A new feature here at Uniting Grace will be a “Creed of the Month,” highlighting a different iteration of what St. Vincent of Lerins called, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” We’ll do this the third Monday of each month, since, you know – Trinity and all that. First up is a creed I have recently come across from the Maasai people of Kenya. Yale historian of doctrine Yaroslav Pelikan referred to it as an excellent example of how the faith “once and for all delivered” (Jude 1) is adapted to local culture and custom. One of his students, a former missionary, told him of this creed, and he included it in his magisterial collection of creeds published near the end of his career:
“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light. God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that He would save the world and all the nations and tribes.
We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him. All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
I especially love the line about “the hyenas did not touch him,” and the way that “share the bread together in love” unites both the Eucharist and justice. I find this to be a wonderful creed, and a true gift to the church universal.
With increasing abandon, it is clear that United Methodists at all levels are shaped more by notions of the Enlightenment’s autonomous, free individual than a Biblical notion of persons in covenant community. Though our constituent bodies have names like church, conference, and connection, these words seem to have little purchase on the decisions made from the local church to the Council of Bishops.
One manifestation of this abandonment of ecclesiology is the liberty taken by clergy and bishops to simply act of their own accord, regardless of personal vows made or communal integrity placed under duress. In such an environs, it is helpful to remember what covenant is all about. It is not without irony that I share some reflections on the moral life under Israel’s covenant from Thomas Ogletree, former professor of Christian ethics and Dean at Yale Divinity School and a UM elder. Ogletree notes,
“…the covenant is broader and deeper than politics as such. it is certainly richer than the modern notion of a social contract among autonomous, self-interested, rational individuals! It embraces the whole complex fabric of the people’s lives, their shared experiences and interactions over time. The substantive obligations of the people are not simply functions of a formal agreement; they are integral features of their concrete social and historical reality taken in its totality.”
Ogletree elaborates on this considerably; the thrust of this section in his book is that the multi-faceted moral obligations placed upon Israel are in the context of covenant, a relationship which, however difficult, is for the ultimate benefit of of God’s elect. This moral code, says Oglegtree,
“…can become burdensome and demanding; it often involves suffering and anguish, sometimes even death; it frequently blocks and frustrates immediate wants; it continually puts people to the test, and it certainly stretches them. In its deepest meanings, however, it is wholly congruent with human reality and its potentialities. Moreover, its requirements are in principle within the reach of human powers and capacities. The possibility of infidelity is ever present, and temptations will surely come, but where the people are diligent, they can keep the covenant and its obligations, to their ultimate benefit.”
Covenant obligations as an ultimate benefit? It’s hard to imagine American Mainline Protestants in general, and Methodists in particular, agreeing to such a radically pre-modern notion. And yet, it is a part of our DNA. Look at these words from the Covenant Renewal Service, which many UMC congregations celebrated last week, hearkening back to Wesley’s own New Year’s practice:
Christ has many services to be done.
Some are more easy and honorable,
others are more difficult and disgraceful.
Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,
others are contrary to both.
In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.
But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ
except by denying ourselves.
As best as I can tell, we Methodists have eschewed any sense of self-denial, for Christ or covenant or anything. The self is what is holy – perhaps the only entity recognized as true, good, and beautiful at all levels of the UMC. Hosea’s stringent words befit us, though for me Augustine (as quoted at the top) still wins out:
“Rejoice not, O Israel! Exult not like the peoples; for you have played the whore, forsaking your God. “ (Hosea 9:1, ESV)
[Source: Thomas Ogletree, “Covenant and Commandment: The Old Testament Understandings of the Moral Life,” from The Use of the Bible in Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1983), 50, 52.]
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.”
Much of modernity (think the post-1700’s world) can be explained as a steady, systematic rejection of tradition. Whether this is in the realm of politics, science, religion, or social norms, the last several hundred years have seen the Western world (and those places influenced by the West like Turkey, for instance) steadily retreat from the moors that had held it in bygone eras. Whether this is a positive or negative development is a separate debate; what interests me is the way in which the rejection of tradition has itself become a tradition in the oh-so-un-self-conscious modern world. Jaroslav Pelikan, the great historian of Christian doctrine at Yale (until his death in 2006), wrote the following reflections about the debate between “Bible” and “tradition” that came to a head during the Reformation:
“But tradition there certainly was, even before and within the Bible and not simply after the Bible: tradition was…the ‘source and environment of Scripture.’ [However,] drawing a sharp distinction between gospel and tradition had been a major plank in the platform of the Protestant Reformers.”
As NT Wright has described elsewhere, the newly invented Reformation divide between Scripture and Tradition is in many ways a false dichotomy. What were the gospel authors writing out of, if not established (even if early) traditions about Jesus? Paul uses the language of tradition when he reminds Timothy to keep “what I passed on to you.” (1 Cor. 15:3) Pelikan argues that studying the historiography of the Reformation leads one to
“…the uncovering of the processes by which the very anti-traditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition. After four centuries of saying, in the the well known formula of the English divine, William Chillingworth, that ‘the Bible only is the religion of Protestants,’ Protestants have, in this principle, nothing less than a full-blown tradition.” (The Vindication of Tradition, [New Haven: Yale University Press 1984], 9, 11.)
There really is no escaping tradition. Jeff Stout of Princeton made a similar point in Democracy & Tradition: those who would reject Western-style democracy as antithetical to tradition (particularly, here, Christian tradition) should take note that democracy is itself a tradition and a simplistic rejection for rejection’s sake is ultimately unhelpful. So too, is the knee-jerk and often over-blown reaction against any kind of tradition.
My own part of the Christian family just argued about the possibility of online communion. As with so many other fronts in the so-called ‘Worship Wars,’ many took sides based solely on a rejection or embracing of tradition itself. Thus, every attempt to get “beyond” tradition only forms a new one in its place. This is why an increasing number of young adults find ‘contemporary’ worship a vapid experience designed by and for their parents’ generation, and are turning instead to expressions of faith that are more tied to practices and prayers which possess deeper roots.
Simply replicating or rejecting tradition is not the point. The point is healthy development, which neither rejects tradition willy-nilly nor embalms it in order to preserve it. As Pelikan says elsewhere, “It is healthy development that keeps a tradition both out of the cancer ward and out of the fossil museum.” (p. 60)
“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)
Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy. The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!
As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'” That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase). In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.
The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout. That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections. Consider the following:
“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith. The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)
Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.) Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa. This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:
“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.” (130)
Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description. What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.