Friday, June 18, 2010

A True and Truly Christian Theology

I'm sharing a couple of quotes I recently came across that struck a chord for me. It started with my growing awareness that something was awry during my time at Vanderbilt Divinity School back in the early to mid-90s. At the time, divinity students were required to take only one theology course entitled "Constructive Christian Theology." Instead of immersing us in the study of the influential predecessors, councils, creeds, confessions, and liturgies in the tradition, the emphasis was on each individual constructing his/her own theology, the fruit of which was to be shared in the final paper.

Since then, I've become increasingly aware of tendencies within the broader Church (and within the Episcopal Church in particular) to downplay the authority of scripture and tradition in favor of untethered reason and/or subjective experience. The door is wide open for cherry-picking what each individual likes from scripture and tradition, or simply ignoring those classical sources of authority altogether when they become inconvenient.

It reminds me of a quote attributed to St. Augustine: "If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospels you believe but yourself."

The quotes below point us in a very different direction.

"A true and truly Christian theology will surely be deeply rooted in revelation and tradition, in worship and prayer in the Christian community, in compassion and service in the world, in fear and trembling before the wonder of the Christian gospel, and in humble dependence on the grace and agency of the Holy Spirit. Yet precisely these notes are the ones missing from the prevailing canons of theological discourse."

"Revelation, worship and tradition are the 'fundamental womb' in which theology is conceived, develops and flourishes. Yet ironically, too many seminaries have deserted these sources in a misguided attempt to communicate the gospel more effectively to their surrounding culture. As a sad result many seminary graduates feel compelled to construct their own theology out of whole cloth. [William J.] Abraham acerbically describes the ludicrous expectation on many seminary campuses 'that each theological student must, in the space of a semester or so and after a short period of study, develop his or her own creed and shortly thereafter be licensed to inflict this creed on the church at large.'"


Alston Johnson said...

I am Risen . . . I am Risen . . . Tell it out with joyful Voice . . .

Good ol' Constructive Theology Easter Hymn.



hawk said...

I remember an exchange at Sewanee between a student who refused to recite the creed because he did not agree with its "human constructs" and the professor who suggested the student find a different vocation. The professor defended the creed and the student later transferred to EDS.

I am conflicted about the desire to honor the apostolic faith and the recognition that these eternal truths to which the faithful adhere were worked out in particular times and places. To suggest that everything that can be said about God was consolidated by 350 AD does not resonate with many faithful people. There seems to me to be a growing tension between those who engage in a mystical theology where they are contented with deep reflection on the wisdom of the apostolic faith, and another group that is working to reconcile the apostolic faith with the realities of the world as they experience it. Both groups it seems to me are being faithful.

Maybe it is the height of hubris to construct a new theology and I am certainly opposed to individuals developing personal creeds. Yet, I think defenders of orthodoxy are often too quick to dismiss serious theological reflection as misguided attempts "to construct their own theology out of whole cloth."

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, hawk.

A few thoughts in response.

I'm not sure who exactly is suggesting that everything that can be said about God was consolidated by 350 AD. That's not my position, nor, I think, was it the intention of the ecumenical councils. Such a claim would be, at best, a form of hubris bordering on the heretical. After all, we are talking about God. God is the ultimate mystery which no human being can claim to fully and exhaustively know in the essence of His being.

Orthodox priest Fr. Stephen recently posted excellent thoughts relevant to this point on his blog. And I've written previously how the Nicene Creed is best understood as "a mystical opening into transforming relationship with the triune God" rather than a merely rational, exhaustive presentation of intellectual propositions about God.

The issue is not whether something like the Nicene Creed exhausts everything that can be said about God, but whether or not what it does say is trustworthy and true. At some point, I think we have to make the decision as to whether or not the early Church got certain basic things right or not. If we think that the first five centuries of the Church got the basics of the Christian faith fundamentally wrong, then the very core of the Christian faith is up for grabs and the project of voluntaristic constructivism receives license to take us anywhere we choose to go.

As for the tension between the two groups you cite - perhaps such tension exists. Personally, I'm inclined to think that pitting these two against each other is a false dichotomy. I continue to believe, with Luke Timothy Johnson, that "Creedal Christianity allows the Christian to embrace both the body and the spirit, to pursue both internal transformation through prayer and the transformation of society through prophetic engagement." It seems to me that "deep reflection on the wisdom of the apostolic faith" is a necessary part of "working to reconcile the apostolic faith with the realities of the world" as we experience those realities.

But I suppose it comes down to what one means by "reconciling" the apostolic faith with our experience of the world today. For some, such "reconciliation" amounts to little more than wholesale revision. So it's not the faith of the Church that is authoritative, but rather our experience of the world that is the ultimate authority. I think that's a form of accommodation to culture rather than the kind of prophetic, cutting-edge project that many "progressives" think.

Then there are others who sincerely believe that the apostolic faith we've received in scripture and the creeds is inherently oppressive (i.e., patriarchal, hierarchical, sexist, homophobic, etc.). For this group, there's nothing mystical here for deep reflection, nor is there anything to be reconciled. The apostolic faith is, itself, a betrayal of "true" Christianity, and thus must be deconstructed and rejected for a more enlightened, inclusive, and egalitarian faith. This is the side of the "progressive" movement I find most troubling.