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Public Theology: When Bloch Pointed to the Cages Outside the Cathedral
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When Bloch Pointed to the Cages Outside the Cathedral
Scott Holland speaks of Public Theology at an Anabaptists and Postmodernity conference, mentions Ernst Bloch and Johannes Baptist Metz.

By Scott Holland

Editor's Note: The following is an abstract of a presentation given by Scott Holland at the Anabaptists and Postmodernity conference, August 6-8, 1998 at Bluffton College, Bluffton, Ohio. It appears on the web at this address, but it is presented in full below in case that site moves; it is a very interesting statement about the (im)possibility of a public theology.

One afternoon Ernst Bloch and Johannes Baptist Metz were walking the streets of the city of Münster. As their conversation turned to political theology, Bloch pointed to the three iron cages that still hang outside the Saint Lamberti Cathedral. Heretics of the Radical Reformation were executed in those cages and their bodies and bones remained on public display as a warning to dissenters and witness to the triumph of imperial Christendom. "One must do theology from there," Bloch said to the Baptist.

Although Bloch's declaration was driven by important political concerns, pragmatic considerations would also lead one to conclude that if theology is to continue as a mode of reflection at the end of this century, it must be conceived after Christendom in creative spaces outside the Cathedral. Both modern statisticians and postmodern theorists agree: the grand temple of Western Christendom can no longer seduce and satisfy the religious imagination nor can its old Constantinian heresy provide an interesting or instructive vision of God in the world. God is dead or eclipsed or exiled.

Yet as Bloch's prophetic gesture implied, if God is to indeed return, it will be from the cages, from the margins, from life's liminal spaces, from somewhere other. In the development of a postmodern theopoetics, I have elsewhere argued that "theology is a kind of writing." Attentive to Bloch, and informed by the theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, my presentation will contend that as a kind of writing, theology is a minor literature which makes intensive and transgressive use of a major language as a witness to the representational incompleteness in all discourse.

Current, creative scholarship is reminding us of two of Christendom's others: Anabaptists and Jews. Roger Badham has recently written: "The Anabaptists became, in their radical otherness, a voluntary Christian counterpart to the Jewish communities in Europe. Like the Jews, they were seen as outside the homogenizing structures of society. Like the Jews, they offered Europe early warning of the pluralism to come and were persecuted for their difference."

Anabaptist and Jewish theological expressions were and in fact are "minor literatures" within the dominant discourse of God-talk. While such minor literatures can be tempted by the tribalistic arrogance or sectarian withdrawal, they can also be truly public discourses as they work within, through, and even against more dominant expressions of theological writing to render it incomplete, unstable and unsafe. This imaginative theological composition invites the return of the repressed and exiled; indeed, it invites the return of the Other.

Deleuze and Guattari turn to Kafka as a fine example of the importance of a minor literature. Franz Kafka believed that "writing is a form of prayer." As all faithful Anabaptist preachers and Jewish rabbis know, prayer opens one to an Infinity that reveals every totality to be not only incomplete, but idolatrous.

When Bloch pointed to those tragic and terrible cages, could it be that his eschatological gaze and voice were announcing a possibility even more terrifying than that ghastly sight: the postmodern return of God? Sweet revenge and holy redemption? Real public theology?

Scott Holland Monroeville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren

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Date Added: 6/3/2002 Date Revised: 6/3/2002

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