What do we make of a Marxist who criticizes Marxism? Of one not entirely at home in capitalistic systems either—fully aware that neither system has manifested in an equitable and just society that well? What do we make of a Christian theologian deeply critical of Christian theology and practice? What do we make of a leftist who defends the sentiment of the Berkeley riots in the 60’s but staunchly criticized aspects of them as well? What do we make of a conservative-liberal-socialist? We make of them what we want, or we let them disappear, not likely out of maliciousness, but more because we do not know what to do with them. We could call this exile.
John Caputo has been with me since my earliest days studying religion in college. And he’s always been an author that’s a few steps ahead of me—not in the sense that he knows more than I do (most authors can claim that title), but in the sense of articulating and advocating a theological vision that is a little beyond what I can accept, but not so far-fetched that it is not necessarily off my trajectory. He is compelling even when he says things or argues things that are almost contrary to the core of what I believe, and he does so with wit and rhetorical skill that makes reading him worth it if only because it was an enjoyable ride that I will remember even if I’m a bit scared to go back on it.
The thing I want to focus on as a kind of conclusion is the fear and anxiety at work in this kind of engagement. There is a fear here that I will say something wrong and offensive, that my biases will be exposed, that I might be guilty of the blindness I am prone to see in others. The reality is that this may very well be true. I do not inhabit a morally or socially pure space from which I would be able to read what Copeland writes or respond in a way that will not be guilty of blindness or misunderstanding. The key is to admit that, to be honest, because the only way to overcome this is to go through it.
Faithful Presence is a book about the church and how it can be “the church” in meaningful, practical, contextual ways. Fitch sees the same world we all see: dwindling congregations, fragmented sense of community, isolated and inauthentic discipleship. His response is embodied in his operative concept: “Faithful Presence.” For Fitch, the presence of people participates in, mediates, and reveals the presence of God. The church can be “the church” when it learns to be present with God and one another.
It may be a scandalous thing to say in this day and age, but becoming something is not a matter of anything that can be accomplished quickly or by simply saying so. I can say I am a great basketball player all day long; I can even put on the correct apparel, dribble and shoot the ball in the direction of the net without too much time spent, but anyone with any familiarity with basketball who watches me play will not mistake me for anything that even resembles such a proclamation. Eugene Peterson’s title suggests that this logic is also true of faith.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.
Sometime in the 70’s people began to suspect that Paul was a Jew. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, N. T. Wright, and James D. G. Dunn have since championed a particular way of understanding what Paul has to say principally in reference to his Jewish upbringing, context, and interlocutors. The strange thing is that it does not appear that modern day Jews took this very seriously. If he was a Jew, then he was a very marginal and disloyal one. This silence is perhaps what makes Daniel Boyarin’s book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity such an interesting and fresh way of looking at Paul. For Boyarin, Paul is not a marginal Jew, he is a radical Jew.
There is an important sense in which this small book—at only 105 pages with larger than average print—is a kind of summary of what Balthasar has written at length and in great detail elsewhere. In my personal opinion this book is a near-perfect representation of good theology. It blends technical precision with strong rhetorical expression while bringing these two together in an uncommon simplicity of expression. Anyone can read this book. But above all this book moves seamlessly between theological exposition and spiritual and even mystical communication. Balthasar holds all these vital pieces together, allowing the Apostles’ Creed to frame what Christianity and the Christian life means for him.
Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology? Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes, handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!