Blasphemous Confessions

Such blasphemies, because they are violently extorted from men by the devil against their will, sometimes sound more pleasant in the ear of God than a hallelujah or some kind of hymn of praise (Luther, Lectures on Romans).

A recent post at AUFS has enticed me to make a few comments on my own understanding of “confessional” theology.  Duke is a place that prides itself in producing confessional theologians, theologians who write in and for “the church,” whose theology is situated within the historic confessions of faith (“orthodox”), who take seriously “the grammar” and “liturgical performance” of “the historic Christian faith.”  To put it briefly and polemically, Duke intends to produce Christian theologians.  As such, it has placed much emphasis on what it means to be “properly” Christian.  

Many a Duke student–especially white male students with some kind of evangelical background–find themselves torn between two particular Christian traditions, Catholic and Anabaptist (I myself almost landed in the former).  The fact that students–and faculty–can flutter between these two historically antithetical confessions of faith reveals the peculiarity of this new confessional theology.  It is not so much the particularities of distinct confessions that matter but the particularity of confessing at all.  To draw on the language from a previous post:  what draws both the Catholic and Anabaptist traditions together is their Christian particularity, in particular, their (American) performance as ethnicity.  The confessional theology being sought is not a particular confession but the confession of Christianity as particular, as a kind of ethnic social group to which one belongs and which shapes the entirety of one’s experience of the larger social world.  It is this more rigorous social formation–the “virtues,” “grammar,” and “tradition”–that Duke seeks to engraft students within.

This production of Christianity as a kind of communal ethnic formation requires discrete attention to proper and improper performances of “the tradition.”  To ground oneself in the “wrong” tradition, in an aberrant or wayward Christianity, is to ground oneself in a kind of misbegotten or contaminated form of life.  Accordingly, discussions of orthodoxy and heresy permeate the halls, without any awareness that the ecclesial power structures that historically subtended those discussions are absent.  More accurately, and with Foucault in mind here, the structures of “sovereignty” needed to make declarations of heresy/orthodoxy meaningful have been transfered from the ecclesial authority to the larger ecclesial body. It is the church, in fact, the divinity students themselves, who bear the responsibility to detect and excise heresy while promoting and preserving the “virtues” of the proper, particular, Christian social world.  To produce itself as “peculiar people,” the church body as a whole must renew its classificatory powers, distilling its own proper form as it overcomes or expels various aberrations (“heresies,” “the secular”).

In the introduction to Christ the Center, Bonhoeffer states that “Teaching about Christ begins in silence” (27), which is not a methodological silence or attentive listening but a “silence before the Word,” that is, before the “Counter-Logos” who unseats the authority of the “human, classifying logos” (29).  The silence, therefore, is produced by an interruption; it is not the silence before speaking commences but the silence that irrupts when the speaker is confronted.  It is the silent hesitations of “dethroned and distraught reason” (30), the halting of our thought when confronted by the Counter-Logos who cannot be “assimilated” to our thought.  The counter movement of the logos is this logos’ historical flesh, the flesh of God.  In the incognito of the Incarnation,” the ambiguous presence of God stands before us and declares “himself as judgment upon the human logos” (30).  The ambiguous presence of God interrupts our thought and halts our (feigned) powers of classification and discrimination.

For Bonhoeffer, theology is then not primarily confessional (a confident speaking with/together, or simply a confident, forceful speaking) but interrogative, a questioning (who?) oriented towards the person who questions it.  Theology attempts to listen to this this who–the counter logos, Christ.  It therefore is oriented towards its own dissolution.  Theology attentively listens to the one who proclaims its dissolution and within this proclamation, claims to uphold it (“in a new and relative status” 33).  As it is being set aside–dying–theology finds its life, not in itself, but in the Logos that come to it from beyond its discourse and dwells with it (forgiveness).  As it comes to life in the moment it is set aside, theology does not seek solidity in any mythical origins (tradition, ethnic roots) but only in the one who is this “gracious God” (38),  the one who forgives it, and in so doing, releases it from the attempt to produce or procure its own purity.  Acknowledging its impure origination, theology seeks to listen to the person who may speak to us and also be addressed by us in various, impure and even (as Luther has it) potentially blasphemous phrases.

To try to summarize and simplify this a little:  theology that clings to its ability to determine when it and others are being blasphemous trusts too much in itself and too little in the graciousness of God.  As Luther says, the remedy for these thoughts is not to be worried about them.

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2 Responses to Blasphemous Confessions

  1. Come on, Tim. I think you sell the Plantation short a little bit. The people I know from Duke did not join a new confession in order to differentiate themselves from "others" but for vibrant reasons. Of course, caricatures can be made. The easy caricature of those who become Catholic or Anglican or Mennonite is ever present, but that assumes that the agency of the person converting is suspect and is more concerned with being pure than with converting. Sure, it may be the case, but reading into situations of conversion like you do is far more similar to psychoanalysis than to theology. "I know the desires and will of others. I make the judgment."And I am someone who makes fun of people constantly for finding new confessions or for being confessional so this is really hard for me to say.

  2. Wilson,Thanks for joining in. A few notes on "conversion": The only mention of an approximate conversion was my own and so we needn't get mired in the difficulties of the social forms of conversion and their relation to the private beliefs. Even though I think it is perfectly acceptable and even important to attend to more than a person's perceived motives in understanding any religious conversion, that need not concern us here. What I am trying to draw attention to is how the outcome of conversion (catholicism, anabaptist, or nonconversions) is in fact less important than the cultural formation that includes them both and even more (the attempt to rehabilitate Christianity as ethnos). In the effort to escape the absorption (and alteration) of Christianity within the American nation-form, people are understandably attracted to forms of Christianity that were not so readily assimilated. What worries me is that the embrace or exaltation of these forms does not involve an interrogation of the logic of peoplehood that gave rise to the "racial state" but merely relocates this logic back into its original theological setting. I should add that I have no interest in distinguishing between "vibrant" and "suspect" (read proper and improper) motives for conversion. I know as I moved towards RCC my own were some mixture that only God can sort out. Thankfully, as Paul says, "I do not even judge myself" (1 cor 4)!Thanks again for posting. I often wonder whether this is more of an online private journal, so it's nice to know a couple of people are reading this at least (even if they find me a bit vexing).

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