Apr 1, 2014

The gift of unsafe thinking

Review: For the Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Theology, by Peter C. Blum

One cannot accept a gift without a certain level of vulnerability.

This is the risk of gifts.

Gifts are dangerous, because accepting a gift means accepting an unknown. There are no guarantees. Gifts cannot be prescribed. It's even possible that, accepting that unknown, you might find that you are changed, and to be open to a gift means to be open to being changed.

In this sense, a gift a can be a useful analogy for the open-endedness of thinking.

Thinking, at least how Peter C. Blum thinks about thinking in his new book, is unsafe. It does not come with guarantees, and is risky exactly in the way in which it calls for one to open up to possibilities that cannot be safely foreclosed in advance.

Blum engages Christian theology and continental or "postmodern" philosophy in For a Church to Come, combining them in ways that reveal this risk. He wants to recover, or perhaps uncover, a certain unsettledness, which seems to him important for Jesus' gospel and a valuable thing to take from the 20th century philosophers who set for themselves the task of "unrelenting suspicion of finality and closure" (21).

In this book, Blum engages in what he calls experiments. He explains, "I mean experiment in Nietzsche's sense of the term, a deliberately unsettling sort of experiencing, a risking of our perspective that may lead to change that we do not foresee" (22).

The true risk of such thinking, for Blum, is not that it might leave one, finally, in the "wrong" position. The fear, rather, is that there will be no finality, no point after which thinking is safely beyond risk.

The challenge of For a Church to Come, at the broadest level, is to become comfortable with the ongoing discomfort of being challenged. Thinking is presented as always provisional, always open to further thinking, open to that which is "to come," even or especially when what's coming is a change for the one who is is waiting. The real work of thinking, as presented here, is also the work of faith. Which is to say, it is replacing the fixedness of idols with an openness to that which is inconceivably transcendent, and problematically so (100).

"I do explicitly intend," Blum writes, "to 'make things difficult'" (47).

This "making difficult" is itself a gift.

It has been for me. Blum was one of the most significant professors in my education at Hillsdale College. He teaches sociology and philosophy there, and what I learned from him very much shaped me. In ways that probably aren't that apparent, my thinking continues to be deeply influenced by the work I did with him while studying the sociology of knowledge and related subjects. While my current work is different, it's nonetheless important to me that everything I do is grounded in the kind of commitment to thinking without guarantees that's on display in For a Church to Come.

It was Blum who taught me how to question the framework of my questions, to pay attention to how questions are, as Martin Heidegger puts it, "caught in the draft of what draws."

Blum taught me how thinking could be thinking-with, an act of hospitality or, even more difficult, the acceptance of hospitality.

For some, the continental philosophy practice of questioning questions and reframing frames seems a kind of obscurantism. It appears to be a kind of trick to avoid answers. It is true that philosophy, for some, is protective squid ink. As Blum practices it, though, and as I experienced it as an undergraduate, the practice of making things difficult is always, first, an exercise in epistemological humility. It is an act of hospitable openness. It is an attempt to stay honest.

That's how I would characterize it. Blum, here, explains that this practice starts with a commitment to a kind of non-violence.

He argues this way in the first essay of For a Church to Come, "Foucault, Genealogy, Anabaptism." He looks at how Foucault's project can be related to the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's. Blum puts the two thinkers in conversation, not opposing the good Anabaptist believer against the French philosopher who calls into question even the existence of capital-T Truth, but posing, instead, an open-ended dialogue between the two. Their thought is not the same, Blum writes, but they are "apparently making camp at the same site" (29).

Foucault's famous "relativism," his claim that Truth has a genealogy, a history, is shown to be an insistence on particularity. That emphasis on the importance of the particular is also, inversely, a resistance to universality. This is because the universal is never what it claims to be, for Foucault, but instead is a semented/cemented history of exercised power, "the history of an error we call truth" (qtd. 31).

Unlike some characterizations of Foucault, though, as Blum shows, Foucault's move is not so much to say that there is no truth (thus inviting the response that that's simply self-referentially incoherent), but to ask what it is one wants when one wants Truth like that. Why is the history of Western thought the history of the search for capital-T Truth? Relativism is feared. Certainty is longed for. Western thought is the pursuit of the unmoved, the unchangeable, the universal, a pursuit of access to and certain possession of overwhelming universality. What if, however, we question this question? What if we ask why that kind of universal is sought?

This is also the tact Yoder takes.

Questioning the desire for Truth that's like that, Blum argues, Yoder suggests that the insistence on universality is a claim for power. "We hanker for patterns of argument which will not be subject to reasonable doubt," Yoder writes. "We want people to have to believe what we say" (qtd. 31).

That is to say, the desired Truth, thus capitalized, is the desire for something certain in the sense of being coercive. That's what certainty means. It's thinking that pins one down and forces agreement. What might appear to be relativism in Foucault, then, could also be understood as a commitment to non-coercive thinking.

That commitment, specifically, is a commitment to proceed without guarantees.

In Foucault, this is important because it can "allow people in particular local contexts the freedom to think beyond the categories that have hardened into Truth, to liberate themselves from the thought that has become oppressive" (34). The emphasis on particularity, Blum writes, is integral to the idea of liberation, which cannot be known in advance and cannot be known as universal and still be liberation. What liberation liberates into cannot be prescribed.

In Yoder, this commitment to proceed without guarantees is important because it's the call of the Gospel. It is a misunderstanding of Christianity, according to Yoder, to think that Christians are responsible to work to make sure that history "comes out right." The responsibility, rather, is to be faithful, which includes imitating Jesus in the rejection of coercion, including intellectual coercion. Christ is the truth, but Christ also divested himself of power and made himself nothing, and the latter is not in contradiction to the former. It is in this rejection of power, in fact, that the Gospel is powerful, as people yield and are transformed. As Blum writes, "Yoder argues the power of the gospel lies precisely in its being emphatically particular and unashamedly noncoercive" (38).

It's an argument Blum identifies with as an Anabaptist himself. His own emphatic particularity, on display in For a Church to Come, is an Anabaptist particularity. He considers phenomenology in the context of the Mennonite practice of foot washing. He considers social construction in the context of Mennonite struggles with the ideals and idols of family. He was personally a friend of Yoder's, and struggles as a friend with Yoder's personal failures. Blum writes to and for and from Anabaptist community.

This is where he starts.

Which is not to say it's where he ends, or will end, or to say that he doesn't also "make things difficult" here.

Indeed, it is specifically as a part of this community that Blum writes, "I want to suggest that community is a notion that is itself problematic" (107). It's problematic -- or unsafe -- because the Anabaptist vision of community is not of a community that is fixed or finalized. Rather than an eschatological and teleological church, the Anabaptist hold to a visible church that is here-and-now, not perfected but present. That means, however, that that community that is present is not absolutely present. It is not complete in the sense of being total, finished, but actually is always also partly absent, partly not yet what it will be. Further, it is only present -- not idealized but actually existing -- because of that absence.

The church, in this explicitly Anabaptist articulation, is thus something of a lived-in deconstruction. It is "another way to talk about what Derrida has already called différance" (118). The condition of its possibility is its impossibility. And vice versa. Which is unsettling, in the way Blum thinks is importation. He thinks out the unsafeness of community in these terms in the fifth essay, "Otherwise than Totality," demonstrating that the commitment to Anabaptist community entails the ethical commitments of deconstruction.

That, perhaps counterintuitively, turns out to be an eschatological commitment. Blum writes that, thinking about the absence present in the presence of the absence of the "not-yet," Derrida "does not conclude by fixing ... community as simply impossible ... Rather, Derrida waxes eschatological; he writes of friendship, community, and a democracy 'to come'" (118). This is not an eschatology of finalization, but an orientation to what is not yet.

It is this orientation that Blum embraces as he writes from and to Anabaptistism. He writes,
I do not mean to be unclear about my own biases here. I pray for a church 'to come,' where unity does not eliminate difference, where hospitality is more important than clear boundaries. As I present these thoughts to you, my readers, and await your responses, my intention is -- even here -- to welcome the Other. This clearly means that I risk a potential change in my prayer, one that I may not now foresee. It is still part of the experiment. (120)
This is the risk of unsafe thinking. Which is also its potential power. The book is an invitation to this, for the reader, an invitation to thinking-with, to "make things difficult," to be unsettled, to remain open to the possibility of that which is "to come."

Those most likely to accept the invitation, I suspect, are Christians interested in Christian readings of postmodern philosophy. This work fits into a current genre of theologized postmodernism and would make an excellent companion to the works of John Caputo (who writes the forward here), or the works of other thinkers who have been affiliated with the Subverting the Norm conference. Those who have inquired into Radical Orthodoxy or Slavoj Zizek's theological works, or who've been interested in various Emergent projects, or have otherwise wanted to think about separating Christian belief from modernism, will do well to read Blum.

It is less clear how this invitation will be received by Anabaptists. Given that this is most directly addressed to them, one hopes it will met with the spirit of openness in which it is written. At the very least, the many, many readers of Yoder, and of Yoderians such as Stanley Hauerwas and William Cavanaugh, should pick up For a Church to Come. This work is different than those, but also deeply connected to them.

More generally, this book can be helpful to anyone who wants to engage with the risk of thinking, to encounter this "deliberately unsettling sort of experiencing" that is the open-ended possibility that one might not remain unchanged (22). This book is a gift of unsafe thinking.

In my own work, I mostly think of this in terms of intellectual honesty or epistemological humility. But Blum pushes further than that, I think, showing how thinking can mean putting yourself at stake.

That's what makes it risky. That's what makes it worthwhile.

Herald Press provided me with a copy of For a Church to Come in exchange for my honest review.