Richard Rohr has helped me to be wary of focusing too much on what I dislike or despise. He argues, as we’ve said before, that what we fight against too long or too hard often becomes determinative for us. We become what we hate, if we aren’t careful.
An excellent illustration of this is the fundamentalist/modernist split in the early 20th century (a fight still being waged, though pseudonymously). The crux of that divide is often cast as “modernists who embrace Enlightenment, rationality, science, etc.” and “fundamentalists who reject all of the above.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Both fundamentalists and modernists drink deeply from the waters of modernity. William (Billy) Abraham from Perkins Theological Seminary describes it thus:
“The fundamentalists clearly see the elemental problem of the church as intellectual and theological. More precisely, they are betting the future on a very particular epistemology of theology. The solution offered, however, is wildly off base. For one, the whole attempt to secure the kind of formally approved foundations required is precisely the heart of the whole Enlightenment project. Hence, contemporary fundamentalists are throughougly modern creatures committed to the same intellectual aspirations as their secular enemies. If the Enlightenment has caused so much trouble, it would be odd in the extreme to argue that we could get beyond it by accepting its basic premises and modes of operation. Second, as I have argued at length elsewhere, the Fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture is deeply flawed. The crucial weakness is that it has historically depended on a doctrine of divine dictation or on a latent confusing of divine inspiration with divine speaking and related speech acts of God. Thirdly, and most importantly, the move to include the inerrancy of Scripture as the linchpin in a new creed for the church involves not only a radical departure from the actual canonical decisions of the church as made in the great ecumenical councils but also a profound reorientation of the inner structure of the church’s intellectual heritage and vision. It involves a shift from soteriology to epistemology.”
Read through the lens of intellectual history and philosophy, it thus becomes clear that the fundamentalist/ modernist spat, however vicious, is a civil war. They are neighbors, not opposites. it is a war of brother versus brother over whose mode of epistemological certainty is better. This is why Christians who try to “prove” dogmas such as the resurrection false, via the means of scientific discourse, or prove it valid though Biblical or historical inquiry, are essentially doing the same thing. They have both made the (mistaken, if well-meaning) choice to try to prove Christian doctrine rather than celebrate, confess, pray, or teach it.
As Abraham so insightfully points out, the decision to privilege epistemology over soteriology or some other aspect of Christian truth is not a neutral one. In pursuing this, both do damage not only to the visible church, but to Christian doctrine, witness, and unity.
Where do you see evidence of this capitulation to modernity – in either its modernist or fundamentalist forms – in the church today?
Source: William J. Abraham, The Logic of Renewal (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 2003), 20.
Recently, Roger Wolsey (known for suggesting that fish should kiss) blogged about the distinction between liberal Christianity and progressive Christianity, and why progressive Christians aren’t necessarily progressive politically. Reading his piece, I had the overall feeling that he “doth protest too much,” but at the end of the day I don’t have a big dog in that fight. My canine did enter the fray, however, when he identified progressive Christianity – again, as distinct from liberal Christianity – as a “post-liberal” form of Christianity. I quote him here with his own emphases included and at length to hopefully avoid the charge of prooftexting:
“Progressive Christianity is the evolution of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity was a modern-era movement that was a fruit of the Enlightenment, which embraced academic biblical scholarship, and deferred to the authority of contemporary science. While open-minded in many ways, it was patriarchal, elitist, colonial, and ceded too much clout to the tentative insights of science. It also over emphasized the intellect and reason an minimized passion and the heart. It missed out on the beauty of embracing the apophatic (the ultimate unknowableness of God), paradox and mystery. In so doing it missed the forest for the trees – albeit missing a different part of the forest than fundamentalists do.
Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened. Progressive Christians are open to the reality that God is vitally at work in other world religions; that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth; and that it’s best to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally.”
Notice the logic: liberal Christianity is Enlightenment Christianity, and “progressive” Christianity is post-modern Christianity. Of course, the problem with this is that the very idea of “progress” is an Enlightenment construct; this line runs right through the scientific revolution, receiving (for instance) theological expression in the social gospel of the early 20th century and political expression in the “war(s?) to end all wars,” and continuing in our various modes of discourse to today. The basic narrative: “we” (and Wolsey is right, this is a privileged “we”) are advancing in knowledge, morals, wisdom, art, etc. and – because this is a quintessentially modern construct – we are doing so by the power of our own sublime rationality. The conviction that we must be more enlightened than those who have gone before is also why we moderns have made tradition and authority (and, above all, traditional authorities!) the boogeymen (boogeypersons?) of our cultural landscape. As David F. Watson so aptly described in a recent post, the actual line between “liberal” and “progressive” is hardly as firm as Wolsey suggests:
“At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term ‘liberal’ and started using the term ‘progressive.’ I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term ‘progressive’ expresses a positive value judgment that ‘liberal’ does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by a existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education.”
So, if progressive Christianity really is just a more fashionable name for classic liberal Christianity, then it becomes somewhat obvious why it can’t also be “post-liberal.” We’ll circle back to that momentarily. It is worth noting, for fairness’ sake, that postliberal theology is notoriously hard to define (not unlike the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul). Associated with the Yale dons George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (many of whose students were my teachers), the postliberal approach is more about method than content (though, because of that method, it tends to yield particular kinds of content). As John Webster puts it,
“…there is, once again, no ‘school’ here, held together by a firm dogmatic frame. Postliberal theology is more a set of projects than a position…it is not so much an investment in specific doctrines which characterizes postliberal theology as a particular family of approaches to the task of doctrinal construction.” (Webster, “Theology After Liberalism?” in Theology After Liberalism: A Reader [Oxford: Blackwell 2000], 54, emphasis added.)
In his seminal work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Lindbeck named the two primary ways of theologizing and of conceiving doctrine and, based on their inadequacy, proposed a third: “The difficulties cannot be solved by, for example, abandoning modern developments and returning to some form of preliberal orthodoxy. A third, postliberal, way of conceiving religion and religious doctrine is called for.” (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine [Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984], 7, emphasis added.)
He would go on to name the two primary paths something like cognitive propositionalist (denoting pre-modern and related approaches) and experiential-expressivist (following the modern “turn to the subject” emphasizing experience). For our purposes, his dialogue with the liberal, i.e. experiential-expressivist modes of doctrine is most important. Lindbeck puts the difference between liberal and postliberal (which, following Clifford Geertz and others, he names a “linguistic-cultural” model) in stark terms:
“It remains true, therefore, that the most easily pictured of the contrasts between a linguistic-cultural model of religion and an experiential-expressive one is that the former reverses the relation of the inner and the outer. Instead of deriving external features of a religion from inner experience, it is the inner experiences which are viewed as derivative.” (Lindbeck, 34.)
This is the exact opposite approach of people like Freud who insisted that religion originates from interiorized fears and anxieties, or of Christians like Schleirmacher and Harnack who made inner experience the key to the kingdom in their systematic theology. Perhaps the best nail in the coffin of Wolsey’s argument comes near the conclusion to Lindbeck’s dense little volume, when he argues
“…the crucial difference between liberals and postliberals is in the way they correlate their visions of the future and present situations. Liberals start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse…Postliberalism is methodologically committed to neither traditionalism nor progressivism…” (Lindbeck, 126.)
Liberals start with an account of the present and adjust accordingly, whereas postliberals do the reverse. Note Wolsey’s own description of “progressive Christianity” (given in full above) once more: “Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, “progressive” Christianity looks around, “experiences” post-modernism, and makes the necessary changes. While on the surface this looks like a “post-modern” move, in actuality it lines up perfectly with Lindbeck’s general description of liberal Christianity: it surveys the landscape, and then alters itself as necessary.
The promise of a postliberal approach is precisely not that, having gained insight from post-modernism, it can tweak Christian faith and practice to better fit the challenges of this new world. Postliberal method seeks to make Christian faith, and the Christian narrative, confident in itself. It does not look outside for cultural credibility, whether to modern or post-modern norms, but rather seeks to maintain the integrity of Christian doctrine by aggressively avoiding the prostitution that entails from seeking legitimacy from outside authorities. Liberal Christianity has, for centuries, specialized in seeking its authority from extra-Christian sources and translating its content through these foreign modes. However, as Lindbeck argued, “To the degree that religions are like languages and cultures, they can no more be taught by means of translation than can Chinese or French.” (Lindbeck, 129.) Something is always lost in translation. Thus the answer, simply put, is that one must instead retrain the tongue and learn new words if one wishes to “speak” and live Christian-ly. The late William Placher, a great advocate for and practitioner of postliberal theology, narrated the gains of this understanding of doctrine and religion thus: “In the world of academic theology right now, helping Christian theology speak forcefully in its own voice seems to me the most pressing task, and I think the postliberals therefore put the emphasis in the right place.” (Placher, Unapologetic Theology [Louisville: WJK 1989], 20.)
The church, as well as her theologians, owes a great debt to Lindbeck, Frei, and other voices within postliberal theology. There is much work yet to be done. Part of that work is – and I suspect will continue to be – continuing to define the cultural-linguistic/postliberal approach over against the cognitive propositionalists and experiential-expressivists who attempt to Robin Thicke everything (blurred lines, anyone?) and put the genie back into the bottle.
I have dealt here with heavy, complex notions, and I am sure I have been unclear in some places and left important pieces out in others. Nevertheless, I believe I have demonstrated that which I set out to: a postliberal approach to theology is wholly different from anything that would call itself “progressive” Christianity. As we’ve seen, this is just liberal Christianity with different window-dressing.
As I close, hear me out: I have no beef with someone wanting to identify as some iteration of progressive or conservative Christian. In fact, one can be a progressive/liberal or conservative/traditional Christian and have a postliberal understanding of doctrine. But – and this is crucial – neither progressive, nor any iteration thereof (and ditto for conservative and its instantiations) is a synonym for postliberal.
If you’ve hung on this long, color me impressed. If you think I’m wrong, tell me how and where, and I’ll look forward to the dialogue. For now, though, I am happy to declare: “mischief managed.”
In his excellent work The Triune God, former Wabash College professor William Placher gives a succinct and yet profound defense of the classic Christian doctrine of the Trinity. For Placher, influenced by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, and the rest of the Postliberal school of theology, dogma about the Trinity involves a certain set of language that we use and also that which we must avoid. However, we must never imagine that by our language and our brilliance we have somehow “defined” the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase). Placher says that Trinitarian language is not used because we necessarily understand what it all means, but rather because this is how God has revealed himself to us. This is how scripture leans on us, and we cannot speak any other way accurately of God:
“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting. We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son. We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God. We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (The Triune God, [Louisville: WKJ Press 2007], 140.)
In 1975, a group of folks got together to refute 13 heresies of modernism affecting the church(-es). I don’t know enough to say if they represented a “who’s-who” at the time, but they certainly do now: signees include George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Avery Dulles, Alexander Schmemann, Thomas Hopko, Lewis Smedes, William Sloane Coffin, Peter Berger, Robert Wilken and Richard John Neuhaus. They came from many parts of the Christian family, but agreed on one thing (though expressed 13 ways)…faithful Christians across the board had to stand up against the modernist impulses that were threatening the teaching, preaching, and spread of the gospel.
Their original introduction and the rejected themes are below:
An Appeal For Theological Affirmation
THE renewal of Christian witness and mission requires constant examination of the assumptions shaping the Church’s life. Today an apparent loss of a sense of the transcendent is undermining the Church’s ability to address with clarity and courage the urgent tasks to which God calls it in the world. This loss is manifest in a number of pervasive themes. Many are superficially attractive, but upon closer examination we find these themes false and debilitating to the Church’s life and work. Among such themes are:
1. Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life.
2. Religious statements are totally independent of reasonable discourse.
3. Religious language refers to human experience and nothing else, God being humanity’s noblest creation.
4. Jesus can only be understood in terms of contemporary models of humanity.
5. All religions are equally valid; the choice among them is not a matter of conviction about truth but only of personal preference or lifestyle.
6. To realize one’s potential and to be true to oneself is the whole meaning of salvation.
7. Since what is human is good, evil can adequately be understood as failure to realize human potential.
8. The sole purpose of worship is to promote individual self-realization and human community.
9. Institutions and historical traditions are oppressive and inimical to our being truly human; liberation from them is required for authentic existence and authentic religion.
10. The world must set the agenda for the Church. Social, political and economic programs to improve the quality of life are ultimately normative for the Church’s mission in the world.
11. An emphasis on God’s transcendence is at least a hindrance to, and perhaps incompatible with, Christian social concern and action.
12. The struggle for a better humanity will bring about the Kingdom of God.
13. The question of hope beyond death is irrelevant or at best marginal to the Christian understanding of human fulfillment. (1)
There seem to be a lot of seeds here. Shades of post-liberalism, radical orthodoxy, and emergent Christianity are plenty. Though many conservative Christians, especially fundamentalists, are stuck in their own varieties of modernism, this seems to be a clear shot across the bow of liberal (think Enlightenment-worshipping) Christianity. Such Christianities are still alive in both the mainline Protestant denominations and elsewhere. They were admirably dismissed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who summarized their basic assumptions as, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Yeah, I know it’s old news. But for those of us attracted to these ideas today, it is interesting to see the early stages of later seminal works like The Nature of Doctrine. Do these affirmations hold up 40 years later, or were they wrong from the start?
…a good illustration of what many fundamentalists think happens to young Christians who go off to “dangerous” non-Christian schools...
I keep meeting more and more pastors with the same story. It goes something like this:
-Narrow, fundamentalist upringing
-Little exposure to the outside world and/or culture(s)
-Strongly defensive of values received from family of origin and/or church community
-Goes off to college or seminary, and gets “the speech”…
Here is “the speech”:
“You gotta watch out. Don’t go off to school and let these liberal professors question your faith. They are all just a bunch of atheists, and they’ll try to make you doubt the Lord. Remember what WE taught you and hold fast. Don’t let them take your Jesus!” (1)
I think speeches like this precipitate a lot of young people going off to fundamentalist-oriented colleges and seminaries instead of risking exposure to ideas and people different than those with whom they are raised. Not that I see no value in Christian education. I am the product of a great deal of such (pricey) education.
For me, the scary thought is being born into, raised, and educated solely within a fundamentalist environment. I have dear friends – great people – who spent all of their childhood and adolescence within a fundamentalist Baptist milieu and then went off to a college that would do nothing but reinforce all of their stereotypes. I find this sad.
As for education “taking your Jesus”…well, there is probably an element of truth to that. I think it is a vastly overblown narrative in evangelical circles, but there is a kernel of real experience there. Many secular departments of religion are filled with people for whom Christianity is a mere intellectual excercise, a field of study devoid of personal content or value. Or, even worse, you find people like Bart Ehrman: ex-fundamentalists who seem to relish challenging the fragile worldviews of undergrads who strongly believe in a faith that they do not know is a house of cards. This is the equivalent of Dan Gable wrestling 8th-graders.
Consider this an extension of my previous piece on picking a seminary: a Christian environment is a good thing, if done well. By ‘well’, we mean Christian in the CS Lewis sense: “mere” Christianity. Christianity defined broadly, orthodox and ecumenical, in touch with the deepest streams of the Church tradition and yet interested in living out that tradition in the present. Such a place will not “take your Jesus,” but it should enliven your faith, deepen it, and broaden. Challenge it? Yes, but in the sense of “iron sharpening iron.” No faith is true unless tested and refined. ‘
The difference between a Bart Ehrman doing that and a Christian mentor doing so is analogous to the difference between a stabbing and a surgery: one uses a knife, the other a scalpel. One’s intent is to destroy, the other is to help. It makes all the difference in the world. I am continually thankful to my own mentors who guided me, sometimes kicking and screaming, from fundamentalism to Christianity.
1. Adapted from a version of “the speech” that I received from various folks upon learning that I was going to seminary at Duke. None of them, of course, had the theological acumen to realize the irony of this. Now I can go back and tell them, proudly, “I am so anti-liberal that I am postliberal!” Of course, this is funny only to a bookish elite. Props to George Lindbeck!
He is open about his own biases, mind you. It’s worth pointing out that he studied at Yale under many of the founders of the postliberal school that is so strong at Duke. Nevertheless, according to his criteria, these choices make sense. The tying of spiritual formation (and, more broadly, a sense of the Church’s vocation) to academic rigor disqualifies many schools off the bat. Places like Harvard may have a major name, but their Christian identity went out the window years ago. Thus,
A program in theology is worth undertaking only if it includes the possibility of a spiritual formation that complements intellectual formation. That spiritual formation may, perhaps, be only latent, perhaps only partial, perhaps emerging from fellow students rather than from official goals. But it must be a real possibility.
Duke, he says, has a stronger degree of faculty unity and a sense of group identity, whereas Notre Dame has a better relationship with the larger university. (This strikes me as fair; during my time at Duke I was not once encouraged to take courses outside the seminary, which is common at many other schools of theology). And the winners are:
And what about specific programs? Here is my crib sheet—a necessarily imperfect and idiosyncratic ranking of graduate programs. I’ll begin by cheating. I’ve ranked two schools in the number-one spot: Duke and Notre Dame. They have different strengths. Duke projects a stronger corporate personality, while Notre Dame offers an overall academic environment more profoundly and extensively sympathetic to the intellectual significance of Christian faith.
A Methodist institution, Duke features some of the bright lights of Protestant theology: Stanley Hauerwas, Geoffrey Wainwright, Jeremy Begbie, Amy Laura Hall, and J. Cameron Carter. Reinhard Hütter is a Lutheran turned Catholic, and his work moves in a strongly Scholastic direction. Paul Griffiths, another Catholic professor, is a polymath who combines a remarkable plasticity of mind with a vigorous defense of orthodoxy.
Out of defense, I must point out that my favorite Duke professors were left off his list! Warren Smith is an amazing lecturer and brilliant scholar on all things related to the Church Fathers. Likewise, I greatly enjoyed my courses with Douglas Campbell, a controversial and cutting edge Paul scholar who takes himself more lightly than most scholars at places like Duke. These were my two favorites. Of course, Hauerwas, Hays, and Wainwright are better known – and rightly so. I loved the one course I got to have with Wainwright.
As for Notre Dame? Well, let’s just say the Catholics have their #1 and we Protestants can have Duke. Fair enough?
What about Orthodox seminaries? I daresay they are probably more rigorous about spiritual formation that any of the schools mentioned above. But I don’t know enough Orthodox theologians to even begin to think about where good Orthodox scholarship is done.
R.R. Reno’s Heroism and the Christian Lifeis a wonderful book worth your time, especially for anyone who claims nonchalantly that Christianity “isn’t heroic” in the classical sense.
Is Duke really a Methodist seminary? As a Methodist pastor and graduate of Duke Divinity, I think this is a debatable question.
I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems. As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors. One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church. A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace. As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.
So it is, he says, with infant baptism:
Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts. It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith. Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)
As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical. But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism. Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians. It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.
Many who become theologians in our time think their task is to try to determine how much of what has passed for Christianity they still need to believe and yet still be able to think of themselves as Christians.
This is from Stanley Hauerwas, writing about the response to his memoir, Hannah’s Child. I have a bit of a love-hate feeling for Hauerwas; on probably 80% of things involving the church and the thought of the church (theology), I greatly agree with and admire him. But that last 20% includes much of what he is most vocal about: particularly on the just war tradition, pacifism, and the “Constantinianism” of the church and/or theology. I find I dislike Hauerwas most when he is being distinctively Hauerwas (probably why I most enjoy his The Cross-Shattered Christ).
Nevertheless, I thought the above quote was a gem. And he is more correct than I care to think about; too much of what passes for theology involves finding a lowest common denominator for the designation “Christian” in order to be culturally or philosophically acceptable. Here’s looking at you, John Shelby Spong. (Feel free to insert your own name of a quasi-theologian here).
As the snow falls down here in North Carolina, I’m chewing on the theological equivalent of beef jerky: Karl Barth, Dogmatics II.2. From my slight exposure, I love Barth. I dig his project. I dig the postliberals that follow his lead. I love the ‘third way’ between beyond liberal and fundamentalist theology (having occupied both previously). But I don’t know how to make Barth ‘fit’ into my overarching theological framework.
I went to a Methodist seminary, studied under some folks who are supposed to be the best Methodist thinkers in the world, and I got a lot of good Wesleyan theology. But I also studied with brilliant and persuasive people who were, to one degree or another, Barthians. I identify with both camps. In January I began reading a small bit of Dogmatics II.2 each morning as my devotional reading (one of my mentors recommended reading Barth at a pace of 5 pages a day, which I track in a box to the right). And while I think I am in the process of converging, I’m not sure I can be a consistent Wesleyan and like Barth so darn much (the reverse is also true). I by and large can’t stand Calvin and his descendants – especially puritans like Jonathan Edwards and his modern day descendants like John Piper. I’m a Wesleyan because I believe God is all about grace – and I loathe the notion that a loving God would/could condemn people before the foundation of the world.
But Barth did this strange and wonderful thing with Calvin – he made the election about Jesus! With the insight that the election of Israel was for the sake of the whole (as the Bible attests), he turns the whole project on its head. Election is now, in his words, an election of grace. In my pure Wesleyan days, this idea would be nonsensical. But my oh my, is he convincing. Perhaps it is because all my Wesleyan theology never taught me to deal with the concept of election in any way other than approbation – mocking TULIP and the like – and perhaps it is because he is more systematic than the practical Wesley ever had the chance to be. But I’m beginning to think that, on the whole, we Protestants have vastly overestimated the importance of our response to God. Yes – it matters; yes, the proper and good response to the love and mercy of God is repentance, new life, and holiness (something Wesleyans share with the Orthodox). But surely, all of this is accomplished only through Jesus, God’s elect, who reconciled the world to Himself. In short, we’ve given ourselves too much credit for our salvation. Jesus is the point of all of this – Jesus has saved us! We just have to get on board with that reality (but our “getting on board” doesn’t make it so).
I’d love some feedback on why, if, and how exactly I am wrong. I have a long ways to go – from both ends – to reconcile my Wesleyan and my Barthian sides. But it’s a work in progress.
Now, a little of why I love Barth:
Between God and man there stands the person of Jesus Christ, Himself God and Himself man, and so mediating between the two. In Him God reveals Himself to man. In Him man sees and knows God. In Him God stands before man and man stands before God, as is the eternal will of God, and the eternal ordination of man in accordance with this will. In Him God’s plan for man is disclosed, God’s judgment on man fulfilled, God’s deliverance of man accomplished, God’s gift to man present in fullness, God’s claim and promise to man declared. In Him God has joined Himself to man. And so man exists for his sake.(Dogmatics II.2, 94)
I am not breaking any ground in reflecting that what makes Barth great it his insistence that Christ is the center not only of theology, of Christian reflection, prayer, thought, and worship – but of the whole of reality. In a world that is so ‘me’ centered – so vulgar – so arrogant – so obsessed with the experience of selfhood – it is a real joy to read something directed to the holy and wholly Other – God in Christ, electing God and elected man.
At the end of the day, life really isn’t about me. Or you. Thanks be to God!
I’ve been working my way through UMC Bishop Will Willimon’s excellent Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, and came across a very interesting passage, and one that I think I agree with:
Just as it is impossible to learn French by reading French novel in an English translation, so it is also impossible, as Lindbeck notes, truly to learn Christianity by encountering it through the translation of existentialism, or feminism, or the language of self-esteem. One must learn the vocabulary, inculcate the moves and gestures of this faith, in order to know the faith. (Pastor, 209)
The occasion for this quote is a discussion of George Lindbeck’s excellent but (very!) dense The Nature of Doctrine. Willimon is part of that postliberal school that went from Yale to Duke, a school I am largely comfortable with as an alternative to either fundamentalist or liberal theologies. The above quote is explained, to my knowledge, best by William Placher here:
The argument goes something like this: in an increasingly post-Christian society (the West), how do we make disciples? Some favor “translation” and others favor “catechesis” (my term). The former would be those who use catch-words like “relevant,” “contemporary,” and “seeker-friendly” when discussing evangelical tactics. The latter favor a more tradition Catholic/Orthodox model, where people are made Christians by learning Christian doctrine through constant exposure to the liturgy and sacraments, through learning the Scripture (and not The Message), and through (and this is the crux) learning to self-identify as “Christians.” The latter crowd is not composed of people who want to open a coffee shop that talks about Jesus and call it church.
I am largely sympathetic to the postliberal school and its orthodox/Barthian leanings. But I have concerns as well, that are exemplified in Willimon’s quote above. It seems to assume that there is some “pure Christianity” that we can somehow identify and get back to. Moreover, many in Willimon’s camp would affirm the above but still favor reading Christianity through the lens of, say, Aquinas (Hauerwas and MacIntyre), who was himself heavily influenced by Aristotle. And of course, he was reading Augustine who was heavily Platonist. Have these individuals “translated” Christianity through Aristotle or Plato, and thus bastardized it, or used the tools of high culture to better understand God’s revelation in Jesus Christ? Surely it is the latter. But how is this different from reading Christianity through the lens of existentialism, feminism, etc.? Perhaps it is merely less popular.
But it seems a fine line. I firmly believe in catechesis; and while the term “relevant” has many problems (as does the magazine of the same name), it points out something important: our teaching and enculturing must be accessible to people here and now. The theology of the cross must be balanced out by the theology of the incarnation. Our teaching must have flesh that can be recognized by our fellow Americans/Southerners/young people/Democrats/etc. But we must not let this “incarnational” principle be used to justify wishy-washy theology. It is a fine line, indeed.