Dan Hardy on the public nature of theology

Dan Hardy died on the 15th of November last year. Earlier this month, in Cambridge, I presented a version of the following paper at a celebration of his work in Cambridge. It’s simply an exposition of one of his papers: Daniel W. Hardy, ‘The public nature of theology’ (An address to chaplains in institutions of higher education in the UK, 1991) in God’s Ways with the World: Thinking and Practising Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 206–216.

The characteristic heart of Dan Hardy’s lecture to a 1991 gathering of university chaplains was his description of God’s work in the world. God is at work, Dan said, forming social life, at work drawing existing patterns of social life beyond themselves and towards Godself. God’s work is found where social life is becoming itself: in the contexts in which, and processes by which, societies take account of themselves, of the configurations of their social practice, of their visions of the common goods that bind them together – and so labour to repair and extend that life.

Dan speaks of God’s involvement in this work in a variety of ways: the activities by which a society becomes more fully social ‘exemplify God’s activity in the world’ (215); this activity ‘perpetuates God’s work’ (214); it can be identified ‘as God’s work’; God is the ‘highest basis’ of society (215). ‘God works through the ways in which society fashions itself’ (216) (all emphases mine).

What activity are we speaking about, more precisely? Dan will not let us get away with any shallow or simplistic account of society’s self-formation; the lecture provides (208–9) a characteristic Hardy list of the key ways in which this labour of repair and extension takes place:
• societies labour to know the world more truly (to test their existing patterns of life and thought against the resistance of the world, and to discover in the world new possibilities for action);

  • societies labour to understand and imagine directly their own ways of acting (construing their social life in such a way as to identify its fractures and to see ways in which it might develop);
  • societies take account of and work to replenish the language they speak (a constantly evolving inheritance of metaphors and similes, of idioms and grammatical habits that make possible whatever conversation a society can sustain);
  • societies take account of and labour on their culture (a constantly proliferating collection of stories and representations, investigations and escapes, in many media, that carry the identity of the society).

In all this, Dan’s focus falls on the labour of taking account, but above all on the labour of extension and repair that is built upon such account-taking: the labour by which societies become more social. True, he opens with a description of the plight of English society that at first seems more backward looking, even to the point of having a touch of nostalgia about it – referring to an England where ‘people almost always felt that social life was stable, in such a way as to allow everyone to know where he or she stood’ (206), and to the fragmentation that has eroded this stability as new, conflicting or competing interests have emerged: English society losing its ways of being together. But this hat-tip towards nostalgia is only a hook, and Dan uses it to pull the head of the reader around to face forwards – to the creation of society as a never-ending task, a task that always requires the imaginative weaving in of those strands that threaten to pull society’s temporary settlements apart. Sociality is a task, and being a society is not a given but a hope and a goal.

Speaking to an audience of university chaplains, Dan also describes the place of institutions of Higher Education in this society. They are institutions whose job is to concern themselves explicitly with a society’s means of reproduction, repair, and extension – in all the ways I have described (knowledge of the world, understanding of society itself, the study and replenishment of language, and the critical interpretation of culture). Universities are, or should be, engines that drive the processes by which societies become more social.

This labour of sociality (and the work of universities within it) is a participation in God’s work – and Dan assumes that his audience of Christian chaplains are amongst those who can acknowledge this fact; they are, indeed, involved in the characteristic form that this acknowledgement takes: worship. But Dan makes it clear that it is neither the case that only those who worship can contribute to proper formation of social life (and so participate in God’s work), nor the case that those who worship simply add an extrinsic, decorative gloss to a labour of social formation and transcendence that can function perfectly well without them. Quite where between these two poles it is appropriate to stand, Dan does not explain – at least, not in this paper. Here, he contents himself with warning his readers against two characteristic temptations, and then helping them to understand that their task is to negotiate some way between these temptations. On the one hand stands the temptation to think that the Christian, especially the ordained chaplain, has power – such that the Christian is capable of producing proper sociality, either in a Christian enclave or as a mover and shaker in the wider world. On the other hand stands the temptation to think that Christians have no responsibility, no gift to give, no vocation that has anything to offer to the work of those who labour on public sociality.

Dan does offer his audience a hint of where they might stand between these two temptations. Their role is, in part, to hold all those (including themselves) who labour on the formation of society open to the deepest vision of what is going on. Penultimately, their role is to remind people that they are about the formation of a sociality that is whole, that is one; it is to keep alive rumour of a common good. Ultimately, it is to draw those labourers into worship: into the acknowledgment of the ‘highest ground’ of their work, yet Christians can pursue their penultimate task even where the deepest spring of their vision – the God acknowledged in its worship – is not, or is not yet, recognised by the social labourers they seek to help. Their role is certainly to speak, as Dan puts it, ‘from the deepest awareness of the truth of God’s work in human life’ (206, my emphasis), but not all the speech that comes from the deepest awareness of the truth of God’s work in human life will be speech explicitly about God.

Dan barely touches in this paper on the content of the vision that Christians might help society pursue; that is, he says little the nature of the common good. It is clear that he has in mind some form of unity-in-diversity, in which a single society is forged from diverse communities and tendencies and possibilities – but the point of his piece is not to offer to his audience (or to suggest that they can offer to their audiences) a fully formed vision of social flourishing. The Christian task, as Dan describes it, is to assist at the emergence of social vision from within the contexts and processes by which a society already takes account of itself and works on itself.

Here it matters that Dan’s audience was a gathering of Christian university chaplains in England. The church in England (and not just the Church of England) is, Dan says, well placed to carry out the kind of task he has been sketching, because unlike the American churches, the English church is ‘immersed in social life’ (208). ‘Church life in this country’, he says, ‘is deeply immersed in the means by which English sociality occurs’, in ‘the means by which the public is a public’, in ‘the devices and means by which the public sustains itself’. He is well aware that the English church, too, faces the temptation to become sectarian, to withdraw from immersion in public sociality into a place where they can simply be themselves – what Dan calls ‘the sectarian route of establishing group or individual identity’ (211). But he holds that, nevertheless, the English church is still ‘by its nature public religion’ (209), that it works ‘right within the places by which English society continues’ (210). Such a church is well placed to be sociality’s midwife. University chaplains are one example of the way in which this immersion works: they work right in the heart of the universities by which English society is itself.

Dan’s counsels to the gathered chaplains, then, spell out what this immersion means for them, and what it means for them to assist with the emergence of social vision from within the university contexts and processes by which a society already takes account of itself and works on itself. They must, he says, pay attention to ways in which social life is being formed (and in which society is transcending itself – repairing and extending its life). They must pay attention to the institutions that contribute to that formation/transcendence – in one of which they themselves work. They must do this because they are seeking the ways of God in the world, and with the awareness that it is truly God’s work that they are seeking. And they must realise that their vocation is to show others how these institutions, these patterns of social formation, are part of a bigger picture – ultimately a picture whose lines of perspective converge on God. Their job is to hold up a mirror to the university labourers in the fields of sociality, in order to show those others what work they are all about. A chaplain’s job is to ‘help the universities identify themselves and their future’ (212), and ‘to hold up for the university the vision of the society it exists to serve’ (214) – and in and through that (and, perhaps, only in and through that) to call the university to worship.

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