Change in the Church: Of Ruins and Renovations

By: Judith Gruber

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

In honor of the late Professor Gerard Mannion, this Berkley Forum explores visions for change in the church. In my contribution, I will ponder on the question: “How do we imagine ecclesial change?” Which metaphors do we use to understand church tradition as it unfolds in a tension between transformation and stability? Metaphors, cognitive linguistics George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have argued, shape our thought and practice in profound ways. They are not mere figures of speech that illustrate our experience of the world, but the conceptual tools through which we experience the world in the first place. We perceive and act in accordance with metaphors, which offer a shorthand for making sense of the complexities of the world. A closer look at the metaphors that we use to grasp the transformations of the church through history, therefore, can offer resources for a theological reflection on ecclesial change.

There is a range of established metaphors for envisaging ecclesial change, each of them capturing—in a nutshell, as it were—a complex system of ecclesial practices and theological assumptions about church tradition. Metaphorizing tradition as safeguarding the “deposit of faith,” for example, privileges the value of stability and can authorize restorative tendencies, as was the case in nineteenth-century antimodernist ecclesiology. In Vatican II ecclesiology, in turn, metaphors are prevalent that frame tradition as “growth” or “evolution,” which account for historical transformation, while also positing that there is an unchanging “root” to church tradition. As metaphors arise from our experience of the world, we continue to come across new images that are shaped by and shape transformation in the church. Metaphorization is inherently unfinished business, also in theological reflection, and thinking through new metaphors can open fresh perspectives for understanding and practicing church tradition.

Arguably, such a new metaphor for ecclesial change can be found in the fire at Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in March 2019. Images of the church in flames have burnt themselves deeply into collective memory, and immediately, many saw in the fire an image of political significance. Many commentators mourned the loss of a “core symbol of European culture.” Seeing a “stronghold of Christian faith” go up in flames, right-wing movements found in the burning church proof for their admonitions that the imminent doom of the Christian West is near. 

Images of the church in flames have burnt themselves deeply into collective memory, and immediately, many saw in the fire an image of political significance.

The fire has also given rise to theological interpretation: Many couldn’t but perceive in the burning building a church that is also metaphorically “on fire”—for them, the cathedral in flames provided a stark image for the manifold crises of the contemporary church. But some also found grounds for a more hopeful theological reading: The morning after the fire, once it became clear that the church had not been fully destroyed, there was much talk about hope rising from ashes. On Palm Sunday 2019, resurrection already seemed to become apparent in the still-smoking remains of the building—seemingly, crises can (quickly) be overcome and forgotten. In this swirl of comments, I found profound insights for a theological interpretation of the fire in a Facebook post from medievalist Sara Uckelmann.

Through Uckelman’s commentary, the burning church becomes a rich metaphor for ecclesial change that can speak to the problematic aspects of church history and simultaneously allows us to explore the theological complexities of resurrection hope. Her vision of renovation in the aftermath of destruction does not simply speak of trust in ecclesial resilience that allows the church to rebound from set-backs to its mission, nor does it blindly resort to faith in a totalizing “all shall be well.” Instead, it offers a clear vision of the deficiencies that are an irreducible part of ecclesial tradition. Looking at the cathedral building, this courageous look at ecclesial damage might appear rather harmless in surfacing ongoing architectural change that continues to shape the structures of the church. But applied to the wider tradition of the church, it also reveals violent histories of exclusion that have inscribed themselves deeply into ecclesial foundations. At the same time, it also surfaces those practices that have created alternative spaces of ecclesial life. 

Recognizing ongoing transformation, Uckelman’s vision of the fire gives an account of ecclesial change that differs significantly from the narratives of “contemporary crisis” and “hope in resilience.” If the Notre Dame fire tempts us to see a church which is “now” in a crisis that can hopefully soon be overcome, we risk giving in to illusions of an ideal form of church that is lost and/or to be restored. The grief over the partial destruction of one of Europe’s oldest church buildings reveals the allure that imaginations of a pure origin and a purportedly unscathed history have on us. Ultimately, both “crisis” and “resilience” rest on the assumption that the changeable, violent history of the church is but a distortion of an ecclesial ideal that provides a reliable foundation and/or telos for church tradition. 

If the Notre Dame fire tempts us to see a church which is 'now' in a crisis that can hopefully soon be overcome, we risk giving in to illusions of an ideal form of church that is lost and/or to be restored.

Theologically, however, no such warrant exists. The tomb is empty, we are not to hold on to the Messiah (‘Noli me tangere…’). In Emmaus, he disappears the very moment in which the disciples finally recognize him. The church has nothing, as Michel deCerteau puts it, apart from the manifold witnesses that cannot but fall short as they seek to re/present the body of Christ. If we all too quickly believe that we can compensate this lack by our resurrection faith, we are in danger of suppressing the trauma of loss and will remain silent on the wounds that it has inflicted. Resurrection does not take place as a triumph that overcomes pain and grief. Rather, it can be grasped only through a hermeneutic of wounds and tears: Thomas has to touch wounds to see and believe. It is through the mist of her tears that Mary recognizes her Rabbuni. Resurrection faith is irresolvably tied to the recognition of a history of wounds.

Through Uckelman’s vision of the cathedral fire as part of a long history of destruction and renovation, a Notre Dame in flames and ashes becomes an ecclesiological metaphor that can do justice to these complexities of resurrection faith. Readings of the fire as a sign of “crisis” or “resilience” would be insufficient to think theologically about the changeable tradition of the church, because they do not grasp the irresolvable ambiguities of ecclesial history and conceal that the church lacks—for theological reasons—a self-evident, unchangeable foundation. Speaking to ongoing de/construction, in contrast, Uckelman helps us to envision a church that does not sacralize its failures through a theology of hope. Instead, it offers a blueprint for a church that can courageously embrace cases of ecclesial misconduct as an inalienable part of its tradition—and that can therefore steadily work for ecclesial reparation. It allows us to imagine a church which can confess that it has always already been ruinous: no strong fortress, no sweet home, no solid foundation, never nothing but a building site under construction.

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