What is the most vexing problem in theology?
In the next few posts I'm going to argue that the rise of the bourgeoisie is the most problematic development in modern theology. Behind just about every theological call for community or missionality or Trinity or anti-Empire ethics sits the problem of the bourgeoisie. In these posts I'd like to explain how the bourgeoisie are the rock theology is banging its head against.
In this post I want to talk about identity, specifically the rise of the Western bourgeois identity.
Behind every call for church to be "community" or a reclaiming of the "Trinity" or for an ontology of "being as communion" sits a background assumption. Community, Trinity, and "being as communion" are preached over against a prevaling norm. And that norm is the Western notion of identity and personhood.
As most are aware, the Western notion of personhood stresses autonomy, individualism, and interiority. This view of the self is relatively new and many theologians have noted its pernicious impact upon both theology and the life of the church. The recommendation is to reclaim a more ancient and more healthy notion of self, where people are not isolated individuals but persons who gain identity through communion with others. For example, God's very being is defined communally. Thus, the Western notion of selfhood flies in the face of the very fabric of existence.
The point is, almost every pernicious spiritual practice we see today has its root in a notion of selfhood that prioritizes individualism over relationality, autonomy over interdependence, and interiority over community. So the question is: If this Western notion of identity is so bad where did it come from? And why is the Western identity so hard to exchange if such better options are available?
Think about it. How often have we heard sermons or read theology blog posts extolling a more communal and relational existence? How often have we heard sermons or read theology blog posts calling for a church life defined by communal participation in the life of the Triune God? A lot. We've heard all this a lot. Well, let's pause to ask a simple question: If these calls are such great options why are they not more effective? What has the Western notion of identity got going for it that makes it feel like the better option, despite theological claims to the contrary?
To answer these questions we'll need to back up and trace the rise of the Western identity and how it is intimately tied up with the rise of the bourgeoisie.
To trace this history I'm going to borrow from Charles Taylor's analysis in Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.
In Sources, Taylor argues that modern identity began to take a turn inward starting with Plato and Augustine. Eventually, this turn inward was furthered through the work of Descartes and Locke. As Taylor summarizes:
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was Augustine who introduced the inwardness of radical reflexivity [Taylor's term of art for a strong first-person stance] and bequeathed it to the Western tradition of thought. The step was a fateful one, because we have certianly made a big thing of the first-person standpoint. The modern epistemological tradition from Descartes, and all that has followed from it in modern culture, has made this standpoint fundamental--to the point of aberration, one might think.
Taylor goes on to discuss how this turn toward individuality was linked to another development of Western identity, what Taylor calls the "affirmation of the ordinary life":
'Ordinary life' is a term of art...to designate those aspects of human life concerned with production and reproduction, that is, labour, the making of things needed for life, and our life as sexual beings, including marriage and the family.
This focus upon the "ordinary life"--the life of work and family--created a new ethic, a bourgeois ethic that claimed that civic order and peace is built upon decent, disciplined folk:
The ethic of the bourgeois ordinary life displayed a "horror at disorder: at a social disorder, in which undisciplined gentry and the unemployed and rootless poor, the underclass of rogues, beggars, and vagabonds, pose a constant threat to social peace; at personal disorder, in which licentious desires and the hold of intemperate practices make impossible all discipline and steadiness of life; and the connection between the two disorders and the way they feed on each other.
What was needed was personal discipline first, individuals capable of controlling themselves and taking responsibility for their lives; and then a social order based on such people.
This bourgeois ethic was one of the engines of capitalism and the technological revolution:
Weber thought that the Puritan notion of the calling helped to foster a way of life focused on disciplined and rationalized and regular work, coupled with frugal habits of consumption, and that this form of life greatly facilitated the implantation of industrial capitalism...A spiritual outlook which stressed the necessity of continuous disciplined work, work which should be of benefit to people and hence ought to be efficacious, and which encouraged sobriety and restraint in the enjoyment of its fruits surely must be recognized as one of the formative influences of the work ethic of modern capitalistic culture...
Importantly, the bourgeois ethic states that work and family life are worship, the vocation one is called to in service of the Lord. What one owes both God and Society is an orderly and disciplined life at work and at home.
This, the modern bourgeois identity, is the big theological boogieman. It's a boogieman because the bourgeois identity has been so productive, sociologically speaking. As Taylor notes in his book The Secular Age the rise of the bourgeois "disciplinary society" created massive changes across the whole of Latin Christendom. The bourgeois identity and ethic brought both social stability and prosperity.
The question theology must ask is: Can the bourgeois ethic be replaced with anything of comparable effectiveness?
Let me be concrete. Christian and Marxist revolutions are often being preached at the bourgeoisie. But it is very unclear what the bourgeoisie are to do on Monday morning if they are to pay the rent. So they get up and go back to work. And that is the root dilemma of modern theology. People go back to work. If you want to change this, to offer a true alternative, you need to carve out a new mode of living, one not contingent upon participating in a bourgeois career. Few people lambasting the bourgeois identity actually make an offer of this kind. A few cults do.
So in the vacuum of this offer people head to work on Monday morning. And if they go back to work, church life is going to have to fit in around the edges of bourgeoisie existence. Church life or missional living is always going to be fighting over the scraps of what is left over from the bourgeois work week.
And, as I'll argue, that might not be such a bad thing.
What is the most vexing problem in theology?