A Review of The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century by Robert Benne

[1] Robert Benne’s The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century first appeared five years in advance of that century. A decade later there is plenty of the century left and the need for religious traditions to be constructively engaged with their “public environment-the economic, political, and cultural spheres of our common life” has only grown more serious. (p. 4) Beyond suggesting that this is the case, in this book Benne proposes that a particular religious tradition-namely the Lutheran paradoxical vision-provides “a valuable, if not indispensable framework for any adequate Christian public theology.” (p. 62) He makes his case in several ways: exposition of the substance of this vision, discussion of its official manifestation by Lutheran church bodies and its expression by three individuals, and comparison to other possibilities. Chief among the other options are the Calvinist-Reformed position long dominant in American public life and the Roman Catholic position more recently articulated by the American bishops. Though both of these approaches are more widely recognized, Benne also argues that the paradoxical vision has been engaged with American public life if more often indirectly than directly. There is much to like about this book and much to be learned from it.

[2] As in his other works, notably Ordinary Saints, Benne provides a clear presentation of central components of this theological tradition in Chapter 3, “A Contemporary Interpretation.” Sometimes he labels this the Lutheran paradoxical vision, sometimes classically Lutheran, sometimes Pauline-Augustinian. Always he asserts that its is grounded in the Bible and the Christian tradition of teaching and practice, thus the Lutheran “attitude” is more a matter of emphasis within the larger church than a claim to a unique position or an idiosyncrasy. With Einar Billing, he identifies forgiveness of sins (or justification by grace) as the “glowing core” of Luther’s thought and of the Christian message. However this core is articulated, the point is that “in the unique and specific event of Jesus the Christ-his ministry, death, and resurrection-the lost world in its entirety and for all time has been retrieved by a loving God.” (p. 64) Echoing Luther and recalling his own writings on vocation, Benne points to the result that in Christ humans are both set free and bound to serve the neighbor.

[3] The framework for public theology Benne derives from this center involves four theological principles: 1) the qualitative distinction between God’s salvation and all human efforts; 2) the paradox of human nature with its capacity for love and justice that is used for small or evil ends and yet that can be directed by the Spirit to care for others; 3) the two-fold action of God in the world through law and gospel; and 4) recognition of the penultimate character of human history in which God acts but human efforts can not achieve God’s reign. (These principles sound familiar themes of Lutheran theology; not questioning their relevance and significance, I wonder how inclusion of others, such as the principle that the finite is capable of conveying the infinite, might modify this framework.) As interpreted by Benne the paradoxical vision of the Lutheran tradition provides Christians with a solid warrant for vigorous, but limited, engagement in the public arena. Such involvement is animated by hope of positive earthly results but fully aware that salvation of individuals and of creation itself are in God’s hands. Improvements in this world are not to be confused with God’s saving work; indeed, again and again Benne cautions against equating human judgments about social or political goods with God’s goals for the world.

[4] He diagrams the vision and its public engagement as concentric circles. The inner core-the event of Jesus as the Christ, the biblical witness to that event, and key teaching such as articulated in the ecumenical creeds-“do[es] not change with time, though they must be interpreted afresh for each new generation.” (p. 73) About this core the church should be clear and in confident agreement. Moving out from the core to the ring of moral vision, next to speculative theology including social teachings, and then to specific policy positions the expectation of agreement and the intensity of confidence diminish. The unity of the church is to come from the core, from the glowing center of God acting in Christ Jesus, rather than from human response to that gift no matter how salutary the human action. George Lindbeck’s comments on programs of the World Council of Churches are quoted with approval: “When it is the work not worship which unites, human need rather than God’s glory becomes central, and justification by service replaces justification by faith.” (p. 100)

[5] Benne’s second point, that the paradoxical vision has been operative in American public life, is made by instructive discussion of official actions by Lutheran church bodies (LCMS, LCA, ALC, and ELCA) and of three noted thinkers-Reinhold Niebuhr, Glen Tinder, and Richard John Neuhaus. While the same framework informs all these cases, they do not all arrive at the same place relative to political or social policies. This variety is in keeping with what Benne suggests: “It is important to note again that these themes do not necessarily press toward any particular set of political policies-that is, they do not themselves constitute a political ideology.” (p. 69) To expect such agreement would be to violate the framework’s key principles and to claim more knowledge of God’s purposes than humans can have. (I suspect that such an expectation of agreement would also reveal a lack of proper attention to the real circumstances in which the framework is employed, but this is not a primary concern of this book.)

[6] Although Benne takes up the example of social teaching statements and official advocacy efforts, he regards indirect engagement that informs Christians in their ordinary vocations as more appropriate to the limits of human knowledge and the radical distinction between God’s action in the gospel and in the law. That indirect influence often has been the mode of Lutheran public involvement contributes, of course, to the popular perception that Lutherans have not been involved. Benne’s discussion of the preference for indirect modes of connection goes well beyond the too simple explanation that Lutherans are recent immigrants and thus outsiders to the political process. His theological account coincides with my own characterization of the Lutheran way as incarnational rather than imperial. Had I read the final chapters of this book sooner they could have strengthened my argument in “The Lutheran Difference: What More Than Nice?” in Religion and Public Life in the Midwest, edited by Philip Barlow and Mark Silk.

[7] Thus far I have concentrated upon what I admire about this book, reorganizing it so that the parts I find most useful-the exposition of the vision and the presentation of its manifestations-are encountered soonest. I have done this because as much as I like this book, I wish I liked it more and that I could recommend it more widely to potential readers who need the encouragement to hope and the caution against overconfidence this book offers. I wish that the sparkle and generosity of spirit Bob Benne often exudes in person were more evident in the whole of this book. I wish that having declared that the paradoxical vision does not entail a specific political ideology, Benne did not lead with his own conclusions about where the theological vision leads and then interweave his judgments about the state of American religious, social, and political life into his presentation of the core of the vision. Perhaps he assumes that all his readers share all his views, but this seems unlikely. Certainly this reader does not. I fear that others who do not share his views will be put off by them. I urge such readers to begin with Parts II and III so that they will not miss the valuable resources the book offers Lutherans (and other Christians) for continued engagement with our world and, as importantly in these contentious first years of the twenty-first century, with each other.