Graduate Theological Society

May 16, 2006

Response to Nate Kerr’s paper

Filed under: Church and Politics, Kerr on Lacoste — graduatetheology @ 6:30 pm

Add your comments to Nate Kerr's paper "The Politics of Praise" or Aaron Simmons' response here.


  1. Nate,
    Forgive a more or less explicit if not identical repetition of our discussion at the meeting, but I want to push a little further on the question of (liturgic) “practices,” not least, I will admit, because of its importance for my own project. Let me put this claim to you (from Buckley and Yeago’s Knowing the Triune God):

    “by associating theology with this juxtaposition of ‘Spirit’ and ‘practices,’ out title hints at an account of the complex point of departure of theological reflection…[such theology] must begin from these two [viz. beginning from God’s action and beginning from the practice of the church] as, in some proper sense, one single starting-point: in the Spirit, beginning with God’s action and beginning with the Church and its practices are one beginning, in a unity in which the divine and the human are neither divided nor confused.”

    Your critique of defining the church by its practices is, as I see it, derivative of two premises: the notion that the attempt to “fix” the church by remedying its liturgical practice is to reify a conception of “church” that has already forgotten the praise of God and gracious action of God, as if liturgic practice were in itself anything other than praise; second, such a notion is dependent on a form of instrumental rationality, a techne that is itself already a failure of theo-logic and an abnegation of faith in God’s action in the church (this second premise is very much my own reading of the logic of your position).

    Put as such, if we are not trying to “fix” anything in the church, but rather seeking to clarify the “grammar” of faith operative in our liturgic action – our prayer and praise – how do we take up the question of the church’s concrete being? If the above claim is correct, a certain understanding of pneumatology might give the lie to any disjunction of reifying the church or to separating liturgic practice taken in itself from praise of the God. Further, this would not be to advert to an “invisible” church behind the event of ekklesia itself, but to rather take up the question of what characterizes such eventality – the traces by which it is known, as it were.

    Granted, that this ranges a bit beyond your paper; I’m really trying to think through the issues raised by it in terms of our own larger conversation this past year. I’d appreciate your thoughts.

    Btw, I don’t think I ever said it last week: this is a brilliant paper.

    Comment by Travis — May 17, 2006 @ 12:53 pm

  2. Nate,

    I won’t say TOO much now, except “great paper.” I only have one question–and although I think I know how you’ll answer, I thought it best to throw it out for the sake of discussion: if the Church is broken–and I realize that here you are tying the “historicity” of the Church (as an apocalyptic historicity) to the single history of the broken body of Jesus Christ…whose scars remain even after he has been raised from the tomb)–then in what way must we talk about ecclesial Unity (or, love, since Cyprian, and Augustine after him, remind us that Unity and Charity are interchangeable words with the same meaning)…or do you mean simply by this (as I have heard some in the past suggest), that we also, as the body of Christ, are a body whose scars remain as we are brought into Unity at the table…? I imagine you catch my drift…I would want to say along with Augustine that we are the scattered humanity–Adam, fallen and scattered into the four corners of the world (which Augustine in the fourth century made into an acronym for what was at the time thought to be the four corners of the Greco-Roman world), but we are taken up and brought into Unity, one body, by the second Adam whose body is not bound by space (there is a great section in Rowan Williams’ book Resurrection about this…actually, I think you pointed me to this passage a few years ago…it’s when he’s talking about Baptism). So, the Eucharist is that which makes us One because Christ takes us into Him and makes us One with His Body (e.g., the passage from Augustine’s Confessions where he hears the voice who says that when you eat my body you will not consume me like other foods, but you will be taken in by me and consumed). At this point I hear Travis saying that since it is Christ who takes us into His Body, and since it is by God’s grace that our liturgical action makes us One, then isn’t your paper, as he says, “an abnegation of faith in God’s action in the church”? This is something I have heard many times, from many people, in the course of my research and writing for my thesis. However, this sort of counter-logic to your supposed failure of theo-logic seems to discount sin…I don’t mean to say that sin is THOROUGHLY debilitating to humanity, or that I agree with a Calvinistic “total depravity,” ’cause I don’t. No, I mean, Travis, that your logic ignores the possibility of stifling the gift of the Spirit…this says nothing about lack of faith in God to give His Spirit to a broken and disunified body…it says much more about the hardened hearts of humanity, destined to follow after the idols we have all fashioned for ourselves. As I read Nate’s paper (or, perhaps I am defending my own claims about a disappearance of the ecclesial body, and the necessity for “dispossession”), there is a great deal of faith in God’s action in the Church, just not faith in sinful humanity. Redemption does not flip an automatic switch within baptized humans, whereby sin is no longer happening, or no longer maintaning its stranglehold…this is why Paul says in Romans 6, “Should we remain in sin so that grace will abound all the more? By no means! Do you not know that all you who have been baptized into the body of Christ have been buried with him…and that our old humanity was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin?” The Church in Rome has to be reminded! While the rest of that passage can be read as a mere exhortation to a new ethical practice (the whole business of “new man,” and not letting the “passions” best your mortal bodies are often taken this way)–i.e., creating a more righteous world for ourselves–perhaps this has more to do with the way in which we present our bodies to God in the visibility of this body among others…in other words, we would not be out to win a competition to see which political body could practice the gospel best, since the only concern is that we would be acceptable and holy in his sight.

    I have no idea how I got from my question to where I ended up, or even what I just said…don’t ask me!…I’ve been playing guitar lately…A LOT…and haven’t really had any theological conversation partners! But, if you’re interested in talking about guitar gear (David Dault, this is your cue), then I can definitely keep up. Later.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 17, 2006 @ 2:37 pm

  3. And just to start that guitar gear conversation, I just picked up an Ibanez TubeScreamer that has been modified with the original TS808 chip from the sixties in it…fabulous!

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 17, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

  4. Hey Dave!

    I'll wait until Nate responds to pick up your point, but to be clear, I'm saying there that Nate is precisely avoiding such an "abnegation" which is an untoward attention to liturgical practice without reference to the gracious action of God. I'm not challenging that at all; I'm just wondering if there is a pneumatological articulation that undercuts any over-hasty disjunction of pratice and praise. This is in light of Nate's willingness to talk about the visible form of the church and its practices in this paper – a disjunction he too is wanting to avoid, I think.

    The point about sin is important, though, and need to be responded to. But I'm going to force myself to wait for Nate…

    Comment by Travis — May 17, 2006 @ 3:20 pm

  5. Thank you, Travis, for your kind words and the reiteration of your question from last Wednesday.

    I don’t have much time at the moment, but I’ll try to say something, and I may just end up rehearsing my response to you at the colloquy.

    I want to say straightaway that I have no problem with speaking of the church’s “practice” or better praxis. And I am very grateful for those thinkers who have sought through the language of practice to emphasize something concrete about the church that does not make recourse to this or that philosophical abstraction as the true “being” of the church — the subject, a meta-ontology, structural or dogmatic development, etc. What I am concerned with, is the trend I see which deploys the idea of “practices” as a means of securing proper “performance,” “effectiveness,” “productivity,” etc. I’m not convinced, for example, by Lindbeck’s argument that the church’s practices are its true “center.” What I don’t like, is the idea that “practice” is such that it effects us to do something. Practices are not a crank that we turn, by which turning it happens that what the church truly “is,” is unveiled.

    I might prefer the language of action to that of practices. I think (and Josh would have to help us out here) that the language of “action,” in its association with questions of will, intention, etc., is actually closer to what the word praxis is all about, and finally what praise is all about, as the seamless though always revisable theory-practice of liturgy. In fact, I would say that what we normally call “practices” are not such at all, if by “practice” we mean some kind of “patterning of behavior.” Rather, they are simply actions done in obedience to the living law of Christ. In this sense, the Church’s “visibility” as such is not dependent upon right behavior, as the right performance of a scripted practice, so much as it is in the praxis, the action, which is made to be a sign of Christ’s own kenotic obedience to the Father. It is the visibility of this res, this trinitarian event of love, that is the “center” of the church, and it is this that makes of our action a sign, a signum, a sacramentum. So the concrete visibility of the church is not a matter of the “correlation” of divine (in Jesus Christ and the Spirit) and human (in ecclesial practices) agency, as Buckley and Yeago presume it is (as they presume this to be the logic of the incarnation). Rather, it is the visibility of God’s working in us, via the Spirit, to unite us with one another in the fullness of Christ. The church happens as the kenotic intentionality of Christ is made visibile in our love for one another. But Christ is the middle term here; it is he who unites us to God. Which is why it is so important to maintain that the eucharist is first about our being united with Christ, as our being united with one another is made to be a sign of that one Christic res.

    All of that is rather too prosaic. In short, I’m wary of making the right performance of a set of practices the “condition” of anything, and especially of the church’s visibility. I want to say that ecclesial action rooted in praise and doxa can articulate a Christic visibility that makes sense of the fact that we most of the time don’t get our practices right, that we often do say the wrong things, that our performance is really more often than not messy and fuzzy and out of order, and that that makes as much or more theological sense than a certain kind of “high-church” canonical liturgy which often makes it appear as if we are doing things right, even as it masks the reality that such is not the case. The latter can border on propaganda. That is, what I’m trying to say is that right praxis makes for a kenotic, cruciform visibility, in which what is “seen” is the crucified Lord, living as risen in our midst. I don’t think such visibility is simply a matter of the church’s authority or stability as a sociological, counter-cultural institution. The Church is visible when the world sees Jesus. But this Jesus must be seen as the res that grounds and constitutes the church’s praxis as a signum, and not as a mere socio-cultural product of its “language” or “practices.”

    Comment by Nate — May 17, 2006 @ 3:22 pm

  6. Darn it! There I go getting all polemical again. I just made myself a sandwich and so my hunger headache is gone, which allows me to realize that I still haven’t appropriately (directly) answered Travis’ question as to a pneumatological dimension to all of this that undercuts a distinction between “practice” and “praise.” I think I have indirectly — and maybe “indirectness” is all we can hope for when the Spirit comes into play. I think it might be helpful, Travis, if you could say more about what this pneumatology does, which my own account of praise may be missing. Or which, better, might be a needed supplement to my account of praise. Although I think the question of an embodied Christic intentionality is the pneumatological question for me; it is its Spirit-filled intention (agape) which makes the Church to praise Christ as Lord in its action.

    I hope I’ve at least for now sorted out the whole question of what I take to be wrong about talk about the church that is simply practice-centered, in a way that prescinds from the question of action oriented in Christ. In this respect, Travis, I would highly recommend you take a look at Nicholas Healy’s article, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 5.3 (November 2003), 287-308. I think this article may be helpful for your project.

    Dave B. — I have to be honest and say that I’m not sure what you mean when you talk about my not taking sin seriously, or even what it would mean to have faith in sinful humanity. You’ll have to say more for me to understand how you think I’m construing the church as that people who “practices the gospel best” (your phrase) rather than as that people whose sinful bodies are borne along into holiness and resurrection by the broken body of Christ.

    Comment by Nate — May 17, 2006 @ 3:56 pm

  7. Nate, either I completely misworded what I said, or you misread what I wrote…I’ll take the blame. I was saying that Travis’ response seemed to not take sin seriously enough–not you–but Travis clarified what he meant…so I can see how you took it as a statement against you. I wasn’t talking about you at all in all that.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 17, 2006 @ 9:05 pm

  8. I reread my comment, and I indeed TOTALLY fucked that up. Sorry, Nate. I started talking to you, then to you about Travis’ comment, and then to Travis directly, but it was never clear who I was talking to (except for mentioning Travis’ name once). Dammit. Sorry ’bout that. My point was to say that your paper does not place faith in the practices of the Church to ground the visibility of the Church, since those practices will always be the product of sinful humanity (this is what I meant about not having faith in sinful humanity…just worded weird, once again), and that, rather, our faith must be in the grace of God in Jesus Christ…so I wasn’t saying that you said the Church is “that people who ‘practices the gospel best'” (nor was I saying that Travis is saying that…), I was drawing a caricatured position in contrast from your own (in other words, that the caricatured position often assumes by the insistence on righ practice that we must vie for position among political bodies in order to get it right…and I want to also add that I don’t see Dave Dunn doing this in his paper). Ok. I’ll shut up. I’m an idiot. I’ll go back to playing my guitar now.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 17, 2006 @ 9:15 pm

  9. Thanks for the clarification, Dave. I knew there was some slippage point in your post, in which you moved from talking to me, to Travis. But I couldn’t tell where that slippage point was, or just how many such points your post contained. 🙂

    I welcome the talk of sin here. I think it is precisely within a doctrine of the Spirit that a discussion of the doctrine of sin belongs. And this because the doctrine of sin belongs within a doctrine of holiness, of sanctification. And if the Spirit always moves as that one who gathers the body of the Christ from among sinful humanity, then we can give finally give up talking about the “subject” and the “individual” as the locus of sanctification, and so of sin, as such.

    Comment by Nate — May 18, 2006 @ 11:27 am

  10. I’m really not a smiley face fan. I use them. But not when I know their going to show up as big yellow balls right in the middle of my post!

    Comment by Nate — May 18, 2006 @ 11:29 am

  11. Nate, I always knew you were a close “big yellow balls” smiley face man…the “big yellow balls” bit is funny enough as it is…I am actually laughing really hard right now.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 18, 2006 @ 1:56 pm

  12. dammit! “closet” big yellow balls smiley face man.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 18, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

  13. I feel like as soon as I say this, y’all might ask: “Didn’t we already have this conversation?” So, pardon me if I reiterate myself. It’s just that whenever we talk about issues of the Church, and her “practices” in particular, I feel that the “disappearance of the ecclesial body” still needs to be dealt with. I have A LOT to say in this regard…but, really, Josh has already posed the question of the disappearance of the ecclesial body so decisively in his paper for the 2005 WTS meeting, there really isn’t any need to re-rehearse it (sorry if you didn’t get the chance to read/hear it). What was not emphasized as much in that paper, I will voice once again here–and now I will sound like a broken record. Without Unity (or, rather, without properly addressing the mere fact of disunity and how we have ignored it for SO long), without Love, the practices of one particular body might have the pledge of the Spirit, but they are not objectifiably Christian! Simply because the disseminated Church and her former structures and institutions–in short, a body, or “site”–is lacking (and has been for some time) to “authorize” the discourse as anything other than a discourse without site…that is, simply another political, or psychological, or medical, or ethical, etc. discourse which tasks and organization is determined by the environment and situation…or, in other words, that there is no real way to tell the difference between that body and its practices and the surrounding political, for instance, bodies which surround it and even make it up. Travis’ question is an excellent one, because it asks “How is it that we can take up, as it were, these broken pieces, in the power of the Spirit?” However, to assume that the pledge of the Spirit is found in One place in particular is also to stifle that very gift which is given in order to bring us together into love, or, unity.

    This comment was an attempt to clarify my absolutely HORRIBLE and OBTUSE comment from earlier. I hope you will all forgive me, and receive this comment generously. I have an appending quote I would like to add, but I will wait for response to see how necessary it is. Jodi and Samuel and I will be in Nashville later on tonight (though we will be in Atlanta tomorrow and Sunday). I would like to see ALL of you…we are going to a US national soccer match on Tuesday evening, but I am free any other time. Call me (new number: (815) 953-6575). later, and peace.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 19, 2006 @ 8:22 am

  14. Ok. Clarifier.

    I wrote: “However, to assume that the pledge of the Spirit is found in One place in particular is also to stifle that very gift which is given in order to bring us together into love, or, unity.” I should say, “to assume that the pledge of the Spirit, which is indeed guaranteed to those who have faith in the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord, is able to be GRASPED in one place in particular, WITHOUT also allowing that same Spirit to move us into Unity in Love, then we have stifled that gift…”

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 19, 2006 @ 8:27 am

  15. One last thing. In my mind the philosophies of Badiou and Zizek (or Agamben, Jacob Taubes, etc., etc.) are perfect examples of a redeployed “belief” in the wake of the dissemination of a proper site which authorizes the discursive utterances of that body…or, in other words, that we can no longer tell any difference between “liturgical practices” and practices which are a product of the “laicization of the infinite.” Thanks. I’ll shut up now.

    Comment by Dave Belcher — May 19, 2006 @ 11:15 am

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