Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.