Various theologians such as Kathryn Tanner and Ted Smith have argued against post-liberal theologians such as George Lindbeck and Stanley Hauerwas that the relationship between the church and the world cannot be thought of in terms of a confrontational encounter between two complete wholes. Rather the church’s own identity is always in flux being partially determined by its ties to and embeddedness in the world. The church does not exist outside of the whole nexus of structures and system that make up a culture. Rather it is always already embedded within them and relationally defined thereby.
This is certainly true insofar as it goes. However, the point that I think such critics are missing has to do with the way they allow their definitions of culture to apply to the church versus other cultural formations. To be sure the church is never a complete whole that is definable in abstraction from it situatedness in it cultural and historical context. However, this is not simply true of the church but of any and all cultural formations that exist. All communal and cultural realities are not complete wholes that can be leveraged as a totality against other competing cultural wholes. Rather all cultural formations exist in a state of flux and relationality vis a vis other cultural formations.
Thus, while there are important critiques to be made of Hauerwas and Lindbeck, a more sympathetic (and accurate) reading of their underlying intention is possible. One need not say that the church has a secure identity in itself independent of it situatedness in culture and history to say that the church is just as much of a social and communal reality as other social and communal formations. One need not posit the church a completed whole or a totality to understand it as bearing the same kind of fragmentary wholeness that characterizes all cultural formations. The fact that the church is partial, fragmented, and compromised rather than a complete self-enclosed whole does not imperil the church’s claim to authentic communal-social-political reality. Fragmentation and permeability are simply characteristics of any and all political societies.