master’s discourse.

    Let me explain what I mean. Beattie and I agree (I think) that the engine of desire is not “lack” but an originary, positive excess. But I understand this affirmation to entail a profound destabilizing of Lacan’s discursive architecture. I think it means, ultimately, that his entire edifice is an elaborate transcendental mystification of private property relations, which is also why I do not accept either Beattie’s dictum (“academic theology’s substance is its style”) or her injunction to take my place among the hysterics. I don’t accept them because I don’t think they are sufficiently critical, much less revolutionary. I do not think it is enough to speak in transgression of the law of the Father, to break his rules, if doing so means that we simultaneously lose the capacity to interrogate the structure that produces the hysteric’s agency, to recognize the whole order of the split subject as a mere product of bourgeois property relations.

    All of this means that the book’s style is, although quite different in its form, much closer to Irigaray’s mimesis and performative subversion than I believe Beattie has recognized. At least, I believe I am doing something that, whatever one makes of it, is much more interesting than the kind of unconscious production of the master’s knowledge that she seems to have presumed. I am very aware of the fault lines in the discourse I am engaging and I am painfully aware of the risks involved in inhabiting it. Nevertheless, I desire a transformation of the coordinates of the discourse and am not content simply to speak what the dominant discourse of creation and grace represses. I am not content with it because I am convinced that such speaking, however valuable or even heroic it is, ultimately perpetuates the matrix of abstractness that incubates our alienation.

    Consequently, the book’s style is what Hegel called “severe.” It is the peculiar style of fine art, mainly sculpture, which, in its move away from the classical period’s simultaneously pleonastic and stilted representations of the natural world, instead “clings to what is important and expresses and presents it in its chief outlines,” “grants domination to the topic alone” and “nothing at all” to the spectator, and “sharply repulses any subjective judgment.” In doing so, it stages for the audience an encounter with the world that avoids embellishment as much as possible so as to call attention away from the artist and her craft for the sake of giving “complete liberty to the topic” (Aesthetics, trans. Knox, pp.) It is precisely this style that affects a break with art as the unself-conscious extension of the symbolic order of politico-religious authority and opens a space within which to perceive the contours of the topic in their own right. The point is not to conceal the reality of artistic invention, but through it to facilitate a unity of art and nature that would be otherwise impossible.

    The “understanding” to which I refer in the introduction, then, is hardly in pursuit of “a complete” grasp of the topic. Rather, it means recognizing that the unity we yearn for between grace and creation absolutely revolts against the abstractness with which we have come to conceive it. This yearning (erotic passion) insists with a decisive intensity that we not only encounter but undergo the reality of our embodied, material, social relations, because in doing so we realize grace’s union with them—there, in the only place it exists for us, the only place it matters.

    All of these elements are crystallized in my argument for the significance of the will in our accounts of creation and grace. I’ve set out to show that it is this unwieldy and evasive concept of “the will” whose meaning slips suddenly and often imperceptibly from one concept to another—at one moment serving a function that is indistinguishable from “desire,” at another merely substituting for the “intellect,” and then in still another doing the work of both at once. Beattie was not alone among the respondents in this symposium to neglect even to mention this thesis. Not one of the four even discussed it! However, the aspects of style and subversion I discuss here are meaningful really only from the vantage of the insight that a clear distinction between desire, intellect, and will yields. And as kind as her comments are about the light my book can shed on the issues for those just beginning their study of theology, I am inclined to take the absence of any discussion of the book’s thesis from the four respondents in this symposium as empirical evidence to the contrary. I am likewise inclined to take it as at least anecdotal evidence of that thesis’s truth.

    I hope that this reply touches on the heart of Beattie’s concerns. Despite some perplexity about how my work stands in relation to her own—and especially with regard to how it may challenge some of the key assumptions that inform her work (e.g., facile juxtapositions of “Protestant” patterns of thought over against “Catholic” ones, or a symbolic “sacramentalism” over against a “modern” or “Enlightenment” rationalism)—I believe there is a much greater commonality between us and consistency of purpose than she has realized. I think that is unfortunate and I hope this response may do something to rectify that.

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      Tina Beattie


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Joshua, I have thought much about your book and gained much from reading it, despite also having reservations. I spent some time trying to summarise its key arguments and to say where I found these inspiring and engaging. Reflecting on your response to my comments, I feel we are a little like ships that pass in the night. I’m not sure either of us ‘gets’ what the other is saying, though I do say in my review (which isn’t a review really, since I was asked to write something more personal and provocative than a review), that we share fundamental concerns.

      I’m not advocating theology from experience, but nevertheless I find it interesting that so little of the personal and professional life you describe in your response finds any space in your book. I could only engage with what you chose to put in the book, and I struggled to locate the material and social contexts within which your criticism of the dominant tradition might seed itself to produce a new theological paradigm. I admit though, I was also making a more substantial point about the future of systematic theology in its present form, and perhaps it was unfair to use a comment on your book as a vehicle for doing that. Yet if, as you seem to suggest, your style is mimetic of that dominant theological discourse in order to expose it and rupture its coherence, I wonder if you fall into the trap that some have accused Luce Irigaray of: the mimesis becomes so convincing that it loses its parodic and critical edge.

      I am not advocating ‘hysteria’ as a form of theological discourse. In fact, the opposition between the master and the hysteric is simply another way of perpetuating the ancient dualisms. I resist Lacan’s equation of mysticism with hysteria. We are not forced to choose between only two forms of discourse. The vernacular women theologians of the Middle Ages were just that – they were not hysterics but theologians using a different linguistic medium, emerging out of different social and intellectual contexts from their scholastic counterparts, but still doctrinally orthodox and capable of consciously crafting a theological style to communicate their ideas. (I stand by my claims about style and substance, but maybe others will agree with you). I am asking if we can find a language that is more expressive of materiality, including not only its desiring and positive aspects but also its violent and distorting aspects, but that at least reconnects the concepts we theologians deal in with the worlds we inhabit with other human and non-human creatures.

      Nevertheless, I need to reflect more on your suggestion that your book performatively occupies the place of surplus desire, and seeks to take the position of the analyst. I wonder if the main problem is a lack of ‘flags’ which would help your readers to recognise moments of irony, parody, mimesis, etc. That is still a stylistic problem, but surely we have to give our audience some clues as to how we expect to be read? And if none of us picked up on your important thesis about the will and desire, that suggests we all needed just a slightly better road map to guide us through the text.

      There is so much more going on in your response that I’m not engaging with here Joshua, because I hope others might take up some of these points and help both of us to see more clearly what the other is asking. I agree that there is commonality between us, and I said that in my reflection, but I still need help to really see what your project is about in a way that would make it something I could understand and engage with on a deeper and more insightful level than I feel I have done so far.

      But the conversation is fun!

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      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Tina Beattie

      In my previous comment, I mentioned that I am still exploring the relationship of the book’s argument to its style. I had hoped that we might have a constructive exchange about that particular point — how the concerns I have in my argument might be best stylistically expressed. However, since your comment refers mostly to the original posts, perhaps it is better to table those concerns for now.

      I mentioned Irigaray and Lacan only heuristically. I don’t think that what I am up to is either mimetic in her sense or analytic in his — only that it is closer to both of them on these points than you seemed to have recognized. So I really have no investment in defending a particular understanding of what is going on in them. I brought them into the conversation as a way of inflecting my argument into an idiom that is perhaps more familiar for you. And it is in this heuristic way, too, that I use the language of “hysteric,” since I recognize that you are opposed to conflating the “mystic” discourse you’re advocating for with “hysteric” discourse in Lacan’s sense.

      But this is also where a peculiarity seems to arise, making it difficult for me to follow your point about the success of Irigaray’s mimesis and my own. I specifically have in mind the fact that the critics of Irigaray who make this point against her do so specifically from the conviction of the necessity of “hysteric” speech — that is of giving voice to the semiotic that the symbolic represses, and to do so, as you say, with a critical irony of “parody.” I have no interest at all in irony or parody, and I did not mean to suggest that’s what I was up to. What I I am urging, and believe I was doing in the book, is an earnest, critical inhabitation of our ecclesial (and in this sense theological) situation, one which seeks for an honest and courageous confrontation with its empirical reality, and which can produce through its intensity of commitment a suspension and transmutation of that situation from within. The trouble lies with the fact that, though I understand very well that you want a “theological” discourse that is not reducible to a “master’s” or a “hysterics” discourse, your critique of style only seems significant as an injunction to occupy the space of the “hysteric.” Rather, a better way of putting it might be that, I can only make sense of the overwhelming significance you’ve attached to style if what you’re encouraging with “mystic” speech is simply convertible with it. Otherwise, I don’t see why or how the the book’s “severe” style is problematic, and is not itself a form of mystic speech — which is exactly how I understand it and what I intend it to be. Of course, conceding me this point would mean allowing that mystic speech is something other in substance than a “form,” a style. But if you insist on its being principally stylistic, then I think it remains reducible to the form of speech that Lacan (unfortunately) called “hysteric.”

      I am happy to join my voice with yours in declaring Catherine, with all her blood-drenched, desire-swarming, body-teeming prose, to be a theologian. I will relish doing so and join in the reverie myself. But, in this case, arguing in this way would have committed me to an entirely different argumentative premise. It would have prevented me from saying, for example, that the stylistic form you’re enjoining, the “plunge into the “watery medium” of the “turbulent waters of grace,” is substantially empty and purely formal. It would not simply have meant I was guilty of the same abstractness (admitting this is part of the strategy of the argument), but that I was invested in preserving it. It would have meant that I was discursively producing an illusory space of of authenticity, purity, innocence, excess, or exceptionality that is somehow meant to function as authoritative. What else can it mean to encourage theologians to “take the plunge” unless one is confident that she has “strip[ped] off and plunge[ed] into the turbulent waters of grace,” that she speaks from a position capable of “describ[ing] the world and our task within it differently.” I really don’t know how else to read the analogy of jumping into the Thames, except as an appeal to just this kind of authoritative authenticity.

      What is more, you may be right — though I don’t know how we would know — that Catherine of Sienna spoke as she did because images, emotions, and metaphors she evoked were the “substance of her daily life,” that they flowed from her union with the “fleshy bodies of the poor and the suffering, the desperate and the dying.” What is key to my argument, though, is that this is not and cannot be true for us. Our social context and conditions are not hers, and this same language serves very different tasks and interests for us than it did for her. I am arguing that, for us, we can actually know this kind of language to be an expression and reiteration of our social alienation and fragmentation — a yearning for some reunion with the natural world, one another, and God that is not for us actual. In its social actuality, such language functions — precisely inasmuch as it promotes itself, through a self-exculpatory style of purity, as a “solution” — to perpetuate the fragmentations and alienations of our condition.

      Really, this is exactly how de Certeau designates the significance of “mystic speech”: as a transitory, u-topic, peripatetic illocution, which advances as a parasitic and purely formal operation upon otherwise authoritative discursive structure (“the place of speaking for a speaking that has no place”). I don’t think this is what mystic speech is. I think it is an intensive habitation of reality, a way of life that is sustained by the actuality (however nascent) of an alternative, revolutionary social order. But I don’t know how to make sense of the weight your critique has put on style, except as inevitably commending just this u-topic, procedural formalism. And if that’s all mystic speech is for us, then it is merely the ironic reveling in the ecstatic anomy of the bourgeoisie.

      This is the reason, ultimately, any critique of the book’s style must give way, and in fact begin with actual engagement with its argument. And this is so specifically because of how integral they are to one another. (Perhaps you overlooked the roadmap of the argument on pp. 3–5.)

    • Avatar

      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Tina Beattie

      I’m afraid I didn’t make sufficiently clear that that last comment is intended to elaborate on the complex ways that our social circumstances condition our thinking for ALL OF US, and how easy it is to misrecognize what is at stake. Why it is, in other words, that making the argument in a particular register is not as easy as it might otherwise seem.

      It is a very complex matter, because on the one hand, we can fall uncritically into a position that is framed in terms entirely devoid of contact with embodiment, emotion, etc, as you suggest. Yet, equally important, but in a fantastically more deceptive way, is the temptation simply to appeal to “materiality” and “bodies,” etc. What we miss in this though is how “materiality” comes to function abstractly, and in a way that, though unintentional, props us the separation. And does so by speaking from a linguistic register that is purports not to be implicated in the problem.

      And this is not as simple a matter as changing the language, or even playing with its fluidity. The problem isn’t some intransigent theoretical “structure” we have to disrupt, but an actual social conditions—one that reproduces a form of thought that mis-takes itself to be sufficiently free from these social condition as to be capable of subverting them. I am working to say, on the contrary, that the resolution of this problem demands a certain vigilant attending to its formation of thought, and in such a way as to elicit an irreducibly ethical and social action that can transmute those conditions into conditions that are truly and concretely unifying, life-giving.

      Hence, the appearance of the will and its significance.

      The purpose of highlighting the profound confusion that surrounds the notion of “the will” in discussions of creation, grace, and human freedom (and the reason those doctrines are so fraught with significance for us in the present) is to show how the persistent separation of these doctrines belie the larger trouble we have with recognizing the ethical aspect of reality itself, the metaphysical significance of ethics. The union of the doctrines resides not in a transcendental structure of existence, but in a particular modality of action, which is itself enabled by the actuality of a unique and unsubstitutable social relation—the positive affirmation of otherness itself. Here is where I think all the really exciting stuff in the book really starts to open up—but all of that is at the end of this “analytic,” or therapeutic way that I am working through the issues to bring into relief where precisely it is that the mystery lies—that is, where it is that the matter slips through our fingers and summons us beyond what we are attempting to “grasp.”

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      Tina Beattie


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Hello Joshua – or, to use the greeting I see at the top of this website – ‘Howdy, Josh’. Thank you for these rich responses and engagements, which I have been reading and thinking about over the last few days. My lack of a similar level of engagement has not been because of disinterest but because of time constraints. Rather than trying to address all the points you raise, I’m going to pick out a couple of issues from your August 6 post at 7.49 am.

      You say that you are still exploring the relationship of the book’s argument to its style. As far as I understand the argument, I am completely in agreement with you. The theological tradition has perpetuated deeply damaging forms of dualism through its various representations of the relationship between nature and grace, and through its failure to ask what the Trinitarian relationality of the Godhead implies for our social relationships. These distorting dualisms pervade the dominant tradition in one form or another, even if they play out differently among and between theologians in different ecclesial and historical contexts. To revisit the doctrine of creation ex nihilo in order to reconfigure how we understand the relationship between the creator and our own creatureliness, to reimagine the dynamics of will and desire, and to reflect anew on what it means for our social relationships to say we are made in the image of the Trinitarian God, are vital insights in your book which really do call into question the most fundamental premises of the Christian theological enterprise.

      However, having spent many years asking the same fundamental questions, I ask myself why I am baffled by some parts of your book and cannot engage with it as fully as I’d like to, given that I also find moments of deep inspiration and engagement. I come down to a question of style. I cannot engage with your theological sources because I am not familiar enough with their work, and I don’t find enough entry points to lead me in from where I am to where you are. Such differences are inevitable in any academic discipline, but if we are to engage with one another, then you need to show me the connections. What are the opportunities for cross-fertilisation between my project and yours? Do I have to reinscribe myself into a theological narrative written exclusively by the male heavyweights of the tradition in order to be able to speak with you? What language shall we use to communicate?

      My own reading around these issues has taken me in a very different direction from yours – primarily in the direction of patristic and contemporary Mariology and subsequently in studies of two key Catholic theologians – Hans Urs von Balthasar and Thomas Aquinas. In each case, I have used Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, gender theory and feminist theology to help me in my task of excavating the unacknowledged repressions, distortions and contradictions in my theological sources, and they also help to shed light on those areas where the Marian tradition in particular, but also von Balthasar and Aquinas, can be salvaged to construct the kind of theological vision I think we’re both searching for.

      I have chosen this method because the relationship between nature and grace/creator and creation is gendered through and through – implicitly in most modern theology, explicitly in pre-modern theology and in von Balthasar – and you elide that insight in your treatment of these issues. Sarah Coakley’s book, ‘God, Sexuality, and the Self’, is due for discussion in one of the forthcoming symposia, and she makes the point that ‘no cogent answer to the contemporary Christian question of the Trinitarian God can be given without charting the necessary and intrinsic entanglement of human sexuality and spirituality in such a quest … [T]he problem of the Trinity cannot be solved without addressing the very questions that seem least to do with it … questions of sexual justice, questions of the meaning and stability of gender roles, questions of the final theological significance of sexual desire’. (pp. 2-3). In neglecting these gendered and sexual perspectives, you not only elide one of the foundational philosophical concepts which feeds into the Christian doctrines of God and creation (i.e. the gendered relationship between form/mind and matter/body, spirit and flesh, divine and human), you also elide all the contemporary theologians who are asking these questions – and most of them are women theologians.

      So stylistically, you position yourself in a very different area of academic theology from my own, and in posing these questions to you, I’m not playing by the rules of the game. I’m coming at you with questions from way outside the parameters and disciplinary boundaries of your book. Maybe I’m a totally inappropriate person to be reflecting on your book. Here is a little cautionary tale, before you take my questions too seriously.

      I was recently talking to a highly respected and well-known theologian who was describing to me how a personal experience of caring for a suffering child had changed his theology. I asked him if he would say so in the introduction to his next book, and he seemed embarrassed. No, he replied, he couldn’t do that because people would stop taking him seriously. So now I sometimes ask young men embarking on theological careers, how much they are willing to bring their own vulnerability and desire into their theology. It is a question that seems to trouble them – but be warned, if you want to be taken seriously, don’t do it!

      On the question of style, let me move to my next point, with a change of style.

      He: ‘I am happy to join my voice with yours in declaring Catherine, with all her blood-drenched, desire-swarming, body-teeming prose, to be a theologian. I will relish doing so and join in the reverie myself. But, in this case, arguing in this way would have committed me to an entirely different argumentative premise. It would have prevented me from saying, for example, that the stylistic form you’re enjoining, the “plunge into the “watery medium” of the “turbulent waters of grace,” is substantially empty and purely formal. … [Y]ou may be right — though I don’t know how we would know — that Catherine of Sienna spoke as she did because images, emotions, and metaphors she evoked were the “substance of her daily life,” that they flowed from her union with the “fleshy bodies of the poor and the suffering, the desperate and the dying.” What is key to my argument, though, is that this is not and cannot be true for us. Our social context and conditions are not hers, and this same language serves very different tasks and interests for us than it did for her. I am arguing that, for us, we can actually know this kind of language to be an expression and reiteration of our social alienation and fragmentation — a yearning for some reunion with the natural world, one another, and God that is not for us actual.’

      She: Before I ever wrote of God, I gave birth in blood and water, I fed my children at my breast and felt my soul aching with their vulnerability. My heart, my bones and my flesh pulsed with yearning for the one who mothered and loved these newborn creatures more than I did, who brought them into being in my womb and gave them breath and life. My blood-drenched, desire-swarming, body-teeming life led me to a journey of discovery along the pathways of theology. When my youngest child started school, I went to university. They wanted my theology to be empty and purely formal, but how could it be? My questions were not their questions. My yearning discovered no answering voice in the books they told me to read. My desire was muffled by the arguments they offered.

      I had left school at fifteen. I knew nothing of the God of the theologians, but I knew much about the God of the Presbyterians who was my childhood companion, lover and comforter, and my adolescent cast-off. I came back in my late twenties, seeking that God anew in the turbulence of motherhood, and He was there, the Father, exhausting me with His demands, wearing me down with his rules, stifling my intellect with His scriptural commands that must be obeyed simply because He says so. I went in search of a different God, and I found myself kneeling in shimmering candlelight before a dusty, tear-stained Piéta in waxy, incense-laden air. I had come home, yet there was nobody there. He whom my heart desired was gone, and I went out into the streets of the academy looking for my Beloved and found him not.

      Then I realised that this absence was my desire, my jouissance, my beloved. My theology must not seek to capture this elusive God but must allow the infection of my own desire to invite others to come and play in the space of yearning and vulnerability that is more about hope than faith, more about journeying than arriving, more about seeking than finding. I have also always had a passion for language, for poetry and literature, for the capacity of words to paint a world. And so my theology is linguistic creativity in the service of God, and language is all I have in this academic world in which I find myself. Outside of that world, I swim and I dance, I weep and I rage, I love and I despair, but books cannot contain such a bodily weight. So the body too must become an absence and a linguistic style, in prose that is loose enough for the body to appear in the gaps.

      This is not the densely plugged language of liberal feminism, where the appeal to experience puts a strangely controlled and knowable self in the place of mystery and revelation. This is the body of the one who knows herself and her desire and experience only insofar as she knows God, and who must therefore accept that she truly knows neither. Her own experience is not a yardstick against which to measure theology but a turbulent dynamism of the soul as it flows between the polarities of matter and spirit, of immanence and transcendence, resting in neither but woven on the loom of separation between the two. How can theology express such an experience? How can it call itself incarnational theology if it does not?

      You ask of Catherine how we would know if her language flowed from the substance of her daily life. We know because she tells us. She makes present those desiring, bleeding, suffering bodies in her theology. She spent her days in the streets of poor and plague-ravished Siena, and she insisted over and over again that the neighbour is the only medium through which we come to know and serve God. You say of her that this is not and cannot be true for us, but I ask why not? You say that ‘Our social context and conditions are not hers’, but we all have different social contexts and conditions. A different kind of theology emerges from the book-bound silence of a library occupied by celibate men from that which emerges from a kitchen table in the midst of family life. An angst-ridden male intellectual relates to God differently from a man or woman struggling to make a living and hold a family together in the midst of the ordinary concerns and demands of daily life. Where do we position ourselves as Christian theologians in the midst of these differences and desires in our postmodern world? Do theologians not also hold bodies and tend the wounded? Do we not also make love and nurse children? Do we not care for ageing parents and keep company with dying friends? Do we not celebrate the birth of children and participate in the exuberant couplings and mournful separations of life? Do we not watch from afar as people are bombed and tortured and starved and sent into refuge, and imagine those bodies in all their vivid visceral reality with the inescapable, impossible demands they put upon us? Can we not sing the body electric and find a space for it within our language? Do we not bring all this to the sacraments and translate it into the story of Christ and the Church – birthing, loving, eating, suffering, dying, rising, nurturing and wounding – in that sublime and muddied space of separation which is also the space of transubstantiation, of materialising God in the lacuna between words and the world? How are we to talk of the Word made flesh, if not in words that express the materiality of the world?

      My language is not innocent, pure or authentic, and it is certainly not authoritative. It is simply the way I do theology, as literature, as prose, sometimes as argument and analysis. It is a style of writing that seeks to be gusted through by the absence that marks the presence of the mystery, the darkness, the infinite question which glistens from the life-giving heavens and oozes from the life-drenched earth. It is a language that refuses to march to the drumbeat of the men of God, but seeks a linguistic medium in which to swim and sing, to weep and mourn, to live and love, with Catherine’s God.

      Catherine knew all about social alienation and fragmentation. She knew about absence and yearning. She died in despair over the state of the Church, and her union with God was something of the soul that she (‘I, Catherine’) claimed to know nothing about. She was an accomplished and orthodox theologian, as were so many women like her, and the absence of God and the body gape as an unanswerable presence within her writings. I find in her a mimetic style, across the unbridgeable void of time and space, which helps me to find a different voice from that which I discover in the books of those who count as ‘real’ theologians, while still speaking within a theological tradition.

      It is all a question of style and context. Who does theology, where do we do it, how do we do it, and who do we do it for? Our response to those questions will determine our sources and our style. So back to my questions to you. I must take your word for it when you line up so many men before me and tell me they are all wrong. I must take your word for it, because like many others I have already decided that much of what those men offer is high and dry, and there are different waters to swim in, different theologians to play with, different media in which to do theology, different patterns of grace to explore within the fabric of the world.

      A change of style, or a change of substance?

      Above all, we should not take ourselves too seriously. I hope you read this as playfully as it is intended!

    • Avatar

      Tina Beattie


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Me again! I’ve just reread this response, and I think it’s pretty much what I’m saying in my latest response—very much a question of style then. Your last observation in your response to Craig Hovey sums it up: “I think the only real alternative is sacramentally embodied in the way of life that is the Christian church, but I think really working through what this means will involve us in thinking from the standpoint of our involvement in sustainable patterns of resistance, even defiance—patterns, though, that we live out for the world and its life.” My reservation is this “we”. What is this “Christian church” that shares a sacramental embodied unity? American evangelicals are changing the world by funding homophobic missions of proselytization in Uganda. Are they part of the sacramentally embodied Church? What of the victims of HIV/AIDS stigmatisation propagated by these missionaries and the preachers they indoctrinate? We must be careful who we mean by “we” lest we lose sight of the tragedy of Christian separation which is not easily resolved. If we are to bridge the Protestant/Catholic gap, we have to keep worrying away about the question you and I agree is fundamentally important and always ignored—our theologies of grace and the deficiencies on both sides—but I think the exchange between us has shown that the resources for doing that are very different within our different traditions. How do we use these, and how do we cope with irreconcilable difference?

    • Avatar

      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Tina Beattie

      Tina — YES!!!! Thank you for this!

      Your challenge here cuts right to the heart. I welcome it. I write now only to say that I am sitting with this.

    • Avatar

      Joshua B. Davis


      A Reply to Tina Beattie


      My response here is not as playful as yours, but these are the thoughts that your wonderful reply provoked in me and I wanted to share them. I also trust that you will appreciate that I don’t relay any of it as a way of taking myself too seriously.

      I completed my bachelor’s degree at a denominational liberal arts college that, at the time, was much smaller than it is now. I believe I started the process of transferring the first week I was there, but because I’d received a good scholarship and the money my mother and grandmother put up for my studies was already too much for them, it was really never feasible for me to leave. And by the time I had reached my final year, when I was no longer plausibly naive, and I’d already skipped too many classes and spent too much of their money not to finish, I decided that, despite some significant underperformance on my transcript, I was going to make the whole thing meaningful by writing a thesis that would earn me a degree “with honors.”

      Interestingly, it had been theology that made it so hard to be there. I don’t mean the oppressive daily chapel or the school’s Evangelical identity. I never paid attention to either of those, anyway. When I say it was theology that made it hard to be there, I mean: because I loved God. Nothing pietistic or Transcendentalist, like I loved God and all that theology and “religion” got in the way. I mean I was only there in the first place to study theology because I loved God, and there was nothing more I wanted to do.

      My love for God was not something within my control, really, and it never has been. It is just the inevitable pattern of life that has taken shape, the desire elicited, in the wake of a very intense and vivid experience I had one afternoon of being caught up in God’s own life. There were no spiritual directors in my sleepy Alabama town (at least none that I knew anything of), and certainly none of the preachers could help. Good people taught me the Bible and gave me what passed for catechesis, but who was there that could help me make sense of that desire-swarming, body-teeming encounter with Life? What it did provoke was a promiscuous scouring of books—Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Richard Foster, Teresa of Avila, Max Lucado, Dallas Willard, Augustine, Rich Mullins (musician), Frederick Buechner, Alan Jones—anything, really, I could get my hands on that would shed light on this Life and help me have more of it.

      I knew that in college, “Christian college,” they called this stuff “theology” and I went there to immerse myself in it. And, like you, what I got was purely formal. They asked me to separate the“theology” from the “love” in a way I just didn’t know how to do—in a way that I just didn’t want to do.

      So I majored in literature.

      And this brings me back to the thesis. What I wrote was this sprawling, poetic, and expressionistic “essay” in literary theory and theology. The thing is so embarrassingly pretentious (I may be misremembering, but I think a portion of it was written in two columns, like Glas) and hubristic that I will not say anything more about it except that I was in way over my head and that this was the iteration of my love, the attempt to speak that love into a discipline that not only had no place for it, but which literally excluded it from consideration—excluded the one reason at all that I could see that there was for studying theology. It was an ungraceful attempt to bring these two worlds, not so much into harmony, as into a mutually transforming dialogue.

      I passed the defense and graduated “with honors.” But the intense struggle to justify the legitimacy of what I was doing, leading up to and within the defense, made it very clear to me that “theology” was much more of a disciplinary regime, eager to police its boundaries, language, concepts, and even the desires it elicits or allows to be expressed.

      I learned the lesson. It was excruciatingly difficult. But, just as you say in your cautionary note, it was reinforced very quickly, again and again, that if I was going to be taken seriously I must speak a particular idiom and appeal to a distinctive set of authorities. I recall very intentionally approaching my graduate work in theology, once it began (I still had no degree in theology!), like a guitarist who was now going to have be forced to play scales and vigilantly check his posture and technique for the next seven years. And my hope at least was that, at the end of it all, I would be able to do, say, think, and create things that I couldn’t at the beginning.

      The matter is even more complicated than this, though, because I also came to love these thinkers: Augustine’s passionate desire, anger, pastoral care, courageous intervention in conflict, peculiar mix of biography and metaphysics; Aquinas’ ravenous pursuit of insight and clarity, dogged and innovative defense of the scientific knowledge of theology, always animated by a yearning for God; Schleiermacher’s bold reconstruction of the faith in terms that are simultaneously affective, scientific, ecclesiocentric, and Christocentric; Barth’s unremitting advance to take all thought captive for Jesus Christ—I could go on with these, but in each case the yearning for knowledge of God coincides with a profound respect for the transformative, and even divinizing (even in Barth, despite himself) aspect of understanding. And what I love about them is that what they treat spans the whole of Christian doctrine, the whole of Christian experience, and is so much more complex and nuanced than our stereotypes and particular sets of critiques want to allow them to be. They force us to read and reread them in order to understand them better, glean some insight from them, because they are always straining the bounds of what the language will authorize them to say, straining the bounds of their own understanding.

      This is, after all, what I understand “waiting” to be—the fact that all real knowledge is prayer—the result of giving oneself to an other, responding to what is given to you to hear, see, feel, read, think from that other, and to do so as a way that receives it as a communication—one that invites and enables a response, while spurring us on to seek recognition (understanding) and to act on behalf of that other’s flourishing (ethics). Such waiting inevitably provokes anxiety because it requires the disruption of egoic, ideological, or identifiable stability; it demands, without compromise, a willingness to undergo that loss for the sake of realizing the possibility of unity and freedom of action that is not now real for us. But it also means that unity and freedom may be real for us if we are willing to risk the stabilities of our self-understanding, willing to risk not only being misunderstood but of admitting our misunderstandings—admitting even that we may be the one’s who’ve misunderstood ourselves, willing to allow ourselves to slip from our positions. It is to do all of this for the sake of opening a space for the transformation of ourselves and our situation in as-yet-unforeseen and uncontrollable ways. This is what I mean when I say that I don’t want parody, but intensive inhabitation of the situation. It means I want to engage it in ways that transmute its coordinates in inescapable ways—coordinates of which I am always already one myself.

      I suppose this is what I would want to say in response to your wonderful reply here: thank you for engaging in the dialogue, for allowing yourself to enter it, with all that animates your work and bringing it to bear on my work, and for demanding as much of me in return as a condition for transformative engagement. It is the reason that you are the right person to be responding to the book, regardless of whether you can speak to the sources directly. There are probably many aspects of this story that will tell you something about what this book is to me. What I hope you will see in particular is how it is that this love of God drives my work, and how I understand very clearly what the stakes are here. In fact, they are much higher now in many ways for all the reasons you point out about being “taken seriously”—these are very much a matter of livelihood for me now. So there is no small amount of risk involved simply in taking your challenge seriously. This book, for all the critiques of style that you’ve raised, is the product of this struggle to understand this Life that has so graciously taken hold of mine, made itself known to me, and begun to make me into someone who, though stammering and often defensive, can be some kind of communication of it. I may have allowed that desire too much to be hidden beneath the bushel of the idiom, the “rules.” I have confessed some uneasiness about that in my first comment, and I want to continue to explore that. Because, as I’ve said to those close to me when I talked about what I am doing here, I’ve said on more than one occasion that I feel like what I’ve done is just cleared my throat.

      But there is something else that continue to press on me, and which makes it impossible for me to simply accept the challenge you’ve put to me in those terms. That is the fact that it was only because I allowed my language and concepts to be reshaped as I did that I was admitted to a PhD program to study theology at all. I suppose you could liken it to having to visit your beloved in prison. You want to be together free of these oppressive restraints, but you’ll still take all you can get. Of course, the important point is never to confuse the prison for the reality of a free relation, and this is exactly the point that I protested against in my original response. I may not have been successful in my attempt to share my love under these restrictive conditions, but it is the oppressive limits to which I am asking us to pay close and discerning attention. I am simply not content to allow us to mistake the prison for freedom, the separation for the union.

      I may have, indeed, lost something—and, as I’ve already said, I have this uneasy feeling like some creative communication is still to be developed. But I don’t think that thing, this style, that I am looking for is just there for me to pick up and use, that it will do the work I believe it must do. It will have to be constructed. But, even if I have lost something, I still ask that you consider that, because I haven’t simply bought uncritically into the rules but am really seeking to inhabit them in a particularly intensive way, is it not possible that doing so has enabled me to see, think, and say something that I would not otherwise have been able? Is it not possible that doing this work in this way does introduce something creative and transformative into the discourse? Was it wrong for me to have allowed this discourse the sway I did? Is there no value in that does not reinscribe all the alienation to which you rightly point? Is there any way for this to be meaningful to the blood and water and sweat and vomit and flesh and violence and peace and tenderness that drives your work—and which I hope drives mine?

      I will end by noting something about the title of the book. You are right that the book does not at all make explicit how its language is gendered—or racialized, or any of the other ways in which I assume unconscious privilege. All of these are shortcomings of the book. To object that my primary concern is to open up the discourse would not be disingenuous, but it would be to defend unfairly against what this costs my argument by not putting it at the forefront. I recognize that—and I know, as the situation in St. Louis here in the US shows, that failing to do so has real-world implications for bodies. I will continue to think through what this means for what I am working to say, with a particular eye on how it changes what I say and how I say it.

      There is an experience that is captured implicitly for me in the title of the book that may speak, in some way, to this gendered dimension. The title of the book refers to Simone Weil’s use of the word “attendance,” which was a notion that was always very meaningful to me because of the light it shed on my experiences of God’s Life. But the notion took on a powerfully transformative dimension after the birth of our first child. At first, it was the experience of an-other entering my life who had, simply by virtue of his existence, a claim to priority in all aspects of mine. I don’t mean merely the inevitable disruption of my self-perception or the frustration of my desires, but the sheer factuality of the obligation to reorient everything that I am and all that I do to attending to him, to receiving all that his dependent, vulnerable life introduces into mine, and allowing him to reshape my pattern of living into one that served the flourishing of life in him. This was not a transformation in my own self-awareness, though it most certainly was this. It meant, literally, embracing the summons to be realigned at the core by the cry that awoke me fifteen minutes after I had fallen asleep. It meant learning not to resist the claim that this cry had over my me, who I was, and what I wanted. It meant finding myself in responding to that obligation and learning to love the person that I was becoming by attending to him.

      All of this was happening to me as I was completing the book. I wrote, I comforted my crying son. I wrote, I fed my crying son. I wrote, I changed my crying son. I did this while my wife worked to complete her education for the priesthood and prepared for her ordination exams. I continued to be his primary caregiver for the three years that followed, as I taught where and when I could, publish when and how I could, and complete the revisions of this book for publication. There were a number of ways that this experience as a stay-at-home father transformed how I related to and perform “masculinity,” and the most important of these arose from within the complexly gendered situation that my wife and I together navigated as she began her priesthood as a nursing mother (and later, to everyone’s surprise, as a pregnant mother) and I assumed the role, as a man, of the unemployed clergy-spouse—the “preacher’s wife,” as the role was called where I came from—taking care of the baby.

      So you may be right that these issues may result in the work not being taken seriously. But I am being honest when I say that these are the issues upon which I hope the work will open out. Who knows what such a thing may mean for a “career” as a theologian, and who ultimately can control how we are perceived or read? That is the anxiety that lay, I believe, at the root of truly ethical responsibility. It is the risk that must be taken—the risk of being misunderstood, as well of being fundamentally transformed, if we are to realize the union to which we are called, to realize the good that wants to take root in us.

      That’s at least something more about what I’d hoped to say.

    • Avatar

      Tina Beattie


      A Reply to Joshua Davis

      Josh, I am in awe that a conversation that started out in such mutual incomprehension has come to a place of such grace. Thank you for risking this. There is not a single word that doesn’t find an echo in me. Of course, echoes are sounds that resound across abysmal spaces, but even so, I’m grateful for what has happened here. It feels like a moment of grace.

      Let me also admit that I was and am nervous about challenging you in this way, because of course I understand the rules and the need to play by them. I’ve reached a stage when I can afford to be a little cavalier about playing by the rules, but that’s a luxury that many in your situation can’t afford. Even so, I hope that others will read what you’ve written here, because it explains so much, and helps to shed light on some of the aspects of your book that all the commentators found baffling.

      I remember Denys Turner once remarking how an undergraduate student had pointed out to him that apophaticism and cataphaticism are not so different. They both use words, after all, it’s just that the kind of words they use is different. So, after this exchange, I begin to see what I couldn’t see on my earlier reading—your book is an exercise in apophatic theology, which resists the lush fecundity of a cataphatic style, but which knows the cost of writing of that which cannot be said, in words that are not necessarily of your choosing. I guess the words we would choose to bridge the aporia await us in the eschaton, but in the meantime this is a fertile meeting in the broken middle.

      I agree with you about the grand old men—Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Schleiermacher and all the rest. Of course I read and love them, for all the reasons you say. As for Simone Weil, every time I have a new group of students, I try to find space to get them to read her ‘Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God’. It is about patience and waiting, in all the ways you suggest. (Do you know Maggie Ross’s book, ‘Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding’? I recommend it).

      Anyway, I don’t want to prolong this, because I think what you’ve written should be the last word—at least in our exchange. I suspect we’ve both broken any rules that this symposium might hope to maintain, but it was worth it! Thank you for being so gracious and for giving so much of yourself. Something deeply theological has happened here.