Beyond liberal and conservative: Hans W. Frei’s generous orthodoxy

Generous Orthodoxies

I’ve a chapter out in a new book edited by Peter Silas Peterson called Generous Orthodoxies (Wipf & Stock), which looks at various 20th century theologians from various confessional traditions who crossed boundaries, redefined their confessional identities, and mediated between divided constituencies in their work.

I was asked to write on the American theologian and historian of ideas, Hans W. Frei (1922-1988), who, though not an ecumenist in the usual sense, nevertheless fits this description well, and forwarded and developed the concept of generous orthodoxy that gives its name to this collection.

The phrase has been widely used since Brian McLaren popularised it in his book of 2005 (A Generous Orthodoxy). It’s been popularised on probably an even wider scale by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent episode of his podcast, Revisionist History. It’s particularly interesting to see its popularity in the context of theological training in the UK, for example. A number of other Anglican colleges identify with it in this piece in the Church Times from March 2016.In these different contexts, the term is used in quite different ways, most of them referencing Frei as its originator.

McClaren’s sense of Frei’s meaning is mediated by the evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, in his Renewing the Center, where, as McClaren summarises it, generous orthodoxy is defined by its opposition to the pursuit of certainty by both liberals and conservatives and McClaren describes his own project as post-critical, emergent and ancient/future, integrating the good from Christian traditions, and re-aligned with Jesus. Gladwell summarises Frei’s stance as being at once committed to tradition and open to change, advocating finding middle ground as the way to live our lives, ‘because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness, and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty’, a difficult balance to achieve. In the Church Times piece Paul Wilkinson (who does not reference Frei) describes it an approach to theological education that holds different traditions together with respect for each of them.

In fact, Hans Frei may not have invented the term ‘generous orthodoxy.’ In some biographical notes, he associates it with his Yale teacher, Robert L. Calhoun and with the Anglicanism he discovered later in his 20s. But it is a term he used to describe what he was about. Given the varied and widespread ways in which Frei is appealed to in order to give the term a lineage, it may be illuminating to go back and see what he meant by it. While all none of these uses is entirely alien to Frei’s purposes, none really gets to the heart of his project, which is what I try to describe in the chapter.

Frei used the term most clearly in his response to a lecture by the conservative evangelical theologian (and founding editor of Christianity Today) Carl F.H. Henry, in which Henry took aim at ‘narrative theology’ as he saw it.  One of the things Frei does in the response is try to describe what he was trying to do in his work. He tells Henry that he saw Christians in the US divided not so much along denominational lines as into ‘schools of thought’. What was needed, he suggested, was a kind of ‘generous orthodoxy which would have in it an element of liberalism… and an element of evangelicalism’; a voice between Christianity Today and its older progressive liberal counterpart, Christian Century. Frei implies that this is what he was aiming at both in his most famous book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, and in the project he was then engaged in (which he left incomplete at his death, but which is reflected in the essays and lectures posthumously published in Types of Christian Theology and Theology and Narrative). This is the passage which is usually cited by proponents of generous orthodoxies who reference Frei, but to understand its import, you need to see it in the context of his work.

At the heart of Frei’s work is a search for what provides Christianity with an enduring identity across its highly varied historical forms, the question of the essence of Christianity that has long preoccupied modern theologians in the West. Frei’s conception of that essence changes from Eclipse to the later texts: in the former, it is the ‘history-like’ or realistic meaning of (chiefly) parts of the gospel narratives (their cumulative rendering of characters in and through their interaction with one another and their circumstances in chronological sequence); in the latter, it is the basic, minimal, flexible norms embedded in Christian reading practices that prioritise those same stories and identify the character Jesus of Nazareth as their subject (core elements of what Frei called ‘the literal sense’).

In Eclipse (to summarise a highly complex text with several strands of argument), Frei is concerned with the way both liberal and conservative theologies lost sight of that realistic narrative meaning because of the way they let various theories of meaning and reference govern their interpretation, for apologetic reasons. Disagreements between liberals and conservatives were about whether the NT stories about Jesus were to be taken literally, whether they were historically reliable, and whether this putative historical revelation was essential to salvation. Underlying the differences was a broad consensus of apologetic strategy (in which Jesus is the answer to a universal need) and hermeneutical approach (which tended to interpret the meaning of the stories as factual claims), in which both were in significant discontinuity with their pre-modern forebears. Frei espied there (and pursued in The Identity of Jesus Christ) a new way of returning to the realistic meaning of the gospels, and the central character whom they rendered to the imagination, whose identity cannot be separated (he argued) from his presence.

In Types of Christian Theology, Frei offered a typology which analysed the hermeneutical consequences for the literal sense of different ways of resolving the particularist and universalistic orientations of Christian theology through different ways of relating theology to other academic disciplines and their public character. In Frei’s typology, liberal and conservative can be found together, for example, in his Type 2, where publicness is secured by a systematic correlation of Christian meanings to general criteria of meaning and truth supplied by a philosophical scheme, at the expense of the literal sense. The typology focuses on Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth whom, Frei argues, are closer on these terms that one might imagine, each resolving the question of priorities between particularity and publicness in different, equally defensible, subtle ways which sought to uphold the literal sense. The effect is to de-centre the liberal/conservative polarity altogether, to suggest the real issues lie elsewhere and deeper than the differences we allude to with those labels.

The generous orthodoxy Frei sought was a way of carrying forward the central focus of Christian communities of various persuasions on the narrated figure of Jesus, as the chief clue to the identity, presence and providential purposes of God, the character and political witness of Christian communities, and the discipleship, ethics and political participation of their members. It would be orthodox in its orientation to Jesus Christ as its primary focus. It would be generous in prioritising this story so read over doctrines, but also in the manner of communal and individual life which patterned itself after the subject of those stories, and interpreted the ethical demands of its circumstances by the light of Christ’s identity as the clue to God’s providence. For Frei, that belief in Christ as the key to God’s governance of history had an affinity with a ‘carefully circumscribed progressive politics.’

To that end, Frei recommended that Christian theologians attend to the practice of Christianity in community in light of the story of Jesus as the centre of the scriptural witness. This is, he contends, a story whose rationality, meaningfulness and truth emerge from its rendering of its  central subject as one who is an irreducibly particular character and whose particular identity is inseparable from his being alive, from his existence, from his presence in Word and Sacrament, in community and public history, and in the poor. Its is a rationality, meaningfulness and truth which may be partially and publicly described in its coherence by borrowing concepts and bending their meanings to its logic, but which is also a truth to be lived out and discovered in the living. By examining the lives of Christian communities in light of this story, its rationality and truth, Christian theology, for Frei, helps Christians learn to live more faithfully in their times and places. To that end, such theology may and must converse with interpretive schemes, theories, and conceptual languages, especially those which allow and attend to historical human agency its integrity in context, but ties itself systematically to none.

You can find out more in the chapter, and I explore these and other themes (not least the political character of Frei’s theology) in greater depth in my next book, God’s Patience and our Work (to be published with SCM Press).




Multiple emergency integrities and the practice of the Eucharist in the time of coronavirus


Image by @MythAddict

The current controversy around online eucharists animating a good deal of Christian social media represents a new chapter in the churches’ long history of wrestling with questions thrown up by eucharistic practice.

While theologians have debated online sacraments before, I doubt that they have had in mind this peculiar conjunction of elements: whole communities in lockdown nationwide and across the globe; relatively widespread access to reliable, easy-to-use videoconferencing tools in the home; and the relatively widespread acceptance of and familiarity with such technologies. While churches have known times of plague and restricted Eucharistic practice before, the conjunction of these elements today seems new. And so we are facing an impetus to think about Eucharistic practice and theology afresh.

Commenting on Twitter on Rev Dr Julie Gittoes’ recent Church Times article on fasting from the eucharist as a eucharistic practice, I suggested we might find the concept of ‘multiple emergency integrities’ helpful in this situation and in respect of that controversy. I want to have a go here at trying to explain what that might mean, as a way of beginning to test that proposal.

The basic idea is not that anything goes, nor the tolerance of mutually exclusive options or relativism. Rather, what I mean is the recognition that in this unprecedented situation there may be no one way of upholding unimpaired shared commitments around Eucharistic practice and theology. Instead, in the name of those commitments there may be several ways of seeking to honour them, which are provisional and experimental, and present different practical options for holding together those commitments under the strain of the present emergency.

To show what I mean, I’m going to sketch an Anglican Eucharistic theology that is fairly minimal and in keeping with the written forms of Order One of Common Worship (CW), which is an authorised liturgy of the Church of England (C of E). I’ve gone for COmmon Worship on the assumption that it is more widely and frequently used in the C of E than the Book of Common Prayer, and represents a genuine development of Eucharistic theology in continuity with the BCP and yet also goes beyond it in taking onboard insights from the C20th liturgical movement, liturgical theology, and the riches of early Christian tradition. I’m also trying to keep in mind the C of E’s canons, the relevant Articles of religion and the Lord’s Supper liturgy in the BCP itself. I’m mindful too that this will be more descriptive of the Church’s official doctrine as expressed in its authorised liturgy and historic formularies, that local practice varies quite a bit, and that there may be more breadth to actual operative and espoused Eucharistic theologies in the Church than its official forms would seem to afford!

In Common Worship, the service of Holy Communion is an act celebrated by the gathered people, in the presence of God and by the enabling of God. That corporation work is performed together with the help of the uniting ministry of the ordained president, and through the people’s participation verbally and physically in all the actions of the liturgy.

The people gather in order to confess their sins and be assured of God’s forgiveness, to praise God, to attend to God’s Word in the reading and exposition of the Scriptures. They celebrate and give thanks to God for God’s gifts of creation and redemption as they gather around the Lord’s Table. There they recall the story of creation and redemption, and pray for the coming of God’s Spirit so that, as they participate in the ritual meal instituted by Christ to remember his death and resurrection and look forward to his coming, they may share also in his redeemed, renewed humanity and so be united in him. They do so looking forward to the coming of the kingdom of God, its peace and its justice, and the intimate direct communion with God prefigured in this feast. And, in at least some of the Eucharistic prayers, they connect that longing with the cries of our contemporaries and voice that solidarity in intercessions for the earth, the sick and the oppressed, and for the empowerment of the church, presumably to stand with them, to work for what the kingdom will bring. They thus offer themselves thankfully, as living sacrifices, in the service of God, ‘to live and work to your praise and glory.’

With a nod toward the eucharistic theology of the late Dan Hardy, we could see the vision of Holy Communion set forth in Common Worship as a gathering up in the Spirit into a formative intensification, orientation and renewal of the complex meanings, affects, and dynamics of weekly Christian lives in, with, from, against and for the world, in order to be sent forth again. And it is the work of the Spirit, forming socially the body of Christ by means of the forms of Word and sacrament, repentance, prayer and praise, which intensifies, orients and renews. That, we are told, is what is offered us by Christ in this way.

That is also the context in which to think with the liturgy about the relationship between Christ, the believing community, and the elements. The emphasis in CW, as in the BCP, is on present participation in Christ’s body and blood, alluding to 1 Corinthians 10:16-21. The BCP does so with the goal of assurance, forgiveness, eternal security, and sanctification, CW with more of a missional and eschatological direction. But participation or communion, rather than presence or even reception, seems to be the key category in both. The invocation of the Spirit in CW’s eucharistic prayers varies a little in its somewhat ambiguous petitions. Nevertheless, the overall tendency is to ask for the Spirit to come down upon the people’s action of remembering Christ’s death with the elements of bread and wine in order that, by consuming them, the people may feed on Christ’s body and blood by faith, and be united in him, offer themselves to God and eventually be gathered into the feast of the kingdom. The prayers envisage the elements consecrated in this prayer not as containers or modes of a local presence of Christ (the Article’s and BCP rule this out explicitly), nor do they lose their creaturely natures. Rather, within the action they become signs by which the faithful participate in what they signify. By the Spirit, they mean Christ’s body and blood, and the meaning of Christ is, for the believers, inseparable from the truth or reality of Christ, because of who he is and because has sent the Spirit to witness to him in these and other ways.

Where does this leave questions of Eucharistic practice in the time of coronavirus? I think it is possible to see diverse approaches as seeking to honour this sort of understanding of the Eucharist within the straightened forms of sociality possible under lockdown, as prioritising different aspects of it and finding ways to honour the others in more strained ways (not that Eucharistic practices were without some strains and compromises already).

Let’s take three typical examples, assuming for the sake of argument that the communities and their presbyters (or priests) in all of them are adhering to the Archbishops’ guidance about not entering churches, are broadly signed up to these beliefs about the Eucharist, and are variously active in supporting others pastorally and practically. Let’s also assume that they hold that participation in Christ is not limited to the Eucharist but that it has an especial value in making it explicit and mediating its social dimensions.

We could imagine a community that is holding online Eucharists, led by the president, where everyone participates in the liturgy and partakes of elements in their own home. We could imagine another which has decided to fast from the Eucharist and pursue other forms of maintaining worship and fellowship in common. And we could imagine a third where the presbyter leads a service of Holy Communion but only those in their own household partake of the elements, while others watch, give thanks for their spiritual communion with Christ and as to receive him in their hearts. NB: as has been pointed out to me, the Church of England in its Coronavirus Guidance for Holy Week and Easter has endorsed the second and third options, and explicitly ruled the first out. It is nevertheless worth thinking through as a logical possibility and as something some parishes seem to have tried, at least prior to this guidance being published and received.

The first community celebrating the Eucharist together online might judge that the proper priority in its context and for its members and their Christian life and witness is to maximise the integrity of its members’ explicit, sacramental participation in the rite and the Supper, that the resources involved are worth dedicating to that goal, and that for that purpose the exclusion of those without the Internet is better than no eucharist at all, and that the strained form of its gathering is a bearable compromise with the form of the liturgy and its socialising function. Indeed, they might argue, it preserves that function, albeit with limited bandwidth, at a time when it is sorely needed. This approach would raise the most significant questions for the Church if it were proposed it should be regularised for less extraordinary times, and that controversy in prospect is reflected, I suspect, in the Church’s guidance.

The second, fasting community might judge that it is more fitting, more appropriate to the dispersed nature of its life in its context (and to the impaired character of gathering online) to fast from that most social and corporate form of Christian worship. It might do so confident that its members are not cut off from Christ, and that they can extend and improvise other ways of maintain fellowship and common prayer, and still feed on the Word of God in sharing the scriptures, online, by phone or through letters or emails. They might also judge that with limited resources they might better put their limited resources and energies into supporting more vulnerable member states if their civic communities, including those who are poor and/or marginalised, in whom  one may also encounter the Risen Christ who keeps his solidarity with them.

The third Christian community represens in effect a middle way between these stances, offering a way of allowing many of its members to see and hear the Eucharist and benefit thereby, while compromising the community’s participation in the sacrament (though not in Christ) for the sake of maximal integrity of the connection between gathering and participation, and perhaps thereby reducing the amount of resources needed, which may be freed up for other forms of care and service. It is also an approach which, in contrast to the first, avoids raising serious questions for those Anglicans who maintain, on the basis of the manual actions in the rubrics of the BCP, that the physical proximity of the priest to all the elements is essential in their consecration. I’m grateful to those who’ve pointed this out to me on Twitter.

Essentially my thesis is that there is a significant degree of integrity – of principled coherence and fidelity to the Eucharistic theology of the CW liturgy – in each of these options. It is not obvious that any of them is so straightforwardly and thoroughly impaired as to be unconscionable, though there are significant challenges that can be made to each. It is not yet obvious that one of them should stand as a general rule for every Eucharistic community in every context. There may be value, rather, in seeing what reflections and developments emerge from each experiment, before drawing firm doctrinal and regulatory conclusions.

Practices of compassion and resistance

(Image by GoToVan (CC-BY 2.0)

There’s a couple of theological ideas I keep thinking about in relation to the practical challenges and demands of the current situation. I mean the added stress and fear involved in all kinds of ways of trying to be responsible, to care in some way, while we all face the common threat and uncertainty of coronavirus, and the challenges of current restrictions, whether shopping, in other public spaces, or while staying at home, and as keyworkers, volunteers, neighbours, colleagues, friends or family or when indeed communicating on social media.

The ordinary fears and demands of social practices, which vary in intensity, according to circumstances and social positioning, for all kinds of reasons, are greatly heightened, as we know. For some of us, that’s an additional weight to a familiar experience of fear and stress around certain chronic situations or circumstances. For others, the sense of a profound uncontrollable vulnerability to powerful forces, outside our control but at the door, is new and deeply disconcerting, as Kate Bowler points out in a recent podcast.

I suspect most of us have ways of talking ourselves through this, as far as we can. My hunch is that a lot of the stuff of everyday living as a sort of moral experience involves not highflown reflection or terribly quandaries but the resort to what we can rummage from assorted aids to getting by, quotidian scraps of wisdom, that we have to hand in the toolkits or rag bags of our memories. We might reach for well-tried maxims or mottos, familiar sayings, song lyrics, the deeply grooved records of certain influential voices and their advice or admonition, things read or seen or heard in the media, images from past experience of ourselves and others, or of characters from fiction or history. We also often have, I think, patterns of response which kick in semi-automatically to certain stimuli, and scripts – ways of interacting with others in certain situations that are socially legitimated and learnt, practiced and inhabited, which we improvise with as the need arises. To the extent that any of this hangs together, it does so in part through our lived performance of some kind of consistency in our actions that we call character and personality. And in part it coheres through some larger imagined scheme of things in which that performance has or aspire to some intelligibility.  Here we try to locate ourselves against or within a whole, whether with a sense of ‘fit’ (awkward or otherwise), an aspiration to dominance, or with some degree of resigned, despairing or angry alienation.

And all this is true, also, I think for Christians. Sometimes Christian theologians can talk as if Christians had very neatly ordered, or indeed very clearly disordered, moral resources resources; resources that we imagine to be firmly established and clearly boundaried to secure a permanent and reassuring identity. But in reality I think it’s more complex, porous and messy for most of us, most of the time. We are far more vulnerable to our social and cultural environment and our place in its rhythms and systems than we like to pretend.

One thing good theology can do for Christians is help us reflect on the sources, scripts and sayings we live by, give us a bit of distance from them and help us examine them, sort them a bit, perhaps repair some and supplement others, and resolve not to resort to yet others but instead use this or that. And it can help us to attend to the larger scheme of things against which or within which we locate ourselves, to test it and to find ways of imagining it otherwise, in light of some compelling patterns, insights and intuitions about the presence of God, the shape of God’s time with and for us, of the purpose of God in the whole, in our locales and for us personally. Theology can make things worse, of course. Sometimes it can make things much worse. But it can also help us be faithful, survive, resist, repent, find flourishing, and conform ourselves to what is most real, true and good, in the measure afforded to us to perceive it and to live by, in and from its measures: the glimpsed glory of God, above all in the face of Christ.

In the midst of keeping going today, I recalled two sets of ideas that seemed helpful for the demands of the present, that come out of texts I studied with my class of final year student at the end of last term. One is in effect a summary by Wendy Farley of her book Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion; the other is a pivotal chapter in the argument of John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion (in which Farley features, alongside Stanley Hauerwas and others, as a key voice). I’m not going to rehearse their arguments in full, nor would I commend them unreservedly. But I do find two ideas helpful, generally, and especially at the moment, and I thought it might be useful to share them here.

The first is Farley’s point that to be a creature of God, to exist but not as God does, is fundamentally to be limited, interdependent with others, and so profoundly vulnerable to loss and devastation. That is not a feature of our fallenness or a consequence of our fault. It is a function of our finitude. Fallenness and fault, especially as producing, participating in and sustaining social systems and cultural practices which harm us and others, prey on that vulnerability and magnify it exponentially and unequally for some while shielding others, even from their own agency. But the fundamental vulnerability remains and will at times be exposed, sometimes with very little warning.

I find that helpful for three reasons. First, it seems to express a key consequence of holding to the idea of the fundamental contingency of creaturehood that goes with believing in creation out of nothing, and with the sense of absolute dependence expressed in much Christian piety. Second, it undercuts hasty moves to find a redemptive or punitive meaning in a situation of suffering. Perhaps it also relieves a little the need to present a rationale for sufferings, to affirm or try to show that in this case also ‘everything happens for a reason’. Third, it just seems more honest. And it may be liberating for some of us to let go of any dream or hope of invulnerability, to relinquish the need to demonstrate the truth of our convictions or our moral worth and deserving by the prosperous state of our life or health. And in so doing this insight can help divest us of an illusion.

The other idea is the notion differently parsed in Farley and Swinton of practices of resistance, compassion and redemption. In Farley these are compassionate actions incarnating the attention that Simone Weil describes whereby God is present (almost sacramentally for Weil). In Swinton these are actions which mirror, participate in, attest and are vehicles of God’s redemptive movements in history, as focused and ordered in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (that’s Swinton read through Hans Frei), in the time between his resurrection and the full ramification of the redemption achieved in him. Farley’s notion by itself is too restricted a sense of divine presence amongst creatures for me, too remote from the incarnation, which Swinton foregrounds, but powerful seen in its light. Swinton’s vision is a bit too ecclesiocentric or overly church focused (here more Frei would help) in its diagnosis of evil and its practical theodicy of addressing it. The threat posed by evil to our love of God is indeed real and unsurpassed in seriousness, but evil threatens other dimensions of our creaturely existence as well, other relations integral to the love of God and the goods internal to them (as I’m sure Swinton would agree). A bit more of a doctrine of creation would help here. And of course Christian practices do not automatically shape good character, nor are they often innocent of deformation.

Nevertheless, there’s something illuminating and empowering about thinking of the things we do now to care for one another, however mundane, in terms of ways of resisting the threat opened up by our augmented vulnerabilities and our fears to turn away from God in turning away from one another; ways of resisting the magnified effects of our structural and social sins; ways in which we may hope that God is present and which attest, to our hope in God; ways of practicing which can be carried out in solidarity and cooperation, in giving and receiving, with our neighbours near and far, wherever and in whatever measure our commitments converge with theirs, as we often discover that they do, as we may be (re)discovering in these days.

Failing faithfully: The Rise of Skywalker

Warning: plot spoilers aplenty!

As expected, The Rise of Skywalker tied a big bow around the Skywalker saga, even if it left a number of plot threads hanging. (Here come those spoilers… read on at your peril). All the Sith were defeated by all the Jedi. The climactic double battle of Return of the Jedi was conclusively reprised. The grandson of Vader turned back to the light. What Anakin’s mother helped create by sending her son away, his daughter helped rectify, by drawing her son back. Where Anakin and Ben fell to fear and the temptations of dark power and promises of destiny on that side, Rey (like Luke before her) resists. The last Palpatine becomes the last Skywalker. The story that began, cinematically, in the deserts of Tatooine was put to rest there. You don’t have to be a theologian (or a student of Irenaeus) to appreciate all that recapitulation. Lando Calrissian returns and even C-3PO gets rebooted. As a film, especially as a Star Wars film, it’s ok, it’s enjoyable and satisfying in some ways. But the comparison with its predecessor raises some deeper issues about how we handle inheritances that are relevant for Christian theology, at least.

All those dramatic unities, plus some stunning action and the film’s many comic moments, made for a satisfying sense of an ending. In a way, unless the repetitions, the fight sequences, the comic turns, had been laid on so thick, you wouldn’t have believed it was really over. The deep code of the Star Wars franchise lies in the abiding tension between opposites, and the need to resolve them. While the rhetoric is always about restoring balance to an unending and unstable duality (‘restore the balance, Rey, as I once did’), the emotional and aesthetic logic is really about resolution: the victory of light over darkness, the clarification or redemption of identity and character in choosing the light and rejecting the darkness. In this respect it really is very Manichaean.

This same tendency also helps explain what – in addition to the prevalence of the theme in western culture – drives the plot unerringly toward the eventual redemption of the bad Skywalker, and the exorcism of the evil empress Rey from Rey’s future.

It was always more than likely that the final film in the third trilogy would succumb to the gravitational forces of these features of the Star Wars mythos, as much as to its predominantly straight romantic plots (one Lesbian kiss notwithstanding). Indeed, the two are shown to be supremely connected in the (admittedly rather well executed) Ren-Rey subplot and bond. Like the rejuvenating Emperor Palpatine sucking life from the bonded pair of Rey and Ben, The Rise of Skywalker draws much of its vitality from its dyadic pairings and doubles. In fact, it does so even when it acknowledges the weakness of the device. We are allowed to admit, in the words of Richard E. Grant’s General Pryde, that Starkiller Base was a bit of a dumb idea, but the plot is still drawn back to the idea of planet-killing power and a final attack on something like the Death Star, indeed a sort of Ur-Death Star, in the form of the hidden Sith Temple and the Final Order fleet on Exegol (complete with obligatory weak point that only comes to light, ex machina, at the equally obligatory prior Resistance/Rebel war council).

More than likely, but not inevitable. For as enjoyable as Rise was, its predecessor, The Last Jedi, had shown another way, and opened wider the possibility of doing more interesting things with the stuff of the Star Wars universe and the Skywalker story at its culmination. To be fair to Rise, while it often carried on as if The Last Jedi was a temporary diversion in the nostalgic recapitulatory trajectories set running in the Force Awakens, it also carried forward and built on the better features of the latter film. Rey is of course chief among these, a female hero who is not defined by sexual allure, nor any gender stereotype, nor absorbed into her bond with Ren/Ben, but who develops complexity and responsibility through several powerful and complex relationships with friends and enemies. C-3PO has more to him here as a character, without losing the comedy, than in many of the previous films. Poe and Finn emerge as more rounded characters, more fully centred in their friendship with Rey and one another. And, in another theme with strong theological resonances in Christianity, in Rey’s resolution of the question of her identity, the bonds of friendship, the lineaments of character and the construction of adoptive family win out over the vaunted destiny of aristocratic blood.

Still, Rise steadfastly ignores what The Last Jedi offered. And it offered much. It put the Jedi order firmly into perspective. It lauds two female leaders’ strategic and tactical nous over the chauvinistic insubordinate heroism of Poe, a character we had learnt to admire for his exceptional skill, courage and capacity for friendship. It lampooned the subplot of the obscure quest for the key to the enemy’s obscure but fatal weakness. It praised carefully calculated self-sacrifice (in Vice-Admiral Holdo), but also celebrated Rose Tico ‘saving what you love’ over Finn’s pointless, hate-fuelled martyrdom. And while it gave us plenty of exhilarating light-sabre action, the survival of the Resistance turned most on the massive distraction of the non-dual between Luke and Kylo-Ren. Although it too used plots echoing earlier sequences (like the rebels escaping Hoth), it did so to more creative effect. The cunning stratagems of love and experience in The Last Jedi offered Star Wars a more searching revaluation of its dominant grammars, vocabulary, gender codes and heroic virtues. By and large, The Rise of Skywalker blocked these improvisations on the old scripts, and nowhere more blatantly than in the sidelining of Rose, perhaps the moral centre of the previous film.

In these ways, the contrast between The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker reminded me of a profound challenge facing Christian theologians. It’s a challenge well encapsulated in Marika Rose’s recent book, A Theology of Failure and her notion of faithful infidelity or faithful failure: of working out what in one’s tradition must be betrayed in order to be faithful to what one loves in that tradition, and to those it has worked to oppress, in reproducing it. (I am not really doing justice to the searching and sophisticated argument of that book; I and others sought to do so here). It’s a challenge that Rian Johnson, the Director of The Last Jedi, seems to have been alive to, and which he embraced. It’s a challenge which I think it’s fair to say that J.J. Abrams was also alert to, but at which, by comparison, he faltered somewhat.

The comparison between the practices of Christian theology and those of creating drama are a bit tired now, and in some cases its exploitation leaves it seeming exhausted and over-stretched. Nevertheless, in this case it is pertinent and useful to note that theologians too face choices about how to retell a set of stories whose prior tellings (and perhaps even some raw materials) have passed on ambiguous legacies, and forwarded codes, scripts and identities which have proved damaging, as well as those which have nurtured life or resourced survival. For example, Christian theologies, too, have sometimes stressed and construed certain dyads with terrible consequence. Think of the many iterations of Christian orthodox identity and their superseded Jewish others; or various hierarchical and essentialist Christian constructions of masculinity and femininity; or some of the ways the scriptural master/slave distinction has been taken up in the social structures and practices of Christians and Christian societies; or racial constructions of white Christian identity over against black in the modern period. Deciding what faithfulness means in respect of one’s theological heritage in any given context, and what failures or infidelities fidelity to Christ demands today, is a perennial penultimate task for Christian theologians (and no doubt in other ways for thinkers in other traditions, religious or otherwise).

Rise of Skywalker fails in the extent of its fidelity to earlier telling of the mythos, where The Last Jedi showed a deeper fidelity in its willingness to fail that tradition to a greater extent. Today, as much as ever, Christian theologians also have to learn to gauge the measure of their faithfulness and what betrayals, what failures, it demands.

Memory, repentance and reparation: the Sam Sharpe Lecture and the Church of England

For an institution with such a penchant for commemoration, the Church of England has a powerful capacity for forgetting. For an institution with such a searching liturgy of confession, the C of E has a remarkable resistance to repentance. And (if we count ourselves as members of this Church) we need to ask ourselves why.

I’m prompted to these reflections by the invigorating experience of attending, for the second year running, one of the Sam Sharpe Lectures, run by the Sam Sharpe Project, a collaboration of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Jamaican Baptist Union and others. The Project is named after the enslaved Baptist deacon who organised the Baptist rebellion of 1831-1832 in Jamaica, and was executed by the British colonial authorities for his role in it. It seeks to explore and promote his story and legacy, in the context of the British Baptist Union’s strategy for turning its Council’s historic 2007 Apology for Slavery into concrete actions: The Journey. The focus on Sam Sharpe symbolises an emphasis on the faith and agency of enslaved people and their descendants and the theme of liberation from below which the Project foregrounds as his legacy. The annual lecture is one of its main means for exploring and furthering his story and his legacy and thereby development of the British Baptist Union’s process of repentance and reconciliation with their brethren.

This year’s highly distinguished lecturer was Professor Verene Shepherd, Professor of Social History at the University of the West Indies, the Director of The Centre for Reparation Research at The UWI, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a past member and chair of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Co-Chair of the National Commission on Reparations in Jamaica and a Vice Chair of the CARICOM Reparation Commission. Prof Shepherd was chosen, we were told by the Revs Wale Hudson-Roberts (the racial justice coordinator of the British BU) and Karl Johnson (General Secretary of the Jamaican Baptist Union), with the express hope that her lecture would provide impetus and resources for taking that process forward.

After hearing her speak, it was easy to see why. Professor Verene Shepherd spoke on the Women in Sam Sharpe’s Army, but also on reparations. It was at once an exercise in the recovery of memory through historical retrieval of the role of women in resisting slavery, and an argument for reparations in the names of those women, and the men, too, whose names, punishments and in some cases their testimony, are recorded in the sources.

Women enslaved in the Caribbean had no choice but to resist slavery, Prof Shepherd argued. They formed part of a long history of black women resisting enslavement, abolitionists who should be remembered alongside the men & white women usually commemorated. And indeed those women are now being commemorated in Jamaica. Sharpe went from plantation to plantation, Bible in hand, to swear the enslaved people there to rebellion, and to organise them into revolutionary cells. Women responded to Sam Sharpe’s call to resist. Their experience of slavery suffices to explain their participation. The forced exploitation of their labour, the appropriation of their reproductive agency to reproduce slavery, rape, their legal defeminisation and racialisation to justify their treatment: this coercion provoked gendered patterns of resistance to white supremacy enacted through racialised slavery. The sources attest women’s daily acts of resistance to wear down the slavers, like malingering, as well as outright armed revolt. And they suffered their share of the horrific exemplary punishments meted out by the British governor: hangings, lashes of the whip, permanent transportation. And for them we should engage in the path of reparative justice, Prof Shepherd urged us.

(The Unveiling Ceremony for the Freedom Monument at Montego Bay, Jamaica, commemorating those who fought for emancipation in the war of 1831-2. Image: Montego Bay Cultural Centre).

For them, and for many other reasons she adduced. Reparation, she argued, rests on moral, political and economic grounds, not only with respect to enslavement but also emancipation (a racist act that compensated slave owners by reckoning the enslaved as property), post-colonial indebtedness and under-development and other legacies of colonisation post-emancipation (‘a century of intellectual apartheid’); climate change, and centuries of environmental degradation; and the strictures of neo-colonialism. We should see reparation, she argued, as part of decolonial justice and a way to address the continuing harms of anti-black racism to people of African descent globally.

She took us through the history of the development of reparations justice, and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commissions 10 point plan. She emphasised the responsibility of colonisers, the intergenerational psychological trauma of enslavement (a point also made by last year’s lecturer, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin), the continuing effects of slavery and colonialism (as recognised by the UN’s Durban Declaration of 2001), and monetary compensation and debt cancellation as means to help Caribbean nations achieve UN development plans. The benefits of the exploitation of the enslaved are, she noted, like the harms, also transmitted across generations. These are not simply things which others did to the dead, long ago.

The Baptist Journey is proving to be a slow one, going by Wale Hudson-Roberts’ assessment in an article from 2017. Other institutions, such as a number of universities and seminaries in the US and the UK (Glasgow, Cambridge and Bristol), have gone further, faster. But at least there has been a serious, fully articulated apology and there is a commitment to action and a process and a relationship within which efforts can be made, and initiatives like the Sam Sharpe Project pursued, to drive the process forward. All these developments are well in advance of the position of the nation states responsible of the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery, including the UK. We tend to remember ourselves instead as a nation of Wilberforces, the ones who ended the slave trade, as David Cameron did while telling our former colony Jamaica to ‘move on from the painful legacy of slavery’, and while his government enacted the hostile environment that would result in the Windrush crisis. As Afua Hirsch wrote recently, ‘The Caribbean is Britain’s own Deep South, where enslavement and segregation as brutal as anything that existed on American soil took place at the hands of British people.’ Yet because it happened far away, the British are remarkably complacent about our major role in the slave trade and plantation slavery: ‘that distance facilitates denial.’ We forget the century and more of colonial rule that followed emancipation even more easily, except as the background to the arrival of The Empire Windrush in 1948.

I think it is fair to say that the Church of England, as an institution, shares in this national complacency about British slavery, slave trading, and colonialism. For all the slow progress of the Baptists’ Journey, they are far, far ahead of Anglicans in England. The Church of England’s Synod voted ahead of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade accept an amendment to a motion on modern day slavery, which apologised for the Church’s complicity in the slave trade and recognising the damage done to the enslaved. Chiefly in view here was the ownership of the Codrington Plantations and those enslaved there, in Barbados, bequeathed to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1710. Both Archbishops at the time, Rowan Williams and John Sentamu, supported the amendment and the following year they participated in a Walk of Witness as an act of repentance. Sentamu called on the British government to apologise for slavery, and Williams advocated that the Church of England consider paying reparations. These actions come far short of the British Baptist Apology and the process to which it has committed itself in relationship with its Jamaican counterpart. To my knowledge, no comparable steps have been taken since. Indeed, little if anything appears to have happened on the question since 2007, even while other British institutions have researched their complicity and, in the case of Glasgow University, produced a practical plan, worked up in partnership with the University of the West Indies. And this failure of repentance seems to be bound up with a failure of memory, as Duncan Dormer of the USPG points out.

Reparation as a process of addressing injustices and wrongs committed seems deeply in keeping with the sort of repentance envisaged by the New Testament. It is powerfully exemplified for us in the story of Zaccheus. It is consistent with the repudiation of the cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified in his book Discipleship. The intergenerational effects (harms for some, benefits for others) of slavery and colonialism, and the continuity provided by institutions involved, provide a basis for exploring reparatory justice on the part of institutions like the Church of England. Indeed the Church has, as Rowan Williams pointed out in 2006, core theological reasons, in belief in the body of Christ and the communion of saints, not to distance itself from the sufferings of the enslaved or its own part in owning and exploiting them and in justifying and defending slavery.

Professor Robert Beckford, in his response to the lecture, picked up on this failure and underlined its ecclesial seriousness. It is no wonder, he remarked, that the Church of England struggles to attract black and brown people when it fails fully to apologise or make reparations after participating in genocide. It signals that something has gone wrong with the Church’s theology. You can’t call yourself people of God and refuse to perform the Shalom required when the peace of God is broken, he argued. ‘You can’t call yourself my brother and sister and convince me you think I and my ancestors are fully human if you don’t repay this debt.’

It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this challenge to the Church’s moral standing, but also to its claim to be one of the churches of Christ, and its right to the enjoyment of the fellowship of all Christians of African descent (and not just African descent) whose history includes the history of slavery and colonialism. It is therefore a deeply troubling challenge – ‘uncomfortable’ is far too mild – but also I think a profoundly salutary one. Indeed, I think it is an act of generosity. Nor is Professor Beckford the only one challenging the Church on this issue: there are those on the inside like Canon Eve Pitts who have been raising it for many years, a work of astonishing faithfulness.

The Church has many challenges on its hands, including other legacies of devastating failings. Yet this challenge also goes to the heart of its identity and its mission, indeed to the integrity of the gospel it proclaims. It requires deep, extended listening, learning, dialogue, reflection and a path toward action. It is a challenge for a deep theological reflexivity about the Church’s history and its reluctance to face up to it. It is, finally, an opportunity for the Church to work at reconciliation with people in the Caribbean and of Caribbean heritage, including fellow Anglicans, including its own members, in making amends, and so also to enter itself into the freedom the gospel affords, in Rowan Williams’ words, ‘to face ourselves, including the unacceptable regions of … our history.’

Harry Potter and the invisible gorilla


I’ve just finished re-reading the Harry Potter books, and now I’m reading the script of The Cursed Child for the second time. There’s so much to love in these stories: the characterisation, the excellent plotting, the detail, complexity and consistency of the world they evoke. Above all (contrary to what some Christians will tell you) they are deeply moral stories, concerned with the struggle against forces of hate and domination. They do so with considerable realism, not least in the moral ambiguities of that struggle, and the moral limitations of the good, together with moments of comedy and shared pleasures. It’s these ambiguities and limitations, especially the limitations of what is of concern to characters and readers, and their significance for Christian theology, that I’m interested in here.

Like so much of the best fantasy literature, the Harry Potter stories render the struggle against the forces of hate and domination – principally Voldemort and his death-eaters – in a profoundly realistic way. The plot and its themes are rendered through the interaction of characters and the circumstances which constrain and shape their actions, feelings and perceptions. A range of interacting forces combine in various complex ways to shape and transform those circumstances, often in surprising ways: national and international institutions, mass media, public opinion, and so on. Magic as a medium of power with its own laws, constraints and mysteries, contributes to that realism.

Above all, the possibilities of magic notwithstanding, a great deal of the outcomes in events depends in part on happenstance, in part on the virtues and flaws of the protagonists, of the institutions of which they are part, and on the bonds of family, friendship and common purpose which unite and divide them. Magical skill is important in this world but it has to be acquired, and it is limited by others’ skill. And other qualities and factors matter more: courage, wisdom, a sense of obligation, luck, greed, loyalty, pride, lust for power, hubris, jealousy, kindness, mercy, fear and of course, love.

Magic also emphasises vulnerability in Harry Potter. The characters are vulnerable, as we are, in their bodies and in virtue of their loves, in the face of enemies who can cross space and time, and the distances between embodied minds. A lot depends on what gives them the capacity to endure suffering, and they are most vulnerable when isolated. They often live with personal and intergenerational trauma and much can depend on how they live with it. In these ways  and others, it is a set of stories that speak profoundly to moral struggles in the world of readers.

The ambiguities of the magical world contribute to that realism considerably, and frame the moral limitations of the good. Magical society in the Potter tales lives under a set of arrangements designed in the seventeenth century to minimise the risk of conflict between magical and non-magical populations by hiding magical spaces and institutions and limiting the interaction of the two populations. It is an arrangement that requires heavy regulation of the magical population by a bureaucratic surveillance state, the Ministry of Magic, which seems to seek to approximate a monopoly of overwhelming coercive force and is easily turned into an instrument of general oppression. The Ministry works closely with the main form of news media, The Daily Prophet, which it manipulates to suppress, manipulate and distort information and reputations, especially once Harry and Dumbledore claim that Voldemort has returned.

With a few exceptions (like Mr Weasley), magical humans (wizards and witches) see themselves as superior to non-magical humans (muggles) – a point also made by Noah Berlatsky here. This belief is the basis for ideologies of wizarding dominance entertained by Dumbledore (albeit briefly), Grindelwald and, of course, Voldermort and his followers. It is also basic to the latter’s  racial ideology of magical blood purity. It is ideology that, like racism in our own world, cannot abide mixing, hence the hatred directed at magical children of non-magical parents, and at those with mixed heritage of this sort. It clearly evokes whiteness as a hegemonic norm of humanity in our world, and we are invited to make the connection by the way Rowling describes the Malfoy family, who embody this ideology most visibly in the early books, by their paleness and blondness. Yet traces of this racial ideology and its intolerance of anyone who troubles its terms extends beyond the Death Eaters and into the wider magical society, manifest in the shaming and stigmatising of children of magical parents who cannot perform magic (‘squibs’).

The magical population is divided into several species, which at best coexist uneasily and with considerable mutual fear and suspicion. Voldemort and the Death Eaters combine this sense of superiority with their desire to dominate non-magical people and eliminate anyone who does not fit their categories. As Hermione says to Griphook in Shell Cottage, ‘mudbloods’ and non-human magical creatures are all in the same boat. Yet the Death Eater ideology builds upon a long history of wizarding hegemony sustained, as Griphook explains, by wizards’ monopoly on the technology of wands. Wizards generally perceive themselves as the superior species in these stories, exercising a benign paternalistic but also fragile hegemony over the other species, as imagined in the Fountain of Magical Brethren in the Ministry of Magic building, while denying space to some (giants), restricting the spaces of others (centaurs), routinely abusing still others as pests (gnomes), and stigmatising characters that cross species boundaries (half-giants like Hagrid and Madame Maxime, warewolves like Lupin) as AW Green points out. The replacement of that statue, in The Deathly Hallows, with another depicting the crushing of non-magical humans and of other non-human magical creatures under the legend ‘Magic is Might’ is a sharp symbolic contrast within an underlying continuity from which even families like the Weasleys do not appear exempt, as Ron’s attitudes to other magical species suggest.

The enslavement of house-elves and its apparent normality is the most prominent, cruel and disturbing feature of the magical society which Harry Potter rejoins and which he fights to save from Voldemort. Although Harry contrives to have Lucius Malfoy free his house-elf Dobby, and eventually shows decisive kindness to Kreacher, his godfather Sirius’ house-elf, he does not appear particularly concerned with the wider fate of house-elves who not only serve individual wizarding families, but also do much of the menial work at Hogwarts, the school where Harry (like Tom Riddle before him) finds a home, lighting fires and producing the food that the students of Hogwart’s enjoy with such relish. Hermione voices a protest at their enslavement which the reader is clearly intended to identify with, but which is also ineffectual and naive, failing to take the elves’ own perspectives, experience or practical welfare into account in her efforts to liberate them. Ron seems to voice a received wisdom shared by the best of Wizarding families when he rejects Hermione’s views with an argument that echoes arguments advanced by Christians for human slavery down the ages, namely that it is in the best interests of the one enslaved.

Though Dobby is freed and dies a heroic, noble death for his friends, epitomising the ethic of self-giving sacrifice that runs through the Potter stories, the house elves at large do not seem to be liberated after the Battle of Hogwarts. It is not even clear whether they have been freed under the regime of Hermione, when she is Minister of Magic in The Cursed Child. But what is most striking about the enslavement of the house elves is not merely that it does not disturb most of the enemies of Voldemort, or that it does not preoccupy Harry Potter or Dumbledore – a flaw quite consistent with the other flaws in their characters. It is that it does not seem to disturb the readers of Harry Potter as much as we might have expected of ourselves. I think we too, enjoying the delights of Hogwarts, sharing the fears of teachers and students, and relishing the defeat of evil, find ourselves able to look past this egregious evil in the society whose salvation we celebrate in book after book.

Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons sought to demonstrate our propensity to overlook significant details in a situation when we focus on something in particular – what they call ‘inattentional blindness’ in what is known as the ‘invisible gorilla experiment’. They asked participants to watch a video showing students dressed in white and in black shirts, passing a basketball amongst themselves, and asked them to count how many times the students in white shirts passed the ball. Part way through the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit appears in the centre of the image for a short period of time and thumps her chest before walking away. Only 50% of participants noticed the gorilla.

Aaron J. Hahn Tapper uses this experiment as a way of describing prolonged inattention to issues of inequality between the sexes in his book Judaisms, and it is useful here, too. JK Rowling depicts a society in which even the morally robust are inattentive, not to the phenomenon of the enslavement of house-elves, but to its injustice. Or rather, they are inattentive to the house-elves themselves and to their suffering. This moral inattention is different from the psychological phenomenon observed by Chabris and Simons, of course. It is willful, and self-interested, and sustained by a sense of its normality as well as by the myths of wizarding superiority and elvish inferiority that help justify it.

Chabris and Simons ran a second version of the invisible gorilla test, for participants who had knowledge of the first version. This time viewers were so focused on waiting for the appearance of the gorilla that they failed to notice other unexpected events, like a change in background colour. This second gorilla test is also helpful in respect of understanding the moral failure of the good in Harry Potter. The chief anti-Voldemort protagonists in Harry Potter are so focused on the anti-muggle, pure blood ideology of Voldemort and the Death Eaters that they tend (on the whole) to overlook the wider ramifications of the Death eater ideology, their own complicity in its roots, or the plight of the house elves in particular. And their failure evokes a parallel one in readers, I suspect, as evidenced by their enormous and enduring popularity. One of the most striking things about JK Rowlings’ books is the degree to which they draw readers, past their unease, into a parallel complicity with the characters with whom they identify, even with our explicit knowledge of the injustice in question.

What has this to do with theology?

The Harry Potter books are not only moral works, they are also theological. Or at least they resonate strongly with themes in Christian doctrine. It is not so much the background Christian references to Christmas that resonate as the themes of evil and redemption, fear of death and hope and especially the central theme of love and its power, especially in self-sacrifice to protect others, evoking both the divine name of Love and the Incarnation, cross and resurrection as the demonstration of that love and its power.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling depicts anti-Voldemort characters who exhibit and celebrate this kind of love in a story of redemption from those possessed by the fear of death. Yet it is these same characters who share a wider, willful, structurally and culturally normalised moral inattention to the enslavement of house-elves. It alerts us to the possibility that those who are shaped, even deeply shaped, by the theological virtues and by the Christian story, may suffer from like forms of inattention. Centuries of slavery and its legitimation is of course the most obvious connection to make. But Christians and Christian theologians have been inattentive at best too other profound wrongs with regard to Jews, women, gender norms, race and sexuality, non-human animals and the environment.

The Harry Potter books are wonderful literature, a fabulous reading experience. But in just that way they also alert readers to their forms of inattention. They teach Christian theologians the need to examine ourselves, our ways of imagining the world, our categories of thought and patterns of argument, to uncover the ways in which theology, in the name of Love, can coexist and collude in the obscuring and justification of profound wrongs to fellow creatures.



Invocations of Christian orthodoxy

constantine and council of nicaea biblioteca capitolare, vercelli, c 825 wiki commons

One of the remarkable things about contemporary Christianity is a surprising consensus between Christians who often find themselves at odds on some powerfully divisive issues. There are vocal Christians who consider themselves progressive, and vocal Christians who consider themselves traditionalists, who are agreed on at least one thing: that, at least on some questions, there is such a thing as heresy, and we can identify it, and therefore there is also orthodoxy. I want to probe what it is about the concept of orthodoxy that makes it so attractive, why it is also a difficult concept to enact, practically, and how we might rethink it a little.

For many progressive Christians today, if twitter is any indication, white supremacy is heresy. For most traditionalists, same-sex marriage is heretical. These judgments are, of course, not mutually exclusive: I can well imagine there are those who think that marriage between a man and a woman is Christian orthodoxy who also think white supremacy is heresy. For others, their opposition to white supremacy may be linked with their advocacy of same-sex marriage, where the discourse of justice often approximates to the discourse of orthodoxy. And the converse can be true too: white supremacy can be intertwined with sexual orthodoxies to which Christian communities have subscribed. To take another example that underscores my point: in the Church of England, some traditionalists are now urging that the marking of a transition of gender identity by way of baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows departs from a historic orthodoxy about biological sex. These issues are immensely important in different ways, but what interests me here is the invocation of orthodoxy: the declaration that one position on these issues is heretical and the other orthodox. The discourse of orthodoxy, and the practice of invoking it, is alive and vigorous.

Why do we still turn to those categories? Why not just argue for the theological and ethical rightness or wrongness of a given stance, and bring forward arguments for that view or against the other? I think the answer has to do with the social, soteriological and quasi-judicial character of orthodoxy as a concept.

Of course, orthodoxy involves normative judgments. But their normative character is not simply a function of the strength of the arguments made on their behalf by appeal to warrants like Scripture, tradition, interpretations of empirical evidence or of particular experiences. Such arguments are made for all kinds of positions not declared orthodox or heretic, nor do they suffice for something to be established as orthodoxy or rejected as heresy. Those moves involve operations of human authority (however understood as backed by or mediating divine authority), which brings us to the social dimension of orthodoxy.

As used in these contexts, and continuous (I think) with many wider Christian usages, orthodoxy denotes a doctrinal consensus in respect of some matter that is exclusive of some others: that this is the right teaching we share, and these claims or practices are incompatible with it. That’s part of the concept of orthodoxy implicit, for example, in the arguments of early Christian figures like Irenaeus, when they appeal to the catholic character of the rule of faith: this summary of faith is the same across the inhabited world.

Irenaeus’ arguments in Against Heresies also indicates another ingredient: orthodoxy includes the idea of a group who are competent and authorised to make judgments about orthodoxy (bishops in succession from the apostles, Irenaeus thought).

But while the competence and authority of this group may rest formally on appeals to apostolic tradition or sanctity or wisdom, learning or especial inspiration by the Holy Spirit, those claims need to be recognised. The group’s authority and the acceptability of its judgments functionally depends on their being accepted by those for whose sake, or on whose behalf, they judge and speak. Indeed, their claims to competence and authority are usually strongest when they are said to speak on behalf of a wider Christian community and its implicit consensus or ‘mind’, reflecting the presence of God among them. Hence the concept of orthodoxy often includes a wider reference, beyond the promulgating group, to those who may not be competent to articulate doctrine, but who are competent as practitioners of the faith and to whose practices or piety appeal may be made.

Orthodoxy also includes the sense that the boundaries set by this doctrinal consensus matter before God in a way that is vital to the life and witness of Christian communities and their members, at least. Orthodoxy is invoked about issues said to be vital to what lies at the heart of Christianity, to what is essential.

st_gregory nazianzen

This relation of orthodoxy to Christianity’s essence and the boundaries that will preserve it (the essence is paradoxically vulnerable) entails the judicial and political element: the notion that it is incumbent on those who lead Christian communities to maintain those boundaries in some way and incorporate them into the practice of Christian initiation and formation, into Christian identity. We can find these ideas implicit in a sermon preached by Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century bishop, to those he was to baptise in Constantinople, January 381. He told them that the confession of the Trinity, including the Nicene consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, was ‘the ‘good deposit’ for which he lived, fought, which he hoped to take with him [in death], with which he bore every pain and scorned every pleasure, which he entrusted to them, and with which he would baptise them and bring them up again (Or. 40.41). He would inscribe it upon their souls (Or. 40.44), overwriting the heresies they may have been taught before. The same idea is involved in the notion of ‘adiaphora’, things it is safe to disagree about, because salvation is not at stake.

It is worth noting that the incorporation of boundary-markers into Christian identity has had all kinds of unhappy and unforeseen consequences, licensing violence and mobilising some of the most problematic elements of the Christian tradition, such as its supersessionism and its attachment to the human/animal binary, in support of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-semitism and later to sanction the enslavement of some human beings through racial categories. Orthodoxy as a practice is easily turned toxic.

These elements – an exclusive social consensus advanced by a competent, authorised group which, often drawing on the mind of the community of the faithful (an implicit social consensus), establishes boundaries needed to protect the essence of Christianity for the spiritual safety of Christian communities, which are incorporated into practices of Christian formation and identification – give the invocation of orthodoxy and heresy much of its potency, far beyond asserting theological claim and counter-claim. But there is more.

I remember the power of the concept of soundness, functionally equivalent to orthodoxy, in my own early Christian formation, and the horror of doctrinal error and the associated divine displeasure it risked incurring. Orthodoxy is not simply a concept. It is also an affective economy of friendship and fellowship, of loyalty, support, fear,  suspicion and concern. That economy that runs through all kinds of activities and settings, informal as well as formal. Orthodoxy as a practice gains power from these affective elements. It has its founding narratives to help mobilise them, too: of the heroes who held the line, of the struggles of those who contended for the truth. And it has its symbolic objects as focii of attachment, not least icons and texts, especially the Bible. There is an imaginary of orthodoxy. One of the less helpful functions of the qualifier ‘biblical’ in these contexts is to run all these elements together in a way that is at once very powerful and also obscures the social character of the orthodoxies it variously denotes.

When Gregory preached his Oration on Baptism in 381, he had the support of the new emperor, Theodosius I, who had recently arrived in Constantinople. Imperial endorsement represented a victory for supporters of the Nicene interpretation of Christianity after decades of conflict that would be confirmed in the troubled Council of Constantinople, held that same year (Gregory briefly presided over that Council, before resigning the chair and his see). That victory involved only the making and sustaining of alliances between bishops, who were often members of the social elite in their locality. The making of orthodoxy is in part a matter of the assembling and deployment of power, in which some actors’ standing and authority is a function or product of wider structures of power which may bear no relation to their competence and which may often be the same structures that sustain the systemic exploitation of other human beings.

Also integral to that alliance making was an immense amount of theological labour, of theological construction. I don’t mean that the bishops were making it up, nor that their positions represented a radical departure from previous forms of Christianity (a debate for another day). I do mean that they had to innovate conceptually and hermeneutically in order to articulate what they took to be a confession essential to Christian faith intelligibly and coherently as far as possible (and they had to argue that that the articulation of that coherence and intelligibility had limits). The making of orthodoxy was complex, difficult, ambiguous and protracted politically and theologically. Orthodoxy is achieved before it is received, even when it is seeking to be faithful to what has been handed down.

Theodosius made Nicene Christianity the only legal form of religion in the Roman Empire. Here, then, we have a further element: the backing of state sanction and state power. This element is not, I think, intrinsic to the notion of orthodoxy. The example of Irenaeus, for example, indicates a notion of orthodoxy operative long before Constantine (the pre-Nicene orthodoxy for which Rowan Williams argued long ago). And we are still using it today. But particular difficulties attend contemporary invocations of orthodoxy.

In a way, the revision and promulgation of the Creed of Nicaea at Constantinople in 381 and the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’ represents a kind of watershed: the farthest extent of consensus on a doctrinal boundary, backed by sacralised secular power, before the long-lasting divisions that would be engendered among Nicene Christians in centuries that followed. It is also an example of a long-enduring paradigm of orthodoxy as authorised by an ecumenical council said to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and supported by the state, that had begun with Constantine I and the first Council of Nicaea.

nicene-constantinopolitan creed

The doctrinal standard of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed promulgated by an ecumenical council, affirmed by a second (Chalcedon), backed by a pious emperor, and extensively enforced, represents orthodoxy in a form which has become ever more difficult to approximate in its catholicity, in successive forms of Christian empire, as the church split again and again over various doctrinal issues.

Where church and state have been separated, or their ties loosened, there has been a further massive shift. In seventeenth-century Europe it was, as Ephraim Radner has shown in A Brutal Unity, a solution advanced to the phenomenon of Christians killing one another and explicitly invoking doctrinal reasons – orthodoxies – when they did so (which is not to deny other factors were also in play).

These massive changes are not destructive of orthodoxy as a practical concept, but they do heighten certain dynamics on which it depends, and the difficulties which attend them. Where orthodoxies are contested between and within groups, and compete within the setting of a state that does not enforce any resolution of differences but does restrain rival groups’ resort to force, then the plurality of options, and the greater freedom to choose between them for oneself, changes the dynamics of orthodoxy as a discursive and affective practice. Questions of the competence and authority of the promulgating group; of the reality, longevity, and extent of any implied consensus of the community and the tradition to which it looks back; and of the essence of Christianity: these all come into play. They do so especially in contexts where many community members have been formed in assessing claims and their basis for themselves, especially where this formation includes a sense of the historically varied and contingent character of Christianity, and where members are also are participants in other common senses and other communities of practice and learning beyond the group.

This difficulty is not simply a matter of persuading others of the merits of an argument: of a particular way of interpreting a biblical passage, or reading sources from the tradition, or appealing to certain experiences or empirical evidence. It is about the plausibility of the invocation of orthodoxy in respect of some of its core components. Who, if anyone, is competent and authorised to make claims about orthodoxy today? What is the evidence for the implicit consensus to which they lay claim? What is essential to Christianity (a difficult question with a long history in modernity) and to what extent is it actually threatened in this case?

These forces heighten the tendency of Christians to disagree on questions of substance and to be reluctant to settle matters by assent to authoritative human bodies: to agree more about some of the normative references of belief and practice than their interpretation, as Kathryn Tanner has argued. In such contexts, long-established orthodoxies, while more widely questioned, may still command considerable consensus, coming as they do from a time when that consensus seemed wider, and bearing the appeal of antiquity (which has considerable power for moderns as it did for ancients). But on other matters, the concept of orthodoxy is at once a potential source of unity among the like-minded (and of socialisation into their groups) and something very difficult to establish as permanently settled and binding on a wider basis. The same is true, for the same reasons, of invocations of orthopraxy, which imply and usually invoke orthodoxies, too, just as orthodoxies usually entail some kind of orthopraxy as their expression.

So we need to rethink orthodoxy as a practice and a discourse, so long as Christian communities want to bind themselves to normative statements or obligations, which I think they always will, and will always need to. Much, of course, of the consensus necessary for communities to function can often be settled for a time without that language. But sometimes there will be issues where people sense more is at stake.

One thing we need to grasp is that questions of this order of seriousness arise in new ways in new contexts and they demand a lot of work and careful judgment. There have been Christians who dissented to some degree from the practice of enslaving other human beings or the subordinate status of women since early times, but it is only relatively recently that sizeable communities of Christians have agreed that these things run counter to the heart of their faith, have agreed that that judgment be normative, and have acted upon it (and so come into protracted conflict with other Christians who have come in some cases to articulate the contrary view). They can also be deeply flawed: the orthodoxy against slavery which split Christians in the UK and especially in the US did not really trouble the consensus around white supremacy, which had been built on the logics of Christian identity. (See Willie James Jennings’ excellent The Christian Imagination for one profound account of how Christianity fostered whiteness in the context of colonisation, building on supersessionism). Orthodoxies may need revisiting, renewing, and in some cases, revising or even abandoning. The question of the essence of Christianity won’t go away and likewise needs revisiting too.

That brings us to a key point. Another element of the concept of orthodoxy is its fixity, its givenness and universality. Yet historically speaking, orthodoxy is a fragile, flawed process encompassing contestations, divisions, doctrinal revisions, reinterpretations, and reformations together with some terrible ironies. It is not best conceived simply as an extension or unfolding or development of God’s self-disclosure, not unless we wish straightforwardly to ascribe that complex, ambiguous history to God’s agency (and so claim an unwarranted perspicuity about God’s providence), nor if we want to maintain the possibility of critically interrogating it from within, as it were.

It is also a process that Christians cannot abandon. For some things are radically incompatible with a common life of fidelity to God, to Jesus Christ as Lord, to walking in the Spirit, and the love of God and neighbour, and require the community developing, authorising and enacting a normative doctrinal and ethical stance.

And so, with God’s help, Christians must try to be more careful with it.

What might help?

First, we should recognise that orthodoxy is a flawed, contingent, revisable process. It involves making contested claims and building campaigns for them, but it helps if such activism does not obfuscate what is being done, including the element of newness in the appeal to something essential in regard to a matter. That means also being careful about how far past consensuses really obtained, how far they were really authorised as orthodoxies, and how far they really extend to the issue at hand (I think that’s germane to sexuality and gender, for example).

Second, a recognition that the process calls for considerable care. Inherited concepts may well not be sufficient to the judgments that need making today. Innovative theological construction may be required, and we may find the wisdom of the past, even its orthodoxies, were less adequate than we thought, and we may have to keep revisiting such questions, as well as the settlements we reach about them.

Third, orthodoxy may often not be an effective consensus we can achieve on a broad basis within or between Christian communities. In such cases, there are very difficult judgments to be made about how far, if at all, groups and constituencies, which differ profoundly on matters around which orthodoxy is invoked, can live and worship together, and what actions or structures need to be established apart from others. It will probably help, however, in making these judgments, to have a more realistic expectation about the process and its dangers, and to keep asking those questions about the authority and competence of groups making declarations of orthodoxy, and about the case they make.

Fourth, we need to recognise that processes of orthodoxy involve contestations of power and often favour those structurally advantaged by structures of power in society, and learn to question more radically how those structures affect the process and its outcomes.

Finally, we should be careful about the imaginary of orthodoxy: the symbols and stories which help give it its allure and legitimation as a task. Dietrich Bonhoeffer looms large in that imagination, for traditionalists and progressives alike. The examples of the past can be profoundly important in helping Christians take stands on various matters. They show that sometimes things are of such seriousness that much must be risked, maybe all, and maybe in the face of consensus and considerable opposition. But they can also delude us by masking the complexities and ambiguities of the histories and questions involved, then and now. Reading good, scholarly historiography and biography critically is a good habit to develop. Orthodoxy as a process is usually messier, more painful and more difficult than we would like to think.