The Church in a Secular Age is Norwegian theologian Silje Kvamme Bjørndal’s foray into developing an ecclesiology capable of responding to the challenges of the secular milieu that characterizes North Atlantic societies. Like her three primary interlocutors―Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, and Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong―Bjørndal’s thought is broad and expansive with a streak of daring.
To advance her agenda, Bjørndal draws on Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age (Belknap, 2007) for a theory of secularization receptive to religious and spiritual concerns. Bjørndal articulates three sets of challenges, emerging from Taylor’s critique of the closed world structures that are placed before the church in a secular age. These three challenges are described as the challenges of (1) deconstructed truth, (2) the detached self, and (3) disembodied beliefs.
Bjørndal introduces the “particularist ecclesiology” of Stanley Hauerwas as offering promising resources for circumventing the aforementioned challenges. Hauerwas’ emphasis on the church as a “storied community” assumes the deconstruction of modern epistemology and hence positions the church to meet the challenge of deconstructed truth. His understanding of the church as a “defining community” in which the church defines the world and simultaneously shapes the character of its members helps to navigate the challenge of the detached self. Finally, Hauerwas’ emphasis on the defining practices of the Christian community situates the church as a “performative community” in the face of the challenge of disembodied beliefs. While these emphases in Hauerwas’ work suggest a promising way forward for the church in the face of the challenges of a secular age, they also, in Bjørndal’s judgment, leave Hauerwas vulnerable to the charges of fideism (as articulated by Gloria Albrecht and James Gustafson), sectarianism (as argued by Jeffrey Stout), and pragmatism (as advanced by Nicholas Healy).
While Hauerwas’ work demonstrates substantial “pneumatological intuitions,” Bjørndal fears that Hauerwas’ emphasis on the agency of the community risks effacing the agency of the Holy Spirit. Drawing on the work of Yong, Bjørndal attempts a “pneumatological reconstruction” of Hauerwas’ ecclesiology. Her concern is to preserve Hauerwas’ emphasis on Christian particularity “while arguing for a pneumatological continuity between the church community, the world as creation, and the promised kingdom” (129). She believes this will result in a “particularist ecclesiology” that transcends the charges of fideism, sectarianism, and pragmatism.
According to Bjørndal, Yong’s understanding of the Spirit as rationality challenges Hauerwas’ tendency of collapsing the agency of the Spirit into the agency of the story and challenges the church to remain open to the work of the Spirit in leading people into truth beyond the confines of the church. In a similar way, Yong’s pneumatological understanding of relationality situates the Holy Spirit as the ultimate agent of community and character formation, as opposed to the story or community, opening up the possibility of recognizing the Spirit’s formative work in other truthful relationships outside the church. Finally, Yong’s conception of the Spirit as dunamis (power) infuses the performative quality of the church’s life with its proper eschatological telos and power, and accounts for the church’s sometimes faithful, oftentimes faltering witness to the kingdom of peace. The book concludes with a brief exploration of three crucial practices for the type of pneumatological community Bjørndal envisions: religious dialogue, meeting the marginalized, and liturgical living.
Bjørndal’s presentation is thoroughly systematic in that her thought is expansive and integrated, engaging with a variety of interlocutors beyond the three primary figures. It also displays an acute systematizing tendency, which at times can feel somewhat forced but which also serves as a useful heuristic device and results in a tight and transparent structure. English readers will benefit from being introduced to the rich world of Scandinavian scholarship through Bjørndal’s references and footnotes. A danger of attempting to traverse such broad territory in just over two hundred pages is that it can leave the reader longing for deeper engagement on a variety of fronts. The argument would be enriched by an expanded treatment of the criticisms directed toward Hauerwas and, in particular, his responses to them; a more fulsome treatment of the pneumatology of Yong; and a more detailed explanation of how the pneumatological reconstruction serves to address the charges made against Hauerwas.
While Bjørndal is correct to intuit an implicit pneumatology operative in Hauerwas’ corpus that calls for conceptual fortification, it seems unusual that an attempted pneumatological reconstruction of Hauerwas’ work would not engage with his explicit pneumatological writings. This is perhaps partly due to the author’s methodological decision to focus on Hauerwas’ writings from 1980–1990 and perhaps also partly because the original dissertation on which this book was based was defended around the same time as the publication of these more explicit pneumatological writings: The Holy Spirit (Abingdon, 2015), coauthored with William Willimon, and an essay titled, “How the Holy Spirit Works,” in The Work of Theology (Eerdmans, 2015).
In the latter essay, Hauerwas cites with approval the narrative-shaped pneumatology of Eugene Rogers, who presents a portrait of the Spirit who delights to rest on the body of the Son. The narratival shape of the pneumatological argument of the essay, along with its emphasis that the primary work of the Spirit is to point to Jesus, raises the specter of tension with Yong’s use of the Holy Spirit to create the universalizing pole of a dialectic that stands over against the particularistic pole of Christ. One may wonder whether there are two different conceptions of the Trinity operative in the work of Hauerwas and Yong that may not be ultimately compatible.
It is impossible not to admire the combination of scholarly venturesomeness and ecclesiological passion on display in Bjørndal’s ambitious work, characterized as it is by the attempt to weave together the thought of three of the most important figures in their respective fields, all for the sake of addressing a question of immediate and pressing concern for the church.
Robert J. Dean is associate professor of theology and ethics at Providence Theological Seminary.Robert J. DeanDate Of Review:April 22, 2021