January 31, 2004

(More) Memory, RadOx Agency, Scripture and the Sciences

It does indeed seem as if a richer and more nuanced understanding of memory goes a long way toward making room for constructive theological engagement with forgiveness, for figuring out nitty-gritty hands-on aspects of forgiveness, as well as living sacramentally throughout our lives.

Of course, memory is not just a tool for forgiveness (or the eucharist, or anything else); memory and forgiveness are interrelated in a number of ways. Hauerwas talks about the importance of forgiveness for memory:

To be capable of remembering we must be able to forgive, for without forgiveness we can only forget or repress those histories that prove to be destructive or at least unfruitful. But Christians and Jews are commanded not to forget, since the very character of their community depends on their accepting God’s forgiveness and thus learning how to remember, even if what they must remember is their sin and unrighteousness. (Stanley Hauewas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981], 69.)

Avishai Margalit, in The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), helpfully complicates the matter by appreciating the importance of some forgetting, while describe forgiveness as more than simply erasure. This is how I drew on Margalit in my thesis--using him in a way which reflects my sense of RadOx participation, I think:

This is not to say that there is no place for forgetting within forgiveness, but that forgiveness does include remembrance and does not call simply for forgetfulness. The relation of forgetting to forgiveness is far more complicated. It is impossible to will oneself to forget; calling attention to the need to forget something tends to underscore that something in our memory. [Margalit, 201-2. Margalit offers a detailed explanation of this idea and notes that a judge can ask that the jury disregard a piece of information (for their decision-making) rather than forget that information.] However it is possible involuntarily to forget something, provided that we have focused enough energy and attention elsewhere that the original concern no longer drives our imagination. Avishai Margalit explains that forgiveness involves first remembering--actively engaging with pain, anger, fear, hope, and faith--and then forgetting--after having restored the relationship to its prior wholeness in such a way that it is not perpetually altered by the initial offense. [Margalit, 203-4] This forgetting, which is an indirect result of remembering and reforming one’s imagination and relationship, covers up offenses, but does not blot them out. God alone can blot out our offenses [Margalit, 206]; God alone has blotted out, erased, and ultimately forgotten our offenses already; but only God can eternally forget in a way which also eternally remembers. When we come to live in God’s kingdom, we will learn how to live in God’s complete forgiveness. Meanwhile, we can learn to participate in that forgiveness, partially, and through hope, by means of intentional remembering which might, sometimes, lead to unintentional forgetting. We can cover over our wounding and woundedness with the remembering of our forgiven-ness. [Margalit, 197-200] Such remembering calls us to re-member ourselves as the body of Christ, thereby reordering woundedness and love, reinterpreting offenses in the light of God’s grace and love, and forgiving each other as witnesses to the forgiveness of Christ which constitutes our membership in Christ’s body.

RadOx Agency--A Reminder
Margalit is not a member or representative of Radical Orthodoxy, nor am I. In fact, of course, there is no organization or doctrine of RadOx. I hope that in this forum I can manage to come across as pointing to some connections I find interesting, rather than perpetuating the (mistaken but prevalent) notion that RadOx is a party, with a platform and policy statements. If anyone is going to answer questions about what RadOx might say about this or that, if anyone is going to claim agency to propose what a RadOx approach might be to any of the myriad of issues those publishing under the RadOx publication series having yet addressed, it’s going to be people like us, in conversations like this one. And then, other members of such conversations can weigh in and agree or disagree with how much our propositions seem recognizably Radical Orthodox, recognizably helpful, and recognizably whatever other priorities we are bringing to bear.

This is, in part, a very initial response to Dwight, whose comment wonders what RadOx does with trauma, and to Patrick’s comment which raises the question about Milbank’s (inadequate?) connections to Scripture. I’d like to make a distinction between, on the one hand, a bibliographic and and critical interest in what RadOx authors may or may not have said about particular issues and how they may have made explicit scriptural connections to those arguments, and, on the other hand, a constructive and and engaging interest on our part, which investigates how what strikes us about RadOx might color, challenge, alter, or enhance our most pressing theological concerns and practices.

Scripture and the Sciences
Short answers:
Trauma. I’m not sure if any RadOx authors have written on trauma in the way you are asking, Dwight. I might look at some of Milbank’s recent musings about the impossibility of pacifism and the participatory role we play when we observe violence (see “Violence: Double Passivity” in Being Reconciled; and “Christian Peace: A Conversation Between Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank” in Must Christianity Be Violent? Reflections on History, Practice, and Theology, eds, Kenneth R. Chase & Allan Jacobs, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2003.)

Milbank and Scripture: I guess I’m most interested in questions about how Milbank and others are scriptural, rather than whether. He certainly knows Scripture (can and does cite extensively from memory). Might we want him to be more explicit about this more often? Probably so. Certainly it would be easier to agree and disagree with him on some points if he were. Is the privative view of evil (along with the Trinity, and creation ex-nihilo) “fully compatible with Scripture”? Well, much of the church has thought so, but then, much of the church has held different (richer?) views of scriptural interpretation than what gets the most press today. I’m certainly open to a conversation thread that draws RadOx into the topic of scriptural interpretation and authority, if anyone else is.

The Other Sciences: Patrick and John M. begin discussions about the relationship between theology and the other sciences. Patrick talks about possible intersections between psychology and the work of the church (in addressing trauma); John speaks of a “metrics of charity” model for discerning such intersections. Milbank has recently been heard to comment, somewhat defensively and frustratedly, that he didn’t mean for Theology and Social Theory to rule out theology’s engagement with the other sciences, and I gather some of his current interests include anthropology and politics. If discernment is the way to go, then I wonder if we are back to earlier (and ongoing) questions about the relationship/tension between Hauerwas and Milbank (on the role of the church in concert with and/or as distinct from other communities) and the particulars of living out eucharistic participation.

Posted by Margaret at 09:55 PM | Comments (1)

January 26, 2004

Time, memory, and eucharist

Part of Milbank's discussion of forgiveness hinges on his account of time and memory, based on Augustine and drawing particularly upon Confessions and De Musica. It seems to me that this is a place in which Milbank's comments easily intersect with some of Margaret's gestures towards confession, eucharist, and the like.

In Milbank's words, Augustine suggests that "the past only occurs initially through the supplement of the trace it leaves in the future," which though registered most intensely and reflexively in the psyche, nonetheless remains ontological (53). The past only is what it is in relation to the present and future, through memory, experience, and anticipation, in the way a musical note only "is" within a sequence where the end may change the nature of what has gone before (cf. De Musica) or in the way the final pages of a book may determine the reality of earlier chapters.

Thus, while thinkers such as Jankélévitch are correct to emphasize the "pastness" of the past (and thus its irreversibility), a Christian ontology of time and forgiveness allows that the past "in its very originality is open to alteration and mutation" through re-narration and remembrance (53).

This, of course, is the dynamic of confession, Augstine's own coming to mind here, against the backdrop of his understanding of evil as a privation and misordering of goods within a creation that, in light of God and eternity, must be understood as absolute gift without remainder. In writing the Confessions, then, Augustine is revising ontology (including moral psychology) in light of the Christian experience and practice of forgiveness (53-54). The Christian vision, thus, asserts itself over against a view of time and memory that is non-participatory, in which the reality of the past and the good that remains from it is not supsended upon the eternal and transcendent God.

In this context I am reminded of some of Jean-Luc Marion's reflections upon the eucharist, reflections that can be extended, I think, to practices of confession, absolution, and reconciliation since, it is from the context of eucharist as a concrete instantiation of the Gospel of forgiveness that such practices ultimately flow.

Marion conceives eucharist primarily through the temporal category of the "present," rather than a spatial "presence": as "the present which must be understood first as a gift that is given" (God Without Being, 171). For Marion the eucharist disrupts and subverts time since, in the eucharist, the present moment is no long privileged as determinative of time's significance, but revealed the giftedness and redemption of all time.

The "present" in the eucharist is determined by the past of which it is a memorial and that memorial, in turn, is a pledge "of an advent completed from the future" (135). Christ subverted the notion of the past as something dead and gone, unchanging and inviolable, by his rising from death and thereby becoming for us also our future. The eucharist, therefore, "anticipates what we will be, will see, will love" (174). And this, Marion insists, must inform our understanding of all of time, every present moment as a gift of grace.

Thus Christian eucharistic practices disclose the ontological reflections Milbank provides. In particular, the eucharist is an event in which we, by our participation in it, confess that the past is not over and done with, but extends into the present and can be redeemed. And so, perhaps it is not merely our ritual actions that proclaim the Lord's death, but our very "eating and drinking" together as a community of reconciled and reconciling people by which the death of Christ is made present in the power of his resurrection. As Marion writes,

The Son took on the body of humanity only in order to play humanly the Trinitarian game of love; for this reason also, he loved 'to the end,' that is, to the Cross; in order that the irrefutable demonstration of the death and resurrection not cease to provoke us, he gives himself with insistence in a body and a blood that persist in each day that time imparts to us. (177)
The sacramental body of Jesus shared among his gathered Body, thereby, completes this Trinitarian game lived out humanly, as Marion writes, "The sacramental body completes the oblation of the body, oblation that incarnates the Trinitarian oblation" (178).

And eucharist is given first and foremost for consumption, but an eating in which, as Augustine saw, we do not assimilate the food into ourselves, but this food assimilates us into it, transforming us into the one whom we eat. Thus, when the Corinthian Christians gathered as a divided people, each looking to his or her own selfish desires, St Paul commented that their gathering was not the Supper of the Lord, but a betrayal of it in its refusal to incarnate the Trinitarian oblation of which Marion speaks. The eucharist, then, is expressed in the subjunctive, denoting how the Spirit would have it be among us.

In this light, Jesus' teaching is all the more pressing, "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). Without such practiced reconciliation, how can we extend our hands in the eucharistic prayer and say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"?

Well, writing fails me here, becoming more a source of conviction than explanation. It seems to me, in any case, that in embodying the Gospel sacramentally our liturgy not only manifests the ontology Milbank suggests, but also calls upon us to live it out by faith as those who already participate, through the Spirit and in Christ, within the very life of our eternally (for)giving God.

Posted by joel garver at 10:35 AM | Comments (7)

January 23, 2004

Participatory Forgiveness in the Church

Welcome, Tim, Paul, John, Frank, Daniel, and Berek. Thanks for introducing yourselves and for helping get this conversation rolling.

Thanks to your feedback and to Joel’s substantial contributions, we’ve already got a lot of directions to run with. I’ll weigh in haphazardly. Feel free to redirect or backtrack as you are moved so to do.

A Recap: A couple of you have raised concerns about Milbank as a philosopher dealing with the practice of forgiveness with (inappropriate) detachment. One might even wonder why are we even engaging with Milbank if we want to talk about the life of the church. The “yes, but” response to this concern is precisely the tension that excites me and that I hope will spread at least a little into more practice-oriented discourse in the church. Yes: it can feel as if there is a vast divide between Milbank’s focus and rhetoric and what frequently get identified as more relevant issues. But: Milbank (and others) speaks of, for, and through the church, reclaiming for the contemporary church some of the resources lost in the (relatively recent) divisions between church and critical thinking. John speaks to this helpfully in his comment. Joel addresses it generally in his initial thoughts, and very specifically in his next post when he spells out Milbank’s critique of secular approaches to forgiveness.

All of which is to say that I don’t expect that questions about the apparent tensions between academy and practice, philosophy and church life, will be something we resolve and move on from. Rather, I hope that these conversations can move through such questions, in hopes of gaining more clarity about why those divisions seem problematic, where they come from, and how RadOx negotiates them. One of the reasons that I am here (in this forum) is that I would like to see the church draw on more resources like Radical Orthodoxy and the early(ier) church to which Rad Ox points and on fewer resources like pop psychology and self-help gurus.

So, on forgiveness: one broad-stroke way to describe what Milbank is advocating here is the Rad Ox theme of participation. God doesn’t just impose forgiveness; human beings can’t create forgiveness; that’s why the incarnation. At the very end of the forgiveness chapter, Milbank writes: “It would appear then that neither human beings nor God can offer forgiveness. God may go on giving despite sin, but how is his gift, which is always of peace, mediated to us, if no human reconciliation can be effected?” (60).

This is his lead in to the next chapter on Incarnation. (Skipping ahead, completely irresponsibly), the Incarnation chapter ends this way: “. . .in the Thomist scheme, where Christological outcome is ontologically in excess of Christological purpose, and this excess over forgiveness nonetheless is forgiveness, God is seen as from eternity in his own foreordination also human, and therefore, through this fusion, as etermally forgiving” (78).

Assuming that we can, and will, spend lots of energy unpacking these two quotations, I am, for the moment, highlighting the participation angle. As created humans, our end, that good for which we are created, is participation in God, through the Incarnation, with the Holy Spirit.

What might participation in divine forgiveness look like in church life? For me, this is where it all gets exciting. We can grant (or, at least I want to grant) that Derrida is onto something when he notes that impossible forgiveness is the only sort worth talking about. We can grant Milbank’s focus on forgiveness understood from within the practices of the church. We can grant that popular approaches to forgiveness (dominated by vengeance, victimization, self-actualization, rights language, and nation-state justice) run contrary to the Christian story of forgiveness. And we can grant Rad Ox’s reminder that truest actions are as participants in Christ’s action, that we forgive and are forgiven to the extent that we participate in Christ’s forgiveness (however anticipatorially). Now, how might forgiveness (in these frameworks) play out in the local congregation?

Binding and loosing--can only the Mennonites do this effectively? Can other denominational communities take this on?

Community life--can we let ourselves live closely enough in community that we can be vulnerable to personal hurts and then move toward forgiveness? (See Fowl, Stephen E. Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, especially on stealing.)

Public and private confession--Bonhoeffer weighed in substantively on this one.

The eucharist--seeking reconciliation (however imperfectly) before approaching the altar, excluding selves and others from eucharist, seeking out opportunities to share the eucharist with those with whom we are estranged?

Charity--to what extent should those who try to address the material needs of the poor also be seeking forgiveness for participation in an economy so opposed to Christ’s economy of gift?

Nation/state commitments--how can members of the church, of Christ’s body, participate in forgiveness in relation to their conflicting commitments to the nation/state and offensive (political and military) relations with people of other countries?

Proclaiming the Gospel--to what extent (if any) does our proclamation of the Gospel, through reading and preaching, carry/convey authority to move us toward participatory forgiveness?

and more. . .

Posted by Margaret at 11:12 AM | Comments (2)

January 22, 2004

What Milbank is up to

I think the topic of how Milbank might relate to Yoder (or Hauerwas) is a good one. Paul Baxter raised some helpful questions about that in comments below, particularly the difference in emphasis between Yoder's practicality over against Milbank's philosophical theology.

Milbank is always presupposing the practices of the church, it seems to me, but is asking about the conditions of possibility for those practices. How is forgiveness possible at all? And he is doing this, in part, over against postmodern philosophical discussions of "radical evil" and forgiveness (Jankélévitch, Zizek, etc.), that have made the very Christian practices he presupposes to seem, in fact, impossible.

Part of asserting the possibility of Christian practices of forgiveness in the face of evil requires this kind of philosophical construction. Moreover, Milbank's argument is that forgiveness is only possible (or impossibly possible, perhaps) within the drama of the Christian God in human flesh.

This comes out most clearly, I think, in the series of five aporias of (secular) forgiveness that Milbank addresses:

[1] Who can forgive since the extent of whom our wrongdoing affects can never be traced, those who are most wronged are those who have died as the result of the wrongdoing, and private forgiveness can interrupt public justice while public forgiveness can neglect private reconciliation? (50-51)

[2] How can we forgive since time prevents us from ever changing what wrong we have done, while those whom we have wronged no longer remain in that place of victimization, and we ourselves as wrongdoers have changed in the meantime? (51-52)

[3] If forgiving is forgetting then it seems that wrong can only be forgiven if it is forgotten, but if it is forgotten, then why does it still stand in need of forgiveness, thus leaving forgiveness as a mere negation that is impossible to accomplish? (56)

[4] How can forgiveness remain pure since, if one forgives in order to be forgiven, it seems we fall into a prudential and calculative exchange while the opposite scenario, one of wholly disinterested benevolence, excludes the happiness to be found in reconciliation? (57-58)

[5] If forgiveness involves some kind of obliterative finality, then how can it strengthen human community since, in forgetting past fault, relationships cannot be tested or strengthened and always remain open to future rupture? (59-60)

Milbank's argument is that, actual forgiveness is unthinkable apart from the practices of the church as a disclosure of the privative nature of evil, the relationship between time and eternity, the positivity of reconciliation and true reciprocity, and all of this as a participation in God's action in Christ.

This is a sketchy summary and I've neglected Milbank's positive account, but if Milbank is correct in his reflections, then his account does stand as a reprimand to an unforgiving church where secularized ways of thinking have permeated our thought and life, as well as helping to explain why forgiving is often so difficult, even for those who profess faith in Christ.

Part of Milbank's suggestion seems to be that the events of sacred history (incarnation and atonement) unravel such secularism and that they do so particularly as they are encountered and enacted in liturgy, word, and sacrament, if only we have the eyes to see and believe: "...what we are offered once against through Christ's atonement is without measure and without price, and the only penance demanded of us in return for this forgiveness is the non-price of acceptance" (47).

Posted by joel garver at 12:19 PM | Comments (4)

January 20, 2004

Initial Thoughts on Theory and Practice

My interests in Milbank and the other authors who come together as "Radical Orthodoxy" particularly involve the ways in which they narrate history, their engagements with postmodernism, their retrieval of the premodern, and how their work might interface with that of other thinkers, from Caputo to Hauerwas.

But two overarching concerns of mine are how Radically Orthodox thought connects with the text of scripture (after all, I'm a Presbyterian) and how it might express itself in terms of parish life and Christian formation.

Margaret has begun our discussion by reference to Milbank's chapter on forgiveness in Being Reconciled, a great place to start on all counts. As Margaret notes, Milbank is building on what he understands to be Aquinas' account of forgiveness.

But the way in which Milbank builds his exploration gives us some clues as to how it might relate to the life of real existing Christian communities. While many may find the categories and vocabulary of Radical Orthodoxy daunting--all this talk of ontologies and participation and analogy--Milbank's text can be seen, I think, not so much as the generation of an abstruse philosophical apparatus, but as a discursive exposition of what must be the case ontologically (and the like) if we take Christian practices of forgiveness, worship, community, and so on to be normative.

Thus, part of the way we can approach Milbank in relation to issues of parish life and Christian formation, is to see the ways in which he explains and builds upon traditions of theological reflection (Augustine, Aquinas, etc.). But these very traditions, in turn, emerged from scripture and the events of redemption as they came to inform and be enacted within the liturgical, sacramental, and communal life and practices of the premodern church.

I think here, in particular, of the way in which Milbank suggests that Augustine's rethinking of time and evil as privation was disclosed within his own personal journey to Christ and the later re-narration of that in the Confessions in the form of prayer.

Since the premodern church stands in analogy to the (post)modern church, part of the question we can ask ourselves when reading Milbank is whether our present practices of parish life, liturgy, engaging scripture, and so on, would, upon reflection, bring us to similar conclusions about who God is and how God relates to the world in Christ and by the Spirit, in creation and redemption.

That's enough to begin. I'd like later to look at some of these suggestions in a bit more detail, engaging Milbank's text more closely, particularly the five aporias he presents regarding the (im)possibility of forgiveness. Fertile ground, that.

Posted by joel garver at 06:22 PM | Comments (5)

Joel's Intro

Greetings. I'm Joel Garver and look forward to soon joining Margaret in this online Round Table discussion. We welcome comments, but would ask that people briefly introduce themselves as they join in the conversation.

Towards that end, I'm a professor of philosophy at La Salle University in Philadelphia, PA with a particular interest in philosophical theology. My training is primarily in analytic philosophy, with my dissertation concerning epistemology, but I've moved more into continental and medieval philosophy since graduate school.

I was raised and remain within the Reformed tradition, particularly the Presbyterian expression of that (in which my father is a clergyman). I teach, however, in a Roman Catholic environment and have a deep appreciation for both the Anglican and Lutheran traditions. I am married to a magazine editor and have a 17 month old daughter, a dog, and a cat. I enjoy fiction (Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest ranking highly among my preferences) and love to cook.

Posted by joel garver at 11:30 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2004

Milbank, Forgiveness, and the Church

Leaping right into the middle of a challenging topic, we are going to try to begin with a discussion of forgiveness, by way of John Milbank’s chapter on Forgiveness in Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London: Routledge, 2003).

(We don’t assume that you will have read this. Feel free to if you want to, but do also feel free to ask questions and chime in without having read the text.)

If I understand correctly (and please correct me, Joel, if you think I’ve misread here), Milbank is, among other things, calling us to attend to Aquinas’ presentation of forgiveness. According to Milbank, Aquinas allows that human forgiveness of other humans might be offered without repentance (without inducing repentance), divine repentance does induce repentance (45). Divine forgiveness (“mediated by the Church through the sacrament of penance” [46]) takes the offending past into consideration and provides the forgiven one with the resources to make restitution and reach reconciliation (45).

This sense of forgiveness stands in contrast to some popular understandings in which forgiveness involves more erasure than remembering. And, Milbank seems to be suggesting that human participation in divine forgiveness leads to the possibility of a positive restoration of divine love (reflected in human love).

Milbank has much more to say about forgiveness, and I’m hoping that you will help flesh this out Joel. Meanwhile, for the moment, I’m wondering if we can begin to think about how this might apply to congregational life, where, in my experience, there is much need for forgiveness, but little fluency or expertise in the performance of forgiveness. I’m talking about the very small scale issues that arise from spending time together--issues which can grow to very large crises. For example, parishioners can hurt each other and be hurt by each other because of opposing reactions to noisy children in church, the use of the church kitchen, or how to greet newcomers (ask them to stand or not). These may seem like insignificant matters, but I know from first hand experience that differences on these points are enough to cause serious wounding. I would love to have a clearer sense how Milbank’s thoughts on forgiveness might lend some aid to negotiating such congregational crises.

My first guess is that the answer would begin with the Radical Orthodoxy theme of “participation,” but I’m eager to see what you think.

Posted by Margaret at 11:18 PM | Comments (3)

Margaret's Intro

Hi. I am Margaret Adam, and I am about to begin a conversation with Joel Garver, which we hope will be joined by some others shortly. We’d like to talk about some ramifications of Radical Orthodoxy for the life of the church.

First, I’ll share that I live in Evanston, IL, on the campus of Seabury Western Theological Seminary, where my husband, AKMA, teaches. I finished a MTS at Seabury in the spring of 2003, and I am currently waiting to hear from PhD programs in theology to see where I’ll be going in the fall. Meanwhile, I am continuing to do what I’ve been doing for the past many years--homeschool our kids. Our oldest is in college now, so we are down to two. One is almost 17 and one is 10.

I am a cradle Episcopalian, daughter of one Episcopal priest, married to another, and firmly settled into lay ministry, myself. I am a sometime freelance editor and indexer (which vocation by no means guarantees that my own writing is well edited), I am a vegetarian, I like mystery and thriller/suspense novels, and I have a small and not very bright dog named Bea (Beatrice, as in Dante).

Posted by Margaret at 11:13 PM | Comments (0)