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A Tease and a Tribute

[This Thursday, November 13th, at 11am I will be engaging in a public forum with Dr. John Stackhouse, Professor of Theology and Culture, at Regent College, UBC, Vancouver.  We will be discussing the question: “Is Christian Scholarship Accountable to the Poor?” and our discussion will take place in Room 100 at Regent.  Anybody is welcome to attend.  As a way of anticipating this event, I thought I would write the following post as both a teaser regarding what is to come, and as a tribute to Dr. Stackhouse who has been a very good friend and professor to me.  I look forward to many more years of challenge!]

I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about why the form of cultural and political theology espoused by Dr. Stackhouse (particularly in his latest work, Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World) is so compelling to some, and so unsettling to others (like myself).

I have come to the conclusion that one of the key strengths of Stackhouse’s approach is that he is almost a Marxist. Now, as I’m sure Stackhouse knows, I am paying him a very high compliment by saying this, but let me explain what I mean.

First, I do not mean that Stackhouse reflects the same priorities or content as our Marxist or post-Marxist friends. To some extent this is true, in that Stackhouse stresses the centrality of things like shalom and the new creation of all things, but in this regard the differences outweigh the similarities. Stackhouse and our Marxist friends seek peace and justice in two very different – often contraditory – ways.

So, when I suggest that Stackhouse’s arguments are compelling because he is “almost a Marxist”, I am referring not to priorities or content; rather, I am referring to method. That is to say, I believe that one of Stackhouse’s greatest strengths is the way in which his evaluation of our current situation is infused by historical materialism. Now, by saying this, I’m not suggesting that Stackhouse is particularly interested in exploring ‘class struggles’ and the way in which economics and modes of production impact society. Rather, what I am saying is that Stackhouse tries to honestly confront reality and – no matter how uncomfortable it makes him or us – he tries to come to grips with things as they are. Thus, although many people – and Christians and theologians are no exception here – try to flee from an honest confrontation with history and reality as they truly are, Stackhouse tries to be realistic and free of spiritual or ideological blinders when he assesses our world.

This, then, gives Stackhouse’s argument a great deal of existential force. When Stackhouse observes that the Bible is a horribly messy compilation of documents which seem to point to many, contradictory ways of existing as the people of God, I find myself nodding along; when Stackhouse points out how hard it is to create significant change, and notes how our best efforts tend to only produce mixed results, I find that my own experiences confirm this; and so on.

The honesty with which Stackhouse confronts our historical situation then adds weight to his conclusions. Unfortunately, it is these conclusions which I find so unsettingly – probably because I find myself agreeing so frequently with Stackhouse’s descriptive assessment of our situation.

Now, drawing from our Marxist and post-Marxist friends, it would be easy to argue that Stackhouse betrays his own method (his “realism” or what we could refer to as “Christian historical materialism”) and is unable to follow it through to its necessary conclusions. To use the language of Deleuze, these hypothetical critics might argue that Stackhouse reinstates a form of ideological overcoding in order to affirm an ontologically meaningful (and Christian) existence within this situation.

However, we need not go this route. After all, Stackhouse is writing a Christian realism. Therefore, although a fully committed Marxist historical materialism may naturally lead to Sartre’s existentialism, or Camus’ adsurdism, we need not go this route as Christians – although, if we are genuinely committed to confronting reality as it is (and not as we want it to be, or as we have been told that it is) we should be open to and profoundly unsettled by those like Sartre and Camus. Thus, in this regard, I find that I, too, am “almost a Marxist”.

Consequently, it is not Stackhouse’s ‘overcoding’ that bothers me – any effort to attain to some sort of meaning that runs deeper than simple human efforts to create meaning, any effort to affirm some sort of universal or ontological meaning, could be described as ideological ‘overcodings’. In my own efforts to find meaning in life, and to live Christianly in today’s world, I know that I am also engaging in acts of overcoding.

Therefore, Stackhouse’s conclusions are unsettling to me, not because they have an ideological element, but because of the particular ideology that they serve. That is to say, after engaging in a strenuous and honest effort to describe our historical situation (our ‘real world’), Stackhouse concludes that, well, such is life; we just have to accept that and make the best of it. Given the overwhelming presence of sin and compromise in our fallen world, and given the conclusion that God can call us to all sorts of different and even contradictory ways of being Christians in today’s world, we must simply try to do the little bit of good that we can in the places where we are at. Thus, if I am a rich oil man, called to Christ, then I try to live as a rich Christian oil man; if I am a poor slave woman in Sudan, called to Christ, then I try to live as a poor Christian slave woman in Sudan; and so on. This is not to say that Christ might call us away from these situations – Stackhouse affirms that any one of us, as individuals, could experience that call – but there is nothing about Christianity that would require us to move away from those situations.

What this ends up becoming, perhaps despite Stackhouse’s intentions, is a powerful affirmation of the status quo. Yes, Stackhouse recognises that our status quo situation is one that is terribly messy and compromised, but all of life is terribly messy and compromised. So, we might as well get on with it, make the best of it, and try to enjoy it as well.

This, then, is where Stackhouse and I part ways. While we both recognise how terrible our current situation is, Stackhouse has found a way to be at peace with it, while I have not (no doubt, the different environments in which we live and move have some impact on this). I’m not saying that this makes be more right (or more righteous) than Stackhouse. I am observing this, without making any value judgments. After all, I frequently think that I should feel more of the “peace of Christ” in my own self… but I also think that many others, who seem fairly comfortable, should feel more of the groanings of creation and the Spirit.

However, while Stackhouse can accept my way of thinking, without being too deeply challenged by it (after all, he can argue that God has simply called he and I to very different ways of both thinking and living… although, to be clear, I have also never felt simply, and a priori, brushed aside or disregarded by Stackhouse, but have always felt that he has responded to me graciously and thoughfully), I am left deeply unsettled by his conclusions. Precisely because I have so little peace related to the world as it is, I read Stackhouse and think:

My God, isn’t there something more (to life and to living as Christians)? Is this all there is? We all do what we can, where we can… but mostly evil and suffering continue unabated, and – despite our violent or peaceful efforts (both of which are permitted to different people) – we mostly don’t make much of a difference? There’s got to be something more. Please, God, let there be something more.”(And, yes, I realise how much this reveals my own rootedness within a particular ideological position.)

In conclusion, I cannot help but think of The Myth of Sisyphus, and I cannot help but find myself thinking that Stackhouse, like Camus, fails to provide me with a satisfactory answer to what Camus refers to as the one really serious problem of philosophy. That is to say, Stackhouse does not provide me with any convincing reason as to why I should not kill myself (which, Stackhouse might be quick to add, is precisely why God has called me to a different way of thinking!).

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  1. Good thoughts Dan, thanks for sharing. I wish that I could be there to join in the conversation. You’ve definitely found a way to catch everyone’s attention–and I’m sure that comrade Stackhouse will receive your comments gracefully.
    If this is the outline of your talk (and you’re open to advice) I’m not sure that the last paragraph hangs well with the rest of the piece—your argument might finish better with a plea for something more than just “making the best of it.”
    Again, wish I were there!

  2. Dan,
    You give Marxists too much credit, as if they alone pay attention to empirical realities–when, in fact, they are generally quite theory-driven and others can be much more empirical than they.
    Worse, your characterization of my views amounts to caricature. Remember what I wrote about Reinhold Niebuhr’s warnings about “sensuality,” or what Barth calls “sloth.” The rich Christian oil man is responsible to make the best of it indeed, including using his power–which includes political and financial power–to work with others in his network of social connections to make as much shalom as possible. This will mean, in the case of at least some rich oil men, geopolitically significant decisions, restructuring whole governments and businesses. Your portrait of my views makes me sound like I’m presenting a narrowly individualistic moralism, and that’s not what I wrote.
    I’m dismayed that as discerning a reader as you are would come away with this impression of what I wrote. I look forward to talking with you more about it in person sometime.
    In the meanwhile, I’ve got to get ready for a discussion with a very able, very provocative student of mine at Regent on Thursday morning…

  3. Eric:
    Actually this post has little to do with the actual content of what I will be presenting on Thursday. It is more of a reflection on why I have found Dr. Stackhouse to be so unsettling, and why I respect him so much for unsettling me.
    As for my last paragraph, that goes back to a conversation I had with Stackhouse regarding the reflections on violence in his book. At that time, I stated that, if I accepted the conclusions of his book, I would feel compelled to act violently towards others or (more likely) engage in an act of self-violence in order to try and create change (like the self-immolation of the buddhist monk during Vietnam, that sort of thing). Indeed, I feel like there is a good chance that one act of violence may create far more change than a whole life of non-violent effort (and failure). However, I also believe that violence is never an option for Christians — hence the degree to which Dr. Stackhouse’s argument challenges and unsettles me.
    Dr. Stackhouse:
    My apologies for caricaturing you. I would encourage anybody who reads this post to go on and read Making the Best of It so that you can get a better understanding of what Dr. Stackhouse is talking about.
    That said, I do recognise that there are a good many nuances in your argument — more than I find in representatives of all sides of this discussion — so I’m sorry for missing some of those here. However, I do feel — based both upon your book and our subsequent conversation about it — that your approach is one that is very individualistic, and driven by notions of personal callings (say one person being called to be a peace activist, and another person being called to be a soldier in Afghanistan, and so on). But, as always, I’m open to you showing me how wrong I am!
    As for some of our Marxist and post-Marxist friends, I agree that ideological elements are present. However, I hold them in high regard and feel that they are often more honest about “the real world” than others (but, then again, maybe this just demonstrates how different locations and commitments leads people to affirm different pictures of that oh-so-elusive “real world”!). Therefore, in comparing you to the Marxists, I am really trying to compliment you (in my own way, I guess). Oh, and I’m also trying to get others, who may know you but not the Marxists to say, “hmmm… I like reading Stackhouse, so maybe I should read some of these crazy Marxists”.
    I look forward to seeing you on Thursday, and am delighted that you extended this invitation to me.

  4. Thanks, Dan, for your kind words. I’m sorry if I came across as “bristly” because you know I hold you in very high esteem. I think when one works very hard to articulate a difficult position (difficult conceptually, morally, and politically) as I have done, one perhaps is quick (too quick?!) to object to renditions of it that strike one as off target, even a little.
    Anyhow, you pay me a high compliment indeed by taking my work seriously enough to both praise it and argue with it. I couldn’t ask for more–except your abject conversion to my point of view, of course! ; ) But I’m willing to wait for that.
    In the meanwhile, I will keep listening to you, too, since I’m pretty sure my conscience needs constant recalibration, and talking with you is invariably good for me that way.
    ‘Til Thursday, then…