Pastoral Care and Politics: a book review

Pastoral Care is often thought of on a purely micro level—counseling congregants through a crisis, walking alongside families in grief, or shepherding local congregations. Political theology, on the other hand, describes political, economic, social structures and practices, examining the issues at a more macro level. But what if there is a deep link between the political and the personal? What if the best way to care for souls, is to care for the polis—providing a framework for the flourishing of both individual persons and the common good?

9781498205214 Ryan LaMothe is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology.  In Care of Souls, Care of Polis: Towards a Political Pastoral Theology(Cascade Books, 2017), LaMothe develops “a hermeneutical framework for analyzing systemic issues.” Rather than conceptualizing pastoral care as an individualized discipline, LaMothe places pastoral care within the frame of care and justice, describing and understanding its import as a political concept.

In the first 4 chapters, LaMothe describes a conceptual framework for pastoral political theology, in chapters 5-8 he examines the macro issues of empire, neoliberal Captialism, class, and related issues which erode care and justice. He also suggests ways for the church to be an alternative polis.

In chapter 1, LaMothe provides an overview of the polis (society) and politics in political theologies:

[P]olitical theologies, generally speaking, are concerned with how human beings organize themselves in time and space, as well as with how human beings survive and flourish. The political theological activities of reflection and action presuppose not only a particular religious mythos but also other knowledge systems (e.g. philosophy, human sciences) used to examine and critique political institutions, realities and issues of a particular societal context and era (22).

LaMothe notes (following Daniel Bell) that if all theologies are political than pastoral theologies are as well, and he notes a number of ways political-economic realities impact pastoral care, “Domestic violence, adequate medical care, food insecurity, widespread incarceration and economic poverty and numerous other areas of concern, reflection and care are intertwined with political-economic factors, though these issues may not be in the foreground of pastoral theological focus” (22).  LaMothe argues that the lens of care—not just for individual souls, but for the polis—enables to more readily see the political implications and connections in pastoral care.

[A] political pastoral theology, grounded in the Christian mythos, aims to understand and assess current political-economic narratives, issues, institutions and structures, and to develop programs and policies that are themselves assessed and critiqued. A central interpretative framework for these aims is the notion of care, informed by the Christian tradition and the human sciences and aimed at the survival, flourishing and liberation of individuals, communities, society and the earth. Care of the polis necessarily includes a cooperation of diverse others, and thus a political pastoral theology must attend to the communicative practices of a society (29).

In chapter 2, LaMothe considers the relationship between care and politics. He argues that care is aimed not just at a person’s survival, but at the flourishing of communities and families—the common good (47).  He draws on the notion of kenosis (Christ’s self-emptying) as a model of care for the Other, and posits that for communities and society to flourish, the notion of care (whether pastoral care, government, NGOs, etc) is a necessity.

This comes into sharper focus in chapter 3. LaMothe relates the concepts of care and justice in political pastoral care, drawing on black liberation theology and South and Central American liberation theology. Lamothe takes the emphasis in liberation theology on (1) attention to the community, (2)the preferential option of the poor and (3) responsiveness toward oppression and argues that political pastoral theologians be mindful of and respondent to the systemic oppression and marginalized in society (83). LaMothe argues that while both justice and care are necessary for human flourishing, a viable, and thriving polis depends on a rigorous ethic of care—where all members of society are recognized as valued (92). Justice is necessary to correct wrongdoing and repair relationships, but in creation itself, notions of care precede justice (and enemy love and forgiveness are expectations):

An ethic of care is grounded in the ontological reality of creation, and human beings are cocreators particularly through recognizing and treating Others as persons. This cocreation of the space of appearances ideally occurs in parent-child relations, family relations, communities and societies. A viable polis, then relies on an ethics of care, and it is an ethics of care that grounds an assessment and critique of political-economic institutions, structures and policies (92).

Chapter 4 argues for a civil and redemptive discourse both in political and pastoral speech.  LaMothe notes, “a polis begins to shrivel and die when civil discourse is replaced with self-certain, self-aggrandizing, intransigent monologues that aim at coercing the Other into acceptance of one’s singular vision of the world” (95). He warns against totalizing speech, and urges us to follow Jesus’ kenotic example of self-emptying (Phil 2:7), and discover ways of speaking in civil (and pastoral!) discourse which are both humble and hospitable:

Kenosis is the difficult discipline of clearing the psychic room to make space for and welcome the Other in reverence and this psychic room is related to the space of appearances of the polis. The fruits of a kenotic discipline are humility and hospitality, which are key to redemptive discourse and its aims of inviting, revering, respecting and understanding the Other. This is redemptive because it seeks to overcome alienation by inviting the possibility of real meetings between persons in the midst of disagreement (123).

This recovery of redemptive speech is necessary if we are to find ways to care for our increasingly fragmented world. “We need a redemptive discourse that rejects the facile pleasures of self-certain total explanations that opts for the belief in and practice of just and caring speech in the face of hostility and hatred” (127).

Chapters 5-8 describe overlapping macro, political issues and how they relate to pastoral care. In chapter 5, LaMothe examines the way empire is part of our U.S. cultural DNA. U.S. history exhibits the imperial and expansionist aims of empire, and as an empire in decline, it has become increasingly violent (131). LaMothe describes the emergence of the U.S. Empire, its carelessness and injustice. He argues that the church ought to provide an alternative narrative to Empire, not in the sense of being anti-imperial—as in the polar opposite of empire in every respect—but by providing an alternative version of what it means to be human:

While Jesus grew up in a world where Roman imperialism was daily fare, his ministry, his way of being in the world, was not based in opposition to empire. In other words, Jesus’s public actions were not anti-imperialistic, but were alterimperialistic in the sense that Jesus offered an alternative, and this alternative is represented by the term kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not in opposition to the imperium, at least in the direct sense. Rather, it is an alternative polis that has nothing to do with imperial practices. Indeed, imperial policies and practices are inconceivable in a kingdom based on love, compassion, care, mercy, justice and forgiveness (152-53).

And so LaMothe describes ways for the church or other communities which oppose empire, of being an ‘alterempire.’ 

Chapter 6 describes the contributions of neoliberal capitalism to suffering in the polis and the subsequent distortion of Christian theology (à la the Prosperity gospel). Classically, Max Weber envisioned a robust Protestantism as both enabling the development of capitalism and restraining its acquisitiveness (173). That is, capitalism was subordinated to Judeo-Christian values and anthropology. However, under neoliberal capitalism, the engine of acquisition drives and distorts our theological understandings instead. Material wealth and success are seen as the signifiers of divine blessing.

Here too, LaMothe commends us toward an altercapitalism:

As a small polis, the ecclesia promotes, through liturgy, preaching, retreats, classes, and stories, the standards Christian virtues of faith, hope and love—virtues necessary for the care and justice. Indeed, the very notions of care, justice and the common good are tied to these virtues so that the notions do not become distorted by the values associated with the market society (i.e. with the commodification of care). Living as an altercaptialist community necessarily includes being deliberate about nurturing interpersonal relations and fostering a critical reflective stance toward the larger society so that community members and leaders are not co-opted by the hegemonic discourse associated with the values and expectations of the market. An altercapitalist community serves, then, as a countercultural entity by developing subjects with capacities for a type of critical thinking connected to caring virtues and for the kind of social relations that are personal. (196).

Chapter 7 extends this political-economic analysis with a critique on classism, pointing to the example of the early church attempting to live as an alterclass community where all members were mutually cared for. “Yes, they failed, at least with regard to perpetuating this kind of community. But they succeeded in imagining a community that did not depend on or reproduce class” (229).

Chapter 8 closes the book with a look at several relevant issues for a political pastoral theology: climate change, education, healthcare, the judicial system, the politics of exclusion.

LaMothe writes as pastoral theologian teaching in a seminary; however, the notions of care for the common good, and the focus on macro issues which erode care and justice, makes much of what LaMothe says applicable to any community resistant to the dominant voice of U.S. Empire. LaMothe’s chief interlocutors are the gospels, Paul and Liberation Theology, but the concept of being alterempire (promoting an alternative to imperial and expansionists aims and advocating justice and care) is a word for activists of all stripes, faith traditions, and ideologies.

While this book was published in 2017, and many of the issues raised here are relevant to Trump’s America our damaging long pedigree and the examples of U.S. Empire, Neoliberal capitalist distortions, classism, exclusion, etc,  LaMothe cites are from an earlier era (Obama and before). Still, LaMothe’s discussion of self-aggrandizing totalizing speech and the need for redemptive discourse struck me as a particularly appropriate warning against our current polarizing political speech.

 LaMothe is sympathetic to radical politics and doesn’t interact as much with Protestant political theologies (briefly O’Donovan and Volf, no James K. A. Smith). Certainly, there are evangelicals that see a broad overlap of politics and pastoral ministry (e.g. David Lane, Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell, Jr), though they often are not as cognizant of the socio-economic impact of empire, class and economics which LaMothe highlights here.

LaMothe points pastoral care practitioners toward a greater awareness of systemic problems which complicate care. This will be a helpful resource for pastors and congregational leaders, as well as theological instructors and students. I give it four stars – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock books in exchange for my honest review. Cascade Books is an imprint of Wipf & Stock.

 

Trinitarian Traces in Sciency Spaces: a ★★★★★ book review

Science and theology are two different disciplines and, allegedly, never the twain shall meet. The hard sciences lay their claim to objectivity, dealing with sense-data and the observable world. Theology, for its part, is relegated to the realm of the subjective and ethereal. But what if theology and science had more in common than it may appear? What if the Triune God has so imprinted reality with His Presence that the resonances between God and his creation create contexts for dialogue between science and theology? What if these distinct disciplines were more coinherent than conflicted?

9781532616846This is W. Ross Hastings’s argument in Echoes of Coinherence: Trinitarian Theology and Science Together.  Hastings is especially qualified to speak across these disciplines. He has a Ph.D. in organometallic chemistry from Queen’s University, Ontario, a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews (under Alan Torrance!) and he is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Associate Professor of Theology and Pastoral Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.  He has been a working scientist, a pastor, and a theologian. He brings these skills together as he probes how the perichoretic and coinherent Triune God and the incarnation of the Son have stamped humanity with the image of God and left traces of Triune coinherence on all creation.

Hastings details his aims as these:

I am first seeking to describe coinherence as a feature of the Divine life, acknowledged widely in the tradition of the church, both in the incarnation and within the Trinity. Second, I am seeking to support the further claim that coinherence can be seen to have echoes in creation. And third, I wish to propose that we may, because of the first two, predicate coinherence of the disciplines of theology and science. That is, I affirm that coinherence is part of the  Divine life (an ontological statement) can be said to have echoes in creation (a metaphysical statement ) and may be predicated further as a way to frame these two great disciplines of human knowledge (an epistemological statement)(5).

Thus, through the rest of the book, he explores the coinherent relationship between science and theology with special emphasis on the history of ideas, epistemology (how we know stuff), ontology and metaphysics (the nature of being).

Hastings argument unfolds in 8 chapters. In chapter 1, he lays out the aims and scope of this project and the idea of coinherence. In chapters 2, Hastings gives a short history of coinherence in the Theology/Science tradition, highlighting his conversation partners of Theologian scientists (scientists conversant with theology) and Scientist theologians (theologians conversant with the sciences. Chapter 3 describes the intertwining History of Ideas for both disciplines—the development of the sciences within a Christian context, its compatibility with theology during the Medieval-Renaissance, and the growing conflict and the fragmentation of the two disciplines from the late Middle Ages, on through the Enlightenment to today.

In chapter 4, Hastings tackles epistemology. He argues that though science and theology have been described as having two different ways of knowing (i.e. Scientists have evidence, Religious people have faith), both disciplines have a fideistic epistemology (taking on faith that their subject is knowable),  weigh evidence, and enter into a critical dialogue between the knower and their subject. Hastings traces this ‘Critical Realism’ in both the sciences and theology, concluding:

Critical realism is thus a philosophical system grounded in faith that the Revealer of truth in every realm is neither capricious nor obscurantist and yet also not controlling, in that he does not make things plain easily, for he has created persons in his own image who he expects to be inquisitive, and to explore, and to think and to worship. (120)

Chapters 5-7 describe the coinherent ontologies of science and theology. Whereas theologians take as their object the Triune God, the Creator has left his traces on His Creation. This allows for various resonances between the realm of theology and the world of science. the Trinity’s relationality, freedom, goodness, immensity, particularity and agency are written in Creation and God’s goodness, intelligibility and relationality are imprinted on humanity as God’s image bearers.

Chapter 8 draws these ontological and epistemological threads together:

The common doxological aim is what makes the sheer hard work in both worthwhile. It is the reality that the kingdom of God has already broken into history in Christ, which brings with it a doxological orientation in both theology and science. Christ has come to recapitulate old Adam’s orientation. (221)

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a teaching assistant for Ross (Hastings) once upon a time and he was one of my professors at Regent College. This is by no means an impartial review (if there is a such thing). Ross’s perspective and insights have stamped my own thinking in significant ways, particular his Trinitarian thought, ethics and missional theology. But I think the subject matter of this book is significant and worthwhile for our North American, post-Enlightenment context. I know good Christians who are suspicious of the sciences for the way materialist approaches undermine the idea faith. I also have scientist friends who have felt like the church undervalues and fails to appreciate their work. The time is ripe for a deeper dialogue between science and theology, not to blur the distinctions of each discipline—scientists are gonna science and theologians will theologize—but to mutually enrich our understanding of both God and Creation. Coinherence provides a good, missional model for a way forward.

Hastings describes this well:

The great opportunity of our times for thoughtful, missional Christians is to offer fresh articulations of the Christian doctrine of creation, grounded in the Trinity and the incarnation, which allow theology to be theology and science to be science yet which also affirm the mutuality and inter-enhancement of each. That is, accounts for theology and science which manifest the coinherence of the epistemology and the ontology of these disciplines. In an era when scientism is less and less credible, in which global warming threatens our existence, there is, I believe, a hearing for a world-affirming, science-embracing gospel. A gospel that offers a humble apologetic, a holistic and communal worldview, (or better, world-love), a gospel that is grounded in the triune Creator God, supremely transcendent and yet infinitely immanent; a gospel that leads to human flourishing and creational shalom. (93-94)

Vocationally, he also describes his specific hopes for those in the sciences:

My rather audacious hope is that this work may help scientists to value their work and to contextualize their science within a broader creative and even doxological framework this helping them and all humans to pursue their vocations in more satisfying and humanizing ways (15).

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Hastings is a meaty thinker and this book will demand a slow read. Scientists who are believers will be encouraged in their calling as scientists. Thoughtful Christians will be more open  to seeing the way the Coinherent Divine nature marks not only the things of heaven but the very stuff of earth.  – ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review