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The Church’s Unrest

Jürgen Moltmann’s The Church in the Power of the Spirit continues to be one of the most impressive books I’ve yet encountered from him. In fact, I’ve found Moltmann’s work here quite helpful in light of the recent discussions about the viability of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology that have emerged from Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic.

Hauerwas certainly has a strong tendency to see the task of the church in light of the challenges of modernity. In light of the modern situation — of individualism, Western ideology, etc. — the church must be intentional in the work of ecclesial culture-making in order to form different, truly virtuous persons who can inhabit the world differently, thereby bearing witness to the gospel. The social challenges of modernity require an ecclesial response of resistance and counter-construction.

Whether this critique ultimately sticks with full force to Hauerwas doesn’t matter too much for the purposes of my point here. Clearly it is undeniable that this sort of theological anxiety about modernity is widespread. It can be easily found all over conservative evangelicalism with its deep-seated terror that “we” are losing control of America. However it is no less present in the political sentiments of John Milbank and his own critiques of modernity and arguments for some sort of global Christian socialism.

Moltmann, however cuts past this. The unrest that the modern situation poses to the church is decidedly secondary — at best — to the unrest that lies at the heart of the church itself. The church is unsettled, unstable precisely because it bears witness to the triune God present through Christ in the Spirit. The crucified Christ is not a stable center, but a transcendent voice that cannot be domesticated by the church into their own possessed message. The presence of Christ in the Spirit pertains to nothing less than the total transformation of the world into the messianic kingdom of God. This is not a reality the church possesses within itself, but rather one that it obediently receives, never quite knowing what it will ultimately mean. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Thus, as Moltmann argues:

[I]t can by no means be merely the unrest of our time which causes the unrest of the church. Nor can it merely be the present revolutionary situation which makes it essential for the church and its teaching to find new bearings. . . [I]ts ‘unrest’ is implicit in itself, in the crucified Christ to whom it appeals and in the Spirit which is its driving power. The unrest of the times points it to this inner unrest of its own. The social and cultural upheavals of the present draw its attention to that great upheaval which it itself describes as ‘new creation’, as the ‘new people of god’, when it testifies to the world concerning the future of ‘the new heaven and the new earth’. What is required today is not adroit adaption to changed social conditions, but the inner renewal of the church by the Spirit of Christ, the power of the coming kingdom.

Note, in this schema the sentiment that animates the church is one of eschatological joy. Our own “unrest” lies in our hope for the coming renewal of all things in Christ, a renewal that we cannot grasp, control, possess, or ever fully anticipate. The church, oriented by this sort of doxological, eschatological hope is not overly worried about the supposed threats of “modernity” to “traditional Christianity” or other such melodramatic notions of where Western civilization is going wrong. In the place of furtive anxiety about losing control of the cultural formations of the West we are invited into a missional messianic life of trust and hope in the the coming kingdom of God.

All of this turns of course on a sort of reckless confidence that the triune God of the Bible is, in fact, living and active. That this kingdom actually is being brought about in Christ and the Spirit. This orientation requires an utterly foolish trust that God truly acts and is acting. That the kingdom of God is indeed coming as a gift that we could not secure for ourselves.


  1. Zac wrote:

    The idea of unrest reminds me, in an odd sort of way (odd because these authors aren’t exactly in agreement most of the time), of David Bentley Hart’s account of beauty as that restless energy exuding from the infinite which animates, or rather, draws the church. For Hart, beauty reveals that eschatological joy (to use your term) is also ontological joy, and here is perhaps where him and Moltmann would disagree. However, by making this connection between ontological “joy” and eschatological “joy” one should not understand Hart to be advocating a “stable” counter-story that possesses “the message” by way of a “stable center” or by an appeal to a first possession, but rather a counter-story that experiences beauty as a kind of original possession in dispossession. Thus Hart will say that “the beautiful fosters attachment that is also detachment, possession in dispossession, because it can be recieved only at a distance, only in letting be, as gift; where glory bestows itself as beauty, it consecrates otherness as good, and of God’s goodness.” (Beauty of the Infinite, 18.)

    To speak of the crucified God as a destabilizing force as you did, as the transcendant voice that cannot be domesticated, is to speak, from the Hartian perspective, of the particular Nazarene who’s life, death, and resurrection opens up for creation “a practice, a style of transmission, susceptible of variation, analogical imitation, extension, and elaboration. The hiddenness of God in Christ, Christ’s messianic secret, is nevertheless an open and unconcealed shape of existence; it can be followed on through the contingencies of time…” (BOTI, 327)

    All this to say that in one sense you are appreciating what Moltmann is saying here because he is taking the emphasis off of the church’s need to define itself against the world by way of a stable counter-story and instead focus on inner renewal. However, could we not, as I think Hart displays nicely, argue that the church must tell its counter-story as a way of engaging in this renewal. Through the restless beauty that animates the churches word and practice, could the church not announce this restless and beautiful evangel as a story among other stories — as a story evoking desire, not just to persuade the other stories of ‘the secular’ but also to persuade and draw the church into the renewal of the Spirit? In this way, the church is not animated by their resistance with the stories of the secular, but by way of their engagement with the beauty of Christ whose form evokes the desire to speak and act in accordance with his example.

    Just some thoughts.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Would that all blog comments were as substantial as this one, Zac!

    The only thing I’d add would be to perhaps question the notion of “counter-story” as a sort of meta category through which the church’s interaction with the world is understood. Its precisely that “counter” that most troubles me. The gospel is not, ultimately a story to be told (though it is certainly a “storied” reality in a very significant way — it has a narrative aspect in that it is tied to the past historicity of Jesus and Israel). Rather the gospel is the living person of Jesus himself who was, is, and is to come.

    That said, I really do appreciate the way you’re bringing Hart into this and I find it helpful — and patently ironic to pair him with Moltmann here!

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  3. david wrote:

    This is fantastic! I’ve been thinking recently about how our secular capitalist ideolog(ies) seems to draw all things into itself – even what looks like transgression – and how virtually every attempt to counter this ends up as just another aspect of it. In what ways then is it possible for the church to be what she is, and say what she says, without ultimately supporting secular capitalism? Your post and the responses to it helps me re-think this relationship between church and world (represented by corrosive modernity). Zac’s ‘the church is not animated by their resistance with the stories of the secular, but by way of their engagement with the beauty of Christ…’, and Halden’s ‘the gospel is the living person of Jesus himself…’, make me think that modernity per se is not the problem, rather the problem is that while we’re worrying about modernity we are not looking at Christ. And that to attempt to posit the gospel as an alternative in opposition to modernity basically defines the gospel according to what it is not, rather than what it is, i.e. in Christ.

    Friday, November 20, 2009 at 3:57 am | Permalink
  4. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, I’ve not been privy to your treatment of Hauerwas over time, but I’m confused as to why you lump him with conservatives in this fashion. I’m thinking in part of this sentence from your post: “The church, oriented by this sort of doxological, eschatological hope is not overly worried about the supposed threats of “modernity” to “traditional Christianity” or other such melodramatic notions of where Western civilization is going wrong.” You seem to be conflating two dramatically different concerns here, one for the faithfulness of the church amidst idolatry, and one for the church as prop or chaplain. You conflate Hauerwas’s concerns about modernity (which are more about Constantinianism than modernity proper) with conservatism’s concerns. But these ideas are opposed, not synonymous.

    Friday, November 20, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Brad A. wrote:

    Having now read your summary of Kerr’s points (and that’s about all the time I have to devote to this – sorry), I see your point, if you’re basically implying guilt by association. Again, to conflate their concerns and projects in this manner is still way off.

    That said, I’m not sure reading those summary points that Kerr accurately reads Hauerwas. Based on what Hauerwas I’ve read, and the works of his students in some continuity with his own, I don’t see H’s ecclesiology as merely a negative reaction to modernity. Rather, the negative reaction occurs because of proper Christian ecclesiology. Given that H’s discussion occurs in the context of modernity, it probably can’t help but appear to some that modernity is all H’s concerned with. The second point on that summary simply isn’t problematic at all, until the last sentence, which doesn’t necessarily follow from the previous sentences. On the third point – and again, not having read more than the beginning of Kerr’s book – how much of that is due to H’s sacramentology, one that would tie Christ and Christ’s Body together in ways somewhat foreign to Radical Reformation sensibilities (as Schlabach points out)? Moreover, how is Christ’s singular identity known if not via the community of faith, the church?

    Friday, November 20, 2009 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Brad A.:

    I would agree with you that the project of Hauerwas and (for the most part) his students is driven by the desire to articulate a “proper Christian ecclesiology.” What is not recognized here (and I am currently working on this idea for publication) is that the problem of what constitutes a “proper Christian ecclesiology” is itself a decidedly modern problematic. The drive to articulate a proper Christian ecclesiology has been from the beginning of modernity a reactive project, one bound up with the Catholic counter-Reformation response to Luther. This was a point articulated well by Georges Florovsky in the middle of the last century, and which has recently been rearticulated by James Alison. The irony of Hauerwas’ polemic against modernity is that, for all the concern that it makes of his ecclesiology reactionary, it is really the reverse: the putatively positive concern to construct a proper ecclesiology determines his anti-liberalism and anti-modernism in all the wrong ways. And this because modern ecclesiological construction from the outset requires that there be something which it sets itself up against — whether that be liberalism, modernity, Constantinianism, etc. And so, I would suggest, this so-called positive drive for a “proper ecclesiology” (I keep using this phrase as such because I honestly have no idea what such a thing might actually be), is part of what prevents Hauerwas from appreciating what is right in Luther, and that leaves him at a loss for articulating a robust doctrine of justification by faith, as well as of a robust account of the trinitarian action of God as rooted in and determined by the apocalyptically singular action of Jesus Christ.

    One more point, as to Hauerwas’ so-called sacramentology. Hauerwas has explicitly denied (in public) that he has a “sacramentology” as such. Rather, he says, he is concerned to speak of those practices by which the church “is,” and then to discern in what sense these practices are “sacramental” according to their mode of ecclesiological “production.” This is not a “sacramentology,” so much as it is an instrumentalization of so-called “sacramental practices” (a critique I lay out in the final chapter of my book). It may in fact be that it is precisely the lack of a “sacramentology” as such that drives his concern to construct a proper “ecclesiology” (and here again I’m following Florovsky and Alison).

    All of that to say: Hauerwas’ work is a species of modern ecclesiological idealism, and what it has birthed in many of his students is the determined search for a given ecclesiological “ideal,” which, lacking any concreteness in-itself, must then receive its concreteness by the production of something to be “against.”

    Monday, November 23, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  7. d barber wrote:

    Or it’s just a matter of habituation. In which case the concern is positive, rather than “reactive.”

    Furthermore, it’s not clear why, if liberalism is real, relating to it is immediately “reactive.” Interprellation, anyone?

    After all, perhaps Kerr’s theology needs something to be “against,” namely a certain polemical construction of Hauerwas’s ecclesiology.

    And anyway, isn’t “ideology” a modern problem, and therefore the dualistic opposition b/w ideology and apocalyptic is a thoroughly modern problem?

    Monday, November 23, 2009 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  8. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I agree that it is not ipso facto the case that to relate to liberalism is “reactive,” and I understand Hauerwas’ averral that he does not wish and does not think his ecclesiology fundamentally determined by a reactionary relation to liberalism. This is one of the points where he most clearly disagrees with my reading of him.

    And I also take your point as to the emphasis upon the positive determination of the church by way of habituation into the Christian virtues, such that the church constitutes is own “public” as “prior” to the world, as such. But the reason I resist this idea that the church is positively a matter of habituation into a public is that this putative “priority” seems to me to operate in such a way as to require the construction of “another” (the world) as productive and reflective of its own identity. And so although Hauerwas’ concern is positive, his ecclesiology turns out de facto to be determined by liberalism, especially at those points where he identifies “liberalism” as determinative and characteristic of the “world” in our time.

    At the end of the day, I just think that apocalyptic is domesticated when submitted to an understanding of the church as positively determined as a mode of habituation into virtue. And this is because it shifts the locus of apocalyptic decisively away from God’s action and onto the the church as a “work.” That is to say, my concern is that that “work” apocalyptically determines the church vis-a-vis the world, rather than being from the outset and without reserve determined by the apocalyptic action of God.

    In response to your other concerns, I would say that this is indeed a temptation: viz., to set apocalyptic against ideology in such a way as to make of apocalyptic itself a negatively determined dialectical category. I would also only say that this is in part bound up with the temptation to think apocalyptic as a general category, and why I am concerned to insist throughout upon a determinately Christian apocalyptic in which the action of God is the basic datum (that is, one in which the act of God in Jesus Christ is determinative of apocalyptic, as such). And so I have tried to be conscious about thinking apocalyptic beyond ideology and not merely against it. In this respect, Hauerwas’ ecclesiology is not something one needs to be “against” as such, but rather is a species of modern ecclesiological idealism that we need to account for and be conscious of in thinking beyond. And I think this is a way of being true to Hauerwas’ own pervasive concern that what the church finally be about is the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That concern, I think, is what Hauerwas really always means to be “prior,” and which I take to be at the heart of his life and work.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    Nate, thank you for the courtesy of a response, and for you courtesy in your response. I guess two questions come to mind. First, I would think a more direct “target” of critique for you (forgive the word choice there) would be somebody like Cavanaugh, whose work directly challenges modernity explicitly, and who responds with a version of “a proper ecclesiology.” To me, Cavanaugh or Dan Bell represent much more explicitly what you’re concerned about.

    Second, I’m not entirely sure from this why what they’re doing is inherently problematic. They are, in fact, responding to the times in which they are placed and made active theologians by the Holy Spirit. How is it inappropriate to construct alternatives in this context? I’m not convinced that an ecclesiology in response to something is nothing more than “reactive” or somehow less than fully substantive. That’s like saying the creeds are only reactions and therefore have no substance or bearing outside their present context.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 6:51 am | Permalink
  10. Brad A. wrote:

    Nate, you say, “That is to say, my concern is that that “work” apocalyptically determines the church vis-a-vis the world, rather than being from the outset and without reserve determined by the apocalyptic action of God.”

    I’m just wondering how it cannot be both – indeed, how the Incarnation is not both. Or perhaps I misunderstand your use of terms.

    Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 7:52 am | Permalink

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