Response to the Four Reviews of The Paradoxical Vision

[1] I am delighted and honored to respond to these four reviews of my Paradoxical Vision. Beyond that I am grateful to the four authors-Perry, Kruse, Kennedy, and Lagerquist-for their willingness to write reviews of a book that is ten years old. I am particularly grateful to Michael Shahan, the book review editor of the online Journal of Lutheran Ethics, for dreaming the project up and in some measure resuscitating the book. I assure the reader that I had no complicity in this plot.

[2] Reading the reviews prompted me to re-read the book, especially the first two parts. A Lutheran colleague had told me years ago that he wished I had not made it so hard to assign the book for classroom purposes. DeAne Lagerquist more or less seconds that thought when she laments that the generosity of spirit allegedly exhibited by yours truly in person evaporates in the polemics of the first parts of the book.

[3] In those first two parts I tried to account for two things: the marginalization of theological arguments in public life generally; and the eclipse of mainline Protestant public theology, which had once held sway in our country. In accounting for those phenomena, I did engage in some polemical fireworks, which were probably not necessary if I wanted to push the agenda of the “Lutheran difference” in public theology. Such polemics did make it more difficult to use the book in seminaries, and it certainly affected the marketing of the book by Fortress, which by and large prefers to market the “adversarial perspectives” against which I polemicized.

[4] Upon re-reading those parts, however, I think they represent a persuasive account of those phenomena, imprudent as it was to take the subjects up. I do believe that mainstream Protestantism-especially at its top levels-has become more interested in the ideologies of the secular elite than in the core religious and moral meanings of the Christian Gospel. Therefore, their public witness has been read by the public as one more intervention of a left-wing political interest group, and one that has very little support among its own constituencies at that.

[5] This has grown worse since the election of George Bush in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq. There was good reason for the President refusing to meet with mainstream Protestant leaders, including our ELCA bishop. What’s more, I believe the ELCA has accelerated its headlong rush toward becoming more like mainstream Protestantism, with the attendant danger that one of its own treasures-the paradoxical vision-will be jettisoned along with other elements of its heritage. So, standing more than ten years after the book was written, I’m afraid my current assessment would lead to even more polemics than were in the original book.

[6] However, I am also more aware in recent years of the danger that conservatives run in fusing their political convictions with the Gospel, especially since the ascendant religious groups tend to be conservative politically. DeAne Lagerquist suggests that I have engaged in some of that conflation myself, but I sincerely hope not. I hope both liberals and conservatives can share the inner core of religious and moral meanings of the Gospel and yet disagree sharply on political judgments. In general, the four reviewers seem to agree that my interpretation of the paradoxical vision strikes cords that resonate with Lutherans in general.

[7] Peter Kruse’s review includes a helpful summary, which is, for the most part, accurate. In the book I contend that when Christians argue from their common core outward toward applications to new issues and finally to specific public policies, Christians of good will and intelligence often part company with each step outward. That is because so many other judgments and considerations enter into each step of their moral deliberation. Even if they agree on the core, they often disagree on the perimeter. Pastor Kruse has taken me to mean that the issues on the periphery, about which we often disagree, are “less important.” That is not what I meant. Christians disagree vehemently about the Iraq war because so many judgments come into play when they make up their minds, not because it is an unimportant issue. Many other public issues of high importance reflect the same diversity of opinion among Christians. Indeed, perhaps the most important issues elicit such diversity.

[8] Kruse makes the helpful suggestion that I should have wrestled more with the neo-sectariansim of Stanley Hauerwas and his disciples, as well as with the proponents of “radical orthodoxy.” Maybe that is a task for the next edition, if there ever is one. Radical orthodoxy had not yet emerged when I wrote the book in the early ’90s and Hauerwas’ positive contributions had not yet been overshadowed by his more dubious ones. Perhaps I can take up the latter topic independently, just as I took up the former topic in an essay entitled “The Neo-Augustinian Temptation,” which appeared in First Things.

[9] Richard Perry deserves a “bravo” for continuing to assign the book in one of his courses at LSTC, even though he disagrees sharply with some of my assertions. I appreciate his lengthy and careful reflection on the book. He dislikes my criticism of the “adversarial culture,” often expressed in the race-consciousness inherent in interest group liberalism (even in the church), and offers the civil rights movement as an example of the benefits of such adversarialism. The problem is the civil rights movement took place before the great reversal of the late ’60s. Perry certainly knows that by the time Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he had been outflanked by the far more radical “black power” leaders who were thoroughly alienated from the American and Christian traditions to which King so powerfully appealed. That alienation has continued among many black leaders and organizations, making them far less effective in public argument and action than they might have been. Indeed, I believe that the civil rights “establishment”-the NAACP, the SCLC, and Congressional Black Caucus-have lost credibility precisely because they did not follow the lead of King. Following King would mean a focusing on the “content of character” rather than the identity politics that have become so ingrained in our church and society.

[10] Tom Kennedy, in his usual clear and winsome prose, agrees that my interpretation of the paradoxical vision rightly cautions against too much ecclesial activism in public affairs.

[11] But he suggests that the framework for social and political ethics provided by the paradoxical vision needs to be held in relationship to the more robust traditions of public theology it seeks to correct. I thoroughly agree, as I thought I said in the preface: “without that larger conversation Lutheranism would be far less interesting and persuasive than it is now.” However, on second thought I probably did not demonstrate that conversation concretely in the body of the book. But that may have taken another book.

[12] He also tweaks Lutherans as “under-achievers,” suggesting that Lutheranism lacks a robust and confident doctrine of sanctification. Kennedy draws on Reformed themes, including more appreciation for “common grace,” to make his point. I have tried to interject those themes more clearly in the second edition of Ordinary Saints, with some success, I believe. Before I wrote a new edition, I complemented my Ordinary Saints with a text by Hook and Reno entitled Heroism and the Christian Life in my college class in Christian ethics. I did not find that book particularly helpful but would invite any suggestion about an introduction to Christian ethics that persuasively takes up a more heroic approach. My current estimation is that heroic Christian actions are elicited in the midst of very unusual historical circumstances (the emergence of a great evil like Nazism or Communism) on the part of persons of great gifts and courage. I’m not sure you can build a Christian ethic for such circumstances or persons, but I am open to persuasion.

[13] Finally, DeAne Lagerquist pays my book the compliment of saying that she would have changed her own fine book a bit had she read mine before she wrote hers. She then suggests that other Lutheran themes could, and perhaps should, have been added to the framework I elaborated. She suggests one: “the finite is capable of conveying the infinite.” That is a good suggestion and probably could fit well into the paradoxical vision. It may even give Lutheran social ethics a different twist. My only defense is that every author works with themes that have shaped his or her writing for a long time. I worked with what I had been working with. But perhaps now it is time to incorporate new themes into my thinking.

[14] Thanks again to the reviewers for taking the time and effort to assess The Paradoxical Vision. That book, combined with Ordinary Saints, constitute my effort to address both social and personal ethics from a Lutheran point of view. Every tradition needs a continuing conversation about its main themes to keep it and them alive over time. I hope my books have contributed to that conversation as well as the reviewers have.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.