Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PhD proposal: the church in social crisis

I have been asked by a few people to post my PhD proposal, if for no other reason than for a good laugh when it morphs into something completely different. I thought this might be an apt way of un-pausing this blog and getting people talking again. Feel free to comment, question, critique, suggest, laugh or award me an honorary doctorate as you see fit.

First, the one paragraph version for those who are time-starved.

“In view of the present distress”
The role of the church in a society in crisis
How does an experience of severe social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community in its relationship to broader society? Via historical case studies and in dialogue with significant contemporary thinkers, this project will develop a theological perspective integrating insights from ecclesiology, ethics, eschatology and political theology in order to provide suggestions to the contemporary church in its service of and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
For those with a little more stamina, here is the full proposal (700 words):
“In view of the present distress”
The role of the church in a society in crisis
The church is not immune from the troubles of the various societies amongst which it exists. How does an experience of extreme social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community? What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be faithful together when the broader society is under dire threat? What scriptural, theological, ethical, emotional or historical resources can the church draw upon at such times?

The scriptural tradition of both testaments records a number of catastrophes for the people of God and the series of social worlds they inhabited. What was the nature and basis of hope-filled response at such times? How did the structure, practices and beliefs of these communities function to sustain or undermine patterns of human social existence?

These questions are of more than idle interest in our own time. One of the defining features of recent decades has been, at least amongst some groups, a growing awareness of the depth and breadth of a range of ecological, social and resource crises facing an increasingly globalised human society. Numerous interconnected factors cumulatively present a grave and urgent threat to society as it currently exists.

While the global extent and technologically-enhanced degree of environmental degradation are a novelty historically speaking, ours is certainly not the first society to face a crisis that threatens the basis of its continued existence. Over the centuries, Christian communities have found themselves amidst societies undergoing rapid change, foreign invasion, sustained economic and cultural decline or even sudden collapse.

And so I would like to pursue my question through a historical lens in order to see what might be gained from a critical investigation into how the church has responded to instances of social crisis and decline in the past. Possible case studies could include one or more of the following: the response of Augustine and others to the fall of Rome in 410 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Western empire around this time); the Eastern response to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (and/or the broader pattern of decline in the Eastern empire); various patterns of ecclesiastical response to the Black Death in fourteenth century Europe; or the trajectories of State and Confessing churches in Nazi Germany. In all these instances, although the nature and origin of the threat varied, the Christian community found itself with the opportunity and responsibility to adopt a variety of functions with respect to the ailing society, from palliative care to armed dissent.

A selection of these case studies will provide material for critical reflection, in order to develop a theological perspective on possibilities open to the contemporary church. This theological perspective will be formed and enriched by integrating insights from ecclesiology, eschatology, ethics and political theology. To complement the various historical theologians associated with the case studies (e.g. Augustine, Gregory Palamas, medieval and reformation advice on dealing with plague, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), this project will also interact with a selection of contemporary writers with significant contributions to discussions of the role of the church in society. Potentially fruitful interlocutors with whom I am already familiar include: Oliver O’Donovan, Stanley Hauerwas, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, Jürgen Moltmann, N. T. Wright, John Milbank, William Cavanaugh and Bernd Wannenwetsch.

The theological perspective orienting this proposal may be briefly outlined as follows. The gospel of Christ finds its most faithful expression today in hope-filled communities that subvert the idolatry of our cultural obsession with consumption, as well as the growing panic over ecological doom that is its increasingly likely result. Although there may be no divine promise of cultural continuity or even civilizational survival, a community founded upon belief in a divine word and driven by an eschatological hope of resurrection for human life and its entire created environment is able to engage in open-eyed loving service without fear. Christian hope is not otherworldly, yet by giving an origin to hope that transcends the present ecological and social order, believers are liberated to admire, care for, critique and enrich this order as a sign of trust that God’s purposes for his good world are not thwarted by decay.

The practical outcome of this study will include suggestions to the contemporary church in its service, witness and opposition to a society that appears to be entering a time of heightened ecological, economic and cultural distress.
Obviously, this needs quite a bit more narrowing down, since at the moment I've basically said "I'd like to talk about Jesus and stuff, you know, looking at most of church history and anyone I can think of who's still around and talking about what happens when there's a problem."

Since writing the proposal, three further thoughts have helped give it a little more shape. First, I am interested not simply in any old crisis in society (war, famine, pandemic, interest rate rise, celebrity gaining a few kilos), but in a crisis of society, that is, a crisis in sociality, situations in which the fabric of social life is undermined. Second, I think I'd like to look at collective deliberation and resolution, how society discerns and pursues the common good. How is that impeded by the kind of crisis of society I just mentioned and (how) does the gospel (and/or the practices of the church in response to the gospel) shape the possibilities of constructive and creative collective deliberation and resolution? Not that I'm saying that the this is the primary function or purpose of the gospel, but might it be a blessed side-effect? Finally, a few people have expanded my possible case studies, especially with historical and contemporary scenarios from the two-thirds world.

I realise I need to define "crisis" (not to mention "society" and "church"!). I'd love to hear suggestions of books to read, especially if someone has already answered this question.
If you are going to mention the latter, please also supply a replacement topic. Thanks!


Megan said...

Sounds interesting! I am in the midst of trying to come up with a ThD topic.........so well done on getting yours together - even if it changes. I am also considering looking at ecclesiology - currently thinking about unity and evangelicals...yes still broad.

Richard H said...

A few questions come to mind:
1. Is what is perceived as a crisis by "society," necessarily seen as such by the church?
2. Is there a difference between societal crisis and societal change?
3. How do we (either as participants in society or as members of the church) evaluate a social crisis? Surely some crises are for the good.
4. I don't know how things are where you live, but where I live politicians do all they can to magnify each crisis so they can present themselves and their proposals in messianic terms. It would seem then, that part of the church's role, if we are opposed to the deification of the state (and its operators) will be to be skeptical about some cries of crisis.

mike said...

I know it may be hard to find the resources for, but are there case studies where the christian communities simply haven't survived? Where the christian presence and hope is forgotten or lost?

Mister Tim said...

Sounds interesting. I'd be interested in reading it when you're done, and hearing your thoughts in the meantime.

I'm interested in why you think there is a crisis in sociality now. I understand the convergence of the factors you have identified, but doesn't every society see crises that affect them?

That aside, your choice of case studies sound very safe. Knowing you, I would have expected you to pick some more unusual case studies. Did you pick those ones because they were times when the church* responded well? Perhaps another approach would be to identify a significant societal crisis where you don't know about the church's response and see if you can find any information about what the church's response actually was. Similar to mike's suggestion, I think it would be interesting to also examine times when the church didn't respond as well, at least for a point of comparison.

* in the global sense, meaning Christian community.

byron smith said...

Megan - ecclesial unity or some other kind? Where are you thinking of studying?

Richard - 1. No, not at all.
2. Yes - not every change threatens the social fabric equally.
3. Yes, some are indeed for the good. This is an important point. How do we evaluate? A complex question and one that I'll need to think about. Do you have any ideas?
4. I agree about politicians needing to be seen as crisis managers (though political messianism is considerably more muted in Australia (and the UK) than in the US). And I agree that often scepticism is required when faced with yet another crisis. This is part of my hesitation with even using the (much abused) language of crisis. However, I haven't found a better term so far. Social catastrophe? Societal collapse? As I said, I am interested less in the daily crises that hit the headlines and more with particular points in which a given society faces the real and imminent threat of its own demise (or radical transformation, if you prefer). Even if the danger is averted, I'm interested in how that threat affects the processes of mutual deliberating and resolving.

Mike - yes, I'm sure there have been. The Norse settlement on Greenland is one example. There must be others.

Tim - Thanks for your thoughts, with which I largely agree.

Yes, every society faces "crises", but not all crises are equal. It seems that there is something novel about our present situation (which I do not yet call a crisis) - namely, that the threatened negative effects are global in scope. It is not simply this or that society that has undermined the conditions of its own existence, but the claim (of e.g. many environmental scientists) is that humanity as a whole is doing so. I don't think that we're presently at the stage of the social fabric unravelling, but if (when?) our civilisation faces a sustained period (or sudden jolt) of decline* (whether as the result of ecological damage or some other reason), will we pull together or fall apart into competing tribes? This is a question at both the international (warfare over dwindling resources?) and national levels (potential breakdown of civil society?).
*At this stage, let's just say demographic decline to keep it simple.

To be honest, my suggested case studies in the proposal were picked without a great deal of thought. I don't want to end up writing a historical thesis and so I am a little ambivalent about the place of these suggestions. I am quite happy to consider other ones. It was reading Augustine and thinking about the decline of the Western Empire (e.g. many demographers estimate that the population of Western Europe halved after the end of the Western Empire) which was part of what got me started on this train of thought.

I'm not sure that in any of my case studies the church responded particularly well. But I take your point about widening my focus to lesser known examples. However, as I said, I don't think I want my project to be primarily historical. I am in the Theology and Ethics research area rather than the Ecclesiastical History research area and I think I'm quite happy with that.

Love to hear any further thoughts as and when they come to you. Peace.

Sam Norton said...

Looks fascinating - but I'm surprised you haven't mentioned Julian of Norwich.

byron smith said...

Yes, that's who I had in mind if I were going to look at the plague, though I hadn't clarified that when I wrote the proposal. As I said above, the possible case studies were thrown in without a great deal of thought and I'm still not sure what place a historical angle might have in the project.

remylow said...

'Liberation Theology After the End of History: The refusal to cease suffering' by Daniel M. Bell might be helpful.

byron smith said...

Thanks for the suggestion. Dan Bell gave a great paper in Rome on Augustine, though I haven't read anything by him. What is it about that book that struck you as being particularly relevant?

remylow said...

i found Bell's book insightful re: the Church in Latin America and its [attempted] response to dictatorships and economic exploitation using liberation theology, and retrospectively analysing its successes and failures from a thelogical/ecclesiological point of view.

Bell helpfully points out that while LibTheo was a useful corrective to the situation of church collaborating with the oppressive status quo, it succumbed to the logic of "statecraft", thus losing its distinctive character as the Church.

He then goes on to point out where LibTheo can go after the "triumph of capitalism" and neoliberalism (a la Fukuyama) - in practices of forgiveness, in waiting for God, in refusing to cease suffering.

I thought Bell's book might interest you re: your Q's "How does an experience of extreme social stress affect the possibilities and dangers faced by the Christian community? What does it mean for followers of Jesus to be faithful together when the broader society is under dire threat?" Esp. given the latin american church has endured and continues to endure "crises" of brutal oppression and exploitation, and now consumerism and "MTV-ism".

From a paper Bell wrote on this topic, which i presume eventually became the book, he wrote:

"as the work of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault suggests, in the era of global capitalism, the ecclesiological innovations introduced by Latin American liberationists have proven insufficiently radical. A more radical ecclesiology, one that
avoids the depoliticizing acids of modernity and posits the church as a public in its own right provides a glimpse of what comes after the end of history."

i can email you this paper if it interests you.

enjoy your research!

remylow said...

also a good 'twin' to Bell's book is 'Torture and the Eucharist' by Willam T Cavanaugh, but i'm sure you've come across that one as it's more popular.

Alan Wood said...


Here are three pros and two cons:

+ People ceased to see each other as human, only as Tutsi or Hutu - the one-one relationships, that you then build one-many and many-many relationships out of, were just eaten away over time. It's a relatively pure collapse of sociality;
+ Very high (if nominal) Christian population;
+ Probably a bunch of stuff written about it without any of it asking your question in your way;
- I don't know if the Christians in Rwanda did a good job of prophetic critique then or have done since - it may not show what the church can do;
- Probably most of the stuff that's insightful and helpful will be in French*.

*which as an Australian I trust you can't read as well as they all seem to in the Home country.

byron smith said...

remylow - thanks, I'd love a copy of that article if you'd be happy to send it: bg at thesmiths dot id dot au.

And I've been meaning to read that Cavanaugh text for a while.

Alan - someone else suggested Rwanda recently. I was recently reading Jared Diamond (Collapse), who suggests that not all the violence was racially motivated, but there is evidence of intraracial violence with economic motive (land-squabbles for small-hold farmers and the wider violence gave them the cover of chaos to pursue their private disputes murderously). Thanks for the tip. And you're right about my French, though I have just started some German.

alan wood said...

Racially motivated? No, I wouldn't have said that either if I'd thought about it.

Enabled/validated/framed by racist categories, yep.

I've got a chapter in a book somewhere that suggests T and H were concepts for 'farmer' and 'herdsman' in precolonial times - then they got frozen by people being issued with papers. So the resource conflict that Diamond points to sounds true, perhaps as a Cain/Abel (or Gideon/Midian) thing. But when occupational distinctions become racial, the other guy isn't a guy anymore. He's not my neighbour, he's an invader. And if I try to see the similarities ('he's not a squatter, he's a selector like me') that makes him even more a direct competitor, and (b/c nonhuman) even more a threat to be eliminated.

Thanks for making me think about it.

beholdtheman said...

If you really want to impress do a piece on Nietzsche as the lamb of God who takes away the notions of sin and guilt from the world, setting the captives free to embrace life. No accreditation necessary.

Murray said...

Hi Byron, I'm looking forward to reading it! A small thought: the whole idea that Rome was in decline in the fourth century leading up to the barbarian invasions has been seriously questioned recently (eg. A. Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, HUP). I don't think this matters much for your thesis, since the barbarian invasions certainly constituted some kind of crisis (however you define it) ... but if you are going to do a case study on Augustine it is probably worth being aware of ...

byron smith said...

Thanks for the tip - though I think I'm more interested in what happened during and after the invasions (can I call that a decline?), which may mean that Augustine isn't the right figure in any case. Hmmm, just got back from a research methods lecture in which O'D was stressing the importance of selecting a primary text. I'm feeling fairly at sea on this at the moment.

Sam Norton said...

On that subject - of collapse - I would highly recommend Joseph Tainter's 'The Collapse of Complex Societies' if you haven't already read it.

byron smith said...

Thanks Sam - it's on my list from when you mentioned it a while back. Diamond also referenced it.

mike said...

Hi Byron,
I've just been reading a new book that CMS Australia has released called 'One land, One Saviour'. It's a collection of essays on mission work in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. I thought that this might make another interesting case study for your thesis as 1. It is a non-western society that is collapsing. 2. Historically, the church has an ambiguous role in the collapse of that culture and society 3. It should be fairly well documented. 4. It is a modern example where small christian communities are some of the last people trying to hold things together.

Plus, it beats Rwanda because the stuff wont be in French!

byron smith said...

Thanks Mike, that's a fascinating suggestion. I'll have to think about it more. Still not sure what role (if any) a case might play.

charlescameron said...

Just taking a look at the PhD theme after posting, at your other blog, a "belated welcome to Scotland" message. When I was doing my work on Berkouwer, I followed up on my interest in sociology by writing a bit about a Christian response to Marxism. This is in my book - part of a section on "Social Concern" (pp. 284-332). If you don't find the book, you can find posts on Christianity and Marxism here.
You may also find something of interest at the Gospel and Culture website.
May God bless you in your health and your studies.

standrews said...

Following on from the previous comment - "The Christianity and Marxism" link won't work. If you're still at New College, you'll find the book that I mentioned - "The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G C Berkouwer" in the Library (I found it there a number of years ago!).
I've just read "Three and a half years on" (Aug 24, 2010) at your other blog - "praise God!"
Best wishes for the future.
May God bless you in your health and your studies