Church, World, and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology, by Nicholas Healy

October 3rd, 2013

Title:      Church, World, and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology

Author:    Nicholas Healy

Publisher:  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Reviewer:   Nell Becker Sweeden, Ph.D. student in Practical Theology

In Church, World, and the Christian Life, Nicholas Healey offers a practical-prophetic ecclesiology that engages a theodramatic approach in actively addressing the concrete, everyday reality of the church within the world. Healey specifically challenges a modern blueprint or epic ecclesiological approach because it offers a reductively abstract and theoretical view of the church (38). Acknowledging the work of Avery Dulles, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulas, Jean-Marie Tillard etc. in understanding the church as Body of Christ, people of God, sacrament, communion, etc., Healy finds blueprint ecclesiologies develop normative descriptions of the church in combining a systematic principle and the two-fold construal of understanding the church as constituted by God while also visible as human sinful realization (30). In turn, Healy describes his work as hoping to engage the concrete church in its practical, prophetic performance of witness and discipleship in ever-shifting contexts (39). He finds that critical theological analysis of the contexts in which ecclesial communities find themselves is one of the central tasks of ecclesiology. In order to engage these contexts, Healy draws upon von Balthasar’s theodrama, MacIntyre’s theory of traditional inquiry, postmodern critiques of humanism, and postmodern ethnography.

Healy establishes the primary theodramatic response of the church within Paul’s rule: “One part is proscriptive: that apart from Christ crucified, we should not glory or boast in anything. The other part is prescriptive: that we should boast in Jesus Christ crucified” (7). Seeking after Christ first, the church commits itself to good discipleship and faithful witness to this truth. The church is not a repository of truth or even systematic coherence, but rather “the communal embodiment of the search for truthful witness and discipleship within the theodrama” (108). In this sense, ecclesiology is understood dynamically as the ecclesial community wrestles with the tension between understanding the church as Christ’s, oriented toward its ultimate truth, together with its ‘placedness’ in a specific context within the reality of sinful ecclesial responses. Healy prefers to hold in tension the performative dynamic of the church always in via, that is a pilgrim church, and the church triumphant, the heavenly church (10).

Healy finds that this focus on ecclesial performance of faithfulness as well as the shaping of a distinctive way of life together in media res oriented toward the Lord Jesus Christ and our triune God allows the church the freedom to engage in non-Christian contexts. Important within this central ecclesiological task is recognizing non-Christian influences upon the church, while maintaining the distinctiveness of the Christian community and not allowing theological judgments to be subsumed within other narratives. This particular work engages the contexts of pluralism and inclusivism within contemporary ecclesial contexts, engaging pluralist figures such as John Hick, Peter Hodgson, and Gordon Kaufman as well as inclusivist figures such as Karl Rahner, Tillard, and Leonardo Boff. Healy finds that both pluralist and inclusivist approaches relativize the concrete church toward a universal goal, while radically undermining the church’s task of witness to the Good News of Christ (101). Such ecclesial foci, thus, compromise the church’s distinct identity. In turn, the church loses its ability to engage and learn from other religious bodies who also may see themselves as distinct from Christianity and distinct from the world, and the church loses its distinctive position from which to debate the concrete shape of society (101). Healy’s theodramatic approach, in contrast, intends to offer flexible and fluid ecclesial engagement with various ways of understanding the relations between God, the church and the world” (77).

Healy employs MacIntyre’s work to establish a theodramatic response to pluralism: first, a tradition can be judged according to criterion that are internally coherent, and second it can be judged by its explanatory power and its contextual adaptability in the face of challenges (124). Both the pluralist and the inclusivist ecclesiological horizons compromise the first of these judgments. The inclusivist, like the pluralist, ecclesiological theory assumes a single form of salvation for all humanity, and reduces the distinctive goal and means of each religious tradition. In this sense, these approaches fail to take differences seriously without perspectival reduction. Instead, Healy’s theodramatic theological horizon continues in the vein of MacIntyre to understand the church in light of its own tradition:

“The life of discipleship is the life spent in seeking for what constitutes good discipleship, and the virtues and graces necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the life of discipleship is. One central task of the church is to be the locus and product of that search. So we can define it in terms of its vocation as that religious body whose concrete identity is structured by its quest to discern how its response to its Lord should structure its concrete identity (102).”

The challenge remains for Healy’s practical-prophetic ecclesiology as to how the concrete church will engage non-Christian approaches without loss or occlusion of difference (153). This challenge cannot be met with the concrete church recognizing and critically reflecting upon its own sinfulness and short comings. Healy walks a fine, but necessary tension within ecclesiology coupling contemporary ecclesiological figures such as Hauerwas’ and Lindbeck’s understanding of ecclesiology as a social practice and Kathryn Tanner’s challenge toward more ad hoc bricolage that recognizes a messier and conflictual ecclesiological reality. Healy concludes in engaging his practical-prophetic ecclesiology with those disciplines that bear upon the concrete identity of the church: history, sociology, and cultural analysis or ethnography (155). These and non-theological approaches, may help the church live more truthfully as it acknowledges and reforms sinfulness, engages in ever-shifting ecclesiological contexts by drawing critical theological attention back to the struggles and complexities of life within the pilgrim church seeking to glorify Jesus Christ in everything (185).