Collusions of Identity and the ‘Grace of Otherness’

By: Aaron T. Hollander

September 23, 2020

Changing the Church: The Legacy of Gerard Mannion

It can seem, and it is regularly asserted, that our moment is definitively shaped by its attention to otherness, its celebration of difference, its centrifugal drive to be emancipated from rhetorics and social structures that demand unification or sameness. There is no doubt that such orientations are prominent and persuasive, both in the academic legacies shaped by postmodern thought and in all manner of cultural currents that have paid in sweat, tears, and blood for the dignity of their difference to be recognized. Yet it would be a mistake to view our time solely sub specie alteritatis, as an age of monodirectional differentiation; for identity, in its drive for stable connection and reliable affinity, is entailed in the construction and ramification of otherness and has been a crucial force in shaping the moment. For no celebration of difference is absolute: It is conditioned on the possibility of locating or carving out pockets of similarity where centripetal attraction can support crucial psychosocial needs for security and affirmation—but all too easily at the cost of empathy and open-mindedness.

That this is the case, an introductory course in critical theory would make plain. But how (individual and group) identities are constructed, validated, deployed, and disrupted, as well as what the consequences of these processes are in different environments, are not so clear-cut or consistent. Moreover, when it comes to the core questions of this forum about the dynamics of change in the contemporary church, the complexities of negotiating ecclesial identity must be front and center. As Gerard Mannion knew and communicated so capably, identity is one of the most potent and potentially volatile elements of ecclesiology and ecumenism alike. Because the construction of identity not only implies but requires otherness, ecclesial identity has to be carefully assessed in the course of any effort to make sense of sectarian divisions, and it has consistently bedeviled attempts to make constructive ecumenical headway in moving beyond these divisions.

As Gerard Mannion knew and communicated so capably, identity is one of the most potent and potentially volatile elements of ecclesiology and ecumenism alike.

In 1980, the German Catholic theologian Peter Lengsfeld published a groundbreaking but still underappreciated collection of collaboratively written chapters on ecumenical theology (Ökumensiche Theologie: Ein Arbeitsbuch), in which he and his colleagues developed a “collusion-theory” for excavating the often-unconscious substrata of ecclesial divisions. Their case, in brief, was that an interplay (thus “collusion,” from the Latin colludere, to play together) of factors is inevitably at work both in the divisions between (and indeed within) church communities and in the ecumenical processes by which these divisions are addressed. 

Chief among these factors (for Lengsfeld and company) are conceptions of truth (that which church institutions, their leaders, and their other participants hold to be true about God, the world, and the church, including not only formal doctrine but also beliefs about reality, construals of the good, presuppositions about religious others, and so forth), social formations (including the lifeways of a community—which do not merely live out its truth-claims but rather are contextually and historically effected, entangled with all manner of other human realities—but also including the ethical and political vectors of a community’s life in a shared society, which often, of course, become sites of disagreement and division even when the truth claims or doctrinal norms are uncontested), and identity (what Lengsfeld describes in shorthand as “concern for the homogeneity, intellectual as well as personal, of one’s denominational profile and for the life of one’s own denomination”—identity in the sense of value-laden similarity and the integrity of an existing group as such) [1]. 

The aim of this “collusion-theory” was to better understand ecumenical problems (embedded as they are in all of these overlapping and reciprocally constraining factors), before attempting to resolve them with what Lengsfeld viewed as naïve and simplistic doctrine-oriented reconciliations. And in so doing, he and his collaborators came to understand that confessional identity in particular constrains ecumenical processes because it is so frequently constituted in opposition or contrast to other confessional formations, and so it resists (even against the will of those attempting to cultivate changes in the church on the basis of ecumenical dialogue) solutions based in agreed-upon truths or social priorities. Where ecumenical accords or ecclesial changes are proposed that would seem to reduce or relativize confessional difference, identity pulls the emergency brake—and, as has been widely documented, each apparent ecumenical accord opens new unstable fault lines between and within communities. As Lengsfeld aphorizes: “Out of collusion, collision” [2]. 

So what, then, is to be done with the identities which we have and need, and yet which threaten even our own concerns for reconciliation, peace, ecclesial and human flourishing? In the heat of his theorization, Lengsfeld suggests that ecumenism cannot only be outward/other-oriented, pursuing new possibilities with ecclesial others, but rather must also turn inward, involving self-conscious work to uproot and rework confessional identities at the community level, promoting instead a de-confessionalized ecclesial identity in which confessional differences could be considered incidental or provisional facts of history rather than anchors for self- and other-understanding. For this position, Lengsfeld was roundly criticized by his contemporaries, his working group’s theory sidelined and largely now forgotten in spite of its many virtues (the theory’s fate, perhaps, proving its point about the self-preservative power of identity at the expense of efforts to overcome its grip).

Gerard Mannion offers another way forward, inclusive of the courage necessary to confront the inconvenient insights of Lengsfeld and company, while yet preserving what he calls “the grace of otherness” in ecclesial relationships [3]. For Mannion (both in his monograph on Ecclesiology and Postmodernity and in his lively introduction to Church and Religious ‘Other’), identity as a drive to homogenize is doomed to irrelevance and failure (though it may do great ethical and political damage along the way); yet identity of some kind is also needed in order to engage meaningfully and ethically with otherness. This is the inverse and hopeful rejoinder to the basic critical recognition that otherness and identity are co-constituted in opposition: If otherness is a grace, and to be in relationship with otherness is the opening to hospitality and the healing of the heart through service to others, then identity is needful as a basis for this relationship. Rather than being uprooted and cast aside, then, identity needs to be carefully cultivated and cross-fertilized, encouraged to flourish but ever guarded against its tendency to curve inward upon itself (in Augustine’s felicitous phrasing).

Mannion’s near-legendary (for any who knew him) practical ecclesiology of convivial togetherness, with hospitality and the optimal conditions for friendship brought into the foreground of any ecumenical exchange, may well be a framework uniquely well-suited to demonstrating how personal, confessional, and ecclesial identities can be maintained and cherished even while they are subordinated to the demands of ethical self-relativization. Sharing a cup of tea or a glass of wine with another human being in the divided church reminds us that conflict does not represent the end of a relationship or a need to keep the dissenting other at arm’s length until the conflict is resolved. Conflict (whether grounded in identity, morality, epistemology, or material competition) is not eliminated by conviviality, but its emotional tenor is changed and its moral significance is resituated within an embrace of others’ humanity—inclusive of all that makes them what they are, inclusive of their many interlocking identities, even if these identities continue to corrode or resist ethical relationality. In my judgment, such a stance as Mannion’s is an antidote, in our time of accelerating change in the church and in the world, to the fear-fueled ecclesiologies that often manifest as a death-grip on a particular doctrinal anchor or political shibboleth, and an alternative to (as Mannion puts it, channeling David Tracy) “futile and nostalgic restorationism or the descent into absolute postmodern relativism and meaninglessness” [4]. 

Sharing a cup of tea or a glass of wine with another human being in the divided church reminds us that conflict does not represent the end of a relationship...

But a caveat must remain, a spur to vigilance. It is all too possible—maybe probable—that such an ecumenical stance of improvisational collaboration, tireless hospitality, and fearless attentiveness to the needs of others with whom we are in relationship, will itself ossify into a new quasi-confessional position, a basis for identification of us (the noble ecumenically minded) over and against them (the small-minded sectarians). If the grip of oppositional identity on the imagination and morality of the churches is to be loosened, it will not be done by assuming it is a problem to which only others are liable. This does not mean we must throw up our hands in a false-equivalence fallacy, nor that we give up the normative conviction that ecumenical openness and an ethic of relational responsibility are needed and right. But it does obligate us, especially if we are yearning and working for positive change in the church, to attend with humility and courage to the ways that our own identities, even those grounded in cherished commitments to the good of others and the good of the whole, can erect barriers to receiving the “grace of otherness” that warrants our cultivation of ecclesial identity in the first place.

  1. Peter Lengsfeld, “Ökumenische Theologie als Theorie ökumenischer Prozesse: Die Kollusionstheorie,” in Ökumenische Theologie: Ein Arbeitsbuch, ed. Peter Lengsfeld (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1980), 48.
  2. Lengsfeld, “Ökumenische Theologie als Theorie ökumenischer Prozesse,” 48.
  3. See Gerard Mannion, “Church and the Grace of Otherness: Exploring Questions of Truth, Unity and Diversity,” in Church and Religious ‘Other,’ ed. Gerard Mannion (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 1–19.
  4. Mannion, “Church and the Grace of Otherness,” 7.

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