The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century
By Robert Benne
Fortress. 242 pp. $16
No book of recent vintage has provided such a comprehensive and intelligent overview of current options in relating Christian faith to the general culture as Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision. Benne, who is Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Virginia and very much a Lutheran, divides his subject into three parts. First and most substantively, he sets out what he means by “the paradoxical vision” in public theology. Second, and perhaps of less interest to most readers, he examines the ways in which the Lutheran churches in this country have advanced or betrayed that vision. Finally, he analyzes the work of three theologians who he believes have best exemplified the paradoxical vision: Reinhold Niebuhr, Glenn Tinder, and Richard John Neuhaus.
Writing on “The Lutheran Difference” in these pages (February 1992), the evangelical historian Mark Noll observed that “America has enjoyed a surfeit of Reformed tendencies and a very occasional nudge in the Lutheran direction. A better balance is possible.” Taking his cue from Noll, Benne says he wants to provide that balance by nudging Christian ethics in the Lutheran direction. He clearly wants to do so in an ecumenical way that will also influence Roman Catholics, and both liberal and evangelical Protestants. Benne agrees with those who have in recent years urged that it makes more sense to speak of “public theology” than to use the older term, “social ethics.” He writes, “Public theology, I think, refers to the engagement of a living religious tradition with its public environment-the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life.” Although the cultural sphere has priority, these spheres are interdependent. “The cultural system, by which I mean the guidance system of the society-its coherent pattern of meanings and values (often supplied at least in part by its religious inheritance)-is heavily dependent on a modicum of economic and political stability and success.”
Public theology does not have an easy time of it in a putatively secular society. Benne employs Neuhaus’ image of “the naked public square” and, demonstrating a masterful grasp of the pertinent literature, shows how we have come to our present unhappy circumstance in which public life is so largely divorced from our cultural “guidance system.” He puts a very large part of the blame on the Protestant mainline that has abandoned its tradition of giving religious and moral definition to American life. With Noll, he believes American Christianity has been marked by a crusading impulse, an impulse that frequently served the country well. But now the Protestant mainline has turned this crusading impulse against itself in what Benne calls “the great reversal.” In 1950, when the National Council of Churches succeeded the old Federal Council, Episcopal Bishop Henry Knox Sherrill, its first president, said that the council’s formation marked “a new and great determination that the American way will be increasingly the Christian way, for such is our heritage. Together the churches can move forward to the goal-a Christian America in a Christian world.”
Although Benne does not note the irony, the 1950s establishment language about Christian America is today the almost exclusive preserve of the then despised (and still despised) “religious right.” What Benne does note with detailed insight is the way in which “the great reversal” has resulted in the undermining of the confidence of the old establishment. In recent decades, mainline leadership has, also with a crusading passion, pitted “the Christian way” against “the American way.” Vietnam and the adversary culture of the sixties are part of the story, but in the mainline academy and church-and-society curias, the controlling doctrine is now that “Salvation will come from the revolutionary cultural praxis of gender feminism, homosexualism, multiculturalism, and militant ecological movements.” Although overt Marxist rhetoric is muted following the collapse of communism, a basically Marxist analysis still drives these adversarial movements.
In a footnote that deserves to be in the main text, Benne writes: “The Marxist notion that dominant groups have arranged society and culture for their own exploitative purposes remains a key to their perspective. Power relations between the oppressed and oppressor (relations of groups are never seen as more complex) provide the dominant model of analysis. Following from this, it is assumed that those who are oppressed by the dominant group (male, straight, European, capitalist) have a particularly relevant grasp of true reality. Since they are not blinded by the ideological screens that surround the oppressor, they are able to see clearly and move decisively toward justice. Their revolutionary praxis will bring wholeness to the oppressed and, in the longer run, to the whole society. The dream of a sinless and unerring proletariat has not been given up. It has simply been translated into new categories.”
Benne joins that analysis to a host of supportive citations from denominational statements and influential writers such as Rosemary Ruether and Robert McAfee Brown. In the 1960s, the World Council of Churches adopted the maxim, “The world sets the agenda for the church.” Benne observes, “What better way to diminish the role of one’s own religious vision than to give ‘the world’ religious authority? If you can’t beat them, join them.”
While the liberal mainline turned its revolutionary energies against the alleged oppressions of America and the Christian tradition itself, other religious forces moved to the fore. “As the Protestant mainline has weakened, the Catholic public voice has taken its place. It has become the closest thing we have to a public church in this age of religious realignments.” He is critical of aspects of Catholic leadership, but also appreciates its strengths: “While generally tipping toward the left in political and economic matters, and to the right on social issues, [Catholics] appear to operate with more fidelity to their own defining principles, not the secular ideologies of the day. Nor do they intentionally attack their own defining principles, as is the case in so many Protestant attempts at public theology.” Generally missing from Benne’s analysis is the increasing role of evangelical Protestantism in our public life, and its convergence and cooperation with Catholics in giving definition to the cultural “guidance system.” Although he does not say so, perhaps that is because he is not sure that evangelicalism has provided or can provide what he means by public theology.
Another major source of public theology, in Benne’s view, are the neoconservatives, by whom he means figures such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, Robert Jenson, and Richard Neuhaus, along with the scholars, publications, and institutions that they have gathered around them. The Protestant mainline and, to some extent, the Catholic bishops have studiously tried to ignore the neoconservatives, Benne says. “Indeed, one can read through many tomes of mainstream Protestant public theology without coming across any of the names of the neoconservative theologians, though the neoconservatives have certainly been more influential in public discourse than their detractors.”
Benne describes his three exemplars of the paradoxical vision-Niebuhr, Tinder, and Neuhaus-as, respectively, a Christian realist, a hesitant radical, and a neoconservative. But one suspects that for Benne these are distinctions within the category “neoconservative.” As he enlists thinkers in the neoconservative cause, he knows that he might also be suspected of purloining thinkers for his Lutheranism. After all, Niebuhr belonged to what was then the Evangelical and Reformed Church, as much Calvinist as Lutheran; Tinder is an Episcopalian (although his son is a Lutheran pastor); and Neuhaus, long a Lutheran pastor, became a Roman Catholic. “My primary purpose,” writes Benne, “is not to claim these three as crypto-Lutherans, as if I were trying to enhance the reputation of Lutheranism by adding a few luminaries to its legacy. Rather, it is to show how the paradoxical vision expressed by these three has had significant effects on their public theologies.” In other words, the paradoxical vision that they exemplify is significantly derived from, and best articulated by, the Lutheran side of the Reformation tradition. Whether or not the three are as Lutheran as Benne suggests-in the case of Neuhaus, Benne treats only the writings from his Lutheran years-they do represent what he means by the paradoxical vision.
That vision tries to protect the universality and radicality of the gospel from every form of political or cultural captivity. It nurtures a sober view of human nature and the possibilities of change, seeks self-consciously to avoid both liberal sentimentality and conservative cynicism in social ethics, and views history with a keen appreciation of limitation and irony-and undergirds all this with a vibrant sense of hope in the Lord of history. The paradoxical vision insists that “The New Testament gospel of the suffering God who abjured all worldly power and all worldly group identifications simply rules out those schemes that compromise the radicality and universality of the gospel. The cross of Christ freed the gospel from enmeshment in all human efforts to save the world. No one was with Christ on the cross to die for our sins. Or viewed differently, everyone was with Christ on the cross, but only as passive inhabitants of his righteous and suffering person. No boasting is permitted. Therefore, the paradoxical vision rules out salvific politics.”
Salvific politics is the demonic temptation to which both liberal and conservative thought in the Calvinist tradition too easily succumb, as do Catholics, Benne thinks, with their drive toward a synthesis of Christ and culture. The exemplars of the paradoxical vision, on the other hand, provide a theological framework that resists being turned into substantive social ethics or mere ideology. Thus Reinhold Niebuhr, after he had overcome the leftist sentimentality of his early years, found a “method of proceeding in life and thought [that] was as paradoxical as their actual substance. He proceeded dialectically, playing off one polarity against another and finding his judgments somewhere in the complex interplay of those polarities. That is why theologians of both the political left and right can authentically claim him as a mentor. Both Robert McAfee Brown on the left and Michael Novak on the right have grounds for claiming to be genuine students of Niebuhr. . . . He was willing to admit that he had changed his mind. But the basic framework of the paradoxical vision remained solid from the mid-thirties onward.” (One may agree with the substance of Benne’s description of Niebuhr, while wondering whether Brown’s promotion of liberation theology in recent years is not precisely the kind of salvific politics that the paradoxical vision so decisively rejects.)
Tinder, while less well known outside academic circles than Niebuhr or Neuhaus, may be the purest representative of the paradoxical vision. His much celebrated textbook, Political Thinking, is prefaced with this statement from Soren Kierkegaard: “The paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity. The supreme paradox of all thought is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.” Benne is clearly uncomfortable with Tinder’s severe reservations about the morality of politics, even to the point of suggesting (in a manner that Benne thinks somewhat “sectarian”) that Christians should not involve themselves directly in the political enterprise.
“Neuhaus, of all the neoconservative public theologians, has been the most prolific and energetic on a number of fronts,” writes Benne. “His presentation of the paradoxical vision is the most straightforward of the three. . . . Perhaps more than anyone since Niebuhr, Neuhaus has pressed his paradoxical vision right into the midst of American economic, political, and cultural debates.” That being said, Benne is uneasy with Neuhaus’ “draconian” restrictions on the Church’s direct role in the political arena. And it is true that Neuhaus wrote many variations on the maxim, “When it is not necessary for the Church to speak, it is necessary for the Church not to speak.” Here again, however, it must be noted that Benne limits himself to what Neuhaus wrote as a Lutheran. His “draconian” restrictions, one may suggest, were in large part attributable to Lutheranism’s lacking the Magisterium and developed body of social doctrine that Neuhaus has found in the Catholic Church. At least to this reviewer, the paradoxical vision is significantly modified in Neuhaus’ writings as a Catholic, as, for instance, in the pages of this journal and in his Doing Well and Doing Good, the 1992 book on the encyclical Centesimus Annus.
As I stated at the outset, no recent book has offered such a comprehensive and intelligent discussion of contemporary options in public theology as Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision. I have not even touched on the extensive and marvelously constructive discussion of “direct” and “indirect” ways in which the Church influences culture, or the careful distinctions he makes between “advocacy” and political partisanship. At the end of it all, Benne asks: “Will the ‘Lutheran difference’ survive among Lutherans? Does the paradoxical vision have a chance for survival and growth in the religious community that has brought it this far in American history?” His survey of the record of the several Lutheran bodies comes up with a doleful answer. Nonetheless, he has no doubt that “the paradoxical vision will continue to inspire individual Christians of all communities.” His last word is thus that “Still there is hope.” That may seem a wan note on which to conclude, until one remembers the object of Robert Benne’s hope: the crucified and risen Lord.
Janet Marsden is a writer living in New York City.