Is Politics Drowning Out Theology?

Diana Butler Bass said on a recent online Washington Post chat, “So, while some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision, most of the loudest voices are from partisan combatants. Politics is drowning out theology.”

I admire Diana Butler Bass greatly. I have heard her speak only once, but that was enough to convince me that she is on the case on many things. Still, I wondered at her distinctions. The logic of her statement requires a few additions. I think the logic of her short collapsed argument, when stretched out, is something like this:

Some people are concerned about Christian life and theological vision.
(These people are doing theology)
The loudest voices are from partisan combatants.
(partisan combat is not theological but political)

(Therefore) Politics is drowning out (in terms of sound and fury) theology.

So her point is that Theology is not being attended to because Politics makes all the noise.

True enough: Politics is noisy. It is full of clamor, strife, occasional fist fights (see the Mexican presidential inauguration), and occasionally civil war.

Theology, however, is no slouch. It may not have a front seat at the moment, but by God a good Theological fight can lead to burning at the stake, outrages like the Crusades, hurls of anathema, and very very noisy activities unbecoming the saints of God.

It is perhaps in this context that the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are so important. (A bow to the Rector of all Lewes, who has begin a teaching series on Bonhoeffer, and from which teaching I found myself rereading Bonhoeffer.)

Bonhoeffer struggled precisely to show that the realm of the political, whose shadow side is what we might call “human love” is related to the Christian life in community, which we might then call the context for “spiritual love.” This relation is primarily shown in the ability of the loving (and we must say exclusive) community of those in love to love beyond itself, to be inclusive. This movement from the political to political/theological concerns constituted the move in focus from self to Jesus Christ. In forming Christian community there is a need to move beyond political and theological partisan positions.

Here is what he says in Life Together:

“…life together under the word will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church, where it shares actively and passively in the sufferings and struggles and promises of the whole Church. Every principle of selection and every separation connected with it that is not necessitated quite objectively by common work, local conditions, or family connections is of the greatest danger to a Christian community. When the way of intellectual or spiritual selection is taken the human element always insinuates itself and robs the fellowship of its spiritual power and effectiveness for the Church, (and) drives it into sectarianism. The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ; in the poor brother Christ is knocking at the door. We must therefore be very careful at this point.” (Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954, pg.37-38)

The separation of the political and the theological in the discussions and arguments within the ecclesial world is a matter of worldly wisdom. It is true indeed that much of what passes as fervor for the faith is in reality a desire to control.

But worldly wisdom is not enough. The political and the theological are, on a more (let us say) spiritual level, about the same end. Thinking about the polis, the people or even the mob, is not for incarnational believers divorced from thinkng about the theos, the God or the divine.

Diane Butler Bass has some interesting topographical comments about the landscape of the current mess we are in in the Episcopal Church. But mapping the territory in political / theological terms is a tricky business. I am not convinced of her mapping.

A critic who has become rather shrill of late has at the same time put us on to a wonderful sermon by Bishop Festo Kivengere. Babyblue says, “… and it is so extraordinary, hearing it has done more to lift not only my spirits but my soul. This is a bishop of the church - and when he visited Truro over twenty years ago, his preaching changed not only the life of my parish, but my life as well.”

Now Babyblue and I stand far from one another on most matters of the politics of this messy time, and indeed we probably are far from one another on theological matters as well. But in the face of this sermon, a recitation of the whole salvation story, we can indeed be brought up into a spiritual reality that swamps both the theological and the political. Bishop Festo, who I also heard once, can walk us through one preaching of the Good News. It’s a long sermon, as sermon goes these days, but it is worth the listen. It can be found HERE.

I have some problems with some part of his recitation, but on the whole he has it nailed.

So here we are. It has been a difficult week for the Episcopal Church, with some real grace and some real misery. The legal wrangling has reached new levels and there are people of faith pressed all around by forces they only know in part. But there are also great gifts of witness.

And then there is the seeming enemy who offers a great gift.

I am filled with an optimism that has nothing to do with the noise of the politics or the noise of the theologians and even the concerns of those who are concerned for the Christian life.

Diane Butler Bass paints a good picture. But in the end the political and the theological are all grist for the mill.

The noise of the political has not drowned out the theological, the political seems the greater noise, but it is all one.

Bishop Festo in his sermon called for focus on Christ’s return, and on the procession to meet him. That focus is what Bonhoeffer calls us to when he says, “God Himself has undertaken to teach brotherly love; all that men can add to it is to remember this divine instruction and the admonition to excel in it more and more. When God was merciful, when He revealed Jesus Christ to us as our Brother, when He won our hearts by His love, this with the beginning of our instruction in divine love.” (p.24)

I believe the “instruction in divine love” includes both the wisdom both to do the political and the theological, both the concerns for Christian living and the concerns for a livable planet. In the end, our home is present, but always also forward pointing. Any theology or political muttering that is static and not dynamic misses it.

Would I were better at any of it. But there will be those who we have hoped for, people present and in the future, who will help us on the way. I trust the Spirit to have a way for us all.


  1. Not only does (in America) Politics drive out Theology, but Theology drives out Exegetics.

    Yesterday I got an invitation by e-mail from something callin itself Christian Bloggers. They have collected 668 (or 688, don't remember which) christian blogs of various hues. ONLY one of them was about the Biblical texts themselves, occasionally quoting in transcribed Greek.

    All the others was - at best - this is MY (extemporae) reading of so and so.

    Navel fiddling.

    And that (plus the market segment oriented late modern "translations" - "dynamic equivalence" or no) I think is the real reason behind the present troubles.

    "Biblical authority" without the Bible.

  2. I find it troubling that there are folks like Ms. Butler Bass who think that somehow we should not be the people God created. We are political critters, the marketplace of ideas or if one prefers the crucible of debate is a way to find the essence of an idea, to get a view of truth.

    I think half the evil in the world, at least, is done by the gnostic idea that sweaty, real, human processes should be repressed for the intellectual, pure, eletist good.


  3. She has a point, actually. Consider, how many of those on the liberal side wouldn't mind totally marginalizing those who have any concerns about doing as TEC has done on ssb's and Bishop Robinson? The conservatives are certainly clear in their desire to marginalize those of liberal opinions. Since, both groups are acting on these desires through the ecclesio-political structures of the church, Diana Butler Bass is probably spot on in her description, although it isn't the most common referrent for the term politics. If one looks around there also doesn't seem to be much constructive theology being done around the current issues, and what is being done generally gets ignored in favor of inflammatory speeches and written statements. She's also probably right about why this is a problem. It's the sorts of pressures that could easily lead to a 1000+ year split with both sides mutually anathematizing the other, with the end result of anyone not of sufficient ideological purity being pushed to the margins and "told" to sit down and shut up. All in all, not exactly a bright point in the history of the church.


  4. Once again someone (DBB in this case) wants to toss out those who cry from the margins and disturb the "peace" of theological discussions. Give me a break.

  5. In my studies of Church history, rarely have theology and politics not been intertwined, and rarely have there not been partisans, not just left and right but including those claiming to just want to do theology or calling themselves centrists or moderates--all of these positions bear on how we treat one another, and some are predicated on someone keeping in their place, so to speak, while we figure this all out in our heads about them or while we keep them there according to our justifications. Change, especially when those kept in their place claim their dignity is often painful for those who have found that the world and church suits them fine as it is, being peaceful for them. That some would suggest this is only political and not theological is to divorce how theology and politics are related.

    We cannot divorce how we ponder about God from how we interact with one another in communities, to do so is ecclesial docetism. And contra those who claim that peace and lack of conflict bring us our best theologies, it would seem that the an overview of Church history doesn't show that to be true.

    It seems to me in broad tent Anglicanism we don't need to marginalize, and I'm not sure that that is indeed what is happening, or if rather we're seeing for the most part enough space for most to agree to disagree and worship together, but can allow for a variety of expression even in disagreement. I'm not a centrist, not sure if I'm a liberal, theologically I know I'm not, but I am a broad tent type at this point who thinks our conflicts are part of health rather than disease in comparison with other traditions that are holding back brewing internal conflicts for the sake of a unified face. But then again, many think going to church is a way to have a peaceful moment. My experience of church is that quite the opposite should be expected and embraced.

  6. Dr. Bass offers some criticism in her comments to my latest post worth considering given a tendency it seems to read her work as separating politics and theology.

  7. Christopher,
    You said: "In broad tent" anglicanism we don't need to marginalise". I wonder though if finding "enough space for us to disagree" is going to be possible. Part of this is because the election/confirmation of a bishop happened to be the precipitating event in the communion debate.
    In an (small e) episcopalian system it is difficult to see how the people that want and those that do not want a gay bishop can both avoid being margibalised.
    If gay bishops are banned or the subject of a moratorium, those that approve of them are marginalised.
    If gay bishops are approved then those that oppose them are marginalised. Firstly in the diocese directly concerned - as a couple of small conservative congregations in New Hampshire have discovered. Within the existing polity there was not much they can do. (DEPO had the catch 22 that the authority of the local diocesan has to be recognised). And secondly in Bishop's meetings and the other coucils of the church those who do not wish gay bishops are faced with a "fact on the ground".
    One group or the other will be marginalised ISTM. Now you might argue that one form of marginalisation is worse than the other - and i suspect you will. But lesser or greater, some marginalisation is bound to take place. One group comes to the centre and another is pushed to the edge - or margin.

  8. Obadiah,

    I think the difference I would make is marginalization versus disagreement. Marginalization actively seeks to keep one or another person or group out or on the sidelines and carries with it a use of power and authority. Disagreement allows that the multiple sides are all "in" and allows for differences in practice. I thought when I became Episcopalian there was room for disagreement and divergence of practices, that parish A could welcome gays and bless their unions while parish B could preach homosexuality was changeable and same sex relations sinful. And that we could still get together at the cathedral a few times a year to commune together. I now see I was wrong. In order for us to be Anglican, someone must be marginalized. Either conservatives get their way and gays cannot serve as clergy sans celibacy and cannot be provided with rites to honor our commitments or they can. One or the other must go, but I wonder if it needs to be that way.

    It isn't necessarily the case that a parish that disagrees with having a gay bishop need be marginalized and from what I've seen Bp. Robinson more so than say Bp. Schofield or Duncan has went out to try to find parishes that disagree with his stance alternative care. He certainly has not refused communion to those who disagree with him, even vehemently. I cannot say the same thing for gay couples living in San Joaquin many of whom I personally know who have been refused Eucharist.

    Marginalization suggests not allowing one to fully participate in the goings on of the community and that is something quite other than having to deal with disagreement or that more than one way of doing things may coexist, which if one examines catholic history reveals multiple times when such has been the case. I think we need to start coming up with metaphors other than center/margin to describe this plurality within the Church but that requires much respect across disagreement, something I'm not sure any of us are capable of.

    The rub is those who disagree may in fact find that the participation of a gay man and his partner or lesbian woman and her partner is so problematic that those who disagree may themselves choose to refuse further participation. There is little to be done in such a situation, at some point under such conditions, it may be that going separate ways is inevitable. Certainly, in San Joaquin, the gay couples either drive this way or go their own way without much show of concern or worry about their "schism", often quiet and unnoticed.

    The problem with Jon's thinking to my mind is not his concern for marginalizing conservatives, as any of us can misuse power to do so, and I've argued time and again that alternative care should be provided (to all sides) and that we should tread with care in pursuing legal schemes either churchly or secular, and that we should be willing to broker deals to allow those who cannot stay a way out with dignity and property. What I find frustrating is that while so much concern is made about conservatives being marginalized or threatening to leave because gay people are offered some modicum of support including rites to honor our commitments, and so we should backtrack to keep the conservatives in at the cost to gay people. I've rarely heard complaint at finally the number of gay people who have had enough and simply disappear from the Church because there isn't room to honor our relationships and lives in the community of faith.

    Perhaps you are correct and there is no room to agree to disagree over this one and have a variety of parishes where some are blessing unions and some do not, where some consider them a blessing and some a sin?

    But if so, it would be better to admit impasse and find ways to stretch our ties or severe them civilly. I see little willingness to do this, and so we go about with more argument, more invective, more handwringing, and in the meantime, more people file out the door because we don't have an ecclesiology that embraces conflict as part of who we are as Anglican Christians.

  9. I am sure that +Robinson is personally a gracious man. Sometimes we are at the sharp point of history and it is not our fault. Yet his election and subsequent confirmation made it very difficult for the (few) conservatives in his care. I think they had little choice but to leave - any of the alternative episcopal care he offered was hedged around with a need to recognise the diocesan. And, yes,Bishop Robinson was simply using what the national church had given him, and found it hard to go outside those parameters. I am sure it caused him grief when part of his flock left.

  10. I think that the distinction between theology and politics is pernicious and hides the questionable politics of those who try to make it. Just about every word of the Scriptures has political import. Theology is itself a form of social practice (potentially liberative, potentially oppressive) and we shouldn't be ashamed of this fact. Good theology takes sides, because God does.

  11. I agree completely with Bill Carroll (as usual).

    The Kingdom of Heaven without peace and justice is solipsistic mind games.

    "Politics" is simply how people work together to make things happen. Every bishop is an ecclesiastical politician -- some are better at than others, but no one gets to be a bishop accidentally,

    This is not a bad thing!


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.