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Reality as semiotic and Christianity as a pilgrimage
of ˜˜reading™™
This has substantial implications. First of all, it deepens our
sense of the meaning of ˜˜use.™™ We should ˜˜use™™ things of this
world, not enjoy them, so that invisible things are seen by the
visible (DDC 1.4.4). But this ˜˜using™™ should not in¬‚ate us with
arrogance. It is not we who are ¬nally ˜˜using™™ the world; rather, it is
God who primarily ˜˜uses™™ the world, and us in it. We do not alleg-
orize: God does. The idea of ˜˜use™™ ¬nds its primary home not in
axiology, as an account of instrumentalizing value, but in semiotics:
God uses created things to signify something beyond the literal
meaning of the things. This does not devalue objects at all; to the
contrary, God loves and af¬rms every atom of the world, but their
value is not in themselves but in their ˜˜signi¬cance™™ in the entire
divine economy. If anything, this invests objects with a depth of
signi¬cance that a thin immanentism cannot accommodate.
This tells us of the sacramentality of created reality as a whole.
Action is semiotic because being itself is semiotic; events are not
dumb but ˜˜eloquent™™ (DCD 11.18). We do not impose meaning on
them, but discern (always partially) their true signi¬cance; and in
doing so we enter ever more fully into the song of God™s love, the
doxological joy which is our proper, endless, end. Hence, the church
uses the Bible to discern God™s word in and throughout the world “ or
better, to discern the world as God™s word, as sacramentum, theo-
phanic, charged with divine signi¬cance, as ecstatic signs more
fundamentally than dumb things. As R. A. Markus says, Augustine™s
˜˜theory of signs . . . spills over™™ into a general ˜˜hermeneutic of
human experience™™: what begins as exegesis becomes ontology “
more accurately, ontology is shown to be a province of exegesis “ and
the world is revealed to be, as Markus puts it, a ˜˜cosmic text™™ (1996:
34). We ultimately aim to ˜˜understand™™ God, where ˜˜understanding™™
is realized and manifest as love; we seek to apprehend the thundering
poem of Creation, to hear its enormous roar, in order more fully to
join in the song, to know and participate in what we have been singing
all along.34


34. For useful worries about loose ˜˜sacramentality™™ talk, see R. Williams 2000:
217“8; for a useful clari¬cation see Ward 2000: 156“61.
101
Life in the world


This reading of the text implicitly suggests that doctrina Christiana,
˜˜Christian teaching,™™ is the church™s basic mission, and indeed its
very being, both formally and materially. Rather than exclusively
signifying the content of faith, doctrina at least as importantly refers
to the form of faith. It is a guidebook for how to live as a church, as
the body of Christ on its way through the world. It is about the
teaching and learning of Christian life, the process of becoming
disciplined as Christians, which is to say becoming the children and
the people of God. Exegesis is our mode of being-in-the-world: not a
being-towards-death, but a being-towards-understanding, a being-
towards-comprehension. We exist as auditors, caught in the middle
of hearing a sentence addressed to us; we know it is addressed to us,
but we do not know where or how it will end, even as we know
what it will end with, in some sense. This is a way of proleptically
participating in the eschaton, in the ¬nal opening of the book that
will mark the closing of history. Again, as Rowan Williams says, ˜˜A
language which inde¬nitely postpones ful¬llment or enjoyment is
appropriate to the Christian discipline of spiritual homelessness, to
the character of the believing life as pilgrimage™™ (1989b: 142“3). We
read the world through the text, but with full knowledge that this
reading, this whole mode of life, cannot be settled while we remain
pilgrims, before the eschaton. Indeed, the deeper we read, the more
powerfully we feel our tensive incompleteness, our distensio during
the world.
Still, this pilgrimage of reading is not without some notion of its
destination; and doctrina gives the church its goal “ exploration into
God, the cultivation of wonder, and the practice of glorifying God
that is its consequence. Crucially, this practice of wonder, of theo-
logical inquiry, is not primarily speculative and propositional, but
affective and perceptual, a change in how we apprehend the world.
As Nicholas Lash says, ˜˜problems of knowledge are problems of
ethics and not of epistemology or ˜engineering™™™ (1988: 275, see 207).
Both exegesis and preaching blossom into ethics, but ˜˜ethics™™ is
equally a form of theological hermeneutics and aesthetics, oriented
towards rendering intelligible (and articulate) our loves as our fun-
damental mode of participation in, and hence understanding of,
God. In being this, de doctrina alters our vision of the ˜˜ethical™™
project “ the ethos “ of Christian life. Ethics certainly has something
to do with that life, but it is not ¬nally about right action, but about
102 A Theology of Public Life


right understanding. What we distinguish as exegesis, ecclesiology,
liturgy, and ethics are all facets of a larger project, which directs us
toward a central theological ˜˜inquiry,™™ which is primarily about
God and secondarily about our loves (because God is our loves) “ a
project best described as a hermeneutics of charity.
The upshot of all this is to re-situate ˜˜ethics™™ not as a doing or a
becoming but as part of an act of interpretive response. It does not
eventuate in anything approaching a moral algorithm, a simple
moral calculus for dealing with quandaries; but such algorithms are
really last-ditch attempts at being good, and so should not be any-
one™s primary aim. (As Albert Camus noted, ˜˜when one has no
character, one must rely on a method™™ [1956: 11].) Such explicit the-
ories are of course helpful, and intercommunal ethics do bene¬t
from well worked out principled programs. But such programs are
not the core of Christian morality, and cannot be: for in dealing with
a living God, one cannot ¬nally rely on any principles, but on God
alone, and on our faithfulness as guided by God, for guidance. Nor on
this picture is ethics attempting primarily to master the future, to
shape it to a predetermined intention, as the management model
would have it; it is primarily retrospective, undertaking a process of
discovery, of coming to see what one™s past has meant, what the
present may signify, and what the future promises. That is all one
can do with providence: discover it. Instead of being algorithmic and
prospective, it is retrospective, dialogical, conversational, and
working on our dispositions and our vision, the manifold ways we
apprehend reality. It begins out of an ˜˜act™™ of interpretation, out of
some answer to the question ˜˜What is going on?™™ And its content is
interpretation as well, insofar as its responsive action itself man-
ifests some interpretation of one™s action-prompting situation. Pru-
dence is the discernment of what is going on “ what God is doing
now “ and in so being, it itself leads to the imitatio Dei, and the
participation in the ongoing work of providence. The truly prudent
thing to do is to inquire into our lives and try to discern in them what
we ˜˜already know™™ must be there “ God™s awesome providential
work. The primary ˜˜user™™ of the use-paradigm is God, and our task is
to ˜˜discover™™ how God is using us and all creation as signs, to come
to understand the language that we always already are.
And here is the connection between ˜˜prudence™™ and ˜˜providence™™
to which the beginning of this chapter alluded. A true prudence “ a
103
Life in the world


proper use “ involves treating things gratuitously, as more funda-
mentally contingent gifts rather than necessities, and hence imi-
tating (and hence participating in) God™s ex nihilo creation. It is a
liturgical way of being-in-the-world, an active and practical partici-
pation in God™s creation. In that project we are stewards, ¬rst and
foremost, of ourselves “ we are not properly our own possession.
But speaking environmentally, we are also lexicographers of being,
appointed ˜˜readers™™ who not only with our lips but in our lives
articulate the Word, and preserve or cultivate the semiotic character
of being. God-talk (theology) and God-work (theurgy) are two sides of
the same coin; one who is prudent in the right sense loves the
world, not just as God loves it, but in God.35
Just what, in less abstract, more human terms, would all this look
like? Brie¬‚y put, it broadens our understanding of liturgy, and dee-
pens our idea of exegesis. On this account, worldly action should be
performed not just for its immanent value, but because it is explora-
tion into God, a mode of inquiring into God, and it should be inter-
preted communally as such. On this account the churches are, ¬rst
and foremost, communities of interpretation, composing a poly-
phonic and historically extended conversation involving all members
in the central practice of coming to understand Scripture, and
by living out their understanding return to Scripture with an ever
deeper, ever renewed sense of wonder and insight into their riches. In
a way this can be seen as a form of Christian midrash, though the
activity is more overtly inclusive of modes of interpretation which are
not obviously ˜˜interpretation™™ at all, much less interpretation of a
particular text: I think here of such activities as working in soup
kitchens, setting up alliances with other churches and religious
groups, possibly demonstrating for political causes. All of this
becomes intelligible as a ˜˜liturgy™™ of the church, the work whereby a
collection of disparate individuals comes together in community to
begin the in¬nite task of understanding.36 And this liturgy may




35. The idea that an action™s reality is in part determined by the self-understanding
of the actor who undertakes it has a solid philosophical pedigree. As G. E. M.
Anscombe puts it, action always takes place ˜˜under a description™™ 1958: §§
23“6. I note that the Cruci¬xion should inform our imitatio Dei; but I will not
discuss that complex topic here.
36. See Cavanaugh 1998, Bruns 1992; 105, 117“18, and Leyerle 2004.
104 A Theology of Public Life


indeed involve participants who do not yet properly inhabit the
church. We will see more about this in Part II of this book.


Conclusion
Thus, even in Augustine™s initial formulations of this proposal,
the proposal is as far from otherworldliness as possible. It postulates
a dualism between what happens in ˜˜this™™ world and ˜˜the next™™;
instead it assumes that this world is already a shadow of the next,
and that therefore it has no independent ontological existence apart
from its eschatological consummation. There is no fundamental
difference in character (though there is considerable difference in
degree) between what people do in the churches today and what all
will do on the eschatological morning. This world is God™s intended
object: it is simply not yet consummated, and if we ˜˜use™™ it prop-
erly, we can participate, albeit partially and proleptically, in its
ultimate character as consummated even today.
Such ˜˜use™™ is ultimately an ecclesial project, the work of the
churches, in teaching their faithful what it means to be stewards of a
creation not yet come to ful¬llment. On this view, one can only
speak of the ˜˜world™™ as a regulative idea, one which gains its
integrity from within the web of practices that constitute the church.
Only by participating in the project of the church “ and not just by
being a ˜˜theist™™ “ can one gain the sort of integral vision of experi-
ence to begin talking about the world. This is an eschatologically
in¬‚ected hermeneutical claim: only from the perspective of the
churches will the world become ¬nally intelligible as what it is: as
the promise, not yet “ despite all our waywardness “ broken, of God™s
gratuitous and trans¬guring work to be accomplished on us and all
creation.
All of this leaves us with an interesting problem, whose implica-
tions we have not yet fully worked out: What about other people?
How should we understand how Christians are to treat them? The
traditional description has been: Christians should behave lovingly
towards them, as God does. But in what does this love consist? This
is the topic of Chapter 3.
3

Life together




The conceit of the social worker: ˜˜We™re all here on earth to help
the others. What on earth the others are here for, I don™t know.™™
W. H. Auden, The Dyer™s Hand

What does it mean to live in love? If we think of love as something
wider than sexually erotic attraction, we will see that experiences of
˜˜falling in love™™ “ with friends, books, professions, preoccupations “
are far more common in our lives than a narrow ¬xation on
romance will lead us to believe. We never choose love, pick it from a
menu of equally viable, equally distant options; we discover that we
are already in love, already mixed up with the other, our fates
intertwined.1 Only then, after we discover we are in love, our
voluntary agency plays a role; for then we must decide what to do
about our newly recognized condition.
What does it mean to try to live in God™s love and in love for
others, within this dispensation? What does it mean to try genu-
inely to live with others, not just nearby them, during the world?
Properly speaking, human love is participation in God™s agapic and
kenotic attention to and delighted ˜˜waiting on™™ creation, a love
most centrally oriented for us towards the neighbor (Vanstone 1983:
115). But today, during the world, such love is hard to imagine in its
fullness; even those little loves that we manage to inhabit often
seem to exist only as long as they stand out against the cooler, more
callous, and less profound relations. Any honest talk of love must
acknowledge its vexed condition in our world today, just as any


1. See Vanstone 1978: 39“54, and 1983: 97“9.




[105]
106 A Theology of Public Life


genuine love must be, in part, a mournful, vexed love. Yet despite
these many vexations, we still seek out one another. What is it
about us that makes us do this? To answer this question implies a
theology of human community that makes sense of the idea that
our destiny, and the destiny of the world before God, is found not in
separation from one another but in convergence, in the ¬nal com-
munion of the eschaton. Sketching such a theology is the purpose of
this chapter.
Chapter 1 argued that Augustinian theology offers an account of
faithful living, by providing a language within which we can
understand humanity™s relation to God, and more speci¬cally can
understand ourselves as gifts of God, whose fundamental proper
mode of being is an ecstatic and responsive confession of that gift,
and whose whole being waits completion until the eschatological
consummation. Chapter 2 argued that this tradition offers an
account of hopeful living, by providing a language through which
we can understand the relationship between creation and God, and
more speci¬cally can understand creation as a whole as a further
gift of God, through which we can love God and whose full being
will be given to it only in the eschatological consummation. But we
still have another dimension of our existence that merits extended
attention: our relationship with one another, with the neighbor and
the stranger. Christianity has always described and proscribed that
relationship as one lived in love. What does that mean?
This chapter offers a language whereby we can see human com-
munity as fully realized only eschatologically, but also see our life
even now as a proleptic participation in the true kingdom of God.
Understanding our lives in this way should lead us towards a prac-
tice of confessional openness before others “ Christian and non-
Christian alike “ as (ultimately) other members of that eschatolo-
gical community. Our attempts to realize community here and now,
partial and halting as they are, are discrete traces of our proper
prelapsarian orientation towards communion “ traces we must
acknowledge and allow, even as we remain wary of their in¬‚ection
by our sinful self-interest and tendency to con¬‚ate our egos with
those of others. And the successes of our attempts at such com-
munion are properly proleptic realizations of that eschatological
communion “ momentary realizations that we should acknowledge,
allow and even encourage, but which we cannot delude ourselves
107
Life together


into imagining as regularly and ˜˜normally™™ achievable in this dis-
pensation. Our longing for genuine community cannot be denied,
and while we should not use that longing as the sole load-bearing
pillar of a political theology, it should shape all aspects of that
theology.
Such is the basic grammar of the account sketched here. In order
to ¬‚esh it out, we will frame this discussion by talking about the
hardest case, the case of those with whom we share few funda-
mental commitments “ others who are not members of our reli-
gious community. How should Christians live with non-believers
and with ˜˜other-believers™™? Augustine™s program for engaging these
most ˜˜other™™ others turns out to bear signi¬cant lessons for our
relations with even our most intimate others; it offers a legitimation
for engaging with otherness, and an explanation of what happens in
such engagements, in which we engage with others knowing that
we may well transform them “ and be transformed by them.
A focus on Christian relations with non-Christians may seem a
surprising place to begin a theological discussion of human com-
munity, but in fact re¬‚ection on radical difference has had a place in
Christian thought for a long time. Christianity has had a complex
and often ambivalent assessment of ˜˜the other.™™ Like most human
communities, the Christian tradition is wary of aliens, non-Chris-
tians, whom it sees as strange and possibly dangerous; and yet the
tradition is well aware of its founder™s commands to openness
towards the lost and victimized, the stranger and the other. Chris-
tian theology is founded upon the reconciliation of otherness: it
proclaims the reconciliation of humanity to God, and af¬rms,
within the Trinity itself, the revelation that some others have
always been reconciled. But because we are sinners, we forget our
obligations to be open to strangers. The tradition recognizes this
fact and seeks to remind us constantly to return to such openness “
not, of course, to capitulate to the others, but rather in order to be
authentically vulnerable, able to change, in ways their presence
elicits in us. In this way, the dialogue between the self and the
other, the ˜˜same™™ and the ˜˜different,™™ plays a deep role throughout
the history of Christian thought.
Today is no different. But recent discussions of this issue have
deemphasized the received concern with Christianity™s relation to
the ˜˜secular other,™™ and focused instead on Christianity™s relation
108 A Theology of Public Life


to other religions “ on the theological signi¬cance of religious
pluralism, and the proper theological response to it. The challenge
of pluralism is very profound, for it reveals that in religious plur-
alism theology confronts a primordial theological problem: the
problem of otherness. What the contemporary world calls pluralism
we should see, in theological terms, as the fundamental challenge of
otherness, a challenge demanding a rich theological response.
Modern thought in general, and modern theology in particular, is
ill-equipped to help us here, as it is committed more to avoiding
than to confronting the challenge.
This chapter ¬nds resources to do better in the work of the
Augustinian tradition.2 Yet many doubt whether Augustine and his
inheritors can offer any such assistance. Indeed, many who are
occupied with the ˜˜problem of otherness™™ identify Augustine him-
self as a particularly problematic ¬gure in the obliteration of
otherness, the ¬rst ˜˜master of oppression™™ “ to such a degree that
one of the most thoughtful and thorough of such critics, William
Connolly, once labeled the modern ¬xation on identity and its
hostility towards difference ˜˜the Augustinian imperative.™™3 The
core accusation here is analogous to the one instigating Chapter 2:
belief in God, at least the ruthlessly serious sort of belief promoted
by Augustine, necessarily entails the instrumentalization of other
people to serve the believer™s romance with God (which is inevi-
tably, for these critics, at least as much the believer™s romance with
a particular, and particularly narrow, vision of his or her own self).
The centrality of God for believers, so the critics say, leads inevitably
to treating others as mere occasions or opportunities for exhibiting
your commitment to God. Genuine otherness is subjugated to the
reign of the same.
But again, such accusations are too sweeping in their anath-
ematization of Augustine. Certainly the worries are not baseless, but

2. For Augustine™s own views on dialogue and toleration in general, see Bowlin
1997, M. J. White 1994, Rohr 1967, and Vanderspoel 1990. For Jewish accounts
with intriguingly similar proposals, see Dorff 2000 and Novak 1989; for an
Islamic one, see Sachedina 2001.
3. See Connolly 2002a. In his second edition he changes his approach to Augustine,
describing it as ˜˜the Augustinian temptation,™™ for a fuller investigation of
Augustine on caritas suggests that ˜˜there may be a promising tension between
the Augustinian af¬rmation of love and the doctrine through which it is
adumbrated™™ (2002a: xxiii). I thank Kathleen Skerrett for conversations
regarding this.
109
Life together


they are not the ¬nal word on Augustine™s thought. Even the critics
would agree that otherness cannot be too other, particularly in
regard to God: that would stumble backwards into a dangerous sort
of cosmological dualism. Hence there is no serious reason to
endorse the sort of radical incommensurability so many thinkers
give lip service to today. Yet at the same time this theology has an
eschatological dimension, and so can accommodate a ˜˜not yet™™
character to its absolute claims: as we experience it today, some
absolute otherness is real, not just as the ˜˜positive™™ otherness
exempli¬ed in the perichoretic existence of the Triune God (which
will remain even in the eschaton) but also as the negative otherness
through which we so often encounter others in this world, due to
the Fall; and such experiences of otherness are an ineliminable part
of our experience during the world. Far from inevitably under-
writing oppression, Augustine™s thought can help us see the full
complexity and deep theological meaning of the challenge of plur-
alism and otherness, as manifesting the otherness present most
fundamentally in the otherness of the divine Trinity, and through it
in the relationships between that Trinity and humans, and in the
relationships among ourselves. Because of this, Augustinians treat
˜˜the problem of otherness™™ as from the beginning a problem
demanding a thoroughly theological answer.
To explore and unpack this claim is the aim of this chapter. It
does this in three steps. First, it suggests that the challenge of
pluralism should be understood as one manifestation of the more
fundamental theological challenge of otherness, and suggests how
work done in interreligious dialogue can help with this project.
Second, it sketches how an Augustinian approach can help us do
this, by critically engaging the best broadly Augustinian proposal
regarding pluralism and otherness, that of John Milbank. Third, it
presents an account of how the Augustinian tradition can be wel-
coming of otherness in a rich and complexly dialogical manner.


From pluralism to engagement
We are only now realizing the radical character of the chal-
lenge of pluralism. The existence of apparently mutually incompat-
ible ways of understanding and guiding human life confronts us as
sheer sociopolitical fact, a reality that demands a rich and systematic
110 A Theology of Public Life


response by every community today. Lee Yearley puts it well: today
we ˜˜must develop those virtues that will enable us to understand,
judge, and deal with ideals of human ¬‚ourishing that confront us
but appear to differ markedly from our own™™ (1992: 2). We must
understand other positions in their particularity, as traditions
whose complexity and depth rival our own; we must deal with these
other positions as traditions making claims to truth that contest our
own; and we must judge between these views, both as making
claims on us and as positions held by others whom we respect and
with whom we share a world. Currently, we do this very poorly; at
the practical level and the theoretical level, we seem more com-
mitted to living in the vicinity of one another than to life genuinely
with one another.4 How can we do better? How can we realistically
acknowledge this pluralism, opening ourselves to disagreement and
critique, while yet remaining fully and authentically ourselves “ not
pretending to others (or deluding ourselves) that we are empty of
convictions but non-defensively holding our beliefs as true? To
answer this question, we must ¬rst see what kind of challenge it is,
and then determine how we should respond to it.


The failure of secular toleration
In this section modern secular approaches to addressing
otherness will be critiqued. But that modern secularism has failings,
even decisive ones, simply marks it as human. Despite its many
failings, secular modernity is not only our condition; it has also led
to many valuable things, especially the deeper estimation of the
value of simple worldly existence, and its associated promotion of
ideas of individual human dignity in the saeculum, and concern for
the saeculum itself (expressed most palpably in environmentalism).
Ian Markham is right: ˜˜The Enlightenment and its child, secularism,
have taught the church much that is true about God™s relations to
the world™™ (Markham 2003: 29). Most notably, the challenge of
dealing with others, in a respectful manner, seems to be prominent
now in a way it was not in earlier eras, and that seems at least in
part due to the emergence of modern (even liberal) notions of
respect for persons™ autonomy. However problematically developed

4. For empirical evidence see Wuthnow 2005.
111
Life together


those intuitions have been in modernity, it is important to
acknowledge the lessons we have learned as moderns.5
But modern ˜˜respect™™ is our attempt to address a genuine prob-
lem inadequately. That is, we cannot fully recognize how deeply
pluralism challenges us if we understand that challenge as it is
usually understood today, as ˜˜the problem of pluralism™™ simpliciter.
This description depicts it in purely formal terms, as the epistemo-
logical problem of toleration. But this pseudo-resolution is unsa-
tisfactory for us, because it obscures the real theological signi¬cance
of the challenge, and illegitimately and unsuccessfully attempts to
evade it. If the fundamental problem of modern politics is plural-
ism, this is a fundamentally religious problem, and it must be
confronted as such.6
The received and inadequate strategy is the strategy of ˜˜secular-
ism™™ “ the strategy that marginalizes every form of what it sees as
contestable ˜˜faith commitments,™™ and permits into ˜˜public™™
human discourse nothing more than what it sees as uncontestable
˜˜common sense,™™ however that is described (and it has been
described in quite various ways indeed in the history of the secu-
larist strategy). (On this de¬nition, ˜˜secularism™™ does not denote the
material realities of contemporary, religiously pluralist societies; it
is only one interpretation of how to inhabit and regulate such
societies.) When political thinkers confronted the apparently
intractable differences among extra-subjective authorities “ differ-
ences which, they believed, led to bloody religious wars “ they
replaced such authorities with new, typically subjective epistemolo-
gies, in the hope that these new epistemologies would settle disputes
through universally shared criteria.7 In practice, however, thinkers
constructed not a neutral decision procedure but rather a ˜˜lowest
common denominator™™ approach to rational discourse,8 which
allowed most activities to go on, but expelled explicitly religious
discourse “ or indeed any discourse about ˜˜values™™ “ from the public



5. See Taylor 1989.
6. See Gamwell 1995, Walzer 1997, and Heyd 1996. For interesting (and
iconoclastic) historical accounts of the development of toleration, see Murphy
2001 and Nederman 2000.
7. See Hirschman 1977, Cavanaugh 1995, and Asad 2003.
8. See J. Stout 1981, esp. his depiction of how the French Huguenots developed such
an account in 236“8.
112 A Theology of Public Life


sphere of ˜˜facts.™™9 Over time this resolution, originally meant only as
a pragmatic stop-gap, ossi¬ed into the rigid meta-narrative of ˜˜secu-
larism.™™ Because reasoned discourse could run only through strictly
laid out patterns, rationality suffered a hardening of the arteries.
In that sclerosis, one sees the birth of secularism. To save its cities,
Europe destroyed its churches; it staved off destruction only at the
cost of rendering religious beliefs at best vestigial to, and at worst
parasitic upon, the daily life of its communities. The secularist
strategy assumed that even with religious values quarantined from
public, people would share enough common ground to adjudicate
their differences without recourse to their ˜˜deep™™ metaphysical and
religious convictions; that is to say, it assumed that the sources for
peoples™ ˜˜publicly relevant™™ views, now hidden behind a dis-
cursively impenetrable curtain, would remain similar enough to
one another to ensure that all debate could be settled without
reference to the deeper metaphysical and theological frameworks
that sponsored their ˜˜properly public™™ positions.
This did two things. First, it made those deeper frameworks seem
vestigial or super¬‚uous to the proper functioning of the ˜˜practical™™
commitments. If those frameworks were not the ineliminable con-
text of those commitments, or if they were merely secondary (and,
usually, essentially subjective) ˜˜interpretations™™ serving as meta-
physical background scenery to the practical essence of the views,
they were immaterial. One could be a good person without any
(even tacit) metaphysical or theological basis for one™s views. (Such
is the view of many people today.) The problem with this is that it
encourages an ˜˜ethics of inarticulacy™™ that is problematic in itself
(because it encourages a metaethical aphasia in people) and dis-
astrous in its consequences (because it renders unimportant the
communication of such views to children, rendering each genera-
tion less and less able to explain why it acts and thinks the way it
does “ until a point of complete moral inarticulacy is reached, a
condition that it seems safe to say is not conducive to a morally
vigorous society).10


9. Beyond Max Weber, I am thinking, more philosophically, of Sabina Lovibond™s
analysis of ˜˜the metaphysics of commuter-land™™ (1982: 96), and, more
politically, Elshtain 1981. See also Sperber™s fascinating discussion of ˜˜cognitive
apartheid™™ (1985: 62).
10. See C. Taylor 1989, and C. Smith 2005.
113
Life together


Second, this strategy made it impossible for its adherents to argue
in good faith with those who did not share their fundamental views.
Such arguments, when they occurred, could not be recognized for
what they were: theologically and metaphysically rich arguments
between fundamentally different positions. Instead, they had to be
redescribed as really sharing a similar vocabulary “ namely, the
vocabulary of liberal individualism “ or as not really argument at all,
not genuine contributions to debate.11 That is to say, secularism
despaired of the possibility of genuine engagement, and fruitful
argument, over fundamental differences. It chose instead to con-
struct public (and presumably ˜˜neutral™™) canons of argument, rules
that delimited the proper scope (and depth) of argument, in the
hope that interlocutors™ convictions would never be so diverse that
those canons could not usefully govern whatever argument turned
out to be necessary.
But that hope has turned out to be false. The steadily increasing
pluralism of Western culture has slowly undermined the plausi-
bility of this secularist strategy, and the collapse of the uncontest-
able ˜˜commonsensical™™ seems effectively accomplished. As William
Connolly puts it, today we face ˜˜recurrent situations where inter-
dependent constituencies honor different moral sources and are
unlikely to be moved by argument or inspiration to embrace the
same source™™ (2002a: xxiii). In our day, the unsteady truce in place
since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 seems increasingly fragile;
many doubt whether it remains either politically viable or philo-
sophically tenable. Thus John Rawls™s putatively universal theory of
justice has devolved into a chastened defense of ˜˜justice as fairness™™
as ˜˜political not metaphysical™™; the pressure bearing down on this
and similar accounts has transformed them from con¬dent uni-
versalisms to humbled provincialisms, and they will certainly suffer
further decay.12
Nonetheless, the recent historical pressures the secularist strategy
has suffered are not its root problem; secularism faces deep con-
ceptual problems, especially its construal of human autonomy


11. This is what gives United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on religion
matters its odd air of profound incoherence and maddening blindness to that
incoherence. For more on this see S. D. Smith 1995 and Thiemann 1996.
12. See Eberle 2002 and Rawls 1993. Even as so provincial, Rawls™s account may be
incoherent; see Gamwell 1995 and Weenar 1995. See also Orlie 1997.
114 A Theology of Public Life


in dogmatically subjectivist terms, that stymie its response to
pluralism as well. An ontology that forbids creation any real parti-
cipation or communion in God has a hard time avoiding the con-
clusion that the world is fundamentally a collection of solitudes.
This has direct effects on expectations for genuine engagement.
Even the Connolly passage cited above suggests a despair of actually
changing minds, a despair alluded to in his elegantly understated
claim that we ˜˜are unlikely to be moved by argument or inspiration
to embrace the same source,™™ a claim that reveals that he intends
not to help us understand how properly to engage one another, but
rather to help us live with our different views, by recognizing that
we ˜˜honor different moral sources™™ and by urging us stoically to
˜˜af¬rm this condition as a persistent condition of existence . . . [in
order] to respond to it without deep resentment™™ (2002a: xxii).13
Such views manifest a despair of communicating across the chasm
separating one person from another “ a structural inability to im-
agine us crossing the boundaries isolating each of us, an inability
that is conceptually as fundamental to the system as any phenomen-
ological sense of the futility of such an effort.
Defenders of the secularist strategy have sought various forms of
response to the problem; but in the end the best defenses simply
come down to denials that the problem is real. (Because any real
recognition would spell the end of the secularist strategy “ even
though not, of course, the reality of ˜˜secular™™ societies “ this
response is not surprising.) Most interesting, because most reveal-
ing, is the response that Jonathan Rauch calls ˜˜apatheism™™ (Rauch
2003). ˜˜Apatheism,™™ for Rauch, is the view that one simply does not
care what another™s religious beliefs are. In effect this is a reasser-
tion of a proposal for toleration that actually comes down to a sort
of laissez-faire indifference, a willed ignorance and self-blinding
concerning the other with whom one is engaged. Such are the
straits to which an intellectual movement of several centuries™
duration has been reduced.14


13. See xxiii: ˜˜Cultivate those elements in your faith that allow it to forge relations
of presumptive generosity with others and . . . to come to terms af¬rmatively
with how human it is for others to contest speci¬c dimensions that feel like the
bedrock to you.™™ For his picture of cognition and of the human™s intellectual
relation to it, see xxi.
14. See Sachedina 2001: 35 for a good criticism of this.
115
Life together


More subtle thinkers realize that such evasion is simply sympto-
matic of the problem it is meant to solve. As Melissa Orlie has
argued, ˜˜self and other, internal and external, are always inside one
another, even as our most common sense of group and individual
identity tends to obscure that fact™™ (1999: 143). Romand Coles has
gone so far as to argue that we live in a ˜˜post-secularist™™ age, and
the recognition of the crisis of secularism has become something
like common knowledge in contemporary public culture, even
though many academics have yet to realize it.15
But pluralism challenges more than simply secularist toleration;
it challenges contemporary theology on theological grounds as well.
For Christian theology all questions of otherness are related to that
most basic otherness, that of God, and so must be seen as in part
manifestations of the challenge of divine otherness.16 But much
modern theology cannot handle this challenge; modern under-
standings of self and world cannot easily accommodate this appar-
ent divine otherness, as expressed in traditional theistic
af¬rmations.17 In pluralism, what initially seems a contingent
political question is revealed to be a deep and inescapable meta-
physical issue. As Oliver Davies has aptly put it, ˜˜In the modern
world our encounter with otherness begins not at the borders of the
self, but rather within the self, at the very core of our identity, and in a
way that challenges the self-possession of the subject™™ (2001: xvi).
Pluralism merely reminds us of this basic challenge, a challenge
that begins at home, in the challenge of the achievement of human
identity and community to any degree; to achieve such community,
we must ¬nd a more adequate response to the challenge of plural-
ism than secularist solutions allow us.18 The challenge of pluralism
is thus an allegory for the broader and more basic challenge of
otherness; and we must face that challenge not because of histori-
cally contingent socio-political reasons, but for properly theological
ones.
If pluralism™s challenge to modern theology is caused by such
theology™s dif¬culties in thinking about the relationship between



15. See Coles 1997.
16. See Tracy 1991: 73“6, 95, and Barnes 2002.
17. See Tanner 1988.
18. See Lyotard 1989.
116 A Theology of Public Life


the self and the other, it is aggravated by such theology™s tendency
to take as its main interlocutor the fundamentally non-religious
challenge of modern secularism, either as a rival which must be
rejected, or as a fact which must be accepted. But secularism today
requires at least massive rethinking, if not outright rejection, pre-
cisely because it cannot truly handle the deep challenge of plural-
ism. Thus much modern theology offers us little help in our
problem because it accedes, implicitly or explicitly, to secularism™s
false resolution of the problem of pluralism, and engages in a
project of theological reconstruction intended to render belief
immune from challenge by other positions. Some of these projects
express a (properly Christian) desire for universality, but can be so
universal only at the cost of sacri¬cing their distinctness in order to
enter the ˜˜public™™ realm; others express (again, a properly Chris-
tian) concern with af¬rming the distinctness of the Christian mes-
sage, but assume that such af¬rmations entail the systematic
rejection of engagement with non-Christians and a turn inward into
the church. On either account, otherness is not so much included as
occluded, not acknowledged but subsumed “ or cast into the outer
darkness. Such theological positions give us little help in con-
fronting pluralism, because they are committed to ignoring it. We
must do better.


The prospects for genuine dialogue
Theology should reframe its understanding of dialogue with
others, rejecting as the dominant frame the apologetic debate with
secular modernity, and replacing it with an understanding
informed by dialogue with other major religious traditions. Here
the primary task is not somehow besting the representatives of
secularism, but instead deepening our understanding of the real
meaning of each side™s views. As Augustine DiNoia puts it, ˜˜if in
modern theology the basic question was, how can a modern person
believe this doctrine? then in postmodern theology the basic
question has become, how can the deep intelligibility of this
doctrine be exhibited?™™ (1990: 516). If we seek a theology that will
help us understand the consequences of genuine engagement with
others, we should look not to the apologetic debates with modern
117
Life together


Western secularism, but to the encounter between Christianity and
the other ˜˜world religions.™™19
This does not mean that Christians should shun modern atheists
or agnostics. They should continue to engage them, as allies and as
conversation partners. But such engagements should not set the
basic frame within which Christians understand the project of
engaging others more generally. Often the grounds on which secu-
larists are best engaged are cramping and narrow for Christians. But
they are cramping and narrow for others too. Most of the others
whom Christians will engage are devout religious believers; secu-
larists, of various stripes, are a minority. For the sake of their full
range of interlocutors, Christians ought not allow themselves to
grow too facile with the constricted discourse that secularists ¬nd
most comfortable. In engaging other religious traditions, the inter-
locutors meet on essentially equal terms: each brings complex and
quite contestable metaphysical, axiological, and anthropological
convictions to the conversation; each can recognize that their views
can be intelligibly challenged; and all are vividly aware that they
may well learn something from the other. Here the encounter can
be a genuine encounter, and not the fundamental indifference to
one another (or the meticulous avoidance of one another) urged by
secularists.20
But ˜˜dialogue™™ as it is usually understood is insuf¬cient. Con-
temporary accounts of interreligious dialogue are still dominated by
a tired trio of options “ namely, ˜˜exclusivism,™™ ˜˜inclusivism,™™ and
˜˜pluralism™™ “ which are themselves Procrustean categories trans-
ferred from modern theology™s debate with Western secularists on to
interreligious dialogue. Such projects do not engage in genuine dia-
logue with other positions so much as construct arguments that
preemptively deny the need for such dialogue. ˜˜Exclusivism™™ expli-
citly refuses such dialogue, and asserts the irrelevance of other reli-
gions; however, ˜˜inclusivism™™ and ˜˜pluralism™™ equally attempt to be
˜˜open™™ to alternative positions, only to stiff-arm the genuine risk
of dialogue in favor of remaining within their own conceptual
schemes. Inclusivists claim that other religions should be understood

19. And, indeed, it can apply to the global ecumenical dialogue as well; see Irvin
1994: 173.
20. I have learned much here from conversations with Paul Grif¬ths, and from
Novak 1989.
118 A Theology of Public Life


as saying in different (and less adequate) ways what Christians truly
say and so are only super¬cially different; pluralists, on the other
hand, assert that, just as Christian inclusivists claim that all are
˜˜anonymous Christians,™™ so in fact all are anonymous pluralists.21
What each does is deny that in the encounter with the other, the
other may offer a word to the self that the self may need to hear.
These positions do not really respond to the challenge of religious
pluralism, but attempt to avoid and thereby sterilize it.
Yet each has some merit. Exclusivism acknowledges the distinc-
tiveness of Christian claims, inclusivism recognizes the universality
of Christian claims, and pluralism af¬rms that differences between
religions relativize every religion™s claims. In a sense, then, each
position expresses a distinct theological virtue: exclusivism
expresses faith in the truth of Christianity, inclusivism expresses
hope in the ultimate truth of Christianity, and pluralism expresses a
humble charity for those in other religions. What is lacking in each
is any accommodation of the necessity of the other virtues.
Fortunately new approaches have begun to emerge. Following
philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, think-
ers like Michael Barnes, J. A. DiNoia, Paul J. Grif¬ths, and Mark Heim
exhibit how genuine interreligious dialogue can proceed, and
thereby synthesize the insights of the accounts described above in a
harmonious whole.22 Their work rejects meta-theoretical debate in
favor of the concrete give and take of particular conversations; they
recognize, as David Tracy puts it, that ˜˜dialogue itself is ¬rst a
practice . . . before theories on dialogue or conclusions on the
results of dialogue are forthcoming™™ (1991: 76). They recognize dif-
ference, acknowledge the reality of very different traditions making
con¬‚icting claims to truth, and af¬rm the necessity of engaging
these con¬‚icting claims in rich and systematic argument. They
con¬rm that the challenge of pluralism cannot be dissolved by
philosophical or theological ¬at, but demands engagement. These
accounts all encourage and develop genuine interreligious dialogue


21. And so pluralism signi¬es, as John Milbank has put it, the ˜˜total obliteration™™
of particularity and the victory of Western universal (read: corporate)
McReason. See 1990a: 175. For a positive proposal in line with the critical
perspective taken by Milbank here, see Tanner 1993.
22. See especially DiNoia 1993, Grif¬ths 1991, and Heim 1995. See also Rescher
1993.
119
Life together


with the (explicit or implicit) intention of advancing understanding,
both of self and of other, for all parties involved.23 They accom-
modate all three theological virtues within one system as a way of
addressing the challenges of interreligious dialogue. They accept
(with charity) the distinctness of various positions, they acknowl-
edge (with hope) the truth claims of each, and yet they still af¬rm
(in faith) their own position as containing salvi¬c truth. But these
positions are not simply better answers to the same questions;
rather, they transform our vision of the problem, depicting it not as
a resolvable puzzle, but as an ongoing debate. The positions serve
not as conclusions, but as ¬rst moves in a debate that is only
eschatologically terminable. They do not tell us how to defuse the
dangers of religious pluralism, but rather show us how to go about
¬nding out what religious pluralism means.
The most theologically well-developed such account is that of
Michael Barnes, who begins from the assumption that dialogue is
theologically important and goes on to explore the implications of
that claim for the theological project and Christian life more
broadly. Dialogue provides us with a new way of learning about
God: ˜˜The question for a theology of dialogue is not how the
otherness revealed at the heart of selfhood can be synchronised into
a more or less grand strategy, but how, more radically and yet more
humbly, a certain passivity in the face of the other is to be recog-
nised as intrinsic to the Christian vocation itself ™™ (2002: 129). But this
passivity is not the helplessness of the victim but the hopefulness of
the recipient of gifts; passivity before others is rooted in passivity
before the Lord.
The lesson of such work extends beyond formal interreligious
dialogue, and speaks to the way any theological inquiry should go
forward today. Theological inquiry needs a metanoia from a stance
that is defensive, apologetic, and ¬nally concerned with clear and
distinct boundaries, to a necessarily dialogical and impure mode of
theologizing. While appreciating differences as needful, we also
must ¬nd ways genuinely to have real engagement, real conversa-
tion; and such a project will always ¬nd commonalities beyond (but

23. This is not the only way to read these thinkers; for example, Francis X. Clooney
uses DiNoia to develop a collectio, a ˜˜reading together™™ of two traditions (for
Clooney, Hinduism and Christianity) which appropriates one (the Hindu) for
the purposes of the latter (the Christian) “ see Clooney 1992: 21.
120 A Theology of Public Life


not necessarily before) the differences. We must remain well aware
of the temptation narcissistically to project oneself upon the other;
but we keep aware of that temptation in order better to pursue, as
part of our authentic project, the task of ¬nding the other in one-
self. Theology is always an ˜˜impure™™ practice, one that works over a
given set of materials, which one can modify but which cannot be
wholly replaced by another language altogether.24
Understanding dialogue in this way entails both reinterpreting
the theological status of such dialogue and reframing the character
of our engagement in it. On a practical level, it suggests that we
reconceive dialogue not so much as speaking but as more funda-
mentally a form of listening, of hearing, of receiving. ˜˜Dialogue™™
looks quite different if it is organized around a primary act of lis-
tening rather than speaking. Speaking is important, of course, but
in our world what we most palpably lack is not more noise, but
silence. Perhaps dialogue should be understood most fundamentally
as not about ˜˜us™™ speaking to ˜˜them,™™ or about all of us talking, but
about all participants listening, both to one another and to one™s
own voice. It may be surprising who we, and others, turn out to be.25
More profoundly still, speaking in properly theological terms, this
loving passivity before the Lord is the passivity of one who has faith
and hope, virtues that should characterize all our dealings during
the world. Barnes puts it well: ˜˜If it is the case that the hope, which
the act of facing the other inspires, returns Christians to the an-
archic “ the ˜beginninglessness™ “ roots of their own faith in Moses™s
encounter with the God of the Covenant at Sinai, can we not speak
of Christ as present, if not in the face of the other, then in the act
of facing?™™ (2002: 238). We see in dialogue and in the exchange
that it enables the possibility of communion, albeit proleptically as


24. The longing for such purity is the premier temptation of so-called ˜˜Yale
school™™ theology; while it focuses on the systematic and expository tasks of
theology in a salutary way, at times it is tempted towards a narcissitic and
defensive solipsism of this sort, in which exposition is ultimately indifferent to
otherness because of an overriding defensiveness and anxious commitment to
purity. There are deep theological matters at issue here: yes, theology does put
new wine in new wineskins, but God™s work does have a historical continuity
from creation to eschaton; to claim otherwise is to practice a Gnostic method if
not profess Gnostic principles. For models of undefensive theology see Tanner
1997 and R. Williams 1999. See also Jenson™s criticism of George Lindbeck in
1997: 18“20.
25. See R. Williams 1999: 332 and Muers 2004.
121
Life together


a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Dialogue is, then, the core con-
dition of the human being coram Deo; in the encounter with the
other, that is to say, is more than a whiff of the day of judgment; and
our conversion to welcoming the other is in part the change from
our own seeking of justice to our own seeking of fellow lovers. So
understood, the encounter with the other should not be governed
by cringing fear at imminent prosecutorial judgment, but by over-
whelming gratitude and joy at being received and accepted on the
basis of a merit not our own.
Following Chapter 2, this approach can be expanded into a sys-
tematic theological proposal regarding engagement in general, the
challenge of living with others simpliciter “ connected with a picture
of God, the world, and ourselves “ in order to offer it the greatest
purchase on the practices that inform our lives. Most fundamentally
we should interpret the challenges of life together as the challenges
facing the achievement of any community, and most fundamentally
Creation™s community with God. If we look more deeply, we see
therein the kernel of the vision of the Beloved Community, the
kingdom of God, of which all human community today is but a
shadow and towards which all human community today points.
That is, we see in dialogue, and in the encounter with the other that
dialogue assumes, a proleptic foretaste of the kingdom of God. The
remainder of this chapter explains this vision.26


From engagement to communion
The challenge of pluralism confronts theology as both a con-
tingent socio-historical problem and a basic problematic essential to
the theological tradition. Recent accounts of how to respond to
religious pluralism greatly assist our attempts to construct a theo-
logical response to the challenge of pluralism in general; but in order
genuinely to understand and comprehensively to accommodate the
full dimensions of such a response, we need a systematic theological
account. The Augustinian tradition offers great resources for this
project because of its conviction of God™s absolute immanence to and


26. Augustine is not the exclusively adequate source, or obviously superior over all
possible alternatives; for a position not explicitly Augustinian that resonates
with my own, see Healey 2000.
122 A Theology of Public Life


absolute transcendence of creation, and its conversionist theology,
which understands that the love of God is at best only partially and
provisionally appropriated in any human life during the world.
Together these elements undergird a vision of community which
sees our encounters with one another during the world as proleptic
¬gurings of the coming eschatological communion. Until then, we
live in eschatological suspense; because of both our perspective and
the structure of the time-bound world, redemption and damnation
remain open questions until the end times.
This eschatologically conversionist worldview decisively informs
Augustine™s understanding of the human subject in its relations to
others. Chapter 1 argued that the human is literally eccentric, with
its center of gravity ˜˜outside™™ itself “ or rather, that that ˜˜outside™™
has been inside all along. So Augustine presses dialectic to its most
radical point, suggesting that the self is itself perhaps a dialectic, a
dialectic between itself and God. Hence, all fallen creatures are
fallen not so much from God (as they could not exist were they so to
fall), but rather from themselves. One basic (perhaps the most basic)
description of sin is self-division, and conversion is not so much the
reunion of two separate entities as it is the reconciliation of the self
to itself, its acceptance of its relation to its source.
This Augustinian account sees conversion as partly a matter of
growing into a new knowledge of difference “ a new knowledge of
what separates humans from one another. In becoming something
new, one understands one™s previous beliefs differently, and may (and
indeed ought to) thereby come to a deeper awareness of and sensitivity
to the differences separating persons from one another. But this
conversion is fully realized only when one grasps it within a larger
theological frame, as developing the dispositions necessary to reorient
our loves (and thus our lives) toward God; hence the changes effected
by that new knowledge of this-worldly differences both re¬‚ect and
partially embody the more fundamental theological conversion of the
self towards right relation to God. This is a conversion from a zero-
sum picture of justice as fundamentally securing our separation from
one another to a picture of justice as infused with love.27 The return to


27. While this ˜˜justice versus love™™ contrast could be taken in anti-Jewish ways, it
should not be so read: the ˜˜justice™™ transcended is a fallen justice, what
appears as justice to those whose fundamental desire is to avoid being judged.
123
Life together


right relation with God, and the elimination of untoward differences
between God and humans (and among humans as well), are thus
accomplished not by shunning other humans, but by engaging them;
not by turning away, but by turning towards. Conversion does not
draw humans out of the world; rather it puts them more fully, and
more properly, into it.
There is a real irony here. Many people think of converts as zealots.
And certainly there is something of the anxiety of the new member
of the club that ¬‚oats in the air around new believers, as the magi-
cian™s smoke lingers after the trick is done. But such zealotry does
not properly re¬‚ect the new belief; rather it is a dangerous mixture
of two things. First, it re¬‚ects the kind of obsessive focus that the
new lover feels for the object of his or her affections; one is intoxi-
cated by one™s new faith. Second, it reveals a sinful anxiety that one
is not ˜˜really™™ a proper believer “ an anxious fervor to reassure
oneself of one™s grasp on the truth given the recent seismic shifts in
one™s existential self-understanding. The former can be expected to
fade over time; but the latter may be more persistent, and is funda-
mentally an escapist temptation, a desire totally to renounce who
you were ˜˜before.™™ But such renunciation is an incoherent tempta-
tion that must be resisted; maturity leads one to see one™s life as an
integrated whole of a sort (such is one story of confessiones).28 True
conversion should make you more open, more vulnerable to the
world. But of course such maturity is rarely realized, and those rare
cases, only partially; so this conversion is not in this life accom-
plished, but always just being begun.
Given all this, ˜˜engagement™™ of a certain sort is a theological
imperative, and Augustine™s work enables us to understand the
theological signi¬cance of the fact of pluralism “ understood as the
mutually con¬‚icting truth claims of the self and the other “ as a facet
of the broader and more basic problem of otherness itself. Augus-
tine™s own use of dialogue is well documented. He discerned in pagan
civilization truths that pre¬gured the Gospel ˜˜seeds of reason™™
present due to the inescapable relation of all humans to God, and
thus as always already Christian truths; and so he demanded, and


˜˜Justice™™ here is reducible to desire to be left alone. And Augustine will identify,
diagnose, and refuse this picture of justice without mercy.
28. See Mathewes 2003.
124 A Theology of Public Life


practiced, genuine and thoroughgoing investigation of the pagan
world to see what it could teach him.29 But his work allows us to go
beyond these relatively common af¬rmations by connecting such
appropriation with the broader question of otherness. This tradition
can af¬rm that the Christian church can in fact engage in genuine
conversation with others, in a way that leads to deeper under-
standing for all parties involved. This tradition can teach us the full
meaning of, and the proper response to, the challenge of pluralism.
Indeed, it helps us not only construct an account of the challenge of
pluralism; it also helps us identify, critique, and resist our tendencies
to want to avoid it.
This can be seen in one of the most ambitious attempts to
appropriate Augustine™s thought in decades, namely, John Milbank™s
audacious and impressive project. But ironically, Milbank™s work
is less adequate as a constructive response to the challenge of
pluralism, in part because, paradoxically enough, it still accepts the
horizon of options proposed by the ˜˜secular™™ reason it disparages.
By describing the limitations of Milbank™s project, I mean both to
af¬rm his critique and critique his af¬rmations, to take his work
beyond its own horizon, and show what a more thoroughly
Augustinian response to pluralism requires.
Milbank sounds like Connolly when he claims that it is ˜˜better to
replace ˜dialogue™ with ˜mutual suspicion™,™™ and understand con-
versation as nothing but ideology critique (1990a: 190). Milbank
seems captive to Connolly™s despair of the possibility of genuine
engagement, of changing minds. Like Connolly, Milbank™s project
seems in part effectively to want to help us explain why we need not
engage one another, rather than allow us to do just that. But the
dif¬culty with this is the manifest historical reality that dialogue has
taken place at times, and, while modern interpretations of dialogue
may be irremediably tainted with rationalist and totalizing
assumptions, that is no reason to jettison the possibility of dialogue
tout court. Furthermore, his own practice tells against such a rejec-
tion, for whatever else one says about his work, one cannot deny it
is argumentative; and he is obliged to offer some sort of account of
what goes on in our heads when we become convinced by his



29. On the ˜˜use™™ of pagan work for Christian purposes, see DDC 2.19.29“40.61.
125
Life together


arguments. Hence he does not so much reject dialogue as refuse to
theorize it.
The problem here seems to be rooted in his implicit agreement
with his secular postmodern interlocutors, that reality is in fact
marked by radical incommensurability “ that reality itself is a col-
lection of alterities, fractured into regions without an ultimate
enframing reality. (Chapter 5 discusses this more.) Of course Mil-
bank™s basic aim is to oppose this belief, and offer instead the
Christian ˜˜meta-narrative™™ as the integrating queen of the sciences
yet again, able to ˜˜place™™ all other discourses. But in fact, at least
when he discusses the possibility of argument and dialogue, he
seems to forget this insistence and instead to accept a picture of
human thinking as inescapably parochially local.
His agreement with this picture seems deeply connected to a
dimension of his proposal which may cripple attempts at dialogue.
This is his rhetorical insistence that the basic problem of modernity
is its nihilism, its worship of death. For him, modern thinkers, and
modernity itself, are not properly understood to be af¬rming some
genuine goods, albeit in ways that overvalue them; rather, modern
thinkers are best understood as af¬rming nothingness, death, the
abyss.30 There is certainly historical precedent for making this claim
in the tradition, stretching back at least to Paul. Furthermore, it is
hard to deny that af¬rmation of death has an explicit role in some of
the more grotesque modern political and philosophical movements.
And there is something to be said for arguing that the basic struc-
ture of sin is itself nihilistic “ af¬rming the nothing that is not God
rather than assenting to the in¬nity that is God.31 But Milbank
emphasizes this and ignores the traditional connection between
nihilism and idolatry. Idolatry helps here because it renders sinful
desires intelligible to us as distorted desires for proper ends, thereby
establishing tendrils of intelligibility between ˜˜we™™ who have
accepted grace and thus God, and ˜˜they™™ who have not done so; this
troubles our desire to identify with one side over the other. But
Milbank™s exclusive rhetoric of nihilism severs any such links, and
so he cannot talk to his opponents, he can only talk about them.


30. His collaborator Catherine Pickstock expresses this, more starkly still, as
necrophilia (see Pickstock 1997).
31. See Mathewes 2001a.
126 A Theology of Public Life


Milbank™s account is not fundamentally wrong; it simply remains
too tied to modern theology™s conversation with secularism to help
us directly with the challenge of pluralism and otherness. Reinhard
Hutter™s critique of him as ˜˜not Augustinian enough™™ is correct
¨
(Hutter 1992: 116). He focuses on the apologetic Augustine, as evid-
¨
enced by Theology and Social Theory™s almost exclusive attention to de
civitate Dei. But this is unfortunate, for that is the one text Augustine
shaped with a non-Christian audience explicitly in mind. Milbank™s
work would have been better served with a more comprehensive
vision of Augustine™s entire project, and especially his account of
the way of the human ˜˜into™™ God “ topics taken up especially in
confessiones and de Trinitate “ which would entail a more complicated
theological anthropology.
There seem to be two things holding him back at this point. One
is insuf¬cient attention to the self™s messy complexity. The other is
his implicit assent to the modernist ˜˜either/or™™ picture of ration-
ality, its overly stark dichotomy of ˜˜objectivism™™ and ˜˜relativism™™
(R. J. Bernstein 1983). As to the ¬rst, Milbank seems reluctant to
develop his theological anthropology in an Augustinian fashion, to
warrant a limited but important role for argument. Augustinian
anthropology insists that ˜˜suspicion™™ reinforces the need for gen-
uine dialogue; it advocates an approach which subjects all particular
claims to rationality, including our own, to critique, but still
recognizes “ against all postmodern nihilistic resignation about
truth “ the need and capability for argument. This account depicts
the self with a rich and complex inner life, a life which is plural
at its heart, with the sinful self in con¬‚ict with itself and its God
over the battle¬eld of its sinful will to self-disintegration and self-
annihilation, the self struggling towards an (only eschatologically
realized) integrity. Furthermore, even that integrity is realized only
by ecstatic participation, through Christ and in the church, in the
perichoretic communion of the Trinity.
As for rationality, he claims that ˜˜no fundamental account [of
society or history], in the sense of something neutral, rational, and
universal, is really available™™ (380, emph. added). But why are these
three necessarily associated? Why not claim a universal reason that
is not neutral? (In fact, what would it mean for reason to be neutral
in the ¬rst place?) The problem latent in the fact that different
people claim different things as ˜˜obvious™™ can be accommodated
127
Life together


(on Augustine™s account) by acknowledging the importance of the
noetic fall of the mind and the distorting effects of sin on our belief-
forming activities; we must engage in certain practices in order to
become rational. Hence we can claim absolute, universal, and
rational truth for Christianity, and privilege that discourse, and yet
claim that we can (and must, when possible) still engage others in
dialogue, which may eventuate in real argument “ even if not in
some putatively ˜˜neutral™™ court of appeal, still in a genuinely dia-
logical way.
In sum, Milbank™s work only partially escapes the constraining
modernist categories it condemns. Because of this, as powerful as it
is, it does not adequately comprehend the viability and value of
argument, and the durability and ¬‚exibility of the concept of truth,
and is led towards an unfortunate and anachronistic ˜˜aestheticism™™
about truth which simply reproduces the ˜˜inverted mirror image™™
(MacIntyre 1988: 353) of the modern understandings of truth and
reason he aims to oppose.32 His project, for all its power as critical
diagnosis, does not offer much constructive help for a theology of
engagement; it is too apocalyptically impatient to take the time
necessary to develop such a theology.
To do better, we need a more complex picture of the self, one that
depicts the self as always already involved in dialogue. We also need
a ¬ner-grained depiction of dialogue, one attentive to its theological
relevance, than Milbank provides. There are resources for such a
project. Most importantly, Oliver Davies, in his magisterial A Theol-
ogy of Compassion, has developed a systematic picture of selfhood
as dialogical. That work is premised on the insight driving this
chapter, namely that we need a theology that enables genuine
dialogue “ one that, as Davies has aptly put it, ˜˜must in the ¬rst


32. Recently, he has claimed that ˜˜we should only be convinced by rhetoric where
it persuades us of the truth, but on the other hand truth is what is persuasive,
namely what attracts and does not compel™™ (1997: 250), but he does not develop
this thought; and by the time of Truth in Aquinas (2001) Milbank and his co-
author Catherine Pickstock describe our participation in truth in ontological,
liturgical and eschatological categories, as opposed to immanentist and
individualist epistemological ones. They depict faith and reason as ˜˜phases
within a single extension,™™ a single mode of human intellectual relation with
the world and God (2001: 21). Yet the connection between this picture and that
offered in Theology and Social Theory remains obscure; and he continues to focus
on nihilism to the detriment of idolatry, thus continuing to leave unclear
exactly how humans ought to be conceived as always participating, in some
way, however perverted, in the truth.
128 A Theology of Public Life


place accommodate the speci¬cally dialectical encounter with the
other™™ (2001: xvii). Davies himself proposes a theological anthro-
pology that can conceptually accommodate the possibility and
reality of such encounters. He bases this anthropology on a
phenomenological analysis of compassion, upon which he builds a
general picture of the self as fundamentally disposed towards
engagement with the other “ an engagement which is not an
aggressive grasping of the other, but rather a mode of kenotic
openness and even vulnerability before them. One might be temp-
ted to say that this mode of kenotic openness ˜˜completes™™ the self,
but Davies cannily does not give in to this temptation, for he is wary
of any teleological conclusion to selfhood. Instead he says that
through this engagement, ˜˜the self undergoes a transformation . . .
a movement from ˜existence™ to ˜being,™ which is a heightened or
intensi¬ed state of existence,™™ really a ˜˜trans¬guration™™ (45).33
Davies™s proposal is primarily concerned with engaging recent
philosophical trends in order to articulate a general ˜˜kenotic
ontology™™: a way of speaking about being that understands the
desire for communion “ for encountering, engaging, and reconcil-
ing with othernesses “ to be fundamental to the nature of reality
itself. But we can develop it for our purposes, in order to discover
what sorts of practices, and modes of engagement, such an under-
standing of kenotic selfhood enables for engaging others. For this
task, Augustine™s work may help because he grasps the central fact
of human existence: that we are ˜˜possessed™™ by a divine other, that
we are in an ineliminable relationship with God. Of course, in sin
God remains ˜˜within™™ the self, but the self is, in a sense, ˜˜outside™™
of itself; and the corruption of will renders the self helpless to save
itself. (Hence conf. 10 is, among other things, a critique of the epis-
temological optimism of his earlier soliloquies and dialogues.) Yet
even as sinners, revolting against our reliance on God to be, to act,
and to know, we are nonetheless absolutely dependent on God.
Indeed we ˜˜possess™™ our being by participating in God, and will
properly receive it only at the eschaton, when we participate fully in
the body of Christ, and thereby in the perichoresis of which our
¯¯
engagements today are but shadows.



33. Davies suggests that this kenosis is in¬nite; see Davies 2001: 220“1.
129
Life together


What does it mean, both metaphysically and practically, to say that
the self is not simply its own possession, but is possessed by, and
participates in, another? That question drove Augustine™s theological
investigations throughout his career, and we discussed it in depth in
Chapter 1. It is not visible in de Trinitate, which aims to help believers
dialectically grow in understanding the divine through a deepening
understanding of the self, and vice versa; a movement of deepening
understanding which leads to the realization that the self™s proper
mode of worldly being is always one in relation to, and imitative of,
the divine Trinity.34 As Lewis Ayres has said, for Augustine, ˜˜the
human person is in the image of God when she or he has a life
centered around the attempt to discern how a Christian must live in
order to ful¬ll God™s command of love. Through making progress in
such a life “ a progress which includes lapses from which one
recovers “ one comes to understand the Trinitarian mystery more
closely™™ (1995: 269). The whole of de Trinitate is meant to teach ˜˜the
education of desire,™™ to educate agents™ desires towards right love of
God, and to teach agents that their desires, however crooked, have
always already had God as their proper ¬nal end all along. Engage-
ment with others is not simply an optional extra on this account;
reaching out to others is in a fundamental way just what it is to live a
properly ¬‚ourishing human life. Indeed, to reach out to others is
inescapable; in some basic way we just are that reaching out.

Engagement as proleptic communion
All that said, it is not enough simply to endorse dialogue. The
description of engagement as ˜˜dialogue™™ is insuf¬cient; we should
rede¬ne it as a ¬‚awed, provisional, proleptic participation in the body
of Christ, and through Christ in the divine perichoresis that is our
¯¯
ultimate destiny. This is our last task in this chapter, to show how this
understanding of dialogue can be converted to a genuine Augustinian
interpretation of, and response to, the challenge of pluralism.

The virtues of engagement
Augustine™s theology offers an account of selfhood rich
enough to encourage the kind of engagement we need, in no small

34. De Trin. is in this way a recapitulation of conf. 10. See O™Donnell 1994: 234.
130 A Theology of Public Life


part by arguing that such engagement is unavoidable for real
human life. But we must still construct the details of an Augustinian
account of engagement in our fallen world. Such engagement will be
fundamentally both epistemological and moral, as right under-
standing and right action go hand in hand. What Ayres calls ˜˜the
education of desire™™ requires participation in practices that develop
traits and characteristics that advance the process of conversion. In
such practices, engagement can play a critical role. Indeed,
engagement is a requirement of the Christian life as such; openness
to others, to ˜˜the stranger,™™ identi¬es the Christian community as
that place where the good news is brought to, and received by, an
estranged world.35 Through describing this project, theology plays a
direct and essential role in forming and informing our moral life;
more particularly, the doctrine of the Trinity plays an internal role
in understanding moral life properly, especially as seen through its
manifestation in the three theological virtues.36
Because anthropological and epistemological issues illumine these
moral concerns, we ¬rst explored the former above. For Augustine,
the Word is in the world and in ourselves, even if we do not fully
recognize it; so we use engagement, in all its forms from the loving
communion of marriage to the dialogical community of debate, in
order more fully to grasp that Word and appropriate those capacities
that make the ˜˜arguments™™ (conceived broadly) that mark all such
communion during the world ultimately super¬‚uous. On this
account, reason is both an immanent reality (as something we have
partial knowledge of ) and a transcendental ideal (as something whose
¬nal coherence yet escapes us). One lives in a faith, not based in any
belief in one™s own superiority, but grounded in a certainty that that
faith offers genuinely salvi¬c truth. We employ this (true) reason in
faith, in the hope that we will one day meet it, as love, face to face.
It is thus a theological truth that the self must be open to
engagement with others; for, since the self constantly requires
further conversion from sin in this life, absolute closure is itself

35. Here I build on Jones and Fowl 1991: 73“4.
36. Furthermore, it is not only the case that the doctrine of the Trinity illuminates
the distinct pattern of Christian ethics; the converse is equally true; we
understand theological doctrines to the degree that we weave them into our
everyday lives. Thus the sort of ˜˜application™™ proposed here is internal to our
˜˜theoretical™™ understanding of the Trinity. For two helpful discussions of this,
see Pinches 1987 and L. G. Jones 1990.
131
Life together


absolutely closed off for humans. All understanding is provisional,
open to revision.37 But the distinctly Christian character of this
af¬rmation makes it something more than mere ˜˜toleration,™™
strictly speaking: it is an imperative for humble dialogical engage-
ment that would seem problematically invasive to most proponents
of toleration.38
This theological imperative for engagement is grounded on the
fact that the transcendent yet immanent presence of the Logos in the
world is tightly tied to the immanent practices in which humans
engage in living out their lives within the Christian narrative. Here
the life lived ascetically in seeking to inhabit the virtues becomes
vitally important. Because dialogical engagement ¬nds its place
within the work of the Christian community™s ongoing conversion “
speci¬cally, the ecclesiological and soteriological pattern of develop-
ing the theological virtues in community with others “ it ¬nds its
place in Christian life simpliciter. Thus our practices of engagement are
understood by Augustinians as exercises of the theological virtues.
The Augustinian tradition assumes that Christianity is true,
though we do not, short of the eschaton, fully understand its
meaning(s); furthermore, dialogical engagement reveals to the
theologian both something about her interlocutor™s position, and
something about Christian faith. It either demonstrates how that
other position is incorrect, or it reveals how that position already
agrees with Christianity or reveals something new whose insights
may aid Christian faith; for Christians, by demonstrating their
faith™s ability to meet such critiques, this dialogue either reveals
resources latent in the faith which allow it to meet critiques, or it
enriches the theologian™s (and, by extension, the community™s)
understanding of the faith™s manifest resources by revealing some-
thing of the depth of its insights. In fact, in any particular dialogue,
all four things can happen, and often do. Thus, Augustine claimed:
No doubt many matters pertaining to the catholic faith are not only
more diligently investigated when they are attacked by the feverish



37. Hence much of Augustine™s writing “ especially his commentaries, but also the
later books of conf. and much of de Trin. “ is in the subjunctive, the conditional
mode. Especially given the rhetorical commonplaces of his time, this is
remarkable. I am indebted to Paul J. Grif¬ths for this insight. See also Cavadini
2004.
38. See Fodor 1995, esp. 20.
132 A Theology of Public Life


restlessness of the heretics, but are more clearly understood and
more fervently expounded for the sake of defending them against
these enemies. Thus the controversy stirred up by the adversary
affords occasion for instruction. (DCD 16.2)39
Thus, dogmatic exposition, which begins by assuming the truth of
Christianity, engages others both for their own sake, and in order to
deepen one™s own understanding of one™s own faith.
The operative virtue for dogmatic exposition is the virtue of faith.
For Augustine, faith is a foundational premise: it is the touchstone
by which one can ¬nally claim to be speaking the truth. Dogmatic
engagement with other traditions is made possible, indeed valuable,
by the appropriation of faith. Again, this is not arrogance but arro-
gantia ¬dei, a con¬dence not in oneself, but in the tradition to which
one gives one™s putative and partly incomprehending assent. Faith
motivates us dogmatically to engage others, because it tells us that
we have some explicit purchase on the truth, and should deepen
that purchase and offer it to others. In dialogue, dogmatic state-
ments function as starting“points for inquiry, not as conclusions
susceptible only to acceptance or rejection. In such inquiry, one
rediscovers the distinctness of one™s tradition, its uniqueness as a
message of truth in a world riddled with falsity. In the courage of
faith, we know our place as the distinct place of the Christian truth.
But faith cannot be proven but only confessed, and thus the
dogmatic form is always complemented and supported by the con-
fessional motive. Confession recognizes that the self does not so
much grasp the truth as it is grasped by it; if in the dogmatic form of
inquiry we claim an apprehension of the truth, through confession
we acknowledge our imperfect grasp on it “ or, rather, its imperfect
grasp on us. Here the activity is seen fundamentally as inquiry and
not as defensive, preemptive dogmatic proclamation; confession is
the activity of the soul humbled by the taste of truth it has had, and
hungry for more (see also H. R. Niebuhr 1941: 21“5).
In confessional mode, engagement with others does not become
arrogantly condescending or hostile, but rather seeks ways to make
sense both of how people may disagree and of why one remains
con¬dent of the truth to which one witnesses. To demonstrate this


39. For a similar argument from a different source see Aquinas, Summa
Theologiae, Ia.1.8.
133
Life together


˜˜dogmatic humility™™ we can borrow, perhaps surprisingly, from
John Milbank™s discussion of ontological disagreements on the
analogy of hearing different musics. When we confront people with
radically divergent ontological assumptions from our own, Milbank
argues, we must confess that there is no way, at present, to settle
our disagreement. We cannot communally determine whether we
live in chaos or in an only seemingly chaotic, but actually histori-
cally endless baroque harmony, with many near-resolutions and false
endings, which will realize closure only in the eschaton. Our faith
that we live in the latter is ultimately unfounded, in the sense that
we begin from it and can offer no proof for it (though of course we
have evidence for it, as do those who assume the alternative) (1990b:
279).40 We can insist that our interlocutors are missing the point of
the music, that their timing is off, though all we have done in this is
reached the proper level of profundity in the debate; for it is not a
matter simply of propositional coherence or referentiality, but of a
more fundamental matter of attunement to the world.
How will our recognition of the profundity of this disagreement
not lead us back towards the kind of Stoic resignation and despair of
which we accused putative ˜˜postmoderns,™™ like Connolly and Mil-
bank himself, earlier in this chapter? What we ¬nd we need is latent
precisely in our accusation against them, of despair: we need hope.
And indeed the virtue most visible in the practice of confession is
hope. For Augustine, hope is an eschatological anticipation of the
ful¬llment of the soul™s desires and directs the soul™s movement.
Hope is thus comforting, in part because it is always correlated with
humility: inquiry into the meaning of the truths that one always
only partially apprehends is both propelled by humility, by the
recognition of one™s ignorance and misunderstanding, and drawn
forward by hope, by the comforting con¬dence that further inquiry
will lead to deeper understanding. In confession, one learns more
fully the ¬‚awed and ¬nite condition one shares with all humans. In
the humility of hope, we know our place as the common human
place of ¬nite and fallible understanding.41


40. For an interesting critique of Milbank™s musical metaphor, see Skerrett 2003:
801.
41. A good example is Milbank 1990a: 190: in encounters with other traditions, we
should ˜˜expect to constantly receive Christ again™™ and so advance ˜˜the
continual work of conversion.™™ See also Schlabach 1994.
134 A Theology of Public Life


Yet hope also disturbs us. It forbids us from turning away from
disagreements that seem interminable. It refuses us the false con-
solation of resignation and despair. And it does so for the same
reasons it comforts us “ for it tells us that more is coming, that the
new is not yet fully delivered to us, that we cannot come to con-
clusions yet “ even the conclusion that some arguments are abso-
lutely inconclusive. In this way our recognition of the profundity of
our disagreements with one another does not anesthetize us to the
fact that disagreement remains a problem, something that will one
day be overcome; these disagreements, and how we have struggled
in them, and against them, are part of the whole for which God will
come to judge us.
Hence faith and hope, dogmatism and confessionalism, are com-

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