A Little Less Paradox, Please: A Review of The Paradoxical Vision by Robert Benne

[1] On Sunday, January 20, 2005, three days after the “Report and Recommendations” of the task force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality was released, there was no mention of the report, no notice in our bulletin, at my local church. In this respect, our response to this report was no different from our response to the 2003 social statement on health and healthcare, Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor, or any of the seven earlier social statements of the ELCA. Or any of the eleven messages the church has adopted. The church’s social statements and messages are not on the congregation’s radar. And I would guess that no one in the congregation was aware of Bishop Mark Hanson’s open letter to presidential candidates Bush and Kerry or his statement following the election (I, myself, have only just now discovered these statements). When Higgins Rd. speaks, our church is frequently not listening. In this respect we are probably not much different from most other Lutheran congregations, or so it seems to me.

[2] My own response to this, to our failure to take note of what our church and our presiding bishop are saying about public issues, is similar to what I suspect would be the response of Robert Benne-bemusement that our Bishop felt that the need to speak either as a celebrity or on behalf of our church to the presidential candidates, and sadness that when it comes to our public posture, ELCA Lutherans are not being formed, apparently, by Lutheran theology, though not necessarily sadness that we are paying no attention to the particular messages and statements of the church and the Church Council of the ELCA. Benne helpfully reminds us that the church can speak too much, indeed, that the credibility of the church’s speech “increases as the frequency of church social statements decreases” (207). Later, he adds “…the church should speak only when it has something unique to offer from its own theological-ethical heritage.” And the same might be said of the bishop. It’s all very nice if he wants to let presidential candidates know how he is feeling about the election-his voice is no less relevant than that of Toby Keith, Bruce Springsteen, Alec Baldwin, or Mel Gibson. But neither is it any more relevant, especially given that both presidential candidates seemed to have a tin ear for what their own church leaders-Catholic and Methodist-were saying.

[3] What Benne would like and what I would like, however, is Lutheran Christians with a genuinely Christian public theology, Christians whose public activities are informed by their faith tradition. The Christian tradition, including the Lutheran expression of that tradition, does engage the public realm, does (and should) matter in our interpretation of the public world and may, perhaps, matter in persuading the world of how things ought to be and how things ought to go in the public spheres of life. This is the work of Christian public theology, the practical engagement of the Christian theological tradition (in one of its expressions) with the public world.

[4] But Benne is not interested in each and every Christian public theology; he goes some distance in pointing out the most prominent way in which American Christians have gone wrong before he develops his own Lutheran public theology. Calvinism (or, “a particular kind of Calvinism”) has decisively shaped the American experience, Benne argues following the (crypto-Lutheran) Calvinist Mark Noll. A strong doctrine of sanctification and the confidence that the Holy Spirit enables us to discern and do God’s will has led American Christians to believe that God wills to transform society, with us as God’s agents, in the same way that God has transformed the individual soul. However, as America has become increasingly secularized (although apparently not quite so secularized as Benne thought a decade ago when the book was published), “the substance but not the form of public activity” has changed. Americans remain confident that we can reform and transform public life, but it is the spirit of science and technology that now guides us.

[5] Against this Calvinism in both its religious and secularized forms, Benne maintains that “the Lutheran paradoxical vision provides a valuable, if not indispensable framework for any adequate Christian public theology” (62), that the paradoxical vision deserves more public attention than it has received, and that this vision is well-represented and has been influential in the public arena in the work of three (noticeably non-Lutheran) public theologians-Reinhold Niebuhr, Glenn Tinder, and Richard John Neuhaus.

[6] The framework provided by the Lutheran paradoxical vision-a framework within which one may be either politically conservative or liberal-is summarized in four theological themes: (1) The qualitative distinction between God’s salvation and all human efforts with an emphasis upon the radicality and universality of the Gospel; (2) The paradox of human nature with the understanding of Christians simultaneously sinners and redeemed; (3) God’s paradoxical rule in which God is active in the lives of Christians and in the church in a way fundamentally different from God’s active rule in the world; (4) The paradox of history in which the kingdom of God is even now present, but not fully present, awaiting, as it does, God’s completion of what has begun.

[7] What this framework should lead us to, Benne argues, is a humbler, less ambitious-even diffident-public engagement, a public engagement with the world that expects human mistakes and failures in our political activities even as we are confident that God has given us all that we need to carry on a tolerable public life together. What Christians should aim for, in other words, is not Geneva, but Lake Woebegon-a pretty good place to raise the kids.

[8] Perhaps the most valuable contribution Benne makes appears in his discussion of the qualitative difference between what God is up to and our own human efforts. Benne argues that while God may be an expert on everything, the church isn’t, and he proposes that we think of the church’s special competence in terms of a series of concentric circles. At the center lies the church’s core vision: the event of Jesus as Christ; the witness of the Bible and the tradition to Christ; the key teachings (summarized in the ecumenical creeds) interpreting and preserving the church’s understanding of that event; and the central moral vision of the Christian faith: The Ten Commandments, the calling of all Christians to faith active in love and justice, the preciousness of all created life redeemed by Christ, and the covenantal structure of God’s creation (which includes the special covenant of man and woman in marriage)….”

[9] The church’s authority diminishes as it moves further from this center. Thus, in the second of Benne’s circles, as the church interprets the core and applies the core to challenges in the world, the church can speak more clearly and with greater boldness than in the third circle as the church attempts to translate its vision into public policy in terms of specific recommendations for legislation. The church may have a deep commitment to an equal access to a good education for all children as a demand of a decent civil order, but possesses no special competence to address the question of the best means for delivering a good education. The church must denounce as inappropriate any demands (de jure or de facto) that Christian children leave their faith at the door as they enter the classroom, but Christians may disagree about the best means for educating their children.

[10] Although I am most appreciative of The Paradoxical Vision and generally sympathetic to Benne’s framework for public theology, I want to make two claims about Benne’s public theology. First, the paradoxical vision is best understood as a reforming vision, a corrective vision, and inherent in that vision is the potential to do great harm if the vision is not held simultaneously with the understanding it aims to correct. Secondly, the public theology of the paradoxical vision is more helpful for groups than for individuals, for a church, rather than for Christians, given that individuals are less likely than groups to be tempted to make the mistakes the paradoxical vision adeptly corrects. These two points could be made historically-identifying the trends and movements to which Reinhold Niebuhr, Glenn Tinder, and Richard John Neuhaus respond-or conceptually. I shall make the argument conceptually.

[11] Lutherans are, as a rule, underachievers, and the themes of Benne’s paradoxical vision explain why this is the case. So worried are we about taking our own efforts too seriously, about confusing what we may accomplish with what God is accomplishing, that we aim lower than we might. We build pretty good groceries and pretty good universities, lest by aiming at excellence we overlook the qualitative distinction. We elevate humility to chief of the virtues, lest we rely upon our own understandings and efforts. These are understandable responses to one human tendency-hubris-but Christians do not believe pride to be the only vice, and Christians do believe that the darkness of the human soul is such that pride can manifest itself in many different guises, one of them the guise of humility that refuses to let the Creator re-make the Christian into a new creation.

[12] Justified, yet sinners, we remain a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor. There is, of course, a risk of treating ourselves as transcendent creatures, equal to God, and many are the contemporary proposals that, in their failure to take seriously our embodiment, make this mistake. But, although the paradoxical vision helpfully reminds us of our dual characters-as justified yet sinner, as transcendent yet finite-its psychological impact, more often than not, is to justify our aiming low, at failing to recognize the ongoing work of God in preparing us for community with God.

[13] And the arena in which Lutherans tend to aim lowest is that of the left hand rule of God. There is, to say the least, a tension between the implications of Benne’s second theme and his third theme. If even Christians remain sinners and if that sin manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, we might conclude that it is hard for even Christians to know what we ought to know about properly ordering our lives together. Benne, however, in his unpacking of God’s left-hand rule is inordinately confident of the human ability to will and do the good. “Secular persons, with their capacities for civic righteousness, can work behind the mask of God to promote his law.” Now on the one hand, Benne is certainly correct to emphasize that God can accomplish justice, peace, and order through persons who know nothing of God or God’s plans. As such, Christians should be happy to find political allies wherever we may find them. But, given the radical nature of sin, given that sin goes all the way down, Benne’s confidence that Christians and non-Christians alike can identify and agree upon the ordering of our life together in the polis appears more like Enlightenment rationalism than Christian theology. So, on the one hand, Christians may know things about the nature and meaning of sex that it would be good for everyone to know, and may make common cause with non-Christians in political legislation on these issues as a result of our culture’s continuing to live on the borrowed capital of Christian culture. But, on the other hand, we shouldn’t find it at all surprising if notions of fidelity and chastity that are not uniquely Christian can in certain times and places gain absolutely no foothold.

[14] Benne’s paradoxical vision corrects the Christian tendency to claim an essentially secular political movement or agenda as profoundly Christian. But it, too, needs the correcting vision of the Christian understanding of a God still at work in the world, eager to accomplish justice, pouring out upon all a grace that testifies to God’s beauty and excellence and a future of hope. Pouring out upon all a grace that, perhaps, only Christians can recognize as grace, a grace sometimes resisted by all who would benefit from it.

[15] This is not to deny that God may have different expectations and may enable different accomplishments in the church than in the world. But, if the way of the gospel really is a good way for humans to live, then it is a good way for all humans to live. And if Christians, by virtue of the faith that has been given to them, glimpse this way, and recognize some ways in the world more in sync with it than others, it is no mistake for them as Christians to advance these ways-though it would be a mistake to baptize them as Christian-mindful that only God will finally usher in his completed.

[16] So I do not disagree with Benne that the paradoxical vision is indispensable, but I do want to affirm that it is parasitic upon an equally rich and robust theological understanding of political engagement, an understanding that while remaining clearly Christocentric, as is Benne’s understanding, may be more profoundly Trinitarian, attending to the internal relations of the Trinity and God’s redemptive purposes throughout human history, purposes, to be sure, effected and achieved in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, and made manifest most clearly in his life and the testimony to it.

[17] I have suggested that Benne’s paradoxical vision may be especially salutary and helpful as a corrective of the political engagement of churches who take themselves too seriously, who mistakenly assume that they have a word and that the coming of the kingdom of God requires their word on every major political issue, and I have argued that the paradoxical vision is, indeed, salutary, insofar as it is regarded not as a replacement for, but as corrective of, a richer, more robust political theology. In conclusion, I want to suggest that what the church in America currently needs is for its bureaucracies to heed the paradoxical vision even as individuals within the church are taught that richer, more robust political theology. The grounds for this are, briefly, that in our current context it is hard for individuals to take themselves too seriously, but easy for groups to do so, hard for individuals to recognize their own extraordinary value, but easy for groups to inflate their significance.

[18] At this point I can do little more than hand-wave, but suffice it to say that, after Darwin, after globalization, it is hard for any of us to think of ourselves as terribly significant in the grand scheme of things. One corrupt reading of the paradoxical vision-not Benne’s, to be sure-would so emphasize the qualitative distinction between what God does and what we do that our status as those God deemed worthy of his sacrificial love is completely occluded. God’s redemptive activity so occupies center-stage that the point of that activity, the end of God’s activity-the communion of God and those who bear God’s image-is lost from sight. And that oversight is reinforced in a cultural context that suggests that we are meaningless surds. Better that the church should teach us that we are made for God and are being re-made so that we may be worthy of that fellowship, that what we do even now is critical as a part of that process of re-making and as a part of the reverence we owe to others who, like us, are called to this fellowship with God. Robert Benne’s unpacking of the paradoxical vision, happily, is not an odds with this picture, and for his sensitive and lucid unpacking of this corrective vision we can be grateful.