As I continue my work on a writing project focused on William Stringfellow, I have been greatly encouraged by a growing band of companions on the way. Recently Frank Alexander, law professor at Emory University and director of their Center for the Study of Law and Religion, sent me a wonderful packet of material related to Stringfellow. Among these was a remarkable essay and tribute to the work of Milner S. Ball, a theologian and for many years a professor of law at the University of Georgia. I have just finished an exhilarating essay of Ball's, entitled "Don't Die Don Quixote: A Response and Alternative to Tushnet, Bobbitt, and the Revised Texas Version of Constitutional Law." I confess that it both fascinates and dumbfounds me--Ball's thought is, for this theologian at least, an alternate universe: close to the ground of contemporary constitutional law theory, full of references to Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer, Augustine, and William Shakespeare, and advocating for a utopian form of scholarship wedded to a preferential option for the poor. Why have we in theological circles never heard of him? (well, I think I know some of the reasons why, which are the same reasons why Stringfellow is not more widely known in academia as well).
In any case, perhaps some Religious Left Law readers will smile knowingly at my belated discovery of Ball. If so, I will be delighted to hear their own impressions of this most amazing theological-legal voice. For now, I simply want to share a passage from another essay of Ball's that I found cited in a tribute to Ball by Erica Hashimoto, now also teaching at U. of Georgia (Hashimoto's piece, Reflections on Hope, is a quite lovely tribute to Ball, her teacher). From the essay "The City of Unger", Ball writes, in words I find all too relevant to today's struggles,
My generation is tempted to think that the irony of innocence savaged and destroyed is a description of necessary reality...We are lured by the belief that serious commitment to a just world means that sooner or later our hearts will be broken.... Other less classic temptations exist. One is the upbeat mythology ...do deals and abandon the realities of mass suffering for bold, unapologetic acquisitiveness. Another temptation is to give up and do nothing.... If we refuse these temptations, it is because we catch glimpses of another, more authentic possibility. The facts yield no ground for optimism, and yet we snatch from them intimations of more and better. The facts yield no ground for optimism, and yet we snatch from them intimations of more and better. We are led to suspect the penultimacy of current events and to anticipate the ultimate. Our suspicions draw nourishment from several sources, including surprises, exceptions, and experiments that spring up, against the odds...
In Milner Ball's poetic stagings of the interrelationship of law, hope, and theology we can see just such "glimpes' and "intimations" of something more and better. Like Stringfellow, Ball was deeply suspicious of those who claimed themselves to be "religious," so to call this something more and better a specifically religious claim would miss his point. Stringfellow said that to be holy was not to be better, or more religious than others, but to be nothing more than utterly human. Like Kierkegaard's knight of faith, the holy person will not look much different from the beggar on the street. Ball, in his reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved, says this, following closely Baby Suggs' non-religious mysticism of love:
"In the religion it thus adopts, the Word, although incorrespondent, becomes nonetheless accessible-in words and in hearts speaking beyond the need for words. The incorrespondent Word, the wholly other, is contextually, particularly human. Her religion-religion adopted by the Word-is determinative of who she is as a human and of how she is human. It cannot occupy an isolated sphere either metaphysical or private. It gives her humanity and life instead of rescuing her from either."
This is a vision quite close, I think, to what William Connolly calls, following Foucault, a "political spirituality," or what John D. Caputo has called a "religion without religion." Mysticism of the left, it is roomy enough for a circus tent full of misfits. May its tribe increase!