This is a guest post from Ry Siggelkow, a PhD student in Theology and Ethics and Princeton Theological Seminary. He blogs at Rain and the Rhinoceros. – APS
It is true, On Diaspora, as Dan Barber puts it in his introduction, is not “easily placed.” For those of us who have been in conversation with Dan over the past few years this is, of course, unsurprising. To say, in agreement with Dan, that this book is not “easily placed” is just another way of saying that this book is something of a success. That is to say, Dan has, I think, successfully executed a very difficult enterprise; not only does this work amount to a massive overhaul in the ways we think of Christianity, religion, and secularity, it really is an invitation to completely reconceptualize—in one fell swoop—the basic assumptions and methods of a number of theoretical discourses. Dan should be applauded, then, for his originality and creativity and for the remarkable sophistication with which he treats the matters at hand. Indeed, we might even say that, the book itself stands, as a provocative expression of the kind of diasporic account of existence that Dan seeks to develop throughout.
I have been asked to briefly comment on the second chapter, “Diaspora.” I assume I have been asked to comment on this particular chapter, at least in part, because of its critical engagement with Nathan Kerr’s book, Christ, History, and Apocalyptic. I will not, however, seek to defend Kerr here—for Kerr is capable of speaking for himself. This is not to say I cannot speak for Kerr—as a matter of fact, I am quite comfortable speaking for him—but this is simply not what I want to do here and now. I will, instead, seek to highlight what I take to be the two most interesting arguments made in this chapter: (1) the critique of Christianity’s critique of itself; (2) the rejection of the motif of (transcendent) irruption in favor of (immanent) discontinuity in thinking about apocalyptic. This is not meant to be a summary of the chapter, and I am certainly leaving out much of the details that constitute Barber’s arguments here.
What I want to suggest is that while this project is impressive in its conceptual originality, I must say, it is difficult for me to see how it finally departs from the account of Christianity which has been developing over the past thirty or so years under the moniker “postliberalism.” So, while at first glance, this book is certainly not what one has come to expect out of Duke graduates, I do not think it is improper to name it as a species of the so-called “Duke school.” And so it should not come as a surprise, for example, to find Stanley Hauerwas’s blurb on the book’s back cover. I could be quite wrong about this, but I actually think that no one is more aware of this book’s indebtedness to Hauerwas than Dan himself. Nowhere is this perhaps more clear than in Dan’s (selective) enlistment of John Howard Yoder for his own diasporic account of Christianity. For it is here that we get—unmistakably—a very Hauerwasian Yoder. While it is no doubt true that Dan’s book is not “easily placed,” I do wonder if we couldn’t perhaps name it, even if “improperly”—to borrow one of Dan’s technical terms—as a kind of radical deployment of Hauerwas. Or, better, perhaps it could be described as something like Hauerwas, run through theory.
The critique of the Chrisitanity’s critique of itself
Barber opens up his second chapter, “Diaspora,” with the following claim: “Central to Christianity is its gospel, which is better understood in its more literal translation as ‘good news’ (euangelion)” (30). Barber then goes on to explicate what he takes to be the “content,” at least “minimally” conceived, of this euangelion. Christianity is inseparable from “the declaration of a novel configuration of reality” (30). A particular configuration of reality, moreover, the truth of which is not to be accepted abstractly, but rather “enacted.” According to Barber the enactment of this euangelion (whatever else it may be) involves basically what John Howard Yoder says it involves: love of enemies, imitation of divine perfection, forgiveness of debts, liberation from socio-economic and political powers that oppress. Christian “declaration” also seems to include the possibility of its enactment—the construction of new social bonds that are in opposition to modes of domination—insofar as “the messianic kingdom has arrived” (31).
Surprisingly, however, Barber claims that what interests him in this chapter is not the “content” of this “declaration” as such but the conditions of possibility which enables theological discourse to counterpose the content of its declaration with Christianity’s own historical (mis)performance of it. The thesis Barber advances is that this counterposition is made possible by Christianity’s “lack of a concept of diaspora” (32). Barber insists that it is a “lack” not a “refusal,” for a refusal would imply a “cumbersome essentialism,” viz., that “the initial essence of Christianity was diasporic” (33). Barber thus rejects the attempt to retrieve or recover some essence of the gospel declaration as a means by which to save it from the perverse forms it has taken in Christianity’s historical performance of it. This is to be avoided because it seems to provide Christianity with an alibi—for in the very act of admitting to its own failure, Christianity inevitably props itself up beyond critique. Thus the persuasiveness of Barber’s own account of diaspora cannot be secured by appealing to some posited essential content intrinsic to Christianity’s declaration. He is, instead, bound to say that “even as I hope to render compelling a vision of Christianity as diasporic, I am not claiming that this vision agrees with the ‘true version of Christianity.”
Such a critique stems quite naturally I think from Barber’s account of immanence and his construal of Christianity as a “possibility of existence” and a “construction of the world.” The reason why Christianity’s declaration of “the gospel” is not permitted any critical purchase on Christianity’s historical performance is because the gospel itself is a construction of the world, for Barber. To say otherwise—that is, to say that the gospel is independent of and maintains a priority in relation to our performance of it—is to cede to the very logic of transcendence and the essentialism that it entails. In short, what is not permitted, in Barber’s account, is the basic question that often prompts theological reflection in the first place, “Is this particular action or performance faithful to the gospel?” For, again, to ask such a question is to presume that the gospel is somehow a transcendent reality that is independent of Christianity’s performance of it. Instead, we ought to think about the relation between “declaration” and “performance” (what we might call more commonly, “gospel” and “tradition”) strictly along the lines of immanence, wherein the effect (“performance”) is not so easily prised from the cause (“declaration”), but is in fact constitutive of it (see chapter one).
While Barber wants to think this relation in terms of a radical differentiality—that is, in terms of a kind of Christian diasporic plurality without reserve—on the surface at least, we do not seem to be so far away from the basic territory of postliberalism. It was George Lindbeck, after all, who sought to overcome the problems of what we might call Christian “essentialism,” as manifested in liberal “experiential-expressivism” and conservative “propositionalism,” in favor of a cultural-linguistic paradigm that would better account for the doctrinal and praxic continuity/discontinuity which attend living religious communities. While Barber’s own proposal of a diasporic account of Christianity certainly allows for more differentiality and plurality of Christian expression, he has in common with Lindbeck, it seems to me, this fundamental concern to overcome the “cumbersome essentialism” of modern theology by rethinking the relation of gospel and tradition in terms of a relation of immanence. For it is transcendence itself that “promotes the separation of declaration from historical performance” (35). The effect of this is quite clear: the gospel loses its priority in relation to tradition such that tradition becomes self-grounding and self-legitimating. Of course, “tradition” would not be the word Barber would use—for it is not Christianity that is finally to be “preserved”—but one does wonder if, in this framework, the question whether this or that act is faithful to the gospel could even ever be raised.
Apocalyptic: transcendent irruption or immanent discontinuity?
With Hauerwas we encounter (a less dialectical) radicalization of Lindbeck in his statement, “the teller and the tale are one” (Hauerwas, Christian Existence Today, 54). By this Hauerwas means that Christian performance is constitutive of Christian declaration; there is an intended indistinction made here between “gospel” and “tradition,” such that Christian declaration loses its critical purchase—its transcendent relation we might say—to Christian performance. Here we have an immanent relation of the kind Barber seems to be advocating. So, how then, does this relate to the question of apocalyptic? What I want to suggest here is that Barber’s critique of the motif of “irruption,” a motif that one finds for instance in Martyn and Kerr, and his alternative proposal for an immanent conception of apocalyptic as discontinuity, aligns quite well with Hauerwas’s own variation of apocalypticism.
Barber’s critique of the motif of “irruption” and “invasion” that one sees in the work of J. Louis Martyn and Nathan Kerr, for instance, follows naturally from his account of immanence. The problem with the characterization of apocalyptic as “irruptive” is that it “tends to preclude formal antagonism, placing it instead at the level of being—antagonism is ontologized, it is determined as that between the being of a rupturing transcendence and the being of a ruptured, because self-enclosed, domain” (42). Against this understanding Barber contends that we should think of the antagonism of Christian declaration as taking place at the level form—“between differential and identitarian forms.” The antagonism of Christian apocalyptic must be situated, according to Barber, as opposition to the world as it is presently composed such that the positivity that Christian declaration names be seen as a “differential recomposition” of forms. The form of this world is not passing away in the in-breaking of a world from beyond as those who use the language of “irruption” would have it, it is rather re-formed or re-composed because it is “a possibilitity of existence.”
At the same time, the emergence of apocalyptic is not to be understood as standing in continuity with “what is already given, nor should it be understood as developing something implicit yet unpursued by what is already given”: instead, “to be apocalyptic is to be different from, or fundamentally other than, the course that has been or is being set forth” (43). Apocalyptic is discontinuous with the logic of continuity that attends “history”—whether this be understood in terms of a “sovereign exteriority” or “historical interiority.” The “futural” aspect of this understanding apocalyptic—the difference that it makes—is in its insistence that apocalyptic “breaks open, or breaks down, historical continuity” and “declares a future unthought by such history, a future that is to be constructed” (43). The language of “constructed” is significant, for such an understanding of apocalyptic rejects the notion that history is being broken open or broken down by a “power that comes from outside the world” (42).
Barber thinks that to think otherwise (that is, in terms of transcendence) is to lose the political character of Christian declaration altogether and the “immeasurability” of apocalyptic—for the emergence of apocalyptic is “subsumed by the signification of the transcendent” (46). The benefit of a apocalyptic understood in terms of an immanent discontinuity is that it “allows us to affirm Christian declaration’s basically political character—its antagonism with the world as it is already established” (47).
It is precisely this politically antagonistic character of Christian declaration and Christian performance that Hauerwas wants to affirm in his insistence that the church is to be thought in terms of its empirical “visibility” which is set over against “the world.” And it is precisely here where Hauerwas thinks he shares much in common with Yoder. Christianity (or “the church”) is only politically antagonistic insofar as it is placed within the same domain (but as a different form) as other political configurations, and other possible forms of existence. This, it seems to me, is at the heart of Hauerwas’s critique of Barth’s account of the church (see With the Grain of the Universe) in which he accuses Barth of lacking a pneumatology that would take seriously the extent to which the empirical visibility of the church is necessary for the salvation (and liberation) of the world. So, while Barber’s concerns may be quite at odds with Hauerwas in the final analysis, it seems to me that this is precisely the kind of apocalyptic that Hauerwas wants to maintain, viz., an immanently construed apocalyptic that understands Christian declaration as inseparable from its enactment as an “alternative construction of the world” (48).
The key difference between Hauerwas and Barber lies at the level of “form.” That is, at the level of what this Christian performance (or “the church”) might look like conceived diasporically. For Barber, what this looks like is far different from the stability of the Christian tradition that is implicit in Hauerwas’s account of “the church.” Instead, there is a certain “nonidentity” to what emerges (and here we see the influence of Adorno)—a radical differentiality and instability. But one wonders how this differentiality can be maintained while at the same time affirming the political content of Christian declaration. Indeed, one wonders how Barber can even claim to speak of a “content” of Christian declaration (as he does at some length); for does this not inevitably separate content from performance and implicitly accept a kind of transcendental vantage point? This is not meant to suggest that a transcendental vantage is somehow a necessity, but simply to point out the inconsistency of the claim, on the one hand, to reject a “cumbersome essentialism” while at the same time speaking about Christian logic as “essentially apocalyptic” (47) and “irreducibly committed to discontinuity” (42).
This is already twice the length of what I had been asked to write here. There is much more to be said and I might add that much of the intricacies of Barber’s argument have been, regretably, left out. I hope that I have not been unfair to Barber in what is, admittedly, an idiosyncratic reading of this book. What I have tried to do here is not to “place” a book that is not “easily placed,” but to situate it within a broader—specifically theological—conversation. What I have said here is not meant to function as a “critique” of Barber (for I have done little to criticize his position), but to point to the ways in which his argument—from the vantage of contemporary theological discourse—seems to follow a distinctively postliberal and even Hauerwasian trajectory. My own sympathies and my general theological perspective I have assumed are fairly clear (at least I think they are to Barber and many readers of this blog).