Lecture Five: Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

Professor Stout delivered the fifth of his Gifford Lectures last night. My summary  is below. The video of Stout’s lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to listen to it again. An audio only version can be  found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Professor David Fergusson will be adding his initial reflections on Professor Stout’s fifth lecture. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity and Principal of New College at the University of Edinburgh and he himself is also a former Gifford Lecturer. S. Kyle Johnson will also provide his initial reflections on some of the themes that have arisen in the lectures so far. Kyle is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology at Boston College. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Stout’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Stout begins his fifth lecture by speaking of Nietzche’s eclipse of Emerson. Emerson spoke of many of the same themes that Nietzsche did before Nietzsche did, but Nietzsche’s version is the one most remembered today. As Stout mentioned, “Bookstores have moved Emerson to the self-help aisle. We read his sayings on greeting cards and wince. Nietzsche is in every theologian’s shoulder bag. Self-reliance is now served black, no sugar, in a Parisian demitasse.” According to Stout, most academics now only know Emersonian themes “by way of Nietzsche’s anti-democratic variations on them.” Emerson himself met with a mixed reception in his visits to Scotland, ranging from charges of “ill-disguised infidelity” to more charitable and sympathetic yet critical appreciation of him by people like James Stirling (the first Gifford Lecturer) and Lord Gifford himself. Many on both sides of the Atlantic saw something of value in Emerson. Stout ended the first section of his lecture by saying, “If we want to understand the modern ideal of ethical religion” then “we had better figure out what these and many other activists, including King, saw in Emerson.”

Stout then moved on to talk at length about the Emersonian theme of nonconformity. He starts with Emerson’s 1838 address at Harvard Divinity School and moved on to talk about “calling” as a dual character concept. A minister’s calling, according to Emerson, “is to speak the Word of a living God, to call others out of conformity into right relation to divinity.” True calling like true religion or true science, however, cannot be reduced to a neutral participation in some practice, one must participate in it well. As Stout mentioned, “A ministerial calling reducible to a job description is a semblance of a true calling.” True calling requires the embodiment of nonconformity by the minster even while he or she calls others out of slavish conformity “to the world.”  Stout then moved on to talk about the distinction between “imitation” and “emulation,” where the former is a slavish repetition and the latter involves “striving to improve on it.” In a striking turn of phrase he asked, “Why does your congregation need your preaching if they can infer your thoughts from Calvin? He stood for something. Do you merely stand for him?” Slavish imitation dishonors the figure imitated and, in the minister’s case, acts as if God is dead; no longer living and active within the present. The proper way to honor and revere the great figures of the past is to “emulate their emulating, not imitate their imitating.” Stout then moved on to talk about the notion of self-responsibility and self-reliance. Speaking of the latter he said, “self-reliance is not freedom from influence, but a response you make to a disruptively divine gift of provocation. To make the response demanded of you is to achieve individuality, to become a self-conscious locus of responsibility.” Stout then went on to defend Emerson’s notion of individuality against charges of reductive or atomistic conceptions of the individual. Self-reliance, as he went on to explain, enables one to bring the “repression of unauthorized thoughts to consciousness” and in so doing challenge mere conformity to one’s present situation and strive to improve it. As he said, “everyone is called to identify the ideals worthiest of reverence, to test them against experience, and to live in accordance with one’s considered view of them” in order to responsibly emulate them for others to emulate.

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Stout then went on to talk at great length about the notion of servility as slavish dependence or as mere imitation; of which self-reliance is the antidote (understood in an intersubjective rather than atomistic way). In this section Stout made an important point concerning Emerson’s use of the term “democracy.” Contrary to Nietzsche where democracy is seen to absorb the individual into the herd Emerson, according to Stout, “reserves the name ‘democracy’ for a form of sociality that encourages resistance to the herd.” As he went on to explain further, “democratic individuality is not what you achieve by affirming yourself as a monad, but what you achieve under the influence of others who call you into responsibility.” He then went on to speak of how this plays out in societies that are “corrupted by oppression” by engaging Emerson’s notion with Tacitus, Milton, Thomas Scott (the Scottish pamphleteer), and Gerrard Winstanley. Concerning the latter, Stout highlighted two conclusions. First, “that the oppressor is himself rendered servile by oppression” and, second, “that the oppressed are complicit in their own subjugation insofar as they submit to it.” Servility in this sense has been exacerbated “by the false religion of bowing before worldly masters” and Stout alluded to the recurrence of this theme (and the attempts to address it) in Hegel, Marx, Heyrick, Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi, Beauvoir, King, Berry, Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Fanon.

In the next portion of his lecture Stout focused on how religion, ethics, and politics are “ways of standing for something.” He returned again to the notion of “true religion” understood as “a virtue, a sentiment, an attitude, and a set of activities” including a “pious acknowledgment of dependence on divine power” with an accompanying stance characterized by a pious opening of oneself to thankfully receive “the influx of divine spirit.” Stout went on to discuss the difference between Emerson’s faith as it contrasts with traditional understandings in orthodox Christianity. For Emerson, “the proper object of faith is not a personal God, but an impersonal power responsible for all finite excellence.” Stout further went on to describe how this power is understood to “unleash creative power” and supply “confidence in ideals that free us from conformity and ‘mean egotism’” in our various communities and in society at large. The individualism of Emerson is not individualistic. Stout then went on to talk about the role of institutions (including churches) and persons in effecting and inspiring change. He mentioned that they ought not be the objects of worship even if they are worthy of admiration. As he said, “True worship directs itself to the excellence that is the source of finite goods.”

Stout moved on to talk about various figures of virtue worthy of emulation. He then importantly moved on to talk about how ideals become embodied in various persons through their engaged activities with other persons rallied around various causes. As he said, “to be virtuous was to stand for something, to make your body, your voice, your stance exemplify it—and to do so before others, who might be moved by you to stand with you, or left opposed to you, across the aisle, unmoved. It was to offer yourself as an example to others.” He then spoke of the importance of deciding what ideals to stand for, and how best to stand for them, and how to discern what an “individual, group, nation, or age” stand for, namely, by observing “what it actually sacrifices for what.” Stout then spoke of Emerson’s process of deciding to stand for abolition and of the “moving” nature of witnessing and encountering ideals incarnate. The incarnation of divine ideals through their appropriation by various citizens and practitioners of true religion is not contained in institutional religion, nor can it be separated from politics, in Emerson’s view.

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In the final section Stout focuses on further unpacking Emerson’s notion of democracy as it relates to the “smaller band.” This smaller band consists of those who “are called to spend their lives intentionally calling others to rise, providing spiritual leadership to the community, and reflecting on the demands of the transformation underway,” which not all are called to lead even if all are equally called to participate. In this regard Emerson makes a distinction between a “natural aristocracy” and the “actual aristocracy.” False democracy is seen to be a semblance of true democracy (where self-reliance has its proper place). “Mobocracy” is not true democracy. Stout went on at some length to distinguish Nietzsche’s position from Emerson’s and from the many other visions of this “smaller band” (including Wagner’s, Ripley’s, Whitman’s, Lenin’s, Weber’s, Crane’s, Eliade’s, Benjamin’s, Rorty’s, Cavarrero’s, Agamben’s, MacIntyre’s, Hauerwas’s, and Markopoulos’s). Stout listed three questions that Emerson asked in order to evaluate potential smaller bands and their respective visions: (1) “Are the ideals being affirmed intuitively acceptable and capable of surviving essayistic testing?” (2) “Can they be made actual in sustainable material practices with which we can, in good conscience, identify?” and (3) “By what means is this supposed to be done?” In order to be established as a truly virtuous “small band,” in Emerson’s view, the vision had to be actualized and embodied in concrete activities bound up in just relationships.

Stout spent the remainder of his lecture unpacking the implications of this in greater detail, criticized Nietsche’s view that slavery was inherent to culture, addressed issues revolving around self-deception, and discussed the dynamics involved in the efficaciousness of ideals. He ended with reference to Frederick Douglas and Toussaint L’Overture (whom Emerson took to be “the anti-slave” figure) and to Thoreau’s involvement in the abolitionist movement. In wrapping up many of the themes addressed in this lecture Stout stated that “it was because the movement then taking shape was neither a herd, a mere ought, a dictatorship, nor a failed utopia that later movements considered it worthy of emulation. Emerson bequeathed to them a democratic vocabulary for discussing ideals, powers, oppression, conformity, transformation, slavishness, self-reliance, exemplarity, virtue, and religion.” He ended by asking, “Would a Nietzschean, Weberian, or Marxist vocabulary serve us better?” He promised to pursue this line of inquiry further in his final lecture.

Professor David Fergusson will now provide a brief reflection to further facilitate conversation.

4 thoughts on “Lecture Five: Slavishness, Democracy, and the Death of God

  1. Jeff Stout’s Giffords have offered a striking series of reflections on the relationships between religion, secularism and politics. Drawing upon an array of historical examples, some of which are unfamiliar to us, he challenges the standard account of the growing dissociation of faith and politics in western societies from the seventeenth century onwards. His retelling of this story will require us to revise earlier assumptions about the ways in which religion continues to impact political thought and action. There is much here to ponder.

    I’m currently on research leave in Princeton – Professor Stout’s home town. This has afforded the unusual experience of following the Giffords from another shore. Though I regret missing in person the 2017 lectures, I can attest that these are being closely followed by colleagues and students in Princeton University, even to the extent that a Gifford party has been proposed! Once his material appears in print, our discussions will surely continue even farther afield. We shall not be able to address these questions again without reference to Stout’s Giffords.

    Emerson has often appeared to me as a quintessentially American thinker with his greater moral optimism, can-do mentality, and confidence in the prospects of social transformation. Robert Jenson once wrote that ‘there lurks an Emerson in every American breast.’ But it is good to be informed of the impact of his visit to Glasgow and influence upon Lord Gifford. I was quite unaware of this. Servility and excessive deference may take different forms in British society, but the need for criticism is no less pressing, as is the importance of self-reliance and the overcoming of a herd mentality for the combating of egregious injustices. In my experience, our Edinburgh students take to Emerson very quickly.

    I have two questions which relate to the transposition of this criticism into terms that apply today. The first concerns what lies on the other side. If self-reliance, criticism and greater independence of judgement can be viewed as an Aristotelian mean that escapes the excesses of servility and deference, then what are the vices that incline in the other direction? To put this rather differently, might there be a cynicism, contempt and indifference towards social processes that today are just as problematic as a surfeit of servility? This leads to a second type of query about what conditions are required for the facilitating of Emersonian virtues in our universities and faith communities today? I’d value any help that Jeff Stout can give us in tackling these questions within our current context, whether that’s Princeton or Edinburgh. And I look forward to the final lecture tomorrow.

    David Fergusson

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  2. Professor Jeffrey Stout’s series of Gifford lectures have been profound and stimulating, and it is an honor to be able to make an attempt to add to the conversation from an ocean away. I have found a lot in Professor Stout’s lectures that give me pause and raise important questions. Several assumptions I have carried with me have been taken out for thorough re-examination. I want to spend some time reflecting on some of the broad themes that have been generative for me as I gratefully watch from afar. My thanks also to Andrew Johnson for asking me to take part and all he has done to make this conversation possible.

    In a carefully told story, Stout has made a compelling case for the emergence of movements of “unbounded” religion; vigorously engaged in political movements toward egalitarian societies. To be sure, this story explains much more satisfactorily how a ‘secular age,’ could produce a Wilberforce, a Dorothy Day, or a Martin Luther King, Jr.

    As a preliminary note, Professor Stout’s lectures have reminded me of an illuminating exchange between two figures not often discussed together, James Baldwin and Thomas Merton. I have recently become interested in what appears to have been a brief (and one sided, it seems) connection between them. Merton, deeply affected by several of Baldwin’s writings, writes “Letters to a White Liberal,” published in The Seeds of Destruction in large part as a Christian response to Baldwin. It seems intentionally modelled off of The Fire Next Time. Merton also pens a letter to Baldwin, published in the same book (letter #28), where he praises Baldwin’s commentary on racism and makes the interesting remark that “I think your view is fundamentally religious, genuinely religious, and therefore has to be against conventional religiosity.” Merton affirms much of Baldwin’s criticisms of religion, but attempts here to employ a definition of true religion against false religion, asserting that he and Baldwin are on the side of the former for their shared criticism of racism and its embeddedness in false religion. This is a particularly poignant exchange on the difference between false and true religion at a particular point of crisis. As with Stout’s reference to Baldwin and MLK, here is an important example of cooperation against oppression and false religion between a Christian and an agnostic. I hope others find in it, as I do, an inspiring corroboration of the material covered in these lectures.

    As a student of theology, myself embedded in a particular religious tradition, Professor Stout’s lectures have forced me to interrogate narratives I myself have repeated that serve as corollaries to the secularization stories Stout resists. What has surprised me the most in these lectures is not so much the importance of significant religious political movements in modernity, but the genealogy of ethical religion beginning in the classical world, through Aquinas, the Dominicans, and others. The story often repeated in certain circles is of modernity’s invention of ‘ethical religion’ as a reduction of religion to ethical claims made on other foundations. This story tells of the dominance of the Lockean tradition Stout outlines in Lecture 3, of religion held within the bounds of reason, and maintained to fulfill the ends of republican values. This is a story of religion, albeit often acting with remarkable vigor, eclipsed by secular virtue. Kant, in this story, is the jailer. Karl Barth, certainly drawing from the tradition Stout identifies in Luther’s resistance to religion-talk, represents an anomalous discontent. I would argue that Charles Taylor tells a version of this story, seeing religion (itself something of a modern invention) subsumed into the larger impulses of Reformism and thereby bounded to a particular modern social imaginary. Taylor does this while avoiding too strong of a normative claim about whether this is a good or bad thing, however. Many critics of various forms of secularization theses have offered their own story of religion as once autonomous, now bounded. It exists, sometimes quite strongly, but often subordinate to other ends.

    Stout’s account makes me think twice about this story. I am reminded by the prevalent appeal of early Christian apologists to “piety” and “justice,” to establish their legitimacy in classical society. Early Christian apologists argued for their protection from persecution on account of their good citizenship and their fulfillment of the social virtues of piety and justice. There is in Christianity a long tradition of recognizing a duty to participate in the common good and live up to a particular standard of ‘ethical religion’ (I recognize that I fall into the risk of anachronisms here, without the ability to give the thorough linguistic analysis that Stout has provided in his examples). And within this commitment, Christian religion has in many instances bound itself to the common good, and been thereby unbounded to promote good.

    In thinking about normative conclusions, I still maintain some suspicion at the risks of religion becoming the stooge, in the promotion of ethical religion. How does one prevent against unbounded religion being directed in service to a non-egalitarian ethical vision? This was Barth’s concern about German Christianity, where ‘ethics’ dominated religion in service of aggressive nationalism. Obviously, Stout has offered many important examples of religious persons carefully defining true religion as egalitarian, but should we not take more sober stock of the ways ethical talk can be deceptively embedded in other power moves?

    As Stout has noted, there are severe risks of anachronism and cultural imposition in applying religion-talk outside of the Christian, Western, tradition. In this light, and in my function as a constructive religious thinker, I wonder what lessons are here for a multicultural age? As the world becomes more interdependent (the recent rise of Western protectionist politics notwithstanding) and the West itself becomes more diverse, is there a proper way to talk about and promote ethical religion? The formula that has been established in the West, while portending as universalist, has hardly yet been tested by actual diversity. Can we promote ‘religion unbounded,’ in a world where the assumptions and language that undergird that value is no longer so self-contained? Certainly we can, and should, hope for a world of more unbounded ethical-religious luminaries like Las Casas and Wilberforce. But how is this promoted? And is this possible with the deterioration of myths of Western universalism? With that asked, I believe it is telling that increased religious and cultural diversity has preceded a quasi-Christian nationalist reaction in the West. I fear that many are coming to the, I believe erroneous, conclusion that Western formulas for religious liberty do not work in the face of religious diversity, doubling-down on the conviction that only Christianity (or a secularized, explicitly Western, civil-religious form of it) can maintain the republican order. And in one sense, such advocates have a point: All our purportedly universalist language has been embedded in a particular tradition. Indeed, many Americans throughout our particular history have explicitly insisted that only Anglo-Saxon Protestantism can support republican ideals. How do we articulate an alternative to this viewpoint and its latest instantiations that does not rely on no longer viable religion-talk? How do we articulate the role of ‘religion’ in an egalitarian order when the very notion of religion, much less of its proper role in society, destabilized, and works for a multicultural society? These are broad, and admittedly half-baked questions. But I hope some will find them helpful at least in some way.

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  3. I can only offer my thanks again to Prof. Stout and the Gifford Lectures team for yet another scintillating lecture. I had a further question about Prof. Stout’s retrieval of Emersonian democratic individuality. Certainly, we can envision that individuality as being neither atomistic nor conformist insofar as individuality necessarily has models but does not limit itself to imitation thereof. Instead, it both has examples and makes itself an example and thereby takes upon itself the pains of thinking for itself. In short, democratic individuality would exist within a multidimensional web of self-responsible loci of authority, bound up with influence and acculturation, models and examples, emulating and standing for. Wherefore Prof. Stout’s characterization of Emerson’s “value-laden, social perspectival theory of ethical religious and political conduct”.

    The above speaks volumes for Emerson’s continued importance today, but I would like, if possible, to get clearer on what Prof. Stout’s retrieval of Emerson democratic individuality, as a form of sociality against the herd, entails more specifically. So, I would put forward two questions (while hoping to avoid unnecessary navel-gazing):

    1.) From the standpoint of democratic individuality, one is called out of conformity. But what precisely is one called out of conformity with? Are these communities, groups, sub-groups? Social types or roles writ large? Imitated models or acculturated practices? Or, still else, one’s attained self or how the former are integrated therein? It seems to me that, in order no longer to conform, one must have some idea of the object of that conformity.

    2.) From the standpoint of democratic individuality, one brings the repression of unauthorized thoughts (and the potentiality thereof) to consciousness. But where do these unauthorized thoughts follow from? The disruptive power of “an impersonal power responsible for all finite excellence”? The calling of another democratic individuality? The (un)attained self? In a word, in what way do those thoughts stand free of the authorized? If one understands the individual as the bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community, those thoughts must stand in some specifiable relation, positive or negative, to one’s cognitive context.

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  4. Professor Jeffrey Stout has offered a compelling account of Emerson’s importance for the pursuit of ‘ethical religion’. Emerson’s worthy provocations include an incisive critique, later adopted by Nietzsche, of slavishness and the herd mentality. He therefore seeks to evoke others’ ‘self-reliance’, characterised by the expression of ‘unauthorised thoughts’. In Stout’s convincing portrayal, Emerson is not thereby calling for atomised self-assertion; rather, non-conformity is the necessary condition for a ‘sociality of reason’ (in Terry Pinkard’s phrase) that can alone support democracy.

    After all, Emerson’s self-reliant ethic led him to abolitionism. That commitment locates him in Stout’s historical coalition, traced throughout a brilliant lecture series, against that ‘many-headed Hydra’ of human domination. However, Emerson’s ethic had also led him, as Stout briefly acknowledges, to leave the ministry because of ‘reservations about the Lord’s Supper’. Moved as I am by Emerson, I want to question what was lost for the abolitionist cause when he declared that ‘this mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me’.

    Part of Emerson’s resignation of his ministry involved a series of arguments against the observance of the ‘Lord’s Supper’. In an 1832 piece, he claimed that Jesus never intended to establish a perpetual rite, that the importance attributed to this outdated ‘form’ was ‘not consistent with the Spirit of Christianity’, and that its performance places those who abstain in ‘unfavorable relation’. He then signals his departure with these memorable words: ‘that is the end of my opposition, that I am not interested in it’.

    I am struck by the apparent de-politicisation in Emerson’s account of what Christians hold as a Sacrament. Remarkably, Emerson interprets Jesus’ statements—‘This is my body which is broken for you. Take; eat. This is my blood which is shed for you. Drink it.’—as a habitual mode of teaching, a readiness to ‘spiritualise every occurrence’. This angle on Jesus’ instruction is echoed in several of Emerson’s comments in the later Divinity School Address, which emphasises redemption from ‘formal religion’ towards the ‘formation of the soul’. ‘And thus by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us’, Emerson asserts, ‘and thus only’.

    Admittedly, thoughts are political in Stout’s portrayal of Emerson. With reference to the arrangement of ancient assemblies by political position, ‘moving’ rhetoric entailed the relocation of one’s body in order to stand for an ideal. Relatedly, Stout points out that Emerson’s turn to abolitionism meant rejecting elements of his earlier idealism, which he came to see could ‘reinforce oppression by merely negating it moralistically’. Damningly, ‘the material practice of slavery is idealism’s evil twin’.

    What material practice, then, enacts anti-domination?

    Democracy, for Emerson, was a term that implied liberty and justice. In Stout’s words, Emerson’s ‘fully democratic culture’ means that ‘individuals treat themselves and one another as loci of authority and responsibility’; ‘Everyone is called to rise out of servility into self-reliance’. This calling is often actualised through the leadership of the ‘excellent few’, a vision Stout compares to the ‘smaller band’ as articulated by leading intellectuals since. One of Emerson’s three critical questions for evaluating such groups is this: ‘can they be made actual in sustainable material practices with which we can, in good conscience, identify?’ After all, as Stout renders Emerson, ‘Ideals not incarnated in action are spectral wrong.’

    With this material criterion in view, how about the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist? Would Stout’s Emerson be willing to renew interest in this longstanding material practice? Particularly given his critique of an earlier idealism from the vantage point of abolitionist commitment? Such renewal would accomplish two things:

    First, the Eucharist is a political act that communicates in a manner beyond reasoned rhetoric. There is a symbolic aspect to political assembly, as Emerson observes somewhat incredulously in his essay ‘Poetry’:

    ‘See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!’

    This acknowledgement surely included the America of his time, not to mention contemporary surges of ‘nativism’. In contrast, Emerson’s earlier address on religious rites included the statement that ‘we are not accustomed to express our thoughts or emotions by symbolical actions’. As a result, the Eucharistic elements were dismissed as suitable only ‘to the people and modes of thought in the East’. In Emerson’s mind, the Lord’s Supper was merely ‘fruitful of controversy’ in an intra-religious sense.

    For Christians, however, the Lord’s Supper relativises the ‘binding’ power of the flag, among other national symbols—and the practices of distribution they represent. As the Lord’s Supper, it renounces domination, for Jesus bears the title subversively: ‘If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’. (Interestingly, Emerson queries why foot-washing had not been made into a regular rite in the New England churches.) Moreover, as the Lord’s Supper, it enacts equal distribution. The segregation of this feast is a parody; in Paul’s argument from 1 Corinthians 11, eating and drinking to the exclusion of others is a damnable failure to ‘discern the body’.

    Second, the Eucharist locates divine-human unity in the body of the oppressed. It therefore calls into question the starting point of emancipation: does one begin with an ideal that is then incarnated, or with the ‘body, broken for you’ that must condition all thought? This turn to the body challenges the definition of ‘true religion’ as receptivity to the ‘influx of the divine spirit’. As it happens, ‘spirit’ often proves diffuse, susceptible to course through the channels of a dominant Volksgeist.

    Not so this particular flesh, the tortured form of the divine-human figure who resisted tyranny to the death. Then, the risen social body—‘Christ existing as community’ in Bonhoeffer’s adaptation of Hegel—that eats and drinks across lines drawn by the status quo. In the scriptural idiom, ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’. The attempt to enact catholicity across ethnic, economic, and gendered lines will involve the ecclesial body bearing, in Luther’s vision, the ‘mark’ of suffering.

    To conclude, I am deeply compelled by Stout’s critique of the weary narrative of separation between politics and religion. Because I support the project of coalition building, I have called into question Emerson’s early separation of ‘ethical’ ideals from their ‘religious’ form in the Lord’s Supper. I am hopeful that, in light of Emerson’s later critique of idealism, the bread and wine can awaken new interest in those who would stand unbound.

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