Monday, February 15, 2010

Moving Beyond Modern Chauvinism

Does the study of God require a special temperament?

According to Thomas C. Oden in his book Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009), the answer to that question is "yes." Here's what he writes:

Just as a wise judge requires a judicial temperament, or a teacher a pedagogical temperament, so does a good mentor in Christian truth require a "theological temperament." The classic Christian pastors referred frequently to certain tempers, dispositions, or habits of mind that tend to engender responsible study of God. However much modern skepticism may disparage these qualities, they remain important ideals, if not imperatives (p. 189).

Oden includes the following among the necessary "habits of mind" for the study of God (pp. 189-191):

  1. Humility in the Face of Truth.
  2. Reverence.
  3. Patience.
  4. Prayer for Divine Illumination.
  5. The Heartfelt Obedience that Faith Elicits.
  6. Integrity.
  7. The Willingness to Suffer for the Truth.

With few exceptions, I do not recall professors holding up a single one of these "habits of mind" as ideals worthy of emulation when I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School. On the contrary, what I most remember was the implicit, and at times explicit, exaltation of the omnicompetence of experience over and above scripture and tradition. Sometimes reason was given its due, but it was defined and practiced as, by and large, autonomous reason (i.e., reason not beholden to the boundaries and limits set by scripture and tradition). Typically, it was experience that was held up as the supreme locus of authority. While both reason and experience were rarely defined with precision, it was consistently made clear by the institution that, like dogs, they should be chained within a politically correct fence. As a result, anything handed down to us by scripture and tradition that didn't fit within that fence was subjected to sometimes brutal assault by a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of suspicion. I was left with the impression that the Christian tradition has largely sold us a bill of goods tainted with the evil of oppression, and thus in critical need of revision or even rejection for the sake of "justice" or "liberation."

While I do not subscribe to the naive view that everything the Church has ever said or done is good, noble, and worthy of unquestioning acceptance, I hope that I have grown beyond what Oden calls the "inveterate modern chauvinism that assumes that human consciousness today is intrinsically superior to all premodern modes of thinking - and, conversely, that all premodern thinking is assumed to be intrinsically inferior to modern consciousness" (Classic Christianity, p. 198; emphasis in text). Perhaps one sign that I've made that move is something I couldn't have dreamed possible back in my divinity school days: the fact that I believe the Nicene Creed - hammered out by two ecumenical councils in the fourth century - is one of the most radical and life-giving affirmations of faith. Hence the title of this blog.

So what does it take to grasp what we've received from tradition as holy and life-giving as opposed to a bill of goods that we must reject for the sake of doing "justice"? In my case, it took the ongoing formation of liturgical, Eucharistic worship. Thrown into the context of week-in, week-out worship using The Book of Common Prayer, I found that my life was slowly but surely bearing witness to the truth of the patristic maxim: lex orandi est lex credendi. That's what began transforming my self-assurance in the truth of my personal "experience" and the enlightenment of my individual "reason" into the conviction that the historic, universal Church is, indeed, the Body of Christ that contains treasures of wisdom and truth that far exceed my capacity to fully understand or rationally comprehend, much less experience in its fullness.

I believe that Anglicanism is a part of that larger whole, and I am grateful to belong.


Joe Rawls said...

It sounds like the notion of "reason" held by your div. school professors, as well as many main-line Christians, was gained by reading "The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Enlightenment". As simplistic and uncritical as the worldviews of the traditionalists they like to trash.

Dr Sha said...

What I get from that excerpt on P. 189 is that in the recent past, in order to discipline the younger generation correctly, physical, mental, and emotional punishments were instated to ensure that each follows the Christianity-based faiths in the correct manner with no deviation. However, in this day and age, instead of instilling fear into one's constituents, one attempts to give nurturing, warmth, and love in order to embrace such faith.

Bryan Owen said...

An interesting reading, Dr. Sha, but not one that fits well within the larger context of Oden's book. He's not talking about fear and punishment, but rather about the cultivation of those virtues necessary for rightly approaching a particular task - in this case, the study of God.

It's a very similar point made by Christopher Hall about how the Church Fathers understood what is required for rightly reading and interpreting Holy Scripture. Here's how Hall puts it:

The fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well. For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness. The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through grace and power of the Spirit. The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself. Character and exegesis were intimately related. ...

Neither Athanasius nor Gregory [of Nazianzus] envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation. Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church. The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ's grace is communicated to his body. That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible [Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 41, 42; emphasis added].

So the issue is not about instilling fear, but cultivating intellectual and moral virtue.