The Prodigal God and Our Language

Some NuDunkers gathered in a Hangout last week to discuss Prodigal Christianity with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can catch the recording (with a few technical difficulties caught for your amusement!).

After some hours from the NuDunker hangout I’ll admit I came around. In the midst of it, however, I was not so convinced. Having entered three different graduate schools and taught just a few classes I’ve had to sit through the language games. In some cases there was an official orientation session regarding the expectations for language and in others it was a trial by fire. In each of these cases there was a desire to be both accurate and inclusive with our language for writing and doing theology. In many cases, however, the desire for inclusivity was overpowered by the easier policy choice of outright limiting the use of certain words. So as we began to talk about the role of language and words in Prodigal Christianity, I must admit I was a bit dismayed. There was so much to discuss about the book and I was afraid we were going to turn critical about the words other authors chose without getting the larger contributions of their writing.

So I’ve mused about this on a long car ride to Ohio.

We didn’t do the typical progressive move and ban words in the name of inclusivity. In fact we started to unearth some of the cultural and theological issues of signs, referents, games, and redemption. In the end, I am with Matt who pressed the conversation initially- the issue is not about the words themselves, but a missing range of images, metaphors, and words. The pastoral task- as named by Geoff during the hangout- is indeed the expanding of our bank of images and words to understand the great and often ineffable work of God around us.

Here are some of the (tentative) conclusions that surfaced for me in the course of my drive.

1) The issue is the USE of words, not the words themselves. Part of the use of these words, then, is the context within which it emerges. That was the thesis of my original post on Prodigal Christianity. In the cases of systematic theology, the starting point is the most crucial. So for Geoff and David to start with the Post-Christendom is a significant theological move. It is not tangential, but rather the core to the project itself. That is to say that the descending of the church from its position of cultural power is more faithful to the kenotic, kneeling nature of Christ. Thus, the entire matrix of the Prodigal God redefines the kingdom language itself. It puts such terms to use in favor of self-denial rather than denial or over powering of others.

It strikes me as interesting that for those most informed by the Deconstructionist play with language the impulse is to limit the meanings of words. Rather than press for more clarity or explanations, it seems that the reaction is often that words have a fixed meaning- ie they have baggage that places them in the problematic or banned outright categories. No where is it more clear that words do not mean what we often assume they mean than in the pages of Derrida. There, context and juxtaposition break open new or peripheral connotations- even at times the baggage is what is deconstructed.

2) Our word choice- whether by conscious choice or by range of vocabulary- draws lines. That is inevitable within theological discourse. The liberal move (both conservative and progressive) to set certain terms outside of the theological lexicon is to draw a line in the sand. It should then strike with some irony when those who favor inclusivity in practice champion the “unredeemable” nature of certain words.  It says to those who find meaning and liberation in certain words that they are patriarchal or colonial in their outlook simply because of their vocabulary (and not their practice). This is most problematic for me as I think back to experiences within African American churches where the words we were hung up on are still part of a clear “liberation theology” within which they are frequently used.

3) Thus, as I said in the hangout, the need for greater intercultural capacity is central to theological conversations. At the recent gathering of the Missio Alliance I found myself doing a lot of “translating”. While I can easily say that some of the vocabulary and even some of the questions were not my own, I was keen on discerning the context for the shared discussion. There were times I disagreed with some of the theological assertions (especially the assertion that our root problems were with the “Hellenization of the Hebrew narrative). However, I heard within the multiple cultures gathered there a desire to reclaim mission as the primary nature of the church.  There is clearly a negative approach to this- they are not speaking my language, not using my words so they must “not get it”. I really appreciated Dana pressing into the conversation by asking, not if the words were the wrong ones, but if there were other theological categories and assumptions at work. That question, to me, gets past the cultural questions and digs into the true distinctions. Also. Laura’s question about ritual and language needs further discussion and I think is a fruitful place for further conversation about the juxtaposition of words and signs.

The final pay off, for me, in the extended discussion of language and vocabulary was to identify the implications for the Incarnation of Christ for the way we understand our words.  To put it in the terms of Prodigal Christianity,  the Prodigality of God of the coming in the flesh, into a particular time and culture forces us to wrestle with the contingencies of language and embodiment. So, in the end, I am with Matt and Geoff, that the pastoral task is key. Our words are malleable and yet, it is always central to the theological (and intercultural) nature of our conversations to expand our vocabulary. Using one set of words to the exclusion of others is to limit our understanding and practice- whether the terms are masculine or feminine, kingdom or explicitly egalitarian.

In the end, this particular Hangout and discussion for the NuDunkers was a fruitful discussion of theological language. While I didn’t foresee that as the aim of the book, this is a good example of how the conversation matters, and that the contributions of those gathered enriches the conversation greatly.


Filed under Book Discussion, NuDunkers

4 responses to “The Prodigal God and Our Language

  1. Scott Holland

    Josh, I read your thoughtful post after my own drive from Ohio back to the seminary. To much of what you have written I would respond, “Elementary, Dear Brockway, elementary.” Thus, in general, I agree. All language has a surplus or excess of meaning as Derrida’s teacher Paul Ricoeur taught us many years ago.

    However, Derrida would remind us that our choice of language also has powerful political implications. I suppose my central critique of the NuDunker theological agenda is that you all typically cling to the language of classical, orthodox and evangelical Christendom despite your firm rejections of the category of Christendom. Granted, at your best, you use the language against the language: thus, the kingdom becomes a critique of all modern empires.

    To state it another way, you are perhaps not adequately Hellenized. You and I have traveled these roads together before far from our old Ohio homelands so I shall be brief. If Christian theology began when when Greek questions were first asked about a Jewish story, and I think we both agree that this was the dynamic at work in the composition of early Christian theology, then why cling to the earliest Hellenized language games of Christendom? Why not be even more sophisticated Greeks in your poetics?

    We are now all Jews and Greeks as late modern or postmodern Christian theologians. As Derrida would say, we are Jew-Greeks and Greek-Jews. In fact, if we have cosmopolitan affections, we are all Asians, Africans, Europeans and people of the Americas. Some of us who still do theology in conversation with the Anabaptist-Pietist polygenesis and polyphony find ourselves both playing and dissenting from the language games of old Jews, Greeks and Germans. Some days we are informed by political concerns. Other days we are inspired by the search for a more satisfying aesthetic.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Indeed, elementary. And yet, I am trying to not assume that people reading here have ventured into the whole trajectory of Wittgenstein, Riceour, and Foucault. I, for one, have read only enough to make my comments dangerous 🙂

      Sorry to not reply for a while. I have been on the road a lot lately. So getting back to comments with the right attention they deserve has been a challenge.

      Two parts of your comments Scott have been hanging with me.

      First, yes and yes. Language, especially the selection of terms is a powerful act. Setting not only the terms to be used but also the questions to be asked is an act of power- maybe even privilege. I think this is clear not only from our pal Ricoeur, but also from Foucault. Setting the community boundaries for not only language but culture is an act of power. That translates, I think, to the limiting of language. Setting certain terms as taboo or even anathema is equally an act of power- and privilege. In some ways, the liberal (both conservative and progressive in form) deciding on the appropriate lexicon for conversation is a remnant of Christendom as well- in that it is a desire to shape the language and question from a particular perspective. By trying to point to the context and use of language I am hoping to point to the quality of the power. In other words I am not denying the power to name and define, but hoping to use that power more in quality of “power with” rather than a “power over.” As with my work with Richard Valantasis’ definition of Asceticism in his essay in the Journal for the American Academy of Religion entitle “Constructions of Power”- this kind of power to transform includes what he calls the “creation of a new symbolic universe.”

      Second, related to the kinaesthetics. Yes. We don’t just come to words and “symbolic universes” by getting the right ideas. This conversation about language should point us to the ways we accept or reject the words with our bodies.

  2. Josh,
    I really appreciated your post. I also found Scott’s comment helpful. However, I think (at least for my part) some push back is necessary. First, I am with you both (as well as Derrida and Ricoeur) that “language has a surplus of meaning.” I would also add that as both McIntyre and Gadamer teach us, language is imbedded in larger human narratives and thus are dependent upon these communities for meaning. Secondly, as to the NuDunkers clinging “to the language of classical, orthodox and evangelical Christendom,” I would argue that while the symbols may be the same or similar, the communities from which they are spoken are quite different. While I can’t speak for the rest of the NuDunkers, I will say that as far as I’m concerned my desire to use the language is accidental to these other stories (although I must say that I’m not convinced that “orthodoxy” is something to intentionally avoid). The premise for using these images (language) is more about a desire (and I suppose commitment) to remain grounded in the metanarrative to which I am a part. Scott’s comment has been beneficial in that it has forced clarification as to some of my own presuppositions, one of which is that I have faith in the God revealed in scripture through Jesus, the Christ, and lived out in the Spirit filled and led community. This, in my opinion, is why we “cling” not to language of Christendom or North American evangelical theology, but to language drawn from the texts of the first Christians (who happened to be Hellenized Jews). I suppose this is all to say that I reject the categories and presumptions of modernity (and its children) and seek a different way.

  3. Pingback: NuDunkers: Moving Beyond Language to Hospitality | Hermes Table

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