Introduction to Daniel Bell’s Response to Paul Hinlicky

See also Daniel M. Bell, Jr.’s Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering by Paul R. Hinlicky

[1] Does life in twenty-first century America involve compromises of the soul unlike anything else in the history of the Christian faith? Is being Christian more difficult in an affluent, market-driven, consumerist society than it was for the early Christians during the days of the Roman Coliseum? Is there a sinister spiritual ingredient hidden within the juggernaut of the free market that seduces the soul of the believer in a way more spiritually devastating than was the overt oppression of Eastern European believers by the old Soviet regime? Daniel Bell, Professor of Theological Ethics at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, has written a challenging and thought-provoking book that seems to indicate such is the case: Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering.

[2] This book was given a truly insightful analysis by Paul Hinlicky, the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Virginia, in the November, 2010, edition of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. Hinlicky’s review is a must-read if, like me, you need help in scaling the imposing Mt. Everest-like peaks of post-modernism, Radical Orthodoxy, and the newest trends in theology after the philosopher Deleuze. In short, if you have not yet read Paul Hinlicky’s insight-filled, thought-provoking review of Daniel Bell’s book, now is the perfect time to do so.

[3] For those who don’t to read that review, let this be your poor substitute summary: Hinlicky offers a careful analysis and critique, with no small amount of appreciation, for Bell’s effort to apply Jesus’ ethic of the Sermon on the Mount to the gritty, sin-laden economic and political realities of this fallen world. (Note: this is my gross over-simplification of Bell’s project. Hinlicky does much better — read his review!) Bell describes our common humanity in a much more sanguine light than I as a Lutheran do. He appears to believe that it isn’t our distorted egos and out-of-control wills that are the fundamental problem underlying the human predicament so much as the external forces of our environment. It isn’t my unrestrained pride that causes so much pain and suffering in this world, it is capitalism — and its effect upon the human will and psyche. There are times in the book that Bell seems to imply that man’s fall came with Adam Smith, not the first Adam.

[4] In Hinlicky’s review, we learn that Bell himself criticizes liberation theology for falling prey to the limitations of a Marxian evaluation of capitalism: that is, Marxism assumes that the only thing needed to conquer capitalism’s hold on our psyches and wallets is a political revolution and an alteration in the power structure of society. That, in Bell’s view, is a shallow understanding of the true nature of the enemy that gets into our heads and hearts, and lodges there. What our times call for is a deft theological understanding of the spiritual threat posed by this totalizing system that dehumanizes us all. Such an understanding would go far toward enabling believers to live faithfully in a corrupting system, and point the way for others in our culture to wean themselves from the addiction that is capitalism.

[5] A key to resisting the demonic stranglehold of capitalism is for believers to adopt a spiritual discipline resembling the heroic self-denial of medieval monks. In the end, nothing less than a costly “forgiveness” that resists and absorbs the poison of this “undulating snake” of capitalism can bring about the real change needed for a wholesome society to arise in our midst: i.e., the recapturing of desire for the sake of God and his kingdom by “redirecting desire toward its true end: the shared love that is friendship in God” (171).

[6] One of Hinlicky’s criticisms of Bell’s “take” on the Radical Orthodoxy of John Milbank is that it falls prey to the “Reformed” error of a “one kingdom” theology, and needs the Lutheran understanding of the Two-Fold Rule of God. Without this Lutheran insight, our politics and our theology become utopian (my word, not Hinlicky’s), and we forfeit “proximate justice” for an unrealizable “perfect justice”. In Hinlicky’s view, “The dispute then between Niebuhr and Radical Orthodoxy would turn on whether Christians see a justified sinner, who is received into mercy in spite of continuing sinfulness, or a prospectively righteous saint, who forgives as she has been forgiven. As close as these two Christian visions of reality converge, they diverge into two-kingdom and one-kingdom theologies with rather different ways of mapping Christian responsibility in the fallen-but-to-be-redeemed creation.”

Now, enjoy Bell’s response.

Michael Shahan

Michael Shahan is Book Review Editor of Journal of Lutheran Ethics. A retired ELCA clergyman, Shahan does freelance writing from his Nashville home.