Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Bell, Day 4: The Church and Desire

To summarize briefly, Bell sees a serious flaw in liberationist ecclesiology, which prevents liberation theology from resisting capitalist discipline. He states,
"While the liberationists are busy building a bridge over the chasm between the theological and the political by means of a socio-analytic mediation, the capitalist order has effectively filled in the chasm and is sending its minions (fed on fast food, dressed in some retro pastiche, brandishing corporate logos) swarming across a divide that is no more and never was. In other words, for all that is praiseworthy in their ecclesiological efforts, liberationists continue to define the Church within the limits of the secular order. Even as they insist that the theological and the political be correlated, they maintain the division between the realms: the Church is not an immediately political option. At best the Church inspires or motivates Christians under the force of the value of love or the preferential option for the poor to move into the real world of social conflict" (71-72).
Rather, for Bell, "where capitalism constitutes a veritable way of life that exercises dominion by capturing and distorting desire, resistance must take the form of an alternative way of life that counters capitalism by liberating and healing desire" (72). This alternative way of life is the Church. To paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, the church does not have a social ethic, it is a social ethic. This more substantive ecclesiology must collapse those things modernity and capitalism place in dialectical tension: theological and social, religion and politics, physical and spiritual. Bell adds,
"This ecclesiology ... will begin by conceiving of Christianity not as the apolitical custodian of moral values... but... as a social, political, economic formation (an ensemble of technologies of desire) vying with other formations (technologies of desire) on a single field of lived experience. It will start with the recognition that the Christian mythos finds its political correlate, not in the state ...but in the Church as the exemplary form of human community" (72).
The Church as a community is not just one other community in a sea of communities, nor is it an interest group or lobbying agent; instead, it is that community that is formed and ordered by worship of the Triune God. As a result, Bell states,
"The Church's politics is not defined by the secular order. Thus, it finds no home in civil society. The Church's politics culminates not in the centralized rule of the state and its civil society but in the Kingdom of God. The politics of the Kingdom, in turn, amounts to nothing less than participation in the divine life of the Trinity, a life that ... is characterized... by a perichoretic dance that celebrates difference. Thus the Church embodies a de-centralized , participatory politics that defies the discipline of the state and its civil society" (73).
As a result, the Church moves beyond social chaplaincy and is reclaimed as a
"fully material or embodied reality (the Word became flesh), whose practices- such as baptism, catechesis, Eucharist, discipline, prayer, and discipleship- do not merely 'mediate' and 'values' but rather transform the material circumstances of Christian... existence" (86).
Thus, it is in the corporate embodiment of these historic practices of the faith that Christianity becomes a therapy of desire. For Bell (following Augustine), humanity is human only in that it desires God. Capitalism is sin because it corrupts desire and disciplines that corruption into a way of life called idolatry. To go to Milbank briefly, in Theology and Social Theory, he declares that the purpose of this ecclesiology is to "tell again the Christian mythos, pronounce again the Christian logos,and call again for Christian praxis in a manner that restores their freshness and originality" (Milbank, 381). The Church, through this process, begins to heal the wound of sin and to return human desire to its source, the Triune God. Thus, the practices listed above by Bell provide the grammar for a more robust ecclesiology. It is to these that we now turn.

Bell talks at great length about liturgy and confession. I am discussing the others he mentions based on other readings and thought within the RO movement.

1) Liturgy
For Bell, the liturgy first and foremost makes the body. To borrow from de Lubac, the Eucharist makes the Church. The Eucharist, which we will discuss in a moment, must again be the center of all Christian worship. On liturgy, Bell states that the liturgy is "a technology of desire through the assembly of memory" (93). Quoting Talal Asad discussing Cistercian life,
Bell states,
"Through the rich language and imagery of the liturgy... the monks were given a new vocabulary that enabled them to 'redescribe, and therefore in effect reconstruct, their memories in relation to the demands of a new way of life'"(93).
Liturgy, for Bell, is much more than just a linguistic performance. Instead, the reading of Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, the singing of hymns "are embedded in an ensemble of technologies that act on and shape material bodies in particular ways" (94). The particular ways that Bell mentions are those ways in which are bodies are renewed and restored which allows our desire to return to the Father in doxological praise.

2) Confession
Moving away from Foucault, Bell states,
"Confession is not concerned with the social control and repression of a primordial desire. On the contrary, it is part of a process of recognizing that desire has already been captured and controlled, that desire's present orientation or direction in the world is not an ontological given" (95).
Instead of a societal means of control and repression, confession functions to uncover "those technologies of knowledge, power, and the self that had assembled desire in a particular way" (96). It is in the confession of sin, that it can begin to be re-narrated and overcome in worship and practice.

3) Eucharist
To return to de Lubac's point, it is the Eucharist that makes the Church. In much of Protestantism, we have succumbed to a very Zwinglian view of the Eucharist, reducing it to a memory of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf. Often, the celebration of the Lord's Supper is almost equivalent to a visit to a statue of a dead hero. Instead, we must return to some view of "real presence." In Bell's account, one is immediately confronted by the economics of the Eucharist. The Lord offers up His body for our salvation, giving us His own flesh and blood to sustain us. Immediately, the economics of scarcity, which is the core of capitalist thought, unravels. To say that there is scarcity in the world is to deny the superabundance of love revealed to us in the Eucharist. We give and receive; we share; we confess; we offer up; we remember; we participate in Christ's death and resurrection and confess an eschatological hope in His return. William Cavanaugh has an outstanding article entitled, The World in a Wafer, that helps here.

4) Baptism
Earlier, we talked about how capitalism de-territorializes human societies but then re-territorializes them in ways that make production and consumption more effective and efficient. The end result is the creation of economic classes. I am reminded almost of Huxley's Brave New World where humanity genetically engineers itself for different tasks, from the enlightened leaders to the coal miners. Baptism resists this capitalistic re-territorialization. To be baptized is to be a part of the Body of Christ, the Church. This identity transcends all others. In teh West, that we have lost our baptismal identities helps to explain why we cannot even muster the energy to examine how capitalism disciplines desire in our society.

5) Prayer
Lex orandi, lex credendi. This statement would seem to best summarize the role of prayer in Christian ecclesiology. It is telling that prayer is often of little significance in Christian life. Often, capitalism so subvert our desire for God, that our prayers are little more than consumeristic lists of what "I" desire. True Christian prayer opens us up to God's indwelling presence in the Spirit, connects us to each other in the Body, as well as to the entire communion of saints.

6) Discipline
Much like confession, discipline is often seen as a tool of social control rather than as a technology of desire. Christian discipline is always redemptive, seeking to restore the sinful party to full communion with God and the Church. Often, church discipline is carried out as the will to power. Instead, Christian discipline is the bodily practice of brothers and sisters being bound together in love. It is charitable to speak the truth to one another, to help one another, to support one another. Ultimately, excommunication must always remain a possibility; however, even then, the hope is that the person will realize her sin and the sting of separation from the Body, then repent and return to life within the community.

There is obviously much more that can be said here. As a pastor of a Protestant church, I see everyday the perversion of desire brought about by sin. I also see the limits on ecclesiology that Protestants must confront, or our crisis will only deepen. Bell is critical of the Latin American liberationists for their mistaken ecclesiology. In the U.S., we struggle even to identify capitalism as not Christian, so deep is its subversion. Can we begin again to develop such a radical ecclesiology with the hope that desire can be healed and that again we might worship God in Spirit and in truth?


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