Dissensus, the “Yes” on my way to dissent.

Mary Magdala Community

Dissensus, the “Yes” on my way to dissent.

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div, Ph.D.

I began this calendar year, 2023, with the question of dissent in the church as a subject to explore.  My specific focus would be on the place of disagreement and how it is, or is not, handled in communities of faith, specifically the Roman Catholic Church.  My sources for this exploration were to be the theologians, Judith Gruber (Catholic University, Louvain) and Bradford Hinze (Fordham, NY), and the philosopher, Jacques Ranciere (University of Paris VIII, emeritus).  The result of this exposure is that my experience, as a pastor and a philosopher, lines up very well with what they have to offer in the conversation about plurality of language and beliefs within the broader faith community.

Although I originally thought this path would be about dissent in the sense of resistance or of saying “no” to the powers, I was soon corrected.  Now I see that dissent is more appropriately about acceptance of diversity and, seen in light of dissensus, of saying “yes.”

In his book, “Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics,” Ranciere offers that politics has a much wider reach than power relationships and elections.  Politics, he says, is that human activity whose basis is equality.  Also, politics is about physical space and individuals who occupy such space.  This means that politics exists everywhere that human beings deal with being one, equally, with each other.  In any setting (including church) community is a phenomenon of lived equality which necessarily involves what Ranciere calls politics.

Here is why dissensus is a much better word than dissent for the position in which I find myself.  It has to do with expressing one’s integrity about what one believes before exploring one’s relationship to the community or the institution.

Dissensus is saying “yes” to equality – mine and yours – both in demonstration and in expression; demonstration by positively participating in community life and expression by affirmatively fashioning symbols of unity.  Let’s take a look at equality and dissensus with the help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He wrote in, “Act and Being,”

“God gives the divine self in Christ to the community of faith (Gemeinde) and to every individual as member of this community of faith.  This happens in such a way that the acting subject in the community of faith, proclaiming and believing, is Christ.” (112)

Bonhoeffer raises the acting subject, the self who is a free and equal being with all others.  In his view this equality includes, through proclaiming and believing, being Christ.  Also, the gathering of equals is never more god-like than in community.  No person is superior to any other.  All are one and equal as we read in Galatians, “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female.  All are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)

Beginning, then, with the oneness of equality each one has the responsibility to include all, particularly those who have been excluded, those who are not counted, who have no account in the social body or, for that matter, in the institutional church.  It occurs to me that this counting of persons who have been accorded no account is a particular challenge to those who participate in the synodal process under the invitation, the challenge, and the leadership of Pope Francis.  One benefit of the process appears to be the connections people make with each other when they discover the many deep-seated parts of life that they share in common with each other.  Perhaps connection with those who are separated from and/or rejected by the institution, especially through the actions of the institution itself, is and will be the most significant challenge to these participants – significant in the sense of asking the question, “How does such institutional separation and/or rejection fit with the life and ministry of Jesus?”

For example, how does the exclusion from the communion table of divorced and remarried members, whose hopes are to live within a loving relationship,  match up against Jesus’ inclusion of Judas, who handed him over to death, at the first communion table?  How is it possible that the person who is a free and equal subject – free to act on one’s own considered choices and equal to all persons regardless of rank and status – is held to no account when it comes to being counted in the community?  If politics comprises any and all human activity whose basis is equality, how is that equality actually recognized/acknowledged in the life of the community of faith (Bonhoeffer’s Gemeinde?)

One way to highlight this equality is to recognize the wide and deep array of faith’s paths.  The wide and deep distribution of such paths within community demands dissensus’ embrace within the common life.  This is not dissent which carries notions of opposition,  of disagreement, of saying “no.”  Rather, it is dissensus, a distribution of the widest possibilities within the social body.  The celebration of this distribution clarifies the significance of inclusion.

One could say dissensus has a long history in the church.  The first pastors of the gathering of Jesus’ followers appointed administrators of practical living, aka deacons, so they could be free to study, pray, and preach.  Doesn’t it also make sense that current-day pastors would recognize the equality of those members, regardless of gender and/or orientation, who are likewise called to study, pray, and preach as pastors themselves?  Dissensus provides those moments of inspiration, calls-to-action really, that realize the truth of equality and the application of freedom.  By the way, Ranciere says that freedom is best taken and not given.  It is the only way that freedom can be verified by the one who claims account of themself.

I have enjoyed this path with Ranciere, one that highlights and celebrates the equality of all persons as well as one that shines light on what I interpret to be the widest possible ways to be Christ in and for the world.  Perhaps you will look forward with me as I share the path with Judith Gruber, who holds to a theology of church that is similarly inclusive.  And, I am really looking forward to Brad Hinze’s essays, with others, in the book he edited with Peter Phan, “Learning from All the Faithful.”

Keep posted!

(April 23, 2023)

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