Cover page

Table of Contents


Praise for Rethinking Christian Identity

Challenges in Contemporary Theology

Title page

Copyright page



Giving Thanks

List of Abbreviations


1 Between the Postliberal and the Postmodern

Postliberal or Postmodern? George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine

Postliberalism as Theological Style

Theories of Culture I: The Critique of Postliberalism

Theories of Culture II: Constructing Christian Identity

Habitus and Agency: Tanner and Bourdieu

On Tradition and the Practice of Christian Doctrine: Tanner and MacIntyre


2 Stories of Identity

The Habits of Christian Selfhood: Taking Time and Making Sense

Making Sense and the Development of Christian Identity

Christian Subjectivity and the Desire for God: Williams and Frantz Fanon

On Christian Habitus: Williams and Talal Asad

“Making Sense” and Christian Self-Identity: Williams and Judith Butler

Stories of the Past

Reading the Present: The Conversation with the Secular

Lessons from the Archbishop

3 “It is no longer I who live”

What Makes Theology Postmodern?

Milbank’s Account of Christian Life: The Ontology of Peace and Active Reception

Active Reception and the Problem of Sin: Milbank’s Reading of Gregory of Nyssa

Conclusion: Turning to Gregory of Nyssa

4 The Body’s Reason

Why Do I Speak of the Soul?

The Apathetic Soul: Mirror of the Divine

Gregory and Macrina on the Soul

The “Manly Virgin”: Gregory’s Portrayal of the Apathetic Soul

Conclusion: The Mirror of Desire

5 The Nature of Doctrine Revisited

Doctrine and the Christian Life: Gregory’s Catechetical Oration

Doctrine, Desire and the Formation of Christians: Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs


6 Doctrine, Discipleship, and Christian Identity

On the Road: Excursus on Acts 14:22

Rethinking Christian Identity: An Old Idea in a New Place


Premodern Sources

Modern Sources


Praise for Rethinking Christian Identity

“This is a brilliant, compelling, agenda-setting book. As a growing consensus of theologians recognize the post-liberal, postmodern reality that discipleship is a training in a tradition, Volpe has written this thoughtful, passionate, informed critique that invites us all to think through precisely what is involved in being formed in the Christian tradition. This is the hard work of Christian identity. This book sets a stage for theologians, Christian educators, and practical theologians, which will transform their disciplines and create significant work for at least the next generation.” Ian Markham, Virginia Theological Seminary

“A model for those of us who seek to combine the vocations of academic theology and pastoral ministry, Rethinking Christian Identity offers a compelling vision of Christian formation. The author focuses our attention on the center of Christian identity: being and making disciples. Volpe deftly shapes her vision in conversation with contemporary theologians (Williams, Tanner, and Milbank) and voices from the history of the Church (particularly Gregory of Nyssa). Volpe helpfully dismantles the unfortunate barrier between the tasks of academic theology and soul-care, combining erudition with a passion for Christian discipleship. A fresh voice for those who seek to serve God with both mind and heart, this book reminds us of the goal of our life before God: the continuous process of being formed in the image of Christ.” Kathryn Greene-McCreight, St. John’s Episcopal Church

“Kierkegaard reminded us that one can only claim to be a Christian in the ‘banal sense of registry; at best, we are ever becoming one’ on a journey of formation central to that becoming, as every parent knows. Acutely aware that ‘identity’ will never capture the result, this parent mines Christian reflection contemporary and ancient (Gregory of Nyssa) to delineate the steps in that process, helping us identify our mis-steps as well.” David Burrell, University of Notre Dame

Challenges in Contemporary Theology

Series Editors: Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayres

Canterbury Christ Church University College, UK and University of Durham, UK

Challenges in Contemporary Theology is a series aimed at producing clear orientations in, and research on, areas of “challenge” in contemporary theology. These carefully co-ordinated books engage traditional theological concerns with mainstreams in modern thought and culture that challenge those concerns. The “challenges” implied are to be understood in two senses: those presented by society to contemporary theology, and those posed by theology to society.


These Three are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology
David S. Cunningham
After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
Catherine Pickstock
Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology
Mark A. McIntosh
Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation
Stephen E. Fowl
Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ
William T. Cavanaugh
Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God
Eugene F. Rogers, Jr
On Christian Theology
Rowan Williams
The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature
Paul S. Fiddes
Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender
Sarah Coakley
A Theology of Engagement
Ian S. Markham
Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology
Gerard Loughlin
Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology
Matthew Levering
Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective
David Burrell
Keeping God’s Silence
Rachel Muers
Christ and Culture
Graham Ward
Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation
Gavin D’Costa
Rewritten Theology: Aquinas After His Readers
Mark D. Jordan
God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics
Samuel Wells
The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology
Paul J. DeHart
Theology and Families
Adrian Thatcher
The Shape of Theology
David F. Ford
The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory
Jonathan Tran
In Adam’s Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin
Ian A. McFarland
Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge
Lydia Schumacher
Towards a Jewish-Muslim-Christian Theology
David B. Burrell
Scriptural Interpretation
Darren Sarisky
Rethinking Christian Identity: Doctrine and Discipleship
Medi Ann Volpe
Title page

for Lewis, of course

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds eveything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

Colossians 2:12–15

Oh send out thy light and thy truth;

    let them lead me,

let them bring my to thy holy hill

    and to thy dwelling!

Then I will go to the altar of God,

    to God my exceeding joy;

and I will praise thee with the lyre,

    O God, my God.

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you disquieted within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

    my help and my God.

Psalm 43 [42]:3–5

To suffer and be happy although suffering, to have one’s feet on the earth, to walk on the dirty and rough paths of this earth and yet to be enthroned with Christ at the Father’s right hand, to laugh and cry with the children of this world and ceaselessly to sing the praises of God with the choirs of angels, this is the life of the Christian until the morning of eternity breaks forth.

St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross

Giving Thanks

It has taken me far too long to write this book. For that reason, I have incurred innumerable debts along the way; I owe so much now to so many generous people that it would require another book to tell the story of how I have been helped by each of them. Thus my list is bound to be quite long and still incomplete. But I must begin somewhere, and so, in no particular order, I give thanks: for Miroslav Volf, who first encouraged me to try my hand at theology; for my parents, whose differences in confessional identity eventuated in some memorable dinner-table conversations;* for friends and teachers at Fuller Seminary – I hope John Thompson and Marianne Meye Thompson know how much they inspired me; for Mary McClintock Fulkerson, my advisor at Duke, whose questions shaped my thinking; for Stanley Hauerwas’ prompt and insightful feedback as co-supervisor; for Elizabeth Clark, who continues to influence me in myriad ways; for Warren Smith’s close reading of my work on Gregory of Nyssa; for colleagues at Candler School of Theology, especially Ian McFarland, Gail O’Day, Roberta Bondi, Carol Newsom, Steve Kraftchick, and Luke Timothy Johnson, who were encouraging and welcoming; I will always be grateful for the years I taught at Candler, and for my students (many of whom have kept up with me over the years on Facebook and watched this project change shape), especially Julia Buckner, Jonathan Tompkins, and all the members of the early Christian asceticism and theology seminar (the icon of Gregory of Nyssa hangs on my office wall); for my research assistant, Craig Tichelkamp, who helped greatly with chapter 4; and for those who looked after my children – thanks, Amanda Osenga, especially.

When we moved to Durham, England – an absolutely beautiful place I love calling home – I was supported by many people on both sides of the Atlantic, whose friendship and collegiality has been indispensable. From our first meeting in Liverpool in 2000, I have been glad and grateful to count Ian Markham as a friend, and continue to delight in his presence whenever I get the chance. Knowing that Naomi Cosby, Erin Pearson, Alane Levy, and Kelly Goran Fulton were always just an email (or Facebook message) away buoyed me in the troubled waters of transition. Thanks especially to Kelly for making me laugh from 5,000 miles away with just a quip. And Catherine Chin, you know I never would have finished even the dissertation, let alone the book, without your consistent assurances that I would be fine and invitations to Rome. Thanks to John Milbank for encouraging us to come to England, and most of all for your prayers. Here in England, the parish community at St. Cuthbert’s Church felt like home from the first Sunday, and for the particular friendship of Mandy Hampshire I am very grateful indeed. Mandy and Damian, and their four children, have made many a family celebration even more joyful. The parish community has been shaped in no small way by Fr. Tony Currer, and his homilies have influenced me probably more than he knows. Being married to the Bede Professor of Catholic Theology thrust me into the arena of Catholic life and thought in Durham, and I am glad to have had the opportunity, through various events, to become acquainted with Fr. David Burrell, whose presence in Durham made space for a friendship to begin; Fr. David Tracy – pastoral in his own way and a delightful conversation partner; Karen Kilby; Gerard Loughlin; and Fr. Andrew Downie. I will always be grateful for the time I spent at Ushaw College, for Friday morning Mass, teaching (and drinking lots of coffee) with Fr. Philip Caldwell, the warm welcome of Msgr. John Marsland, and the help and advice of Sr. Patsy McDonald. My life as a Catholic here in Durham has been enriched by colleagues and friends, and my retreats at Minster Abbey provided a space away from here to pray, reflect, work, and heal. Thanks, Sr. Benedict, for the warm welcome and the restorative conversations. For walks and talks in Lanchester (and our annual Christmas cake baking), I am grateful for Esther Banev and family.

I have found a happy teaching environment at Cranmer Hall & the Wesley Study Centre at Durham University. My colleagues and students here have made the finishing possible by their support and encouragement: Joss Bryan, Helen Thorp, Michael Volland, David Goodhew, Andrew Lunn, Calvin Samuel, Mark Tanner, and David Wilkinson have been excellent company in college, and Richard Briggs and his family have been a blessing to our whole family. By great good fortune I met John Swinton here in Durham, and I know I have much more to learn from him in the years to come. Appreciative and engaged students make my job the joy it is. Thanks especially to Ian Rutherford for prayers and encouragement.

Thanks to Rebecca Harkin at Wiley-Blackwell for her positive response to this project early on, and to Isobel Bainton and Karen Raith, who have borne delays and agonizing over cover design gracefully. Series editors Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayres read and commented on chapters, and I am grateful for their support and encouragement.

Of course Lewis did far more than read a couple of chapters of this book. From the moment of its beginning as the germ of an idea, he has been a constant conversation partner and frequently a research assistant. Because of the fruitfulness of his thinking and the extent of his reading, Lewis was always ready with feedback, questions, and recommendations. Usually I was grateful for them; in retrospect I appreciate his support in the writing of this book as indispensable and I see it for what it was: an act of love. St. Benedict considered the monastery, under the guidance of his rule, “a school for the Lord’s service.” My time at Minster Abbey, brief as it has been, has taught me to yearn for the regulated quiet which has been a source of much peace. Yet my own “school for the Lord’s service” takes the form of the family Lewis and I have together. My daughters Anna and Lucy, and my sons Thomas and Iain, provide opportunities for growth (as I endeavor to follow the instructions to the cellarer: fratres non contristet) and for unspeakable joy. Thanks to Lewis, and to the children, I know certainly: omnia disponit suaviter – “he arranges all things delightfully” indeed, for I live in and by the love God shows me through you.

St. Bede the Venerable


* Sadly, my mother died before this book went to press.

List of Abbreviations

FC Fathers of the Church
GNO Gregorii Nyssenii Opera
NPNF  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
PG Patrologia Graeca
SC Sources Chrétiennes


Rethinking Christian Identity

This book began its life as a doctoral thesis, perfectly representative of the adolescent kind of production that can be. I have seen and admired PhD dissertations that offered fresh insights clearly, in graceful prose. Mine was of a different type: halting and awkward language trying to express tentative ideas and say why they matter. The work of coaxing those pages into the book you have in your hands spans a few years replete with major life changes: then I was the mother of two children, teaching in Atlanta; now I am the mother of four children, teaching in Durham, England. And were I setting out today to begin the task of writing this book, I would do so with at least one major concern in mind that occupied far less space in my intellectual and personal landscape than it did when I was writing the dissertation. Even then, I was already concerned about the inclusiveness of accounts of Christian identity. My tendency – and not just because I am a theologian by training – has been to place a high value on understanding and articulation in Christian liturgy and teaching. As I have seen my daughter, Anna, grow from babyhood to pre-adolescence, I have been challenged constantly to see things differently: Anna has Down Syndrome, and that changes everything.

It changes everything, and yet there is a very real sense in which it doesn’t change a thing. We don’t think about Anna-with-Down-Syndrome or interact with her as if that’s the most important thing about her. But there are moments, as any parent, carer, sibling, or friend of someone with an intellectual disability could tell you, when the difference suddenly looms large. Usually those moments occur in the course of daily life, in things big (like deciding when Anna would make her first Holy Communion) and small. Some of those moments, however, have occurred for me in the course of revising this book. I would catch myself sometimes after writing a sentence (about the rational soul, for example) and ask whether I had just described some aspect of Christian faith and practice in a way that excluded Anna, or indeed anyone with a more severe learning difficulty. So I have given considerable thought to the construction of an account of Christian identity that is faithful to classical descriptions of faith and practice, and uses the language historically used in church, but that stretches to include those whose ability to practice or express the faith is limited – however severely.

I fear that some may see this concern as too personal and narrow to flavor a book on Christian identity, and as out of place in its introduction. But it frames everything I have to say in these pages, and it is of the utmost importance to me. I do believe that Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams, John Milbank, and Gregory of Nyssa help me to find a way forward in this theological endeavor. If Christian faith and practice involves primarily a way of being in God and the world, that way of being can, in principle, stretch to include anyone who can receive God’s love. At the same time, I know that my own ability to receive God’s love, and so to give it, is disrupted by sin. It will not do, therefore, to stop at the reception of God’s love as the full description of Christian identity for everyone. Insofar as I am able to set my heart elsewhere, I am in need of being reoriented toward God. I search the theology of Gregory of Nyssa for an account of the transformation I require. That quest is at once deeply personal and theological, though throughout the book it is set forth as the latter much more than the former.

Kathryn Tanner, Rowan Williams, and John Milbank take into account the major shifts in concepts of Christian identity that have developed over the last few decades, especially the years following the publication of George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine. While that text is not the subject of this book, it is an important precursor to the kinds of accounts of Christian identity with which I am concerned here. Lindbeck faced a basic problem: if Christian identity is not to be defined by certain propositional content, nor is it simply the best and most accurate expression of religion in general, then what is it? Lindbeck’s model in The Nature of Doctrine suggested we apply an entirely different paradigm. His model attempted to preserve the uniqueness of Christian identity and at the same time allow for diversity in practice and belief across space, time, and confessions. Lindbeck’s success was not necessarily in convincing us of the accuracy of his own model, but in convincing us that a new way of thinking about Christian identity was required.

Each of these three theologians criticizes Lindbeck’s model; yet they share his basic concern for rethinking the nature of Christian identity. The first question likely to be asked here is what is meant by “Christian identity.” I cannot answer this question for my interlocutors in any simple fashion, as none of them offers a straightforward definition of “Christian identity” as such. Though identity is a noto­riously slippery notion, I continue to use the term both because my three main interlocutors do so and because it can still serve as a useful placeholder for the intersection of a number of related questions. In this book, I use the term with reference to three dimensions of Christian identity. First, I use the term to refer to in­dividual self-perception and self-affirmation. What it means to call oneself or another a Christian is the basic content of this dimension of identity. It might be asked, further, whose individual identity do I have in mind? My basic answer to that question might sound a bit flippant: Christians’ identity. I do not mean that there is a single, one-size-fits-all shape of Christian life good for every Chris­tian. I mean that there is continuity between the practice of the lay Christian and that of the theologian, the clergy or the religious. The relationship between “ordinary” and “professional” Chris­tians should be not one of quality but of degree – as Athanasius set forth Lenten practices for lay Christians that were versions of the usual practices of ascetics, so also a high degree of continuity in the shape of Christian living should characterize the lives of laypeople and professionals.

The second sense of identity I have in mind relates to community: how does a group of Christians demonstrate its Christianness? What marks of continuity with the first Christians identify later generations as their heirs? These will not be the same in every context, and so the discussion of this dimension of identity involves me in the thick of the debate about how and whether we can even conjecture as to what indispensable marks of Christian faith might be. And yet, trying to describe that which unites Christians past and present, here and elsewhere, into a community connected with the first Christians is a task each of my three modern interlocutors undertakes. The third sense of identity I have in mind, which is a dimension of the second, has to do with the character of the beliefs and practices common in Christian life. How do we understand, for example, almsgiving as a “Christian” practice? What makes Christian almsgiving different from other, secular forms of charitable giving – if there is a difference?

These three senses of Christian identity – self-identity, community identity, and the identifiability of beliefs and practices – are ultimately inseparable. One cannot very well ask what it means to someone to be a Christian without expecting to hear about the sort of community to which one belongs and the character of Christian action in response. Although the central focus of the book is individual Christian identity, the shaping of individual lives happens through the practices and beliefs of a community that carries a tradition. I therefore treat Christian self-identity as the identity of one who is, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase, “one of the bearers of a tradition.” As such, the discussion of individual identity involves me – as it does my interlocutors – in discussions of tradition. Addressing the question more fully would also mean looking closely at the community implied in the account of Christian identity I describe here. I cannot undertake that here, but hope to develop the requisite ecclesiology in a future book. Williams, Tanner, and Milbank all consider in some form the basic question Lindbeck raised: how do we think about Christian identity so that it is meaningful and specific without tying identity to a set of propositions or behaviors that remain precisely the same from one local and historical context to another? Each of them gives a compelling answer to that question, and I will consider their accounts in detail in the following chapters.

In addition to providing an answer, however implicitly, to that question, these accounts share a number of overlapping themes. The first of these is fluidity. What faithful Christian practice requires is not the same in every context; therefore the practice of Christianity is marked by differences in performance according to context. This is not to say that everything about what it means to be a Christian changes from one moment to the next. Rather, it is to say that living faithfully looks different in different circumstances, partly because the “background” is different, and partly because Christian action responds to the demands of particular situations. The concept of fluidity has to do with the relationship of present Christian performance to historical Christianity and secular culture. It is in negotiating this space, the space between Christian tradition and history, and the world “outside” the Christian community with which Christians are constantly in contact, that Christian identity appears.

Second, each of these theologians has an implicit account of the importance and the “constructedness” of continuity with Christian tradition. While the notion of continuity is a constant in accounts of Christian identity, the way in which this idea is developed varies greatly. Williams, Tanner, and Milbank all claim that their accounts of Christian identity are consistent with (and perhaps even anticipated by) traditional accounts in late ancient and medieval theology. How this is so, and why it matters for each of them, will be a topic for discussion in the initial chapters of the book. For the moment, suffice it to say that a sense of continuity is essential for their theological projects, and that at the same time they are well aware that what constitutes continuity with the past is a matter for argument. So their claims of continuity with the past are carefully supported, and their reasons for making those claims are carefully nuanced. Their individual accounts of continuity are chastened by developments in theory which suggest that our access to the “past” is never unmediated, and so our accounts of the past are necessarily provisional. Thus the theme of continuity in their accounts of Christian identity is expressed as the construction of a narrative, the production of which is done in full consciousness of the difficulty of reading the Christian past.

The fluidity of Christian identity and the manner in which continuity is construed imply that interpreting and articulating it is a function of the imagination. Not only does the neophyte begin to imagine herself as in some way united with this community, the body of Christ, and so to see herself as “a Christian”; she simultaneously learns to imagine the community of which she is a part as distinct from the “world” or the “secular” and as somehow continuous with a past stretching back to the first Christians. This imagining also means learning to see the world in a different way, and learning to live on the boundary between Christian and not-Christian, as Tanner in particular emphasizes. Developing such an imaginative concept of oneself and one’s community is integral to individual identity and for the description of a community by members or observers. To be formed as a Christian means imagining oneself in a distinct community whose believing and doing is continuous with the pattern of life of past believers. That self-understanding shapes the habits of mind and heart appropriate to Christian discipleship.

The imaginative and fluid construal of Christian belief and practice, in continuity with the Christian past, is rarely (if ever) straightforward. Thus, these accounts operate with a sense of uncertainty or ambiguity. Because of the obscurity of Christian history, and because of the fallenness of human beings and the world in which we live, it is very difficult to agree about what Christian faith calls for in the world. What should we do? The questions range from whether to give freely to beggars or whether to go to war. People who read their Bibles, go to church, pray, and expect the guidance of the Holy Spirit disagree, often very passionately, about what we should do.1 The uncertainty, then, is not in the first instance a feature of individual Christian lives (but see below) so much as a part of community life. In these theological accounts of Christian identity this means that less hangs on particular political positions or social practices, and more on the concerns Christians ought to share – for example, for social justice or evangelization.

Uncertainty does also affect individual identity in myriad and subtle ways, as Rowan Williams’ account shows especially clearly. Although I will say something about this aspect of uncertainty in the next three chapters, it is worth making a few observations here about the character and implications of the uncertainty inherent in Christian identity. For Tanner, the “empty center” (a concept she draws from Barth) means that we cannot name that which holds Christianity together (logically or practically) except by referring to God, especially the Logos of God. The uncertainty about our individual Christian practice falls under this rubric as well, in that we can only judge our belief and action according to our finite and fallible powers of observation and reason. For Milbank and Williams, the uncertainty or ambiguity carries with it a kind of eschatological reserve. Our actions, for Milbank, only contribute to the one work of the body of Christ; thus they are not good or complete in themselves but find their place (or not) in the narrative of God’s creating, redeeming, and consummating work. The ambiguity appears most clearly in Williams’ theology in the incompleteness of selves. We glimpse fragments of ourselves; only God sees the whole picture, and the way all the pieces fit together. In Williams and Milbank especially, the notion that Christian identity is given shows through. The Christian life is lived in Christ, indeed as Christ, by virtue of our having been joined to his body at baptism.

Thus, as we will see in their accounts, Christianity is not conferred on us but lived by us; this living is a performance. Because Christian identity is fluid, constructed, imaginative, and ambiguous, it is not to be understood as possessed, but performed. That is not to say that it is not real, that we are not really Christians or that our actions are not really ours. What I mean by “performed” here resembles the performance of gender in Judith Butler’s sense of performance. For Butler, gender is socially constructed; even so, we would not say that it is not real, or that our gender-expressive actions are somehow not really ours. Moreover, the unwritten rules governing good performances makes it incredibly difficult to see any of it as other than “normal.” What is “normal” gendered behavior is arbitrary in the sense of Bourdieu’s social-scientific notion of a cultural arbitrary. I do not mean that what constitutes Christian performance is arbitrary; instead I hope to convey the difficulty encountered in any attempt to identify what is not arbitrary about the practice of Christianity.

In the second place, that notion that we perform Christianity points to the provisionality of Christian identity, that is, that we are not essentially “Christians” this side of heaven. In describing the various ways in which human beings relate to Christ, Aquinas reminds us: “We must … consider the members of the mystical body not only as they are in act, but as they are in potentiality.”2 Thus, in the third place, the performance of Christianity means that (and here I think more of Williams and Milbank than Tanner) our Christian living is not solely our own: truly, in good performances, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This dimension of our Christian identity comes to the forefront in Milbank’s account. However we understand the prompting to happen, the performance theme as it appears in these accounts of Christian identity conveys a sense in which we have not set the stage or chosen the scenes: all our strutting and fretting is improvisation, an attempt to live in and by God’s grace in a fallen world.

There is thus no easy way to discern Christian identity diachronically. For Tanner, continuity depends upon our continued participation in the work of becoming (and presumably making) disciples of Jesus. For Williams, continuity means faithfulness to an understanding of God he sees as preserved in traditional Christian sources: the Bible, the creeds, and the interpretations of these that have been given by theologians through the centuries. For Milbank, continuity depends much more explicitly on the Holy Spirit: it is the Spirit who guides believers’ actions and facilitates participation in God. This participation is what insures Christian identity. Milbank’s account makes explicit an aspect of Christian identity Williams’ account implies: the gift character of Christian identity. As much as Christian identity is described and performed, it is given – which is what Milbank’s emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit highlights. I suggest that when these accounts are brought together, an account of Christian identity emerges which takes into consideration many recent developments in postmodern theory and yet does so in a way that also takes into consideration the richness of tradition – without being enslaved to either the one or the other. The result is the beginning of an account of Christian identity that might just answer Lindbeck’s question: if we cannot define it propositionally or express it in terms of experience, how can we describe it adequately?

This account of Christian identity depicts the Christian as heeding the Bible and tradition (variously interpreted), and above all the Holy Spirit, critically and yet openly, and reflecting God’s love into the world. I like the flexibility and hopefulness of this account, but most of all I am drawn to its obviousness. Like the injunction “choose life” in Deuteronomy 30, it makes me wonder why anyone would do otherwise. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse,” Moses says. The choice seems obvious. Of course Tanner, Williams, and Milbank admit that, for us as for the ancient Israelites, sin gets in the way, but they do not dwell on it. So, I ask of Gregory of Nyssa in chapters 4 and 5, how does sin affect Christian identity? Further, I ask how doctrine is related to the account of Christian identity I have sketched. If it is, as it appears, all about following Jesus – which I consider the essence of this account – then what role does doctrine play? Although I do not say much about doctrine in the first three chapters, it reemerges in chapter 5, and I have something to say about it in the conclusion.

The question I raise about this synthetic account of Christian identity is twofold. First, I wonder, why does it not just happen this way? Why do we fail to choose life? The concise answer to this question, as I have suggested above, is sin. So one of the threads running through the discussion has to do with what sin does (and, to a lesser extent, what it is). The other question, however, builds on the fruitfulness of this way of looking at Christian identity. If it does not work in practice, is there any way to support it? Can we build into this account of Christian identity a response to sin? I think so: we need to see how Christians might be formed for this kind of practice, including some help in learning to resist sin.

Developing an account of Christian formation adequate to the account of Christian identity that I derive from these three theologians requires in the first place sustained attention to the question of desire. In his work on the history of Western spirituality, The Wound of Knowledge, Williams suggests persuasively that the center of Christian faith is an appropriate desire, a desire that is fixed on God and attentive to the movements of God’s Spirit. I believe that Williams has captured something necessary for us as we consider the development of notions of Christian identity: during the first several centuries of Christian history, Christian spiritual development was marked by a particular structure of desire. Williams continues to reflect on this central feature of Christian faith in his constructive theology. Yet he does not offer sustained reflection on two important questions: how is this desire to be developed in individuals? How does disorientation of desire – or sin – impede that development? Thus while the account of Christian identity that Williams sets forth is quite compelling, one wonders how it happens so often that Christians fail to live in the ways he suggests are appropriate. Why, that is, does our desire so persistently stray from God and attach to other things? Although the question of desire and the construction of desire is a common topic in some of the postmodern theorists Tanner discusses, she does not thematize desire in her own work. The omission of a developed account of desire in connection with Christian social practice is interesting, because the formation of desire and of desiring subjects is so common in postmodern theory.

Following on from this, an account of Christian formation adequate to the account of Christian identity being developed here needs an account of the soul. Such an account, I will suggest, can be developed without falling prey to criticisms of inappropriate essentialism or dualism. On the one hand, the soul is the seat of human capacity for the imitation of divine love, which is a key feature of Christian performance. On the other hand, the soul is that which is corrupted by sin. Desire for God is rooted in the soul, and it is the soul that needs shaping in order to reflect the image of God. Thus a theological account of desire and an account of the soul are interdependent. Milbank and Williams begin to give an account of the soul. I will suggest, however, that their approach is inadequate because they fail to attend properly to the place of desire or to the problem of sin in the practice of Christian life. Tanner seems to operate without any notion of soul.

I follow the lead of my modern interlocutors in approaching the topics of desire and the soul; each of them appeals to a variety of sources in making her or his argument, but one source important to all of them is Gregory of Nyssa. I suggest at the conclusion of the third chapter that Williams, Tanner, and Milbank all have the resources they need to develop an adequate account of Christian formation – and even, I submit, to see that such an account is necessary – in their ancient sources, but they fail to appropriate them. Thus in chapters 4 and 5 I turn to Gregory of Nyssa, to try to recover from his theology the accounts of sin and desire that are central to his account of Christian formation. Gregory’s account of formation provides what we would call a vista point if we came across it on a mountain road. Because the scope of Gregory’s thinking covers the now-divided disciplines of theology and spirituality, the way he considers theological topics is not separated from the spiritual practices he finds appropriate to orthodox Christian belief. That is, for Gregory, thinking Christianly, in a way that we would think of as propositional and creedal, is inseparable from a host of practices that we would not consider connected intrinsically to those specific beliefs.

Despite the historical and cultural distance that separates us from Gregory, I believe we should turn to him as a resource for thinking about the question of Christian identity as well as formation. For Gregory, the practices that marked Christian life were habits of attention above all else. And it is precisely these sorts of habits that are required for the performance of Christian identity in the accounts of Tanner, Williams, and Milbank. Tracing Gregory’s thinking on the soul, sin, and Christian formation will remind us also that the habituation appropriate to living Christianly runs counter to the structure of desire inculcated in us by the social relations in which we are inscribed. For the most part, the forces that form our attention to the world around us do not build in us the desire for God that Gregory believes is indispensable for Christian belief and action. Gregory observed this, and it continues to be the case in our own era.

While I have hinted at this in the preceding pages, Gregory makes it clear that the Christian life is one lived in and through and toward the divine love. What marks the Christian soul as well as the Christian church is a desire ordered to the self-emptying and yet endless love of God. Learning to recognize this love and to display it is the goal of Christian formation.


1 See, for example, Stephen Fowl, Engaging Scripture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 97–127.

2 ST IIIa, q.8, a.3.


Between the Postliberal and the Postmodern

“True Discipleship” as Cultural Style

Throughout this chapter and the next two, I show that contemporary accounts of Christian identity need to be supplemented by accounts of Christian formation. Thinking about Christianity in cultural-linguistic terms fits nicely into theological reflection after the “linguistic turn” and in conversation with moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. The Nature of Doctrine is a landmark in this theological landscape. George Lindbeck began a fruitful conversation about what makes Christianity Christian, and how doctrine in particular functions in the process of evaluating and reproducing Chris­tian beliefs and practices. But in this chapter I will call attention to a lacuna that Lindbeck himself observed: that his description of Christianity immediately raises a question about formation. Learn­ing a new “language” to the level of adequacy Lindbeck imagined would require a thoroughgoing catechesis.1 I will show that lack of attention to this problem neglects the problem of sin and opens the door to a misreading of the function of doctrine in the lives of individual Christians. Christian identity, as the cultural-linguistic model describes it, involves speaking and living according to a different set of cultural rules. I argue in this chapter that accounts of Christian identity that take Lindbeck’s as a starting place need to address the reality of Christians’ failure to speak and live by the “rules” that comprise Christian doctrine. I take Kathryn Tanner’s account of Christian identity as paradigmatic and examine the cultural-linguistic model as she renders it.

Following the logic of that model, Tanner begins from the assumption that Christianity does function like a culture; she simply chooses different conversation partners with whom to explore the contours of that culture. The description of Christianity that emerges from her engagement with postmodern cultural anthropology draws porous boundaries around a set of materials whose identification as “Christian” depends more on arrangement than essence. Tanner insists that – in keeping with the postmodern flavor of her argument – that the continuity of Christian identity requires an “empty” center, which allows God the freedom to act in new ways in each successive generation of Christians. Thus she describes the performance of Christian identity as consisting at least partly in participation in the conversation about how to construe beliefs and practices as Christian.

Tanner’s “new agenda for theology” also employs postmodern culture theory in an attempt to liberate our understanding of Christian identity from the taint of injustice she perceives in churches’ hierarchical structures. I will show that, in so doing, she inadvertently links discipleship to a certain sort of moral and in­tellectual agency that is ultimately accountable solely to God. Moreover, I will show that Tanner’s undue emphasis on the intellectual aspect of discipleship leads to a failure to account for the need for Christian formation or the corruption of both intellectual and moral agency by sin. Our failure consistently to practice “true discipleship” suggests that there is more to Christian identity than the honing of our intellectual and moral skills.

Postliberal or Postmodern? George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine

I discuss George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine here as a point of comparison, suggesting that, while Tanner does not identify herself as postliberal, she shares with Lindbeck (and others) certain postliberal theological instincts. Discussing Lindbeck here will also provide a point of departure for the next two chapters, as Williams and Milbank also criticize Lindbeck in the course of making their constructive proposals. Their respective criticisms of Lindbeck reflect similarities and differences in the three accounts of Christian identity. While each is critical of the way Lindbeck uses culture theory, both Williams’ and Milbank’s critiques focus on the problems with Lindbeck’s understanding of the history of Christian doctrine, whereas Tanner criticizes Lindbeck’s choice of sources of culture theory. Milbank in particular goes on to criticize Lindbeck for failing to articulate a properly postmodern theology. My discussion of Lindbeck thus locates Theories of Culture in the context of theology in the United States, and helps to sketch the common ground the three share, without conflating their accounts.

Although Tanner draws upon both Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau, I suggest that the kind of agent implied in her account of Christian action is at odds with postmodern theories of culture. Tanner sees the Christian as a kind of bricoleur who works with the materials she has to hand, but portrays the bricoleur with the perspective of the architect rather than the builder. The difference in perspective is significant for Tanner’s implicit account of agency, of which I am critical in this chapter. Drawing on aspects of Bourdieu’s theory that Tanner does not discuss, I raise questions about her conception of Christian action, especially the activity that constitutes the task she identifies as the core of Christian identity. Tanner’s implied account of agency is inseparable from her understanding of tradition.2 There is an implied objectivity to the relationship between the Christian (especially the theologian) and Christian tradition, which at times seems to give the individual priority over tradition. I bring Tanner into conversation with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre to reveal the difficulties with her account of tradition. With respect to agency and tradition, I suggest that Tanner has not examined postliberalism – especially Lindbeck’s – carefully enough, nor learned all she might have from the postmodern theorists whose work she esteems so highly.

In Tanner’s case, attending to the question regarding agency and tradition would press her to pay closer attention to the process of Christian formation. I suggest that the lack of an account of formation is especially noticeable in Theories of Culturemore3