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Notes on Minor Christian Literatures.

To see the similar in the dissimilar is the mark of poetic genius.

One afternoon Ernst Bloch and Johann Baptist Metz were walking the streets of the city of Munster. As their conversation turned to political theology Bloch pointed to the three iron cages that still hang outside the Saint Lamberti Church. Heretics of the Radical Reformation were executed in those cages, where their bodies and bones remained on public display as a warning to dissenters and witness to the triumph of imperial Christendom. "One must do theology from there," Bloch said to the Baptist.

Although Bloch's declaration was driven by important political concerns, pragmatic considerations would also lead one to conclude that if Christian theology is to continue as a mode of reflection at the beginning of a new century, it must be conceived after Christendom in surprising spaces outside the cathedral. Both modern statisticians and postmodern theorists agree: the grand temple of Western Christendom can no longer seduce and satisfy the religious imagination nor can its old Constantinian heresy provide an interesting or instructive vision of God in the world. God is dead or eclipsed or exiled. Yet as Bloch's prophetic gesture implied, if God is to indeed return, it will be from the cages, from the margins, from life's liminal spaces, from somewhere other, from somewhere beyond.

Literary theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari write of the importance of "minor literatures." A minor literature, according to Deleuze, makes intensive and transgressive use of a major language as a witness to the representational incompleteness in all discourse. It accents other stories within the story. As such, it points to something other, to the possibility of an Other beyond the master-narrative.

I need not rehearse for the readers of this journal the story of the postmodern collapse of the master-narrative and the emergence of minor literatures. It is a well-known and even a rather tired story. I will return to Johann Baptist Metz and his theological response, but first I want to raise a question I find far more interesting than the old story of the end of the master-story. The question is at once postmodern, modern, and classical: Do particular traditions bear public resources? Stated another way, can minor literatures become part of the public conversation in quest of a common weal, a common good? Can they open one to a human connection, compassion, and meaning beyond cathedrals, creeds, bounded communities and tribal gods?

Our postmodern condition has contributed to the new rise of fundamentalisms, sectarianisms, orthodoxies, and communitarianisms, all in the name of particularities in resistance to the imperialism and colonialism of the modern project -- a "universalism" which is little more than the universalizing of Western values, these communitarian critics correctly charge. Yet these new cosmologies, theologies, and cultures tend to isolate faith from the wider world and thus from a truly public quest for the shalom of the city. Can Christian theologies as minor literatures resist becoming sacred reservations of bounded texts and privileged communities and recover an ecumenical spirit without becoming imperial?

In a recent lecture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, sociologist of religion Robert Bellah admitted that he and his co-authors were wrong about something in their celebrated book, Habits of the Heart. Their book quoted a famous passage in Tocqueville's Democracy in America; "I think I see the whole destiny of America contained in the first Puritan who landed on those shores." Habits then went on to name John Winthrop, following the lead of Tocqueville, as the best candidate for being that first Puritan. At Berkeley Bellah confessed that this was likely wrong. The first "Puritan," he now speculates, who contained our whole destiny, was one banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Winthrop, Roger Williams, or perhaps even Ann Hutchinson -- religious dissenters, indeed, heretics! American theologians must never forget the destinies of Williams, Hutchinson, or Mary Dyer, a Quaker thinker who was hanged by the Puritan fathers on Boston Commons in 1660.

Roger Williams, a Baptist, established the Rhode Island Colony and made hospitable space there for Baptists, Quakers, Jews, Native Americans, and a variety of saints and sinners dissenting from the Puritan story. Those dissenters stressed the centrality of religious freedom and the sacredness of individual conscience in matters of faith and practice. That minority culture of religious dissent evolved from the early nineteenth century into a majority in American religious culture. Robert Bellah's lecture cited Seymour Martin Lipset who has recently pointed out that the United States is the only North Atlantic society whose predominant religious tradition is sectarian or dissenting or even "heretical" rather than established church. This says much about the about the possibilities of religion and intellectual life or theology and culture as we enter a new millennium. Finally, God no longer dwells in temples or texts made with magisterial hands.

Theology written in the shadow of postmodernism has produced many interesting minor literatures of God without being, identity politics, multiculturalisms, bodies, sex, aesthetics, and poetry. However, often the reader of these texts discovers a God without wonder, subject positions without souls, multiculturalisms without analogies of being, bodies without passion and sex without real bodies, aesthetics without art, and poetry without strong poets. Indeed, postmodernism celebrates "the death of the author." The author was killed in Paris, embalmed at Yale, and pronounced dead again and again in many distinguished European and American English departments and divinity schools.

I have learned much from postmodernism. In fact, I have contributed to postmodern books, journals and conferences. Yet I remain intrigued by what Louis Dupre has called "the unfinished project of modernism" -- not the hardened, reified Enlightenment version, but a pluralistic modernism marked by transgression of national, ethnic and generic boundaries. I remain attracted to the spirit of that great modern but neglected book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. We now know that James was inspired by Whitman's democratic vistas and poetic vision in his own understanding of pluralism, a pluralism not merely in society, but in the soul. We contain a multitude.

This past year in the composition of sermons I have drawn from four recent works of Christian thought that I would like to highlight in this review essay. They all express hope in the unfinished project of modernism -- a protest against the dehumanization of the human -- and are written by strong authors.

The very posthumous publication of Paul Tillich's 1963 Berkeley lectures on The Relevance and Irrelevance of the Christian Message (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1996) went largely unnoticed outside the circle of Tillich specialists. Tillich's modernism to many seems terribly out of fashion. However, when the New York Public Library recently listed its Books of the Century, only one theologian made the cut: Tillich and his profoundly existential book, The Courage to Be. Tillich came to New York in 1933 to teach at Union Theological Seminary after his dismissal from the University of Frankfurt for his opposition to the Nazis. Always a theologian in public view, he told a reporter for the New York Post, "I had the great honor and luck to be about the first non-Jewish professor dismissed from a German University."

Tillich's writing remains interesting and at times even inspiring because he was not merely a churchly theologian. He viewed his calling as a theologian of culture and an interpreter of the Christian message. For Tillich the God question could not be pried apart from "the human question." I'm very fond of his comment, "To be a theologian one has to be a non-theologian." When the old New York Intellectuals in the Partisan Review circle gathered the likes of Hannah Arendt, W H. Auden, Alfred Kazin, and John Dewey together in 1950 for a major symposium on "Religion and the Intellectuals," one Christian theologian was warmly welcomed into the conversation. It was of course Paul Tillich, who understood well the religious dimensions of art, literature, and philosophy and who remained committed to the life of the mind and spirit throughout his career as an intellectual preacher of the Christian Gospel and theologian of culture. Nineteen fifty was also the same year several "nontheologians" interested in religion, t heater, literature, and poetry established Cross Currents under the editorial direction of Catholic intellectual Joe Cunneen.

Perhaps most interesting about The Relevance and Irrelevance of the Christian Message is the way Tillich revisits the classic conversation around Protestant Principle and Catholic Substance under the theme of, "theologians of offense and theologians of mediation." According to Tillich, the theologians of offense echo Tertullian's, Kierkegaard's, and Karl Barth's infamous "No!" to the invitation to mediate between the Christian message and the particular cultural situation. They take their religion straight. Theologians of mediation, on the other hand, attempt some mediation, correlation, or conversation between the Christian message and every particular cultural expression. In the history of Christian theology this has led to sharp contrasts and conflicts between the theological models: Bernard of Clairvaux and Abelard, Luther and Erasmus, and Barth and Tillich. Nevertheless, Tillich respected the message-centered (kerygmatic) witness of Barth and other theologians of offense and insisted that this model was a necessary movement in theology reminding all of the Otherness--ganz anders in German--of God. Biblical religion must retain a prophetic edge. His own work, however, was given to what he termed an "answering theology," a theology of mediation.

One can learn much from Tillich's model and mood of engaging cultural questions and responding to human concerns, even if some of the material in his 1963 Berkley lectures is dated. At a time when so much contemporary Christian theology, whether postmodern, communitarian, or radical orthodox, seems to celebrate "the Word made strange" and is thus offensive and in sharp opposition to every modern passion, thought, or situation, the correlational, conversational style of Tillich is again welcome. How can a theology which negates the cultural history of how we have come to think about ourselves and how we view the world ever hope to connect with our contemporary loves, longings, and losses? Can a word that falls strangely like a stone from heaven hope to be incarnational and truthful to those living and loving in the fleshly texts of dreams and bones? How can there be genuine dialogue and compassion in communities of discourse that almost bless the category of the incommensurable? No matter how textually and rh etorically rigorous, is not such a message irrelevant to our ultimate human concerns?

Tillich reminds us through his mediating theology of the hopes and possibilities of some simultaneous engagement of the same and the different, the general and the particular, in all realms of church, culture, and creation. This is what David Tracy, who has done much to expand and extend the style of Tillich's conversational thinking through his own theology of the analogical imagination calls the possibility of similarity-in-difference. We seek to know ourselves, others, God, and the world through analogy. Indeed, to do theology with an analogical imagination is a theopoetics. According to Aristotle, "To spot the similar in the dissimilar is the mark of poetic genius." The poet James Tate in his poem "Entries" has taught theologians much about the rule of metaphor: "When I think no thing is like any other thing / I become speechless, cold, my body turns silver / and water runs off me. There I am / ten feet from myself, possessor of nothing, / uncomprehending of even the simplest particle of dust. / But when I say, you are like[ldots] / I am happy, full of wisdom, loved by children / and old men alike."

To spot the similar in the dissimilar and to embrace the different, the other, is the mark of Christian compassion, according to the Croatian Evangelical theologians Judith Gundry-Volf and Miroslav Volf, who now live and teach in the United States. Writing as witnesses to contemporary ethnic cleansings and bloody wars for the cause of what they see as an almost idolatrous devotion to "identity," the Volfs' satisfying essays in The Spacious Heart: Essays on Identity and Belonging (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997) explore the understanding of cultural identity as a theological task. Through investigations of biblical narratives such as the Samaritan and Syrophoenician women (Judith is a New Testament scholar) and in critical readings of the search for communal identities from Croatia to Rwanda to the Western academy (Miroslav is a theologian) the authors develop their theology of "Exclusion and Embrace."

Well acquainted with multicultural, postcolonial, and postmodern theories of the politics of difference, they address the problem of "the other" theologically within their theopoetic notion of "the spacious heart." A spacious heart, a theology of embrace, for the Volfs is marked by the possibility of "finding a place within ourselves as individuals and cultures for "others" while still remaining ourselves." They seek to move beyond both a na[ddot{i}]ve ecumenism that is tempted to tame, reduce, or colonize difference and a severe if sophisticated tribalism that constructs impenetrable boundaries between the similar and different, the self and the other. They boldly declare that "identity without otherness is a curse!" Their theology reflects an understanding of what the prophetic modern writer James Baldwin also knew about the soul: "Each of us, helplessly and forever -- male in female, female in male, white in black and black in white. We are part of each other."

The soul is well populated and impure. I found the development of categories of purity and impurity most fascinating in The Spacious Heart. The Volfs contend that sin is not so much a defilement as a certain form of purity -- the exclusion of the other from one's heart and one's world. They write that in the story of the prodigal son, the sinner was the elder brother -- the one who withheld an embrace and expected exclusion. They conclude, "Sin is a refusal to embrace the other in their otherness and a desire to purge them from one's world, by ostracism or oppression, deportation or liquidation." Miroslav Volf, a low church, evangelical Protestant, is prepared to call the embrace of the other "a sacrament of a catholic personality." He explains, "It [the embrace] mediates and affirms the interiority of the other in me, my complex identity that includes the other."

The collected essays of Johann Baptist Metz, A Passion of God: The Mystical-Political Dimension of Christianity (New York: Paulist Press, 1998), follows the understanding of Friedrich von H[ddot{u}]gel that religion is always a complex interaction of three elements or modalities: the historical-institutional, the intellectual, and the mystical. This collection is a translation of the best from Metz's recent German writings. Translator and editor J. Matthew Ashley introduces the volume with a very useful overview of the evolution of Metz's thought from founder of European political theology to his current attention to the "irruption" of the third world into the church's consciousness, calling for a global, polycentric church. Ashley traces how Metz has held in productive tension the historical, the prophetic-intellectual, and the mystical as he has attended to both classic texts and voices from the margins, the minor literatures.

The reader will feel the force of Metz's familiar prophetic edge, inspired by his mentors from the Frankfurt School, Ernst Bloch, and his political engagement with "the dangerous memory of Jesus." Some of these pieces are vintage Metz, brooding over Theodore Adorno's haunting declaration that "after Auschwitz there can no longer be any poetry." Yet in two essays Metz returns to his more priestly and poetic teacher and "father in the faith," Karl Rahner. Especially moving is, "Do We Still Miss Karl Rahner?" Metz answers, "Yes," and contends that contemporary theology has lost interest in listening to religious experience and thus has lost the ability of "articulating one's life story before God." Metz honors Rahner's truly intellectual and spiritual theology in its good work of rendering "a mystical biography of the ordinary, average person." He suggests that his beloved teacher was successful in this rendering because he refused to pour interpretations of religious experience "from above into bewildered soul s"; instead, his theology was "an invitation to a journey of discovery into the virtually uncharted territory of one's own life."

Although this modern turn to the subject is critically out of fashion in contemporary academic theory and theology, Metz believes it remains necessary intellectual work for both spiritual and political understanding. Metz is not interested in a return to an easy metanarrative or a generic story of the soul. He concedes that we live in a time of fundamental pluralism of cultures, religions, and worldviews in which traditional ethical approaches to the relationship of "universalism and particularism" have reached an aporia. No one needs to alert Metz to the imperialistic dangers in claims of universalism and universal obligation. However, he worries deeply about the postmoderm triumph and celebration of disconnected little stories and the communities of discourse and practice underwritten by them. In such a story line he wonders how the important universalism of human rights and the cherished notion of inalienable and intrinsic human and cultural differences might be respected and protected from predictable co nflicts that lead either to violence or sectarian withdrawal from the public sphere. Thus, he ponders if there is in fact anything in an emerging world of minor literatures that can speak genuinely as a universal word.

Indeed, can minor literatures, can the cages, finally speak out of a particularity that rises to some universal significance? Metz thinks so. He turns to the classic memoria passionis as a root metaphor calling humanity to a very particular expression of universal responsibility in face of suffering --the suffering of the other, the stranger, even the enemy. The particularity of the incarnation and passion of Christ reveals something profound about the universality of creation. One is moved from the dangerous memories of the sufferings of Christ to a participation in and responsibility for the universalism of suffering in the world. For Metz, the cry of suffering, when truly heard, can be a universal word uniting all creatures in the passion of God and compassion for the other. One must do theology from there.

William Sloane Coffin's new book, The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth/University Press of New England, 1999), strives to restore spirituality to the intellectual life by reclaiming Jesus and the Bible from the fundamentalists. The retired pastor of New York's Riverside Church blends the genres of essay and sermon in pieces ranging from "The Dangers of Self-Righteousness" to "Homophobia: The Last 'Respectable' Prejudice." All essays lean to the left as Coffin makes a fierce and confrontational case that a concern for "public morality" cannot and must not be left to today's moral puritans as we enter a new millennium. He mourns the retreat of so many progressive religious intellectuals from public dialogue and debate on behalf of a politics of compassion and suggests that this silence is the great moral lapse of our age. Not surprising to those who have followed Coffin's career, these essays present visions of a public and liberal Christian faith seeking to be radically democratic, inclusive, compassionate, civil, and just. They embody the best hopes of the modern project.

The essays return again and again to the moral authority of personal and passionate narrative, witness, vision, and voice. Coffin tells the forgotten story of Mary Dyer and her Puritan inquisitors. He reminds readers that the Puritans sailed to America fleeing British persecution only to become equally intolerant of religious and moral ideas other than their own. They hanged the Quaker dissident Mary Dyer in the public square for her insistence that "Truth is my authority, not some authority my truth." Yet it is Dyer's vision and voice that Coffin emphasizes, not her suffering. What many will find attractive about the book is the way in which the seasoned preacher tracks down God like a spy through a constellation of human thoughts, emotions, experiences, and narratives. The cry of suffering may indeed be a universal, authoritative word. But what about the voice of desite, beauty, pleasure, wonder, and worship? Coffin seems to believe that for there to be morality and humane connection in this blessed fallen world there must be poetry. He begins his book with a poetic fragment from Czeslaw Milosz, the long exiled Pole who has seen more than his share of the terrors and tragedies of history. I will conclude this review essay where Coffin begins:

Pure beauty, benediction: you are all I gathered

From a life that was bitter and confused,

In which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.

Wonder kept dazzling me, and I recall only wonder,

The risings of the sun in boundless foliage,

Flowers opening after the night, universe of grasses,

A blue outline of the mountains and a shout of hosanna.

How many times I thought: is this the truth of the Earth?

How can laments and curses be turned into hymns?

Why do I pretend to know so much?

But the lips praised on their own, the feet on their own were running,

The heart was beating strongly, and the tongue proclaimed adoration.

SCOTT HOLLAND is a contributing editor for Cross Currents.
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Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Mar 22, 2000
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