Saturday, August 09, 2014

Who is Robert Saler?

I don't inquire into Robert Saler's identity because he is mysterious and unknown in the mode of Thomas Pynchon. And I don't ask it in order to launch an ad hominem discourse undermining his authorship based on biographical or personal details.

I ask the question because Robert Saler, in his new book, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Emerging Scholars), launches an inquiry into what he calls "theological authorship" and this in relationship to the place of such authorship in the life of the church and the method by which we establish authorial authority.

I don't need to review Saler's CV here. You can read it for yourself if you're curious. Instead, what I'd like to do in this review is simply ask a set of questions relative to Saler's central thesis, but employ those questions in the direction of the intellectual product he has brought to us--namely, a book that originated as a dissertation.

Let's start with the dissertation. Saler's book is published in an outstanding new monograph series from Fortress Press, the Emerging Scholars Series. This is a curated, selective dissertation series dedicated to highlighting creative, innovative new projects from new scholars in biblical studies, theology, and Christian history.

Since Saler in his dissertation posits that theological authorship as we understand it is particularly influenced by the 19th century valorization of originality and innovation as essential elements of the authorial craft, we might consider the entire Emerging Scholars series as a living example of this 19th century valorization.

Saler further argues that this innovation is the most salient feature of authorship for self-authentication, above other things like obligation to an ecclesial tradition or governing structures of a church. I would add to Saler's point one further thesis, that although authors in such a series are not beholden to a specific ecclesial tradition or governing structure, they are however subject to the "curating" process of the publishing house that may or may not publish their dissertation, and further subject to the critical review of their dissertation readers. Since Saler wrote his dissertation for a Lutheran seminary, and published it with a Lutheran publishing house, there may be more of a magisterium in place than he acknowledges in his book. And curiously, his book is a product of a magisterium that is also in some sense the marketplace.

But returning to Saler's central thesis and concept, Saler takes time, as many dissertations do, to place his argument within an historical and theological context. This is actually one of my favorite reasons for reading dissertations, and Saler's in particular. It is often illuminating and gratifying to walk through a theological period, or be re-introduced to theological authors, out of the perspective of a theologian and academic who has spent the past few years immersing themselves deeply in their work.

Here is Saler's central thesis: Authorship is always a kind of political transaction with authorization and therefore authority. In the case of theological authorship, the clear and most compelling option for establishing authority is what theologians often call the teaching authority of the church--the magisterium.

In order to get us to concede his point, after a rather fascinating historical comparison of Tyndale and More in their exchanges over theological authorship, Saler walks us through a comparison of Schleiermacher and Newman, with Newman offering the catholic, magisterial option, and Schleiermacher grounding the poetic, virtuoso marketplace author. These two chapters illustrate the historical and research work any author of a dissertation needs to accomplish in order to establish themselves with any kind of authority as an author deserving of a ph.D.

Along the way, Saler coins a term, "polis ecclesiologists," to classify (perhaps too broadly and simply) a set of theologians who believe it is desirable to have a concrete, enduring, and visible magisterium that establishes the public teaching function of the church in the world. Into this camp he tosses authors like Reinhard Hütter, Ola Tjørhom, Carl Braaten R.R. Reno, and Paul Griffiths, many of whom have converted to Roman Catholicism, and/or are Lutherans with an evangelical catholic disposition.

For this reason, Saler's book is an excellent primer or inquiry into the evangelical catholic movement within Lutheranism.

Here are some of my enduring questions for Saler. First, given that he sees the "polis ecclesiology" as the most sustainable alternative to his proposal of church as diffused spatialized event, I do wonder why he so readily elides the Schleiermacher option from his constructive proposal. He has a rather humorous way of summarizing this midway in his book: Enter the theologian as hip virtuoso; enter the genius as doctrinal author" (82). What's so bad about this approach, actually? It takes place in the marketplace, which Saler finds problematic... and yet his very arguments are made as Saler the hip, virtuoso theologian, and whether we trust Saler in his overall argument rests to a considerable extent on whether we consider Saler a genius doctrinal author.

Furthermore, I wonder where rationality is in all of this. Saler himself relies on rationality through and through. This is an incredibly well-argued and programmatic dissertation. Saler establishes the truth of his claims through rational argumentation, yet rationality as a form of authorial authorization does not make an appearance in the book. It makes me wonder if Saler believes rationality is counter to the weakness and diffusive spatiality he posits as the concrete alternative to a public church with a magisterium. 

Saler writes, "To the extent that one wishes to have the church function as a concrete, distinct public with the means of authorizing theological production in such a way that escapes the logic of the marketplace, then a magisterium is necessary" (176). Saler concedes this point, but I believe it concedes too much, but in a direction somewhat different than he intends. It gives up on the marketplace, which is one kind of problem. It also fails to consider other loci for authorization such as rationality itself, or even other positivist options like Barth's Word of God.

In his concluding chapter, Saler takes up the task of describing the alternative, church as diffusively spatialized event, through the work of Joseph Sittler in his Called to Unity speech. For Saler, the church is not best thought of in spatial terms as a concrete, visible publi that is self-present to its own authorization (187), but rather as diffusively spatialized event. 

Saler takes a very puzzling turn at this point. Instead of investing time in the concluding chapter outlining what this ecclesiology might entail, he launches a lengthy inquiry into Barth's Romerbrief (in dialectical conversation with Spivak's Can the Subaltern Speak?), arguing that the book itself models the nature and task of the church that Barth envisions, an intriguing and fully realized eschatology. As odd as this sounds, I think Saler means it. In other words, Barth's Romans commentary IS the diffuse, spatialized event Saler proposes as an alternative ecclesiology to the magisterium of the polis ecclesiologists.

Where does this leave us, then? As strange as it sounds, and as overwhelmingly bookish as Saler's proposal ends up being, I think I largely agree with it, even if perhaps for different reasons than Saler. I think Saler is arguing here that the church exists in the world much like Barth's Roman's commentary exists in the world. It has no specific power per se, and yet that book when it came on the scene set off an explosion that rocked the theological world, and set the course of the church in some new directions. At the same time, even though Barth's theology has been strong in that sense of changing the course of theology, it has never, unlike the work of some other theologians, firmly claimed or formed a "movement." There's not a Barth church. Instead, the internal inconsistencies and weakness of his work have left his theology more diffuse, spatialized but not thoroughly public, an event rather than a building.

He writes, "I constructed a vision of authorship in which the destabilized subjectivity of the author, the necessary failure of theology to achieve total representation of God or God's creatures, and the ultimate 'worthlessness' of that theology to the marketplace are positive goods to be welcomed by Christians seeking to live out their lives as witnesses to God's redemptive mission toward all creation" (236-237). Worthless, but I have a feeling Fortress Press hopes to make some money selling Saler's book?

Although I wish Saler would have gotten more constructive in his constructive chapter, I admit that most dissertations leave that portion of their work weak, and perhaps on purpose, because the focus of dissertation writing is more on the historical inquiry and research, the assembly of resources to make a new argument, so the argument itself is the main constructive work rather than the proposals that emerge from it. In this sense, Saler's conclusion is apt, and inspiring: "In the near future, it will be important for other ecclesiologists to follow suit with similarly critical assessments of how the 'marketplace' of academic theology can and can't host 'worthless' truth telling" (238). 

Or this: "Like all ecclesial codifications, denominations as entities are under holy threat by the unpredictability of the church event, and for that threat they should be profoundly grateful" (233). So my last question: Can a published dissertation be a church event?


  1. Too deep for me......a circular dialogue between intellectuals and designed to make the rest of us ordinary Christians feel out of touch with scholarly theology. Well, I guess I will go on my ignorant way.....just happy to be a child of God saved by grace.....and leave those deep and ambiguous thoughts to those who have more time on their hands and an audience to impress.

    1. John, I think that is a legitimate complaint that can be leveled against Saler's work, although then it is a complaint that would also have to apply to almost all dissertations... that they are a circular dialogue between intellectuals. I don't think they are designed to make ordinary Christians feel left out anymore than any academic inquiry in any field is designed to do so.

      As to whether or not we have time on our hands or audiences to impress, if you've read the blog, you at least have some time on your hands. And audiences to impress, well, there is always an audience that likes to criticize academic work for being too intellectual, so you may have more of an audience you are impressing than you realize.

      It does beg the question: By what authority have you gained the confidence to know you are a child of God saved by grace? The authority of Scripture? The authority of great teachers you trust? Reason? The point of Saler's book is to inquire into how authors gain the authority they do to proclaim the faith in a way that is trustworthy. So whether you are comfortable with the idea or not, the truth is you have made decisions about authorial authority in coming to the very fine faithful realization that you are a child of God saved by grace.

  2. You make some excellent points. I did not mean to imply that you are trying to impress an audience, as I really meant this for Saler, and those whose dissertations are meant for those who wish to go more deeply into theological issues than the ordinary Biblical Christian. As for your last comment, I trust my salvation based on the word of God alone, and believe it is entirely the result of what Jesus said, " It is the work of God that ye believe on Him who He has sent."

  3. Clint, I love your review, and find it engaging and intriguing. I think I need to read Saler's book now .... only one small little thing: Friedrich Schleiermacher wouldn't approve of what you did to the spelling of his name.

  4. I'm grateful to Clint for his critical engagement with my work, and the marvelously astute questions that he raises. I'll try to answer some below.

    Before I do, one quick note to echo Clint's comment to John Flanagan: without going into too much autobiographical detail, I will offer that I wrote this book while pastoring two congregations. One was deeply divided (to the point of pain) over the 2009 ELCA decisions regarding human sexuality; thus, the question "who gets to decide?" was alive and well there. The other was in an economically depressed city (indeed, one that regularly makes the list of highest per capita murder rates in the U.S.) where a small group of deeply faithful Lutherans was wrestling with whether and how our inherited theology could speak to the pain on the streets; thus, "how to be faithful in new situations" was also a daily question. So while the book is definitely written in the requisite academic prose for other specialists, I do think that its core questions touch at the heart of faithful Christian witness today. I certainly think of them every time I dare step into a pulpit these days.

  5. To some of Clint's questions, then:
    The argument of the book in a nutshell is that the "polis ecclesiologists" (which I admit is a broad term, but one that I think heuristically fits all of the theologians that Clint and I name) are right in that, TO THE EXTENT that one wishes for the church to be a concrete public that can take a stand in the marketplace on the basis of its own internal strength, then a magisterium is necessary. But therein lies the rub: I don’t want (or at least don’t acknowledge) a formal magisterium. Which means that it’s on me to outline a different ecclesiology, one that has no formal magisterium but also gives up, of necessity, any sense that the church Catholic exists as a concrete public. The existing “church” in our time (and indeed, for centuries) is a diffusively spatialized event.

    Does this “solve” the issue of the marketplace? No, but it raises the possibility of imperfectly navigating it, which is the best for which anyone can hope. While I find the polis ecclesiologists noble in their attempt to somehow exempt the church from the logic of the marketplace (although they have varying degrees of confidence in how this might actually go), I want to argue that the marketplace itself is inevitable. Clint is absolutely correct that there are deep tensions in my criticisms of the logic of late capitalism given that I am writing and selling a book; I think, too, that he rightly suspects that my constructive option ends up looking a lot more like the Schleiermachean exaltation of the virtuoso theologian. That’s perhaps true, but unlike Schleiermacher I see this kind of theological authorship as one that is best illustration by the FRAGMENTATION of theological authorship in our time into various strands of womanist, liberation, queer, philosophical, and dozens of other agonistic options. My voice is one tiny strand within that larger mix, but it’s a voice affirming the mix itself as having the potential to give rise to theology that speaks truth despite the pervasiveness of the market.

    So of course it’s the case that the marketplace over and against the church can host truth-telling in theology (for instance, in the North American academy, the theological marketplace caught on to liberation theology long before any North American ecclesial institutions did). But the dangers of commodification and fragmentation that serves market interests and not church interests is always there; it’s just that there’s no prefab way of warding off that danger. Theology is a highwire act, and there’s no magisterial net underneath.

  6. Meanwhile, Clint is correct that Barth’s Romerbrief functions for me as an illustration of how this might look (that is, ONE instance), but what he misses is how critical my blending of Barth is with another text: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak is crucial for my reading of Barth, not only because she keeps the book from being a total dudefest (a criticism that I’ll self-apply), but also because she shows how Barth’s text achieves its FAILURE of representation. Clint does pick up on that failure, but what’s important to me about Spivak’s essay is the fact that, although it is also “textual” as Clint says, it has at its heart a dead body – Spivak’s aunt, in fact, who commits suicide in a manner that is then thoroughly misrepresented within the marketplace of imperial politics. Without making too many theological claims for Spivak, I would point out that we Christians who proclaim “Christ, and him crucified” also stake our hope on a body on a cross – and indeed, ONE THAT IS ONLY MEDIATED TO US BY TEXT, that is, the gospels and those who preach on them. Just because a vision rests on texts does not meant that there aren’t bodies at stake, and for both Spivak and the gospel writers there clearly is such a body.

    On the question of rationality: do I trust reason in theology? Well, only in a very specific sense. Following Paul Griffiths but also Hans urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart, I tend to think of Christian reason as having a seductive rather than a coercive function. That is, elegantly constructed arguments in theology persuade, not on the basis of compelling “logic” based on universally acknowledged rational axioms (since, as we know, no such universally recognized axioms exist), but rather on the basis of offering a vision of the good and the beautiful (and thus, only consequently, the “true”). But notice, too, this throws us back into the inevitable arena of the marketplace, since hollow commodities have a beautiful shine to them even as dead bodies on crosses seem ugly at first (“foolishness to the Greeks”). So reason can be an aid to beauty, but seduction is no basis on which to “ground” theology. And to give an appeal to the “Word” alone is to simply beg the question raised by Tyndale and More all over again: the Word as interpreted by whom?

  7. Thank you for bringing this work (and discussion) to the market.

  8. So, a couple of responses to Robert. First, thanks for your very substantive replies to the review! Some ideas in relation to your responses. If indeed the pastoral and congregational context played a role in what you wrote in the book, it would be great to see either in print or some other context how you would apply your thesis not in relationship to a text, but those congregational settings. Readers would find this edifying, I believe.

    Second, if a diffusively spatialized event is a resource for imperfectly navigating the marketplace, then in fact your proposal is really a proposal for the church as a church in and of the marketplace. I don't note this to criticize, but simply to acknowledge, that your proposal is agains the magisterium, and for the market.

    I do see how I elided Spivak in my review. I think as a reader failed to notice how integrally tied in your reading of Spivak was for your reading of Barth.

    For your point about bodies and texts, as I noted above, I appreciated your textual emphasis. It is good to remind ourselves that even our texts are bodies, and bodily life is often textually mediated.

  9. I think you're right that my overall ambivalence about the marketplace is reflected in the text. I try to make clear at certain points that I hope my proposal avoids "the most pernicious aspects" of what I call "the pure logic of the marketplace," even as I argue that the marketplace itself is inevitable (which might amount to, as you suggest, simply opting for the marketplace and hoping for the best). In the book I'm writing now on Lutheran theology and economies of self-formation, I'm still struggling with the question of how best to think about such things. This first book was an opening salvo in the conversation.

    As far as parish application goes: I guess I'm less interested in suggesting new things that parishes and/or the ecumenical movement ought be be doing and more interested in helping us re-describe what churches are already doing. In general, to use the language of Reinhard Hütter, I think that many folks look upon the "profusion" of churches and theological strategies as "unintelligible" and thus as a problem to be solved (or as a topic to be avoided in favor of some fuzzy notion of "shared service" or "reconciled diversity," both of which I reject). I am trying to help us understand that when we confess that the church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic," it is precisely THIS mess, this real, existing mess of competing theologies and Christian bodies, that is the arena by which the Holy Spirit makes the Christian imagination to be generative of new possibilities for hope.

    So what I would like for parishes to take from this book is that the glorious mess in which they find themselves may itself be a gift. If that's at all plausible, then there might be some creative possibilities that spring from that; however, that's for the future to determine.

  10. Rob, I think you do a good job of distinguishing your proposal from the polis ecclesiologists. What isn't clear to me yet is how your proposal is differentiated from Schleiermacher. I'd also like to know quite a lot more about what you mean by an "event."

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. I think it could be read as a chastened version of the Schleiermachean option for sure. The difference would come, I think, in the extent to which I concede (and perhaps internalize) the warnings against marketplace logic offered by the polis ecclesiologists and the effect that the self-formation that we all undergo in the 21st-century marketplace would have on any given theologian’s ability to enact the artful “oscillation” between tradition and innovation that Schleiermacher recommends. So I suppose one could see my role in the last chapter as painting a meta-picture of a kind of sadder, more hesitant “prince of the church” (without claiming that role myself!).

    I didn’t emphasize the Schleiermachean aspects of my proposal because I think it’s an open question whether this sort of chastening leaves us with a recognizably Schleiermachean image or not. Part of the reason I spend so much time on authorship theory in the first chapter is because the work of Foucault, Burke, and others has really called into question the Romantic conception of the virtuoso author, and I myself am still wrestling with the extent to which a vision in which individual authorship is recognized as being so entrenched in other kinds of logic is still recognizably Schleiermachean or not (given how indebted he was to Romanticism on this score).
    On “event:” as you know, event-language is popular and freighted with all sorts of contemporary philosophical baggage (Marion, Badiou, etc). But following Westhelle, and at the risk of deep simplicity, I think in my chapter it simply is shorthand for the opposite of “visible institution” – which Westhelle and I both think are implications of Augsburg Article 7 (and Forde thought the same, no? Hence his allergy to ecclesiology as a locus). While I really like the work of Cheryl Peterson and Paul Hinlicky, for instance, I demur from defining the church as either a people (Peterson) or a future community (Hinlicky, following both Royce and Agamben). The church endures, in my view, but it does so precisely as a diffusively spatialized (and thus punctiliar) series of occurrences – some of which go by the name “church,” others of which may not. So “event” in my book really has a more negative definition – “not community,” “not institution,” etc.

  13. I DON'T define event in terms of the insanely high bar that Badiou, for instance, places on the term, in case that was your worry :).

  14. I wasn't worried about Badiou. I was thinking, along the lines of your proposal, of TAZs.

    I'd love to see you flesh out a test case that could illustrate as clearly as you do in comparison to the polis ecclesiologists how your proposal is more than a chastened Schleiermachianism.

    I would also like to see how you deal with the fact (not expressly addressed in your book) that most regular Christians in our cultural milieu think of themselves as their own magisterium. They look neither to a teaching authority or even to leading theologians or creative thinkers, but to their own sensibilities and judgments. It's just them and the Bible, them and their own personal experience. Like The National lyric you like to quote: I had a secret meeting in the basement of my brain. That is how most of us most of the time think about authority in relationship to our faith.

  15. But of course. Without the Magisterium each Christian ends up his own little pope. This is what Luther started 500 years ago when he refused to recognize the authority of the Magisterium, and now we see the result.

    You don't have to be a theologian to see this. Needless to say, this has destroyed the unity of the Church.