Reinhard Hütter: The Subject is the End of the Church

Having now finished what seems to be the last of several bookshelves for our (rather small) place, I look to selling or boxing-up books.

I’ve already cited the volume by the formerly-Lutheran writer Reinhard Hütter (he converted to Catholicism sometime after the writing of this book, if my timeline is correct) titled “Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism.” I had originally thought that I’d keep this volume. It’s stimulating, but I’m not sure how helpful it is, for as I scan through it, it seems to largely provide the stimulation that foils provide when they are riddled with mistakes.

The passage cited below is no exception. Hütter here writes about the alleged transition from an older way of conceiving “theology” to an allegedly more rationalistic way which sought surer ground in metaphysics. As the story goes, the aftermath of the Reformation and the ensuing religious wars of Europe put into question the idea that knowledge of God can be had through church practices, as there then obtained an incompatible and irreconcilable plurality of practices.

First I’ll cite the passage, then discuss it.

On pp.43-44 he begins his discussion of the problem thus:

3. The Knowledge of the Triune God: Practice, Doctrine, and Theology

The goal of this chapter is to retrieve an understanding common to almost all Christians until roughly two hundred years ago: that the church is the location where we come to know God, surely not in every possible way, but in the one decisive way, namely, as the One who saves us and draws us into the fullness of the divine life — all of this through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. The church itself is nothing other than the thankful creature of God’s saving work, not a proud executor but a glad recipient. Yet this receiving embodied in practices is precisely the way in and through which the Holy Spirit works the saving knowledge of God. For this very reason not only the Catholics but also the Reformers could call the church the “mother of faith.”

    Yet the great schism of the Western church, with its ensuing religious wars and mutual doctrinal condemnations, opened the door to a profound skepticism about the very possibility of coming to know the triune God in and through the church’s practices and teachings. As a result, the intellectual avant-garde of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries felt forced to fall back onto a rational knowledge of God that could be metaphysically warranted and assured. Both the late medieval developments in rational theology and the increased retrieval of antique thinking during the Renaissance facilitated this move considerably. Yet a metaphysically assured knowledge of God itself proved to be unstable. It was the very project of Kant’s critical philosophy to show that the existence and knowledge of God can in no circumstances fall under the competence of a rational metaphysics. Rather, the idea of God is a necessary consequence of the human being as moral agent. Another “Copernican revolution” of sorts was at hand: the human subject became the fixed point for whom the idea of God is a necessary working hypothesis of practical reason. What is the point of the church under these radically changed circumstances? The church as pure aggregation is the location for moral motivation and improvement, with Jesus being the paradigm of perfect morality. It was Schleiermacher’s great achievement to overcome this radical reduction of the saving knowledge of God to a model of the moral life by establishing the category “religion” as an entity fundamentally different from metaphysics and morals and therefore immune to Kant’s critical philosophy. Religion is rooted in a pre-reflective and ultimately ineffable feeling of radical dependence over against the universe in its totality as experienced by the subject. The church is now the community of those religiously moved to express and communicate and thereby interpret and understand their ineffable religious experience. Jesus is now the paradigm of this very religiosity.

    What is significant is that in both the “Kantian church” of moral motivation and the “Schleiermacherian church” of religious communication, the moral and/or religious subject antecedes the church. The fixed point is the subject to whom the “church” stands in a functional relationship of service — be it of a moral and/or religious kind. In other words, the subject is the end of the church. The result of this is nothing other than the modern “denomination” and the “service” jargon pervasive in contemporary church growth talk. And this is not surprising. Where the subject is the end of the church, the market becomes the means.

    The point of the following proposal is not to overcome this problematic by heralding some “postmodern turn” that might simply relieve us from our predicament. The postmodernity currently celebrated seems to be nothing less than an intensification of the very turn to the subject — with a concurrent loss of the utopian assurances once associated with the subject by the Enlightenment. The point, rather, is to undertake an exercise in theological remembrance in the face of the modern turn to the subject and its postmodern mass application. Nor is the point to suggest a return to “premodern” securities. Rather, in the context of a conflictual and thus critical relationship to modernity, the point is to attempt to remember theologically what is at stake in the church being the church for knowing the triune God. The church is gifted with a promise that it carries in its very way of being the church. This promise is nothing less than a knowledge of God that both saves and transforms. Yet it is a knowledge that depends on the church’s practices and in this significant sense antecedes us as individuals. Only by being drawn into those practices that in their very core are the church’s makeup do we come to a knowledge of God that we do not own — a knowledge that ultimately will own us. In this very specific way the church will turn out to be the end of the subject — precisely in its modern sense, where knowledge presupposes the subject’s self-positing and, ultimately, the subject’s will to power.

    And what would it mean if theology were to be itself reconceived in light of this theological remembrance? What if theology were neither a hermeneutics of “values” to be distilled from the moral paradigm “Jesus” nor a description or reimagination of the religious subjectivity paradigmatically encountered in Jesus? Theology, I will claim, has to be understood as a distinct practice that comes necessarily with the church — yet without being constitutive of the church. As a church practice, theology precisely realizes the fact that the knowledge of God cannot be achieved “nakedly,” be it in the form of the “thereness” of an “objective” knowledge (premodern metaphysics) or of “knowledge” that is the construct of the poietic subject (modern religiosity after Kant). Rather, Christian knowledge of God can be gained only by suffering God’s saving activity as it engages us in word and sacrament as well as the rest of the church’s core practices and as it commits us to preaching and teaching […] through those normative formulations ([…] doctrine) that help us hold on to the gospel in the face of its distortion. In other words, if the church is the end of the subject because the Holy Spirit becomes the agent of the triune God’s knowledge through the church’s core practices and teaching, “to do theology” appropriately means to do it in relation to both the church’s core practices and to doctrine. This claim is clearly an affront if we assume that the subject is the end of the church. Yet under the presupposition here entertained, that the church is the end of the subject, this understanding of theology is its necessary implication.

The first problem is that he begins with what is mostly typical Lutheran confessional language about the nature of the Church (“the church itself is nothing other than the thankful creature of God’s saving work, not a proud executor but a glad recipient”), confusing it with a historical description. (I’m not arguing, dear reader, that the Church is a “proud executor”, only noting that this is the kind of rhetorical stance that Martin Luther used in his earlier writings against the authority of the office of the Papacy and of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, as you can see from Luther’s writings, for which, see here.) This is frustrating. He is, after all, about to launch into an ostensibly historical description of the path from an “older” model of theology-as-practice to the allegedly innovative theology-as-metaphysics. If we are going to do genealogy, we shouldn’t project a confessional stance into the earliest part of that history, so that our narrative simply confirms a stance we wish to assume. When he later writes that “The church is gifted with a promise that it carries in its very way of being the church”, we hear the very Lutheran emphasis on the “true promise” repeated.

The second problem is with the description of the “avant-garde” who wished to find metaphysically assured foundations for theology to confront the skepticism that followed after the wars of religion. No one was “falling back” on a rational knowledge of God, as though this were something lesser. The pluralistic social arrangements in places like Germany, where there were two state churches, made it so that one could no longer “fall back” on the homogeneity of earlier Western Christendom. When rubbing shoulders with “others”, one is forced to find more and more comprehensive forms of language in which to voice one’s identity and concerns — one needs to find common ground, and one finds it by reaching for more and more universal –and so more rational– forms of language. Rationality and universality are intertwined. This was not entirely new, either. St. Thomas Aquinas was aware of the Orthodox East, and St. Anselm of Canterbury was aware of the Islamic world, and both reached for rational and universal language to articulate their perspectives. (Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? was an attempt to give the rationale for the Incarnation in a form that was universal — a necessary thing, given the presence of Muslim interlocutors.) Let us not forget the Alexandrian/Origenistic, Cappadocian, Augustinian, Dionysian and Maximian interactions with the world of Late Antique Platonism and Paganism! These systems were all highly metaphysical, philosophical, and rational. (Yes: there were also “practices” associated with these writers, but, when they were addressing those not initiated into these practices, these writers did not simply rationalize or emote from a perspective set by said practices.)

Thirdly, the “late medieval developments in rational theology” must be referring to Aquinas, which is odd, because the dominant theme in late medieval theology is nominalism, or rather, the via moderna of Ockham (good summary in chapters 1-3 of Ozment, here). Nominalism, or Ockhamism, or the via moderna, formed the immediate background of Lutheran and Protestant thought; it radically truncated reason’s wings, so that the being of beings was not transparent to God; in the via moderna, God can only be know through artificial signs, arbitrarily chosen by him. This is in contrast with the symbolism of nearly all of the preceding tradition, especially in Late Antiquity, which assumes that the world is a theophany.

Fourthly, Kant was very interested in God, but only in the course of his epistemological and moral inquiries. The sentence is some clever rhetorical footwork. The knowing subject was already central in Descartes, and, perhaps, already in Scotus and Ockham. The “copernican revolution” of Kant was not about God, but about knowledge: instead of the mind conforming to things, Kant argued that things conformed to the structures of the mind. There can be no knowledge of “things in themselves”.

Then the sharp-left-turn sentence, “What is the point of the church under these radically changed circumstances?” follows — this should indicate to the reader something about the anxieties driving this kind of narrative, and the reason for the preoccupation with practice here. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m Orthodox, l love practice.) This preoccupation and anxiety skew the narrative, and as the narrative seems like it’s supposed to help orient the reader to a solution, this is problematic at the most basic level. Hütter wants to close the social circle of the Church more tightly, draw the boundary of her members more clearly, make it a public (rather than a commodity), and emphasizing the priority and prevenience of Church practice as determining for the individual member is one way for him to do that.

Fifthly, Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence” was not oriented towards “the universe in its totality”, but towards a post-Kantian Spinozistic understanding of Infinity. Schleiermacher is very, very explicit that the feeling of absolute dependence does not take the totality of things as its object. This is a factual error that is very startling. You can imagine how fair the rest of his description of Schleiermacher is.

We might, therefore, sympathize with him when he laments that modern people see the Church as there for them, servicing some need, and that “Where the subject is the end of the church, the market becomes the means”, but it’s (A) not clear that this is ever entirely avoidable, and (B) very clear that this complaint stands in a very spurious relationship to the narrative that went before it. The Church as an instrumental means to worldly ends? If one digs to the level of popular piety from the very first days of the Church, one will find at least elements of this here and there. Why not adopt an Augustinian stance and say that the libido dominandi is always at war with true religion? –or why not adopt a Heideggerian stance towards this problem, as an expression of the forgetting of the ontico-ontological difference? Hütter never explains, and the skeptic in me suspects that it’s because he’s not here to explain anything to anyone, but to satisfy the appetites of the intelligent and curious-but-uneducated churchfolk who are his readership, and to cement them into a certain comportment towards things.

He largely ends with:

The church is gifted with a promise that it carries in its very way of being the church. This promise is nothing less than a knowledge of God that both saves and transforms. Yet it is a knowledge that depends on the church’s practices and in this significant sense antecedes us as individuals. Only by being drawn into those practices that in their very core are the church’s makeup do we come to a knowledge of God that we do not own — a knowledge that ultimately will own us. In this very specific way the church will turn out to be the end of the subject […].

I can largely sign onto the idea that the Church is a set of practices, habits, rituals, by which we engage one another, ourselves, and God; the Church, obviously, precedes us and we are born (or born again) within the Church. Yet the way that Hütter spells out what those practices are is specifically Lutheran, and so we are led back to the confessional problem that he says lead to the skepticism that was trouble for knowledge of God through practice in the first place.

In the end, I would affirm that practice is necessary for any knowledge of God — but so is philosophy, so is metaphysics, for any practically-obtained knowledge that cannot be communicated in language and thought is not knowledge, and any social conformity that cannot show itself to be the universal Good is merely bad social hygiene and politics.

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