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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bell, Day 5: Forgiveness and Desire

In a response to my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, Isaac provided a link to his sermon. I think that in that sermon, he raises the issues that are at stake in Advent and also in the last chapter of Bell's book. Today's post will be short, and I am hoping to begin a conversation about forgiveness. I suggest you read Isaac's sermon and then read the Bell excerpts below.

In chapter 4, "The Refusal to Cease Suffering: Forgiveness and the Liberation of Desire," Dan Bell moves beyond his deconstruction of capitalism and the faulty ecclesiology of liberation theology. He begins a positive move to construct an account of Christianity that can overcome capitalist discipline. The move is constructed around forgiveness. His account of forgiveness moves beyond the notion of forgiveness as an idea, a technique or a strategy. For Bell, forgiveness is
"The therapy of desire that Christianity enacts to counter capitalist discipline, that forgiveness is the name of the ensemble of technologies that God has graciously made available to humanity in Christian communities for the sake of healing desire of the madness that is capitalism. Said a little differently, it is God's gift of forgiveness in Christ, and not the relentless pursuit of justice understood in the classic sense of rendering 'what is due,' that liberates desire and gives birth to communities capable of resisting capitalism. Through the reception and return of God's gift of forgiveness- receiving and giving it- communities are formed where desire is liberated from capitalist discipline" (144-145).
Forgiveness then is the grammar that structures Christian life. It is a grammar that structures our lives in such a way that our desire is freed from the bondage of sin and then disciplined in such a way that it might flow freely in doxological return to God. The community built on justice as "rendering what is due" will never fully participate in this grammar. At best, it can redistribute income, punish egregious offenses, but will always in the end be a reactionary movement that will culminate in continuing adversarial relationships where victims and victimizers are continuously made, cast down, and made again. Bell proposes that forgiveness makes possible the economy of charity (See Augustine's "furnace of charity" in De Trinitate), which comes via Christ's life, death, and resurrection, and our gracious participation in it.

Tomorrow, I will address forgiveness and the atonement. On Thursday, I hope to look at forgiveness and eschatology.

Here is a question I would like to pose to everyone. What makes up the ensemble of technologies of desire that is Christianity? What specific technologies would you place within the grammar of forgiveness?

For example, I would place lament in this list. Prior to my theological training, I was trained as a political scientist and historian. In previous American wars, even the secular state was able to lament publicly her wounded and dead. The state organized public meetings where the names of the dead were read aloud, and the entire town mourned collectively. Granted, this was not inherently Christian, but the point is that today, there is no attempt to lament the dead. They are swept under the rug. Their lives are minimized with the logic that "we've only lost two thousand soldiers." I am afraid that the Church is guilty of doing the same thing. Being influenced by politics and talk radio, there is little room for lament in a church. Everything must be positive, affirming, warm. To lament is to run the risk of driving away the "consumers" you are trying to reach and convert (Think Purpose Driven Church language here). I would think that the ability to lament together as the body of Christ is essential to any ensemble of technologies called forgiveness.

What would you include?


Blogger Derek said...

Forgive my lack of familiarity with the book at hand, but I would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on lament.

The church has lost itself in what my wife calls "happiology." There is not room for pain. I think that you are right in acknowledging that much of this "happiology" has to do with a marketing approach to ministry. It's like the church becomes one more commercial or tele-markerting scheme selling a warm fuzzy feeling.

Besides that, most of us don't really want to be bothered with other people's problems. For most of us, if we ask another how he/she is doing and are told by him/her that he/she is not alright, it makes us uncomfortable. It is easier not deal with their problems. But, part of being the Body, is the freedom and openness to mourn with those who mourn.

However, most people who feel "not alright" would not be comfortable sharing their true feelings with anyone at church who might ask them how they were doing. We perpetuate facades and continue to exalt image over substance. So, in the process of trying to keep everyone happy and make everyone feel good, the church actually drives away the very "consumers" they are marketing.

Without lament, we are captive to a vicious cycle of self-destruction.

November 29, 2005 1:06 PM  
Blogger Eric Lee said...

The church has lost itself in what my wife calls "happiology." There is not room for pain. I think that you are right in acknowledging that much of this "happiology" has to do with a marketing approach to ministry. It's like the church becomes one more commercial or tele-markerting scheme selling a warm fuzzy feeling.


So, in the process of trying to keep everyone happy and make everyone feel good, the church actually drives away the very "consumers" they are marketing.

I agree. Two Sundays ago, Dr. Ron Benefiel, the president of Nazarene Theological Seminary (who actually was one of the key people who helped start our church) took a week off of NTS work to come to San Diego during PLNU's homecoming week to preach a great, challenging sermon at our English-speaking congregation.

Ron Benefiel asked us to consider how our theology shows up in worship through our songs. There are the songs about God's Power, God's Love, and songs about Discipleship.

The last group --Discipleship--is often skipped over, especially in the rise of consumerism and when we are told by our political leaders to go shopping after a murderous terrorist attack. Why? Because consumers are formed to look for the maximum benefit with the minimum of cost.

The maximum benefit at the minimum price.

Sounds like Bonhoeffer's explication of "cheap grace" in his The Cost of Discipleship. The truth is, as he so eloquently explained and challenged us with: grace is indeed costly.



November 29, 2005 3:47 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

To go along with Derek and Eric:

I think lament would clearly be one of the technologies (note: not technique) that Bell amkes mention of. Think about how lament sets desire free from capitalist discipline. After 9/11, we were told to go out to eat, to shop, to continue on lest terrorism alter our lives.

The only emotion that capitalism can allow is sentimentality, which is easily subverted towards capitalistic ends. Mourning cannot take place because it is too much of a drag on the system. The idea of a communal lament is unfathomable.

I wonder what it must be like for the poor widows and widowers of those men and women killed in Iraq who attend churches where lament is impossible because of their subjection to church growth discipline (re: a version of the capitalist project). Imagine going to church where only happy Jesus songs are sung and their can be no lament for the dead and broken.

In an article entitled, "Asyndeton," Catherine Pickstock (in Graham Ward's The Postmodern God) states, "The unspoken objective of modernity is to relinquish death by means of death, which is to say, to abolish time" (297). Capitalism attempts to destroy time by destroying memory in the vain hope of creating an eternal now with no past and no future. Thus, the only thing left to do is to work and to consume. Something as simple as lament poses a grave threat to capitalist discipline because it unmasks the reality of death that sits just beneath capitalism and all versions of secular reason.

Lament deterritorializes the structure of capitalist discipline and allows desire to again flow to God. This time the desire of mourning seeking comfort from God with the deep desire and hope of resurrection.


November 29, 2005 4:15 PM  
Blogger isaac said...

Scott, this is very interesting. I wanted to wait till you were done with our posts on Bell to ask some questions that I struggle with. Maybe you could help me with Bell's book. But this last comment is a good starting place, maybe. You write, "Something as simple as lament poses a grave threat to capitalist discipline because it unmasks the reality of death that sits just beneath capitalism and all versions of secular reason. Lament deterritorializes the structure of capitalist discipline and allows desire to again flow to God." I want to say this is true, but I've also read how Foucault (and Deleuze and Hardt and Negri) have shown that there is never an outside to the "new sovereignty" of global capitalism. There is no outside to power--that's the point that Foucault makes time and again. So, that's why I have a hard time seeing how any practice "deteritorializes the structure of capitalist discipline." And this is the point where I wonder about Bell's wonderful book. He gives a great account of Foucault's governmentality and Deleuze's society of control and shows how they permeate all things (as Foucault says, "power is always already there"), but then I have a hard time seeing how Bell demonstrates the church's escape from this power. Why does the church escape? What are the concrete circumstances of its escape? He points to the crucified church in Latin America, which is great, but he isn't able to give a thick description of the escape: "it is not possible to display the technologies enacted by the Church of the poor" (p.199, n.84). But if Bell wants to go with Foucault and Deleuze, it seems like his burden of proof is to give a thick description of the sorts of technologies that prove the church's exceptionality. But he says he can't go there.

On a related note, I heard Milbank lecture at the AAR up in Philadelphia a couple weekends ago. He gave another difficult paper about the church's escape from the modern liberal order, but then someone pressed him to give an account of what this looks like and he had nothing but silence as a response. That worries me. Don't we need concrete ways that reveal this alledged escape from the Foucault's "power"? Isn't that our burden of proof? Isn't this what witness is all about? Or maybe it isn't. Maybe there's the Barthian way: "The world would be lost without Christ; the world would not necessarily be lost without the church." But is that a good way to go? It would save us from ecclesial anxiety. But I'm not sure if this is the best bet. Can you help?

November 29, 2005 5:57 PM  
Blogger Scott said...


I'll start with Milbank first. On one hand, I think the criticisms of RO's call for praxis and then failing to deliver are somewhat valid. On the other hand, RO is a fairly new movement and ecclesial movement, even amongst Protestants, takes decades if not longer. Milbank's first real constructive project, The Word Made Strange was published less than ten years ago, and his arrival in America did not occur until 1999. Thus, I think there has to be time for scholars to be trained that can pass this movement on to pastors and laity. I doubt Milbank will ever be able to give concrete examples because I doubt it is the world he lives in. I think some criticism of this is valid, but I hesitate to discount his work because of this lack of praxis. I do believe that there are thick accounts of this project. I would argue that Cavanaugh's Torture and Eucharist is one such example. I think the Christian Peacemaker Teams are a sort of example, although they also are kind of a parachurch organization.

With regards to Bell and Foucault, I think the problem is really one of assumptions. If you begin with Foucault's assumptions, I agree that even according to Bell's analysis you cannot move beyond capitalist discipline. However, if you accept that Foucault's assumptions emanate from a specific vision and narrative of the world, then there is hope for a way out of the current quagmire. It is here that I think RO is very helpful. The idea of a Trinitarian ontology of peace provides a way out of the agonistics inherent to the capitalist story of the world.

Here I am thinking speicifically of Augustine's critique of the Roman Empire in Civitas Dei. One cannot attack an opposing worldview on the fringes, but at the level of their gods and practices of worship. I think what Bell indicates is that just focusing on justice is a fringe issue because justice is not really what is at stake. Instead, what is at stake is the very story of God, being, and existence.

On some levels, liberalism recognizes this. I remember in my first semester in grad school fro political science, we read Thomas Kuhn's book on paradigm shifts. That book was one of my favorites because it reveals so well how knowledge is structured by a tradition and metanarrative (not Kuhn's words). The dominant paradigm provides guidance for the way even questions are asked and identifies the appropriate tools accessible to address these questions. I think that is where we all struggle with aspects of Bell's account of liberation theology. We live in the midst of empire, and we see so much empirical evidence of the claims made by Foucault, Deleuze and others. There is much that goes into structuring us to think this way.

However, I believe a technology like lament, when practiced in a Church capable of robust Trinitarian theology would serve to deterritorialize capitalist discipline of desire. For instance, capitalist discipline teaches us to move on, to ignore, to consume, to allow the faces of the dead to move into oblivion, or it captures the faces of the dead in ways that trivializes their existence by sentimentalizing them. A trip to the local funeral home allows us to see both of these phenomena in action. Christian lament allows us to confessionally identify the pain and sting of death, individually, but also as a part of the life of our body. Good lament helps us to long for God, the only one who can liberate us from the dead via resurrection. Lament also frees us to remember the dead in a way beyond sentimentality (though it may be reduced to sentimentality if it lacks good theology and ecclesial embodiment).

I suspect that just as Christ is both present and absent so too is the church described by Bell. I believe there are concrete examples, such as relayed by Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist. I believe the stories of the saints are replete with such examples both past and present. Certainly Hauerwas and Willimon make such descriptions in Where Resident Aliens Live, and I suspect their must be Mennonite examples based on my reading of Yoder's Body Politics. I do not believe their will be victory like we see with Rick Warren, but more of a deep seeded eschatological hope that God will prevail and will save us. Bell calls this a wager on God, and I think it explains the contingent aspect of Radical Orthodoxy that is hard to accept- that our lives are contingent on the grace and love of an all-powerful God. I think the book Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo provides a critique of Radical ORthodoxy and also a corrective with the bringing in the apocalyptic nature of Christian faith. We do not have to fight the interminable battles of capitalism and secular reason. God will fight for us, and he will redeem us. In the mean time, we must refuse to cease suffering even in the face of certain death.

I hope this helps. I'm still working through a lot of this myself. I would appreciate your thoughts.


November 29, 2005 6:36 PM  
Blogger isaac said...

Scott, thanks for that comment. I can see how Milbank's trinitarian ontology of peace serves as a starting point that can sustain an escape from Foucault's articulation of Power that is "always already there," a reality that makes everything "dangerous." Now to focus on Bell's book--that's where my questions about Foucault and ecclesiology arise (Milbank is, I think, a different matter). Since, as you said, it's a matter of beginning assumptions, do you think Bell sorta bits off a chunk of a problem that he can't chew? I mean, since he starts with Foucault he arranges the problematic in such stark terms that no technologies of desire can escape capitalism? Should he have started elsewhere? Those are the questions I wonder about. Can you help me think this through?

November 30, 2005 11:14 AM  
Blogger Scott said...


I apologize for the delay in response. I have two papers to finish in the next week, and a Christmas Parade tomorrow.

I appreciate your questions and the dialogue. I hope to respond in the next couple of days.

Maybe someone else would like to wrestle with the questions also?


November 30, 2005 9:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since you have graciously invited other comments, I will offer my two cents worth.

I think you have read Foucault and my work well, regarding the ubiquity of power, but have drawn perhaps the wrong conclusions from that reading.

It is a common criticism of Foucault that his account of the ubiquity of power forecloses the possibility of resistance and escape. This, however, is a critique that misses the mark for at least two reasons.

First, to argue that power is not always already present across the social field is tantamount to allowing all power to be contained and controlled by dominant social formations such as the nation state or corporation or market. The result is that those who do not share in that space and that power are truly powerless, and therefore hopeless.

To deny Foucault on the ubiquity of power is far more pessimistic, fatalistic than to affirm him.

Second, Foucault understood -- rightly I believe -- that the pervasive character of power was a source of hope and a marker for the constant potential of resistance. The ubiquity of power is good news. It means that no matter how hard Sam Walton or Bill Gates or [name your own icon of capital] try, they cannot triumph. Their dominion is always unstable, uncertain, partial. Power can [and does] always escape them.

[The very possibility of this conversation is a tiny proof of that.]

That power is ubiquitous means that no mere social formation can acquire and maintain definitively a monopoly on power. Power is more like a herd of cats or sand, or to pick up on Deleuze, a fog, than it is like a brick or a weapon that can be captured and safely contained.

Which means that at any moment and in any place resistance, alternatives, can irrupt.

It means that the front on which the battle can be waged is much larger than we thought and therefore capital has a lot more to defend, which is where Foucault's notion of governmentality is so helpful-- his account of how we can be formed economically even in the midst of what appear to be non-economic practices.

The reverse of this is that capitalism can be undermined in a multitude of ways, even ways that do not appear to be directly economic. For example, teaching the youth the virtues of truthfulness and charity in vacation Bible school can be devistating for capital.... as can be caring for the elderly or the dying at home.... or practicing the spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting.

Granted such formation cannot stand alone -- in the sense that if the youth are only taught truthfulness and charity for a week or so during VBS, there is little chance of their standing against capitalist deformation.

Now, of course, Foucault lacked the theological resources to account for this irruption and so finally his vision is deficient. But, in friendly disagreement with one response, I do not begin with a secular accout of power. The basis of the account of power I offer is finally an ontology of desire drawn from the Christian tradition. On page 2, I believe, I state that the account of desire and hence power that I propose is but a gloss on the long theological tradition that is so memorably captured in Augustine's famous statement in his Confessions -- our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.

How does this make a difference? Whereas Foucault finally cannot give a cogent account of the possibility of resistance and liberation, we Christians have this pesky thing called the Holy Spirit, who "blows where it will." Hence, that power is ubiquitous does not comfort and console capitalism, but rather terrifies it.

(I am reminded of the fear that contemporary terrorism arouses -- in part because its threat is ubiquitous, not finally containable to a clearly defined battlefront or some country over there that is far from here.)

At any moment and in any place -- a board room, the oval office, wall street, a homeless shelter, an assembly line, even a seminary classroom -- desire can escape the bonds of capital.

Romero was mentioned in a reflection. Who can forget the powerful scene in the movie when shortly after his elevation to archbishop two of the bad guys comment that he is a "safe choice" who will not rock the boat. Of course, they had no reason to think otherwise. There was little in Romero's life that foreshadowed his transformation. Well, little besides the Holy Spirit and the Gospel read and proclaimed, and the Eucharist and holy friends like R Grande.

All of which leads me to argue that Foucault can help us remember that finally the struggle is not between power and powerlessness, between powerful capital and powerless opponents.

Rather, the struggle is over the shaping of the constitute human power that is our desire for God. Capitalism deforms that God-given and sustained power (after all, all power is from God, capitalism is but a distortion or corruption of that original good, creative power) whereas resistance and liberation (salvation in more classical theological terms) is about power shaped in a different manner --say, the power of love, charity, faith, hope, joy, etc.

Hence, the struggle is not between power and powerlessness, but between vicious and virtuous power. Between capitalist deformations and corruptions of power and the cruciform power of God. "My power is made perfect in weakness..." The power of weakness. The power of the cross --here I find Yoder helpful. See especially the difficult chapter in Politics of Jesus on Revolutionary Subordination. It took me several years of reading and teaching that before I began to get it (yes, I am slow). The subordination of the cross, and the Christian life, is NOT powerlessness, but the divine power of weakness.(I discuss this cruciform power near the end of the book.) Another book that helped me get a bit of a handle on this -- in terms of my own deformation such that I can only think of power in "ramboesque" ways was Sharon Welch's A FEMINIST ETHIC OF RISK. For the many difficulties I have with that book, she does a wonderful job in my opinion of helping me see how my social location has corrupted how I understand the power to effect change.

Never forget that power, the ability to resist, etc, does not depend finally on what capital etc controls or lets escape, but on God's faithful giving to God's people. This is but another way of stating the hopefulness attendent upon the ubiquity of power. Because capital, sin in any of its forms, cannot possibly capture all power, because it finally cannot capture God even as it tries to by marketing God and faith and spirituality, there is always already present the [divinely given] power of resistance that may appear anywhere anytime -- what Yoder refers to as the brushfire reading of history.

Our power to live the Christian life does not depend on what the state or corporation will permit. It depends solely on God's fidelity and our willingness to trust God. As Yoder wrote, all the state, etc. can do is make discipleship more costly. Capital finally does not provide or deny the conditions of possibility for faithfulness.

Which leads to my last point. There is some question about "where is this church?" and comments on radical orthodoxy's inability to be concrete. I have no interest in defending or attacking "radical orthodoxy" (As Bill Cavanaugh likes to remind folks -- its only a book series after all), and I think that some of the question in this regard is born of observing many of the authors' in the series penchant for delving into ontology.

I will speak mostly for myself in this regard. Cavanaugh's book does engage a concrete ecclesial community and practice -- the Catholic Church in Chile and the eucharist. Likewise, I learn from a concrete community and practice -- the Latin American church of the poor and the practice of forgiveness (which, by the way, I think has some interesting correlations with the discussion of lament insofar as confession is part and parcel of the practice of forgiveness).

But even more importantly, I would argue that this church about which we speak and pray and confess is all around us. Although I think in general the North American church is in pretty lousy shape, I have yet to be in a church where the divine gifts that God graciously sets in our midst are not active santifying lives.

Where is this church, concretely, empirically? Where the Word is proclaimed and the sacraments duly administered. This church is right in our midst, right in front of us, all around us. The liberating gifts of God are all around us.

To put it even more bluntly. Where is this church? Look in the mirror. Look at your own life. How did you get to where you are in your Christian walk? There is the church. Think about all the saints you know -- local and otherwise.... a campus minister I know, a Sunday school teacher, a business exec, Dorothy Day, Gustavo Gutierrez, etc. How did God get ahold of them? You want to know where this church is, then follow the saints.

Note that this is no argument for purity. The practice I lift up in the book is confession/forgiveness. The church is not necessarily where we have it all figured out, where we have already completely escaped capital, etc, but it is where we are on the way of salvation. (Barth has a wonderful quote to this effect.)

The question is not finally where is this church, but why don't we see it? Why don't we avail ourselves of it? Why do we forego our birthright for the pap that so often passes for preaching and teaching, what MLKJr called "pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities"? How have we managed to make God so boring, uninteresting? (I am reminded of Annie Dillard's comment about church goers should wear crash helmets and protective gear when they go to worship the living God...) Spiritual blindness and deafness is a persistent theme in much of the NT, especially the gospels.

In this regard, the question "where is the church?" is more theological than sociological (Not that the two can finally be divorced).

The question, "where is this church?" seems to me to come down to a question of eschatology or even providence. Do we believe that God is acting in history now to overcome the forces of sin, death and the devil or not? If so, then the question cannot be "where is this church?" but can only be "why don't we see it?"

If we do not believe that God is actively overcoming even capital now, then the interesting question is not "where is this church?" but rather "Is such a non-involved god worth following?"

I for one do not believe that such a non-involved god bears even a family resemblance to the God whose story is told in Scripture. In this regard, I am always reminded of Jesus' response to the followers of JOhn when they confront him with the question of whether he is the one. His response is, "What do you see?" The messiah is one who makes a holy difference in this world.

Granted, in this time between the times the fullness of that difference is not yet present, but it has already begun to be present.

FYI, I have an essay that argues this eschatological point more thoroughly with regard to capitalism, and it can be found on the web at THE OTHER JOURNAL. (http://www.theotherjournal.com/).

Well, I have rambled for way too long and no doubt taken gross advantage of your conversational hospitality. So I will close.

Grace and peace,

Dan Bell

December 02, 2005 9:45 PM  
Blogger isaac said...

Prof. Bell, thank you for that clarification. That was quite helpful. I read your book a few years ago and keep returning to it. I wish to ask some more questions, but I have to finish a couple papers in the next few days. I understand if you don't have the time to answer them. I have to say, all my questions come from what I learned from another one of Hauerwas' student's dissertation: Peter Dula. His chapter called "The Fugitive Ecclesia" still provokes questions as I engage your work and Cavanaugh's. Thanks again for further clarifications on reading your book.

December 03, 2005 10:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home