Lately, I’ve noticed several re-articulations of a theological trend we’ve talked about here plenty of times before, namely the position that the church’s practices mediate God’s presence and action in the world, form Christians to be virtuous selves in contrast to the acids of modernity, and make Christ concretely present in the world, when otherwise salvation would be simply a spiritual abstraction of some sort. What is still needed, advocates of this trend maintain, is an ontology of participation which insists that divine and human action are fundamentally noncompetitive, that God’s action for our salvation is not simply God’s but because of the ontological participation between God and the world, it is also our action, and indeed, the very notion of attributing action distinctly to God versus humanity is problematized. God’s action does not “exclude” but rather is mediated precisely through the church’s own social practices and rituals. So the story goes.
Anyways recent work done along these lines (and this post by my friend Robb brought it to mind for me) tends to argue against those critical of this position that somehow such criticisms simply do not take into account the fact that their position views divine and human action as “noncompetitive” and thus as practically indistinguishable. Once we see that point, it’s no longer problematic to have God’s presence and action possessed and mediated through the church’s social practices and rituals. However, this re-assertion is problematic on a number of levels.
Obviously those of us who are critical of the school of thought that articulates what we might call “ecclesial-practices-as-the-direct-mediation-of-God’s-presence-and-action” are fully aware that certain strains of postliberal and contemporary quasi-Catholic theological sentiment believe that divine and human action cannot be seriously distinguished and thus that the church’s practices simply in some sense “are” and “extend” God’s action, make God present, and bind God, making possible God’s concreteness in the world (this is Reinhard Hütter’s way of talking here, and this line of thought is also pretty clear in Sam Wells’ work, and is made very clear in Jamie Smith’s recent books, it is also articulated very plainly in David Fitch’s recent book, The End of Evangelicalism, if folks want to check out some references). Of course we know that folks think that divine and human action cannot be distinguished, are noncompetitive because of a participatory platonic ontology, etc.
However, I don’t see how any of these re-assertions actually substantially criticize or render problematic anything folks like Nicholas Healy, John Flett, Peter Kline, or Nate Kerr, Ry Sigglekow, and myself have argued. It just re-asserts the position we have argued (in our various and distinct ways) against without really attending to any of the arguments in question, or showing how it withstands the critiques made against it. It is argument by re-assertion, not by engagement. It does not show why we ought to believe in a platonic ontology of participation, why we ought to view divine and human action as distinguishable, rather it simply asserts that when you assume a participatory ontology it makes sense to think of the church’s practices as the extension and concrete reality of God’s being and action in the world. Well, of course it isn’t problematic to see ecclesial practices this way when you assume such an ontology, but why should we? These are the questions that I haven’t seen any answers to (unless “because modernity is bad” counts as an answer somehow).
Moreover, these articulations seems to me to often involve a patently false argumentative turn. Namely they tend to insist that there must be “an impenetrable ontological divide” between God and the world (throw in some stuff about Scotus and nominalism and how evil it is here) if there is to be a distinction of divine and human agency. The problem is there is no reason why this line should be thought to be true. Just because human and divine actions can be distinguished does not in any way imply that God is somehow ontologically locked out of the nitty-gritty of human life and action. Obviously God has broken through any and all barriers (sin, death, the Devil, etc) in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. It seems strange to me that this radical act of God, the very act of defeating death, sin, and hell somehow is not adequate to bring God and humanity truly together in an unbreakable sense, a sense that we can depend on. That somehow if we don’t have this reality socially possessed and doled out through the church’s rituals and practices, it is simply something “spiritual” and ephemeral.
Moreover, the whole way in which “noncompetition” between divine and human agency tends to be articulated in these accounts rests on a rather odd misunderstanding of what attributing distinction of action means. It seems to be assumed that if God’s action is properly God’s, and thus, fundamentally not ours, that then we have somehow locked God out of the world. As already mentioned, this fear seems to me to manifest an odd lack of faith in the reality of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, but furthermore it seems to rest on a mistake about the implications of distinguishing between agents and their respective actions. I mean, you and I are both human beings but your actions are yours and mine are mine in a unique and irreducible sense. If you murder someone, there must be a real sense in which that is your action and not mine, our common human nature notwithstanding.
It seems impossible to read the New Testament depictions of judgment any other way, for there it is always people’s own unique actions (feeding the hungry, visiting the poor, etc.) form the basis of how they are judged. Likewise the whole logic of salvation in Paul rests on the fundamental distinction between divine and human agency (“this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God, not the result of human works…” etc). Obviously examples of this could be multiplied extensively.
All this to say, being able to attribute a distinction of actions to God and human beings does not create an impenetrable divide between them in any way (any more than distinguishing your action and mine sets us on different sides of an impenetrable ontological divide). It simply recognizes that God is God and human beings are not God. This does not sequester God from the world, but simply recognizes that God is present and active to the world in freedom, not as a function of our “making”. What it refuses to do is amalgamate God, make God some sort of constituent part of the world-event, which is what I think perspectives like the one often articulated by advocates of ecclesial-practices-as-the-direct-mediation-of-God’s-presence-and-action cannot help but ultimately do.
This is why, I fear, in the end such articulations are ultimately idolatrous. In this ontological scheme God becomes the possession of the church, no matter how vigorously this is denied. The church’s practices become God’s presence, no matter how passionately this is nuanced. God ceases to be the free and living Lord and simply becomes the religious commodity that the church dispenses and maintains in its own social rituals and life, despite the pious verbiage in which this is couched. And that is why, eventually, I came to reject this theological trend, at least as an overriding program for doing theology.