The Scandal of Particularity

“The scandal of particularity.” I first read those words in a book put out by Intervarsity Press (IVP), “The Nature of Confession” in an essay by Alister McGrath. At this point in his essay, he was talking about those who were believers in such pronouncements as universal religious experience. For McGrath, along with Lindbeck, universal experience itself, is also what has “explanatory and revelatory significance.” Thus, accordingly, evangelicalism will coincide with this aspect of the post-liberal program McGrath says. Whether theology, both historical and present “describes” objective reality or not is not the point that I’m trying to make here. The point I want to make concerns this issue of particularity.

As (Miroslav) Volf says in the next chapter:

“I therefore have strong sympathies not only with what Lindbeck has aptly termed “ecumenical sectarianism” but also with the methodological correlate of such non-sectarian ‘sectarianism,’ the critique of “translating” the biblical message into extra-biblical categories.”

That is, as he says later on:

“In contemporary de-Christianized, pluralistic and rapidly changing Western cultures, only those religious groups that make no apologies about ‘difference’ will be able to survive and thrive.”


“Hence it is not enough to recognize, as Lindbeck does in a good post-liberal fashion, that there is no NEUTRAL STANDPOINT, that we are always shaped by traditions of beliefs and practices. An adequate methodological proposal must also take into account THAT THERE IS NO PURE SPACE ON WHICH TO STAND EVEN FOR THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH. ECCLESIAL NON-NEUTRALITY IS ALWAYS ALREADY SHAPED BY THE CULTURE WHICH THE CHURCH INHABITS because to inhabit a contemporary culture means, to use Jean-Francois Lyotard’s formulation, not to inhabit a single, ‘grand Narrative’ but to live within a complex and mobile ‘fabric of relations.'”

Now compare this to what Stanley Hauerwas says. In his book, “Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America” Hauerwas tells the story of how one Easter morning in Dallas, TX, Billy Dick blurted out while the teacher was speaking of the crucifixion, “If Roy Rogers had been there, those dirty S.O.B.s would not have been able to do it!”

What Hauerwas is doing is speaking about how Americans are held captive to an “American Jesus.” Further down, Hauerwas states:

“That we think we would have stood with Jesus against the crucifixion, that we think that we would recognize him after the resurrection are extraordinary presumptions.”

And further down,

“The story of the Emmaus road neatly challenges our presumption that a resurrected Lord would be readily recognizable.”

On the whole, I’m inclined to agree with this. As Pat Apel says in “Nine Great American Myths: Ways We Confuse the American Dream With the Christian Faith“:

“The problem arises, as Calvin pointed out, when we assign to Jesus a character different from that which He received from God. In the derision of Jesus during the passion, the Roman soldiers dressed Him in purple as king o the Jews. They were using Jesus to mock the Jewish insurrectionists of the day. Halford Luccock writes that “this indignity has been inflicted upon him again and again. More than once has he been…clad in costumes that do not fit his personality, with the result that the man who walks before us has been so completely disguised as to be unrecognizable.”

However, I do think there can be problems with what Hauerwas is saying because these are generalities. And the reason why has to do with what Volf says above–the sectarianism.

Let me explain. Does Jesus look like the Roman Catholic Church with it’s non-ordination of women and all male priests? Does he look like the Mennonites or Amish who are totally pacifistic and non-violent? Does he look like some Methodist Churches that are all-inclusive? What about marriage? No divorce or remarriage? Divorce but no remarriage? Divorce and Remarriage for adultery or abandonment? Any number of reasons? Let’s add to this as these have mostly to do with ethics (though I would definitely not rule out that the two are inter-related (even if in-directly). What about this? Would Jesus look like a Pentecostal or Baptist or Presbyterian? Would he look preterist or is he futurist? Calvinist or open theist? Infant baptism or not? I’m talking doctrine as well as worship styles.

We may have our list of priorities and so we may feel that this or that issue is more important than others. Regardless, the list is practically endless. Now, would I say that those who don’t hold to my litmus test are SOMEHOW any less of a Christian? I’m not saying that Hauerwas comes right out and says this, but he definitely moves in that direction via saying, that we presume that we would recognize Jesus in American Christianity.

My problem is that I can’t help but recognize that Jesus IS recognizable IN and THROUGH these different forms and practices of North American Christianity. I’m not attempting to say that all of them are “correct” or “the true version.” THAT would be presumptuous! But if James K.A. Smith is correct and truth is pluriform, then we should (dare I say, MUST) let these things be. Accept that this is the way Christianity is. It’s VERY sectarian. I only recognize Christ through the particularities.

Let me make a suggestion. Hauerwas is a pacifist (to what degree I’m not sure, I haven’t read enough of him, though I have several of his books). I’m not. Now, we know that the issue can be quite complex. We may start off simple enough, but as the noetic structure expands into a weblike direction we begin to see that there are other presuppositions based on all sorts of things and connected to other presuppositions. Everything from history to theology to grammar and etymology– arguments from silence and so forth. A lot of this is built on “what ifs”–things that are not that clear. Something may not be clear in that it could go this way or that way and THAT makes at least somewhat of a difference in the way you would go in your direction say with regard to a particular issue, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

So, what do I do? Am I stuck? Well, not really. My suggestion is that we come to a peaceful acceptance of this state of affairs and not necessarily try to change those who are not on your team in the ballpark (it’s hard enough for me to change myself and ideas through such things new information, never mind whole groups of people, etc. Sociologists tell us that very rarely do all people fall on one side of the fence and not the other on social issues. I don’t think it’s different with the Church). So how does that work? I think it works via listening and searching. Listening to what the other team is saying and approaching them and their understanding of things with humility. Could I, as a non-pacifist, not learn something from my pacifist brothers and sisters? Do they not have something to teach me, especially when things become far too one-sided, i.e., the power politics of the Religious Right? Could their voice(s) not be prophetical? This is why, though we have our sectarian differences, I need them. Even the much despised “fundies” if for nothing else but to recognize my own personal history. What about progressives? Progressives who are inclusive of same-sex relationships? Surely, there is something I can learn from them as well isn’t there? Something I can learn deeply about Christ and how he might respond with such a question. Yes, you’ll worship in your camp with your distinctives and ethics. And I will in mine which may not be as inclusive as yours. You will be very sectarian and so will I. We may cross paths (it’s hard not to do that these days with social media). We may converse about these things. We may walk away with a renewed understanding and changed heart and mind. We may not. People and churches and branches of Christianity have their own “theological consciences.” I just don’t want you to say that your team is THE ball-park or that others don’t recognize Jesus in their particularity.

P.S. Sure, there may be those who hold to their sectarianism to the exclusion of all others and so why should what I’m saying here be something they should listen to or accept or heed? I’m not really speaking to that crowd though. There will always be those folk. They’ll still get to live within their particularity, regardless. I’m speaking to those who recognize that there are legitimate differences between ourselves in this ball-park called, Christianity.


About BBBCanada

Love to read. Politics fall along the sphere sovereignty tradition of Kuyper, Skillen and the Center for Public Justice. Theologically, I fall somewhere between Eastern Orthodox and Pentecostalism and Open Theism within a post-conservative/neo-Calvinist tradition. View all posts by BBBCanada

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