Radical Friendship: The Politics of Communal Discernment

Ryan A. Newson

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In this dissertation, I argue that a felt sense of moral incompetence marks the political context that those of us in the United States—not least political theologians—must work to address. I show that the particular form of incompetence we now experience is a manifestation of the predominance of political liberalism, and argue in favor of radical democratic alternatives to this dominance by way of political participation “from below.” Indeed, I argue that resources from the “baptist” tradition are uniquely fitted to be of service to Christians seeking to work in this context. To this end, I suggest that one practice in particular, communal discernment, has the potential to help foster faithful radical democratic participation by Christians. I describe what I mean by communal discernment in historical and theological context, with an eye to how this description is of interest to political theologians, and in the process address the frequently-waged objection that communal discernment is the harbinger of power’s abuse. After acknowledging the importance of this objection, I offer a counter-narration of power as kenotic, which paves the way for a nuanced reclamation of communal discernment.

The upshot is that communal discernment works as a “counter-practice” (to use James McClendon’s term) that enables the discerning participation of Christians in a multifaceted society—a society much more complex than is often recognized (in theory). By functioning in this way, communal discernment fosters one side of a “radical friendship”—between Christians in the ekklesia—such that we are able and willing to participate in radical democratic action without losing “who we are.” On the other hand, communal discernment simultaneously enables one to see that the line between church and world, while real, is not impermeable, but cuts through the Christian community and each Christian heart. To this end, I explore analogues to this practice “out” in the world, a move that follows from my claim that the dividing line between church and world is porous and internal. In this light, friendship as classically understood is “converted” by Christian resources, and communal discernment is seen as providing a means of receiving and incorporating the surprising, “fugitive” movements of the Spirit.