Rethinking the Beloved Community: Ecclesiology, Hermeneutics, Social Theory

By Lewis S. Mudge
WCC Publications and University Press of America, Inc. 2000.312 pp. Pb. $27.50 ISBN 2-8254-1332-1

— reviewed by Louis Weeks, president, Union-PSCE, Richmond.

This collection of articles and essays by Lewis Mudge -- which have previously appeared in a variety of publications during the past 30 years -- offers a good summary of his thought. He believes that the whole church needs to think fresh thoughts about its identity as the body of Christ. More, it must develop its identity in the world. Ecclesial life for Mudge is a reality, and social theory can illumine its existence.

Mudge takes issue with the recent work of John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, especially his critique of “political theologians.” Mudge pleads “not guilty” to accusations that he has given primary authority to a particular social theory — that of Ernst Troelsch, for example. Ecclesiology is rather, Mudge contends, social theory based upon the biblical story which “reads and interprets the stories told by congregations of God’s people in their concrete existence” (p. 7).

Certain of the articles are more accessible and informative than others — at least for this reviewer. I really enjoyed “Moral Hospitality for Public Reasoners,” originally a part of the fourth Visser t’Hooft Memorial Consultation in Geneva (June 1999). Mudge broaches the crucial issue of church involvement in debates about the public good. He considers the relationship of sacred space and public space, the need for Christian and other religious communities and communions to behave in generous fashion toward one another, listening and engaging in reasoned conversation. Excellent and profound illustrations, such as the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in South Africa, carry the argument and convince the reader of the necessity to practice moral hospitality.

Others of the articles I still cannot follow clearly. Mudge alludes to the names of scholars without explaining which of their works he is following. He fashions his own verbs from nouns and nouns from verbs. He prefers multisyllabic to simple words. I am certain that his adaptation of ch. 3, “Toward a Hermeneutic for Ecclesiogenesis,” from his 1992 work, The Sense of a People, bears insights and assistance for us. I simply cannot make my way through the prose. Basically, Mudge seems to draw upon models and images of the developmental process to argue for meaning in the Christian symbols and the presence of Christian communities in the world. But I cannot be certain.

In a succinct and helpful preface, Conrad Raiser pays tribute to Mudge as a pioneer “in exploring new ways of thinking and conceptualizing the church as a body in the wider human community, searching for models and metaphors that could restore to the church its character of a sign and sacrament of what the human community is meant to be in the eyes of God” (viii). This anthology of contributions by this pioneer gathers several of those models and metaphors. I commend the work to those who care that the church be faithful to its head, Jesus Christ.