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.