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Reflections on the Jim Wallis visit to Dunedin

September 28, 2010

I have great respect for what Jim Wallis has achieved. However I must confess to being disappointed with yesterday’s public lecture. My first disappointment is that that I feel we ended up getting a motivational talk rather than a lecture. There were some great stories, some slogans and phrases, but little depth of engagement in issues. This is ironic in the light of his own motto: Don’t go left. Don’t go right. Go deeper. I would have liked to hear him go deeper in several key areas.

It seems to me that the notion of ‘values’ is an area that clearly needs further explication if we are to go deeper. As Graham Redding highlighted in response, you can gain a ‘surface’ agreement on values and end up with very different political outcomes, precisely because values are a way of avoiding going deeper. Another area that remained undefined while yet playing a key function in his rhetoric was ‘faith’. As Jim talked it sounded like he was referring to a transcendental-existential reworking of the ‘invisible hand’. He had little to say either about the grounds of faith or of hope. Moreover when advocating for hope he offered no theology of hope. The example he offered sounded like it amounted to little more than self-confidence in our ability to make a difference in history. This left me wondering if his determination to let his faith be disciplined by democracy has weeded all theological specificity out of his language (a concern Jamie Smith also raises in his essay: “Constantianism of the Left? On Jim Wallis and Barack Obama“). I am left wondering whether his advocacy for participation in democracy needs to be disciplined by his faith, as much as the vice-versa he emphasises. But how would that happen? His ‘faith’ may not be private, but I wonder about the meaning of ‘public’ in his rhetoric. Jim gave some nods in the direction of ‘church’, but most of his rhetoric seemed to jump from a quite individualistic conception of ‘faith’ to a ‘public’ whose incarnation seems to be the democratic conjugation of individuals. If this is the result of adding politics onto evangelicalism, then it seems to me that the flaws lie deep in his evangelicalism. In the end Jim’s evangelicalism can form close alliances with liberal forms of evangelical or ecumenical thought since both seem to share a common individualism whose true ‘public’ is the liberal democratic state. Such faith might not be the servant of society, nor yet its master, but as its conscience it cannot take a radical stance vis-à-vis the state by being itself an alternative social order. Faith thus remains within the constraints of the state’s form of ‘practical reason’. I wonder whether the cost of this ‘realism’ is not similar to that of Obama’s Niebuhrianism.

Admittedly my critique is largely an argument from silence grounded in my disappointment at the limited scope of Jim’s engagement. He certainly offered some important insights in his presentation, and I will remember and repeat several of his stories for some time to come. However, my concerns about the overall coherence of his vision and its ability to challenge our neo-liberal consumer culture at any real depth remain.

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