A Politics of Grace

Hope for Redemption in a Post-Christendom Context

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Christiane Alpers
T&T Clark Studies in Edward Schillebeeckx
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , April
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780567679840.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In her book, A Politics of Grace, Christiane Alpers draws upon the Christology of Edward Schillebeeckx to challenge several prominent paradigms in political theology. She engages scholars from three recent traditions: radical orthodoxy, postliberal Protestantism, and the loosely defined “public theology.” To varying degrees, these share a common assumption which Alpers finds fundamentally objectionable—that is, treating the "secular" in post-Christendom society as a problem for which Christian theology provides the solution. She wonders “whether a response to the contemporary post-Christendom context, that is faithful to the Christian tradition, might not start from an altogether different outlook, and be more humble in its aspirations and its promises, as a result” (11). After appraising each of these movements, Alpers then presents a retrieval of Schillebeeckx’s Christological response to atheism and her own constructive proposal for a non-dominant mode for Christian theology today.

Throughout the book, Alpers wonders to what extent grace may be equally mediated through non-Christian and non-ecclesial structures. These different traditions assume a problem-centered approach which apportions theology a mediatory role in salvation history. Alternatively, she contends that it is Christ who saves, not the church. Ironically, the "hesitant hope" (1) she places in secular structures is not motivated by a low hamartiology or a naïve optimism, as Schillebeeckx’s opponents have objected, but a view of sin as thoroughly infused in all of human society, including the church. If the church is still undergoing the process of sanctification, how confident can we be in her current righteousness? Why should we automatically assume that the church is positively contributing to Christ’s salvific work in the world and not detracting from it? This account takes seriously the extent to which the church is still marred by sin while awaiting a final glorification.

In the meantime, Alpers follows Schillebeeckx in emphasizing a mutual dependency between the church and the world. The church might offer a prophetic word to secular society but this society might just as well offer a prophetic word to the church. A robust theology of common grace would allow that these non-Christian structures might also mediate God's grace to the world and even to a church that is equally in need of redemption. If they accept John Yoder’s notion of "God's unpredictable offer of grace . . . Christian theologians would have to assume that much more of the solution, than they might have dared to imagine, is already present within their surrounding society" (104). Unpacking humanity’s utter depravity in the crucifixion and God’s pure positivity in the resurrection, Alpers shows that Schillebeeckx is not naively optimistic about secular society per se. He is realistic about the sin of humankind while hopeful in the abundant grace of God to perfect all of human society. Consequently, Christian theologians do not necessarily have a privileged epistemic position in mediating this grace. They are equally in need of the redemption and completion found only in Christ.

The book critically evaluates each movement in turn, praising its strengths and conferring the judgment of being overly triumphant about the role of Christian theology in a pluralist society. "The loss of Christianity's political dominance is, thus, not acknowledged as something good, but sought to be rehabilitated in a new guise" (125). This indictment, Alpers maintains, is Christologically motivated (84). However, this motivation remains unexplained until her penultimate chapter on Schillebeeckx where she expounds the Christological hermeneutic he used in his work to relate Christianity and atheism in his own post-Christendom context. Unless the reader already shares Alpers’ convictional urgency about the problem of dominance in Christian theology, her criticisms, despite their thorough analysis, may not carry the weight she expects them to. Only in light of Schillebeeckx’s alternative position does this consistent concern find greater clarity in juxtaposition. As she says, "Schillebeeckx's reception of atheism and his understanding of creation only make sense within his theology of redemption, evidenced in his simultaneous upholding of a grace optimism and a pessimistic anthropology" (177). While this alternative vision is compelling in the end, I think a lengthier initial challenge to “dominant” thinking in theology might add gravity to her subsequent evaluations of public theology, radical orthodoxy, and postliberalism. It might also reduce the feeling of redundancy in those critiques by first convincing the reader of why this problem-centered approach is mistaken. This would allow her excellent analysis of her interlocutors to lead her readers to the same evaluative conclusion without explicitly repeating her critique each time.

This is a valuable contribution to contemporary debates in political theology and the role of the church in a pluralist society. Alpers’ exposition of Schillebeeckx offers a compelling alternative to several popular approaches by exposing the sinfulness and epistemic incompleteness of Christian theologians without sacrificing the prophetic role of the church in a pluralist democracy. She downplays the church’s exceptionalism by emphasizing the uniqueness of Christ alone as redeemer, arguing that God can work through all and any human structures to mediate this grace, be they Christian or otherwise. While its implications may be broad, the book’s focus is quite narrow: it provides a foundational paradigm for a non-dominant approach to Christian political engagement. It does not engage with specific issues in political theology but offers a thoroughly measured analysis of prominent public theologians such as John Milbank, Graham Ward, John Yoder, and Kathryn Tanner, as well as providing relevant exposure to Schillebeeckx’s intriguing insights. The work is fairly technical and does not provide significant background for the thinkers it evaluates. Thus, I would recommend it to someone who already possesses some familiarity with their ideas. If someone is interested in radical orthodoxy or postliberalism as movements, Alpers’ analysis is robust and fair, though her critique remains focused on her own stated “hypothesis that non-Christian positions might reveal problems to Christian theology, which Christian theologians could not have seen from their own distorted perspective"(122), a crucial consideration for the age in which we live.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Austin C. Kopack is a ThM student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christiane Alpers is Research Fellow at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany.

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