A Thought Experiment About the Gospel

Recently I was engaged by a thought: is there any necessary correlation between Christ’s injunction to spread the gospel and conversion/admission into a singular community of believers?  Now, obviously, communities of faith did emerge — and perhaps it could even be said that, practically speaking, they inevitably emerge — but the fact that the gospel (edit: would appear to) precedes the community seems significant to me.

I read most of the New Testament in terms of purposiveness: namely, that the purpose of the church, and thus the sum total of Christian activity, is the advancement of the gospel.  E.g., on the one hand, if this means women must keep their heads covered and stay silent in one community, do it; but on the other hand, if this means women must serve crucial and vocal leadership roles in another community, do it.  Really, the only operative rule is by any means necessary.  (For this reason, Paul can even say in Philippians 1.18 that the motivations of false preachers doesn’t matter, as long as the gospel itself is advanced.)  The community that emerges seems ultimately incidental, and perhaps even wholly contingent on how, to whom, and where the gospel is spread.

By this I’m not trying to simply reiterate contextual theology.  Even there, there is still a singular community — it’s just dressed up differently from place to place/people to people. Is there, though, warrant to privilege a singular community’s role vis-à-vis the gospel.  Of course, it can be said that any such community embodies the gospel, and to that extent it is important, but why the assumption that the gospel has but one potential body? This seems the case only if the gospel is strictly a determinate, content-laden message.  If the gospel that is spread, however, is more precisely in line with the Prophets, and as such is a radical call to and empowerment for universal justice, wherein those who are most low are brought most high, the ecclesial embodiment would seem to require more than just contextual and cosmetic differences — indeed more even than the infinite expansiveness of some abstract or spirtual concept (i.e., “the Church”) — but outright multiplicity.

What we would have, then, are communities of faith, whose participants are converted by and to the advancement of the gospel. In this way, they do not become  members of or appendage to the “the Body,” but rather themselves become physical embodiments of the gospel.  It is my conjecture that some embodiments will look more alike than others, in which case communal embodiments may well emerge — but at other times, their interests may very well appear opposed.  (Is it possible, one wonders, that they might even truly be opposed or contradictory?)  In either case, this is where my thought took me, and where it remains, and where I leave it here, in a world of multiple embodiments of the gospel, would they not (these embodiments) then be subject to the same physical principles as any other body: that of emergence, evolutionary organization & adaptation, decay & dissolution, etc.?

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11 Responses to “A Thought Experiment About the Gospel”

  1. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “the fact that the gospel precedes the community seems significant to me” — but is this a fact? It seems to me that Jesus is gathering disciples from as soon as he begins proclaiming the gospel, and before that John the Baptists is gathering disciples to prepare to hear the gospel, etc. I don’t see that the gospel isn’t a determinate, content-laden thing, tied to the groups that Jesus (& then the apostles etc.) in fact formed. Unless the thought-experiment part of this is just to suppose that that’s not the case.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    The sticking point that you identify is identical to the thought that with which I led the post: whether one can differentiate the community from the advancement/embodiment of the gospel. So, in short, I don’t know whether it is a fact or not.

    I don’t, however, see the obvious simultaneity you do between ‘proclaiming’ and ‘gathering disciples’, by either Jesus or John the Baptist. It wasn’t like either was just doing improv out there.

    Also, I didn’t say the gospel wasn’t determinate at all. Merely that it wasn’t strictly determinate, or content-laden in the sense that any particular group can lay claim to it — or, for that matter, to which multiple groups can appeal as the basis for pluralistic dialog. The broader point being that conversion is the gospel, not to the community that embodies the gospel.

  3. phillip mutchell Says:

    You define it well as an essentially political philosophy which Marxism is the true continuance of, the pretence that the dictatorship of the elite (Pastors etc) shall somehow give way to an Utopian liberty, where the Church functions as the Party and restrains the anarchic radicalism of the message for the purpose of making merchandise of the faithful.

  4. mwerntz Says:

    I think I agree in principle with what you describe vis-a-vis the organic nature of communities, minus the part about Gospel-as-social justice. I’d say that there is this aspect embedded within the traditional kerygma of ‘Gospel’, but not as a standalone equivocation for ‘Gospel’. So, yes, there are various mutations of ‘Christian communities’, but insofar as the New Testament indicates that there is some kind of normative content to ‘Gospel’, there are some which fall outside of what ‘church’ is. As you indicate in the Phil. 1.8 reference, Paul’s concern is that the one Gospel is being preached (i.e. something with normative content), regardless of motivation.

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    There is indeed normative content to the gospel — namely, that concerning a kind of radical egalitarianism. What makes it so radical is that this kind of egalitarianism isn’t so much about asserting a steady-state, once-and-for-all kind of Kingdom, where everybody is united, but the unfolding of a kind of apocalyptic anarchism. This isn’t to say there is no ‘outside’ of what church is, though. On the contrary, it insists that there are as many instances of non-‘church’ as there are multiple instances of ‘church’.

  6. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I like this thought experiment very much. Let me ask for a bit of clarification: We have as one possible performative speech act (announcement of good news I am saying is not a constative assertion of a fact, but a performance of what is being announced as good news, the announcement itself is the good news, and it makes the present into something new, it (re)news) the announcement: The Kingdom of God is now. That is the news, it announces the news, it brings the news. To announce it where it has not been announced yet is to bring the Kingdom there. (The meaning of the Kingdom: negatively, not the ones that have been, not any that are anywhere where the news is not yet announced, so what sort of Kingdom is this, a Kingdom made by speech, by saying here is the new, the past Kingdom made by any other form of speech — law backed upon by violence — is gone). Say that is the gospel, the performance of the gospel, and the aim of the gospel. Now what happens when you add, or substitute (I am not sure which), Christ is risen. The One who announced the Kingdom (the one authorized to do so, who then gave authorization to do it), was killed by the Old Kingdom but he is not dead, he lives. Is this the new gospel? Or is this (I think) also another perfromative and not a constative, and a performative identical to the first gospel: The Kingdom is here, the old Kingdom is gone, the announcement itself, if it is heard and carried forward, is self-validating, it lives even when it is not spoken as an event that cannot be silenced until and if all language is silenced (language, the breath, spirit). Ok, but what if Christ is risen is taken as a fact whose statement is constative, so the gospel is now out of joint with its performative origin? Isn’t this the danger, always present, of any speech act that announces the news? That it turns into a fact, when in truth it is not a fact but a call to respond and make it real again? And isn’t this thought experiment precisely the awakening of the gospel from constative to performative once again?

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    Bruce,

    Apologies for taking so long to respond to your thoughtful comment. Hopefully you were too busy at the AAR to notice the delay.

    I like what you say here a lot, and it gives me a lot to think about. It reminds me, to a certain extent, with my evolving thought about the relationship of aesthetics and theology. The latter, I argue, is concerned with the naming of its ultimate concern, whereas aesthetics is invested (to borrow from Rancière, who is indebted to Kant) in the distribution of the sensible, and thus in the conditions that make naming possible — or how and why anything is said or not said. (This seems in line w/ the language of performativity in general that we’re riffing on.)

    To elaborate on what I think this means broadly, I’ll include a section a paper I recently finished writing:

    “The theological vision borne of aesthetics, however, is concerned with why and how the naming of the unconditioned occurs at all. This does not mean that Kant and Rancière are theologians against their wills, but rather that their concern for the unconditioned conditions of existence is exemplary for a new theological thinking.

    There is, of course, a crucial difference between a theologian, the one who names, and a philosopher, whose attention is the conditions of naming itself. Indeed, in tracing the implications of our argument here, perhaps only the latter, the non-theologian, can be truly attuned to the promise that crosses religious divides, that of a “new creation” (or “enlightenment”)—-the creation of a new existence, one incommensurate with the present order of reality and its existent horizon of expectations. If this is so, the world is made new not by the teleology or phenomenology of the promise or progress, and or by any kind of messianism. The world would be made new, rather, through the unintentional intentional practice of aesthetics; that is, through an active ethics of thinking embodied by the attention paid to that which is unthinkable in the thinkable—-that which is/those who are constitutively silenced, the count of which there is no count.”

    I’m hopeful this might be a fruitful starting-ground for further reflections on a theological thinking whose content, such as it is, is not wholly determined by its normative ecclesial discourses.

  8. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    I read your article on Schelling and theology and I saw that what I was saying in my post was close to your position. I get that sense from the new article, too. I detect some resonance with what one could call the extraordinariness of the ordinary (which is another way of talking about Kantian aesthetic judgment, judgment without rules), basic to Cavell’s aesthetic/moral/political philosophy (among others, including Arendt, who turn to Kant’s aesthetics to find the resources to talk about our human inhabitation of a not-completely-necessitated world). The point would be to sort of defamiliarize the world (as it appears in its mere ordinariness) and return to it as the ungrounded, unconditioned site of an encounter with and acknowledgment of a miraculous other(ness). So, say that poetry does this to language and the world at the same time (or that painters like Cezanne do it to our visual perception), then you have the connection between aesthetics and theology (as a discourse about God’s self-revelation in the world). But Cavell rejects God talk, and I wonder if the only way to argue for the necessity of theology is to somehow privilege the aesthetics of the Hebrew Bible as the site of the revelation of the miraculousness of the world (otherwise, as Cavell’s readings demonstrate, Shakespeare works perfectly well too, so why invoke anything about God?)

  9. Brad Johnson Says:

    I will be the first to admit that I struggle with the degree to which I can or should describe what I do as “theology.” I went round and round w/ my doctoral adviser about this, and even now am not completely sure. (Much of my writing on this is an attempt to convince myself of something, as much as it is any potential reader.) This is why I tend to avoid God-talk per se. E.g, in the Schelling article, particularly in the section that explicitly addresses theology, I tried to limit myself to the “object of theology” — which I take to be different, in a way, from God-talk. There is a certain limit to that approach, though, and you may well be right about the aesthetics of the Hebrew Bible being a possible way forward. I think I have thus far insisted on religion as a site for this kind of thinking because it embodies aesthetics in a unique way that helps avoid the trap of self-congratulatory nreciousness that aesthetics proper often wallows in.

  10. Bruce Rosenstock Says:

    Brad, one person who was deeply influenced by Schelling and attempted to follow the lead of Schelling’s philosophy of revelation via an aesthetics of both the bible and liturgy (both Jewish and Christian) was Franz Rosenzweig in Star of Redemption. You probably know it well, but if not, you will certainly find it congenial to your interests.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    I have an appalling gap in my knowledge about Rosenzweig — much of it consisting of secondary sources (particularly Santner). You’ve inspired me finally to remedy this. What’s another book on the nightstand, huh?


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