Friday, April 29, 2016

What is theology? An interview with Reverend and Smith

I was recently interviewed by Reverend and Smith, a couple of Christian young guys in Brisbane who are seeking to develop a new web-based ministry of theological discussion and debate.

The interview started by exploring what theology, and systematic theology in particular, is. In the end we ranged across a quite wide range of topics about where theology is done and by whom. We also discussed why it is that theology often seems remote from the life of the church. I really enjoyed the experience, and being involved in what is my first podcast. And I even enjoyed Reverend and Smith dissecting my responses afterwards. And, full marks to Reverend and Smith for developing this series of programmes and fostering some serious cyberspace-discussion about theology.

Listen to the interview here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Books Worth Reading (7): Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ronald T. Michener

I have never been a card-carrying postliberal theologian. Nevertheless, my engagement with the postliberal theologians of the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly shaped my approach to the study of theology and, and more enduringly, my interest in the diverse roles of doctrine in the church’s life. Central to the postliberal school was George Lindbeck’s 1986, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age. I read it for the first time just as I embarked on my postgraduate studies. If I can say this without being too presumptuous, it woke me from my doctrinal slumber. It snapped me out of the dreary liberal/conservative rhetoric of the mainline protestant theology I had imbibed by being part of mainline protestant church. Lindbeck’s typology of doctrine –  experiential expressivist, propositional, and cultural-linguistic –  provided  me with quite different and more interesting ways of mapping the theology I was learning. It made me realise that to describe a theological position as liberal or conservative was to say almost nothing intellectually interesting, let alone informative, about that theological position. Moreover, reading Lindbeck made me realise that the study of doctrine and the many functions it performs in the church was at least as interesting, complex and fascinating as the study of hermeneutics or method or the various backgrounds to the biblical writings.

As a specific school of thought, postliberal theology had a relatively short life. Paul de Haart has even written about its rise and decline. The questions it raised, however, are still worth pondering. Indeed, to some extent, they are inevitable in any study of Christian theology, whether or not that study is shaped by exposure to specifically postliberal writings. So, for instance:
  • If doctrines aren’t propositions, what are they?
  • How is narrative related to truth?
  • What is the relationship between theology and practice?
  • Can theology be non-foundationalist without becoming fidestic?
  • Are the discourses of different religions incommensurable?

So the postliberal school may well have passed into history, but if you want to see how postliberal theology brought such questions to focus and how it helps address them, then Ronald T. Michener’s short 2013 book, Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed would be a book well worth reading. As with other books in Bloomsbury’s Guide for the Perplexed series, it’s pitched at readers able to engage arguments typical of tertiary education, it provides a helpful overview of the topic without bypassing the critical questions, it is relatively short (140 pages), and it has many helpful suggestions for further reading.

The book consists of 5 chapters. The first, ‘Introduction’, does what its title says. It’s a very general overview of postliberal theology which locates it in the midst of other twentieth-century theological movements. Chapter 2, ‘Background’, provides a very useful summary of the wide range of philosophical, anthropological, sociological and theological backgrounds to the movement. (Throughout this chapter readers would glean some insight into the important contributions to postliberal theology of Augustine, Aquinas and Barth.) Chapter 3, ‘Theological exponents of postliberal theology’ provides sustained engagement with the three major voices of the movement (Frei, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas) and a quick overview of ‘other voices’ (David Kelsey, William Placher, Bruce Marshall, George Hunsinger and Kathryn Tanner). The title of Chapter 4, Problems and Criticisms of Postliberal Theology, speaks for itself as does that of Chapter 5, ‘Prospects and proposals for postliberal theology today’.

So what is 'postliberal theology'? Early on Michener offers what is less a definition and more a set of observations that help to locate this particular theology:
Postliberal theology has always been more a loose connection of narrative theological interests than it is some monolithic agenda. It represents an overarching concern for the renewal of Christian confession over theological methodology. Rather than reliance on  a notion of correlative common experience, postliberal theology moves towards the local or particular faith description of the community of the church (p.3).
As such it is a  "tertium quid solution" between the two major protestant responses to modernity: fundamentalism and liberalism. More specifically, postliberal theology rejects the identity of truth with doctrinal propositions characteristic of fundamentalism. At the same time it rejects the location of truth within a putatively pre-cognitive domain of human experience (of which doctrines are contingent ‘expressions’) typical of liberalism. In contrast postliberal theology locates truth within Christianty’s own practiced and articulated narratives: i.e.,  the narratives that shape the church’s life – creeds, liturgies, scriptures, confessions etc. And here, of course, is what is usually perceived as the major problem with postliberal theology: it so completely internalises truth, that it is essentially sectarian and fideistic.
Of course, postliberal theologians have frequently addressed this question, but the criticism persists. Michener sets out some of these response as well as his own in Chapter 4. In the response to the charge of the inevitably of isolationism which attached to postliberalism, Michener cites the example of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the massacre of their schoolchildren in 2006. Here was a community which prima face represents what a postliberal church might be: isolated and so formed by its own internal traditions that it was unable to relate to the world. Yet as Michener indicates, it was precisely that internal formation which enabled this community to practice forgiveness under the most extreme provocation. Michener makes this observation:
This is a remarkable example of how a commitment to one's faith, fully embedeed in the narrative and tradition of that faith, even with (what is often seen as) an extreme sectarian context may still have a radically profound impact on society. The Amish are certainly no friends to modern culture and society. ... [Nevertheless] with no regard to society's value or acts of self-aggrandizement  a faithfully devout community can still have a powereful effect on that society (p. 117).
Now, there are quite properly serious limits to this most extreme example. By itself it should not be taken as a justification for postliberal theology or as a response to a major criticism of it. Nevertheless, it does provide a lived example which calls into question the assumption made in theory that faithfulness to a tradition necessarily leads to public isolation.

The other aspect of Michener's critical discussion which is worth noting relates to the Holy Spirit. A little surprisingly, Michener draws some parallels between Postliberalism and Pentecostalism in their shared rejection of modern reductionist rationality. He quotes James K.A.Smith's reference to Pentecostalism's  "more expansive, affective understanding of what counts as knowledge and a richer understanding of how we know" (Smith, quoted by Michener, p. 136) and suggests this as an area of shared concern. It is not entirely clear where that parallel might lead, but the shared concern is at least worthy of note and any pathway to deeper mutual understanding between mainline and Pentecostal theologies is worth pursuing.

This is a good book. It would be useful to any one already interested in and familiar with postliberal theology. It would also be well worth reading for anyone keen to find out about it for the first time.
* * * *
In second semester this year I'll be teaching a unit, 'Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism'. Although postliberal theology will be only one part of this unit, questions such as those listed above will be the unit's major driving force. It will be taught as a two-part intensive, July 29-30 and Oct 7-9.  Check out this promotional video and the course outline on pp. 92-94 of Pilgrim's 2016 Handbook. The unit will also be available for on-line enrolment.
* * * *
(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism

In semester 2 this year I'll be teaching a unit, Doctrine Truth and Pluralism. We've just announced a timetabling reschedule. It will now be offered as a two-part Intensive on July 29-30 and then on October 7-9. The unit is available at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

The video below gives a quick summary of what we'll be exploring.

And you can read a more complete description with more specific details here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Christianity and Narcissism

Last year, with my colleague Katharine Massam, I taught a new unit, Culture, Beliefs and Theology. The unit is designed as an introduction to the tasks and skills of theology. Unlike other introductory courses, however, this unit is less focused on classic texts and debates. Instead, it jumps right in to the conversations happening in Australia about God, Jesus, the Bible. More specifically, the conversations happening outside the church or at least at the edge of the church. We engaged agnostics, atheists, politicians, comedians, academics, novelists, historians, mainstream Christians, and self-designated 'fellow travellers'.

Again, unlike conventional apologetics, the aim was not to work  out what Christians could say that would 'answer' the various accounts (positive and negative) of faith located amongst this diverse range of peers, critics, and friends. Rather, the concern was to listen to them and to discern in what we heard what might or might not resonate with us. Were there things to learn? Were there things to resist? And having eavesdropped on these conversations, what theological skills, wisdom and ideas would be needed to enter the conversation?

One of the critics we studied was Tamas Pataki, specifically the argument of his 2007 book Against Religion. I included Pataki for several reasons. Firstly, Against Religion is a small book which includes a good introductory overview of the standard criticisms of religion. Secondly, he is a local; he teaches at Melbourne University and therefore is helping to shape perceptions of and approaches to Christianity amongst the current generation of tertiary students. Thirdly, he has a particular take on the persistence of religious belief. He does more than offer yet another recital of the standard arguments against religion. Pataki is especially focused on a very particular question: Why do people persist in religious belief when such powerful arguments have intellectually deconstructed all religious belief? In other words, he does not simply focus on the arguments against religion, but on why - despite the power of those seemingly well-established reasons - people go on believing.  His answer: narcissism.

Building on an 'economy of narcissism' characteristic of infancy and which involves the infant's construction of a world of 'omnibenevolence', Pataki argues that religious belief is the continuation of this desire to think that the world is constructed around oneself. Religious belief is a psychologically-driven strategy for being able to continue to live in this world beyond infancy and to 'bask in the radiance' of unlimited and unfettered devotion and affection.

Religious teachings about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness are particularly fitted to reinvigorate desires and to gratify them for these are the very properties the child is striving more or less desperately to retain or retrieve. So, once again, he may attempt to establish a relationship in phantasy with the ideal figures, this time supernatural ones…and bask in their radiance.

It is tempting to pick holes in Pataki's argument. (At the very least it's a pretty reductionist view of why people believe what they do; and if belief can be explained away with a psychological explanation, why shouldn't unbelief be similarly explained away?) Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that that we Christians manage to provide a fair bit of justification for Pataki's argument. After all, the church's scriptural and liturgical language is rich with claims about the intense focus of God's love for, and interventions on behalf of, individuals or communities which trust him (e.g., Psalm 33:18-19; Lam 3:22-25; Rom 8:28, etc). Such claims are, of course, set within larger narratives about the people of God being set apart to be oriented to the world rather than themselves.

Often, however, that larger narrative is suppressed in the piety of the church. Let me give an example. One Sunday, last year, I  happened (largely by accident) to worship in a church whose character and style reflected  very different theological convictions to my own. It was in a major Asian city; the very large congregation was mostly expatriate Europeans, Africans and Americans. Many of them were students or lecturers at a nearby university. It was difficult to reconcile this particular demographic with the very low level of theological reflection evident in the songs, prayers and sermon. What was most disturbing, however, was the word of benediction: "Remember! God has organised the week for you."

There was no word of mission. No exhortation to serve the poor. No encouragement to care for the sick or comfort the bereaved. No reminder of the command to love our neighbours. No direction to pray for our enemies. Just an indulgent claim that God had organised the week for us. If you were looking for a connection between faith and narcissism, there it was - front and centre in the life of the church itself.

This is far from a stand-alone example. A recent feature article on one of Australia's highest-profile churches included reference to this exhortation from the chief pastor:  "Speak your faith, start seeing miracles ... Owner of your first home! Best-selling author ... Mother of handsome sons and beautiful daughters! Businessman who is prosperous and fruitful! Your brother's salvation, your sister's healing ... Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Speak it into being! Amen!" Even if this is more explicitly an example of prosperity doctrine, it's not hard to see how such a view would feed the link between faith and narcissism. (And you can watch the particular address here; go to the 36min mark.)

So, Tamas Pataki is not without insight into the connection between faith and narcissism, even if he over-reaches himself in using it as an exhaustive explanation of why everyone who  believes does so. Being aware of his critique can, however, encourage Christians to ask ourselves why we do believe in the first place, and to realise that there are indeed elements of the Christian faith which, if isolated from others, can easily feed the narcissistic propensities that seem to weave their way through the human condition which we all share.

In eavesdropping on contemporary conversations about God, Jesus and faith, we Christians will often hear things that are little more than cheap shots. But we will also hear things that rightly and properly prompt us to self-examination. Tamas Pataki's comments on faith and narcissism are a case in point.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ferment, Change and the Church's Vocation

Each month a member of the faculty at my college is rostered to write a short op-ed style piece for Crosslight, the monthly magazine of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. My turn has rolled around again this month. Under the heading, "Ferment, Change and the Vocation of the Church" I've tried (very briefly) to flesh out the changing attitudes to Christianity that have emerged - and become more identifiable - in Australia in recent decades. This has involved resisting what I term 'catch-up ecclesiology'. One key paragraph reads as follows:

For the duration of the UCA’s life, Christianity in Australia has been shaped by social and cultural forces over which the Church has had precious little control. It is sometimes suggested that things could have been different: ‘if only the church did… x, y or z.’  But this kind of ‘if only’ lament is, I think, misguided. Behind it is often a kind of ‘catch-up’ ecclesiology: ‘if only we catch up with the changes in society, we’ll be a more effective in mission’ – or so the argument goes. But this underestimates the extent to which the power of even the most innovative, energetic, faithful and authentic missional strategy is often overwhelmed by the currents of change that have taken Australian society in directions few would  have predicted even two decades ago, let alone the nearly four decades ago when the Uniting Church was born.

You can read the full piece here.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Does this confess 'the faith of the church'? An Easter Reprise

Easter seems a good time to return to the Confession of  Faith I drafted some months ago. I am grateful for the responses from many and various people to the earlier version. There have been many conversations which have made me think a bit more carefully and be clearer about what I was trying to communicate. I'm won't explain the detail of all the changes that ensued from those responses. Nevertheless, I doubt it will take long  to recognise the following as the key issues which I've addressed: the relationship between historical an doctrinal claims, the emphasis on the unity of  God as the starting point, gendered language in the second article, more care in the claims made for the church, and a few others.

I've had several requests to use this in various contexts. I'm very glad for it to be used. It's a public document intended for use in the church. If it is used, I would always be interested to know how it is received and/or adapted.

We trust the one God.

We trust the Love and Life who is the source and sustainer of all that was, is and will be.

We trust Jesus Christ, Loves Beloved, Life's Light, Eternal Wisdom, Israel's Messiah, God with us.
Sent from the very heart of God's love for the world, coming not to be served but to serve, Jesus became human in the womb of Mary.

Hailing from Nazareth, befriending outcasts, healing the sick, forgiving sinners, confronting falsehood, and showing mercy to enemies, Jesus proclaimed the long-promised reign of God.

Reaching Jerusalem, prompting hosannas, trusting the one he named Abba, he offered himself as the servant Lord; he was rejected, abandoned and betrayed, and then crucified on a Roman cross as a false Messiah.

Lying dead and buried in a tomb, God raised this Jesus to new life: the human verdict was reversed; violence was rejected; the earthly mission was vindicated; death was defeated, the reconciliation of the world to God was manifest

Appearing, speaking and eating, this transformed body provoked fear, doubt, joy and hope. With words of peace the risen Jesus empowered these confused followers, sending them as witnesses to the way, truth and life.

Returning, scarred and bruised, to the One who sent him, Jesus now shares in Loves rule and receives the worship of his sisters and brothers from every culture, class and nation.

We trust the Holy Spirit, the loving and lively breath of God, who blows where she wills: in, around and through the whole creation.

This same Spirit spoke through Israel's prophets, animated Jesus' ministry, and gathers a community, the church, which, like Jesus, is called to serve; it is an instrument through which Christ continues to command attention and awaken faith.

Sent by the Spirit, the church is to proclaim the risen, crucified Jesus Christ in ever-fresh words and deeds; it is to witness to God's renewal of all creation, for which it waits with an impatient but sure and active hope.

This is the churchs faith. It is the faith we confess. In this Triune God we trust. God grant us so to live and hope. Amen.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Books Worth Reading (6): The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

In recent years I have found myself in several conversations during which a definite disquiet has greeted the suggestion that modern science depended on Christianity for its origins. The claim has often been heard as an triumphalist apology for the Christian faith (and by extension a denial of the legitimacy of, for instance, Islamic science). It is actually a historical claim about the history of ideas and, as a historical claim about the history of ideas, it is (more or less) uncontroversial. That the claim has become historically uncontroversial owes much to the work of Peter Harrison, formerly the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, and now the Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. Over the last decade or so Harrison's work has significantly re-shaped the understanding of the history of the relationship between science and religion by demonstrating that both 'religion' and 'science', as we use those words today, are modern conceptual inventions and that the invention of the latter was especially shaped by theological considerations. Many of the arguments that ground these claims (together with some new arguments) are presented in The Territories of Science and Religion, the published version of Harrison's 2011 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The essence of the argument is crystallised in a helpful analogy at the book's outset. Harrison invites his readers to imagine a contemporary historian presenting a claim about a war between Egypt and Israel in 1600. Such a claim would actually be meaningless because neither 'Egypt' nor 'Israel' - as we now understand those signifiers - existed in 1600. Yes, there may well have been a war between different parties which then occupied parts of what our maps now identify as 'Egypt' and 'Israel', but this would not have been a war between the modern nation states that are now designated Egypt and Israel. Analogously, claims about the history of science and religion can involve projecting these modern concepts onto earlier practices which only just, if at all, overlap with what we mean by 'science' and 'religion'.

So what were scientia and religio in the ancient world and how do they differ from what 'science' and 'religion' are in the modern world? In brief, and with all the dangers of summarising a complex argument, the differences can be explained like this. In the ancient world, both scientia and religio were more like inner virtues than external practices. In the modern world, on the other hand, both 'science' and 'religion' are external, objectified practices. In the ancient world, the purpose of scientia was to form particular mental habits. In the modern world the purpose of 'science' is to advance the human capacity to manipulate the physical world. In the ancient world, religio was identified by the cultivation of piety. In the modern world, 'religion' is identified by bodies of belief and identifiable institutional, communal practices. 

In the first instance, recognising this conceptual history enables some critical historical leverage on the commonly-held idea that with the emergence of Christianity, the previous  progress of 'science' on the part of the ancients was arrested, impeded by the allegedly intrinsically obscurantist tendencies of Christianity. Only with the loosening of Christianity's influence in the modern era, so the argument goes, has 'science' been set free again to take up its historical trajectory of bringing light where religion only brought darkness. This particular 'myth of the conflict between science and religion' employs the same degree of category mistakes employed in the analogy about the 1600 war between 'Egypt' and 'Israel'. In the ancient world, 'science' and 'religion' were not the sorts of things that would be in conflict. (To add my own analogy, it would be like suggesting that the Australian Football League was in some perennial, essential conflict with the Oslo Society of Cabinet Makers.There is simply nothing about their respective concerns that require them to have a relationship of any sort, let alone one of conflict.) Only in the modern era do 'science' and 'religion' emerge in ways that the possibility of 'conflict' attaches to their relationship.

So how did 'religion' and 'science' emerge as modern concepts and what is it about their respective definitions which means that they might be in conflict? In the case of religion, a principal factor was the insistence of the sixteenth-century Reformers that 'faith be explicit' in contrast to the 'implicit faith' of medieval Catholicism. As Harrison notes: "The Reformers insisted instead that Christian believers be able to articulate the doctrines they professed, and do so in propositional terms" (p.92).  As such, religio as a virtue was replaced by 'religion' as body of beliefs. Now externalised, it could become the object of comparison and objectification: religion becomes something that attracts the definite article. Harrison documents this shift with reference to the emergence of the phrase 'the Christian religion' in books published in English between 1530 and 1690 (see pp. 92-94). The shift is also crystallised in the translation history of the title of John Calvin's Institutio Christiannae Religionis. The title given in English translation changed as follows:
  • 'The Institution of Christian Religion' (1561)
  • The Institution of the Christian Religion' (1762)
  • 'The Institutes of the Christian Religion' (1813).
Thus, the "modern rendering is suggestive of an entity 'the Christian religion' that is constituted by its propositional content - 'the institutes'. These connotations were completely absent from the original title" (p.11).

If religion now attracts the definite article, it can also be pluralised. Religion becomes a genus of which there are particular species. This move is especially highlighted in the way the West designates as 'religions' the other traditions and ways of life it with which it comes into contact during colonial expansion. This phenomenon has, of course, been well-documented in recent decades. Harrison draws particular attention to the fact that colonial expansion was more or less coincident with the religious fragmentation of Europe. 'World religions', itself a new concept, "came into existence through the projection of the religious fragmentation of Western Christendom onto the rest of the world. ... The 'other religions' were thus constructed as inferior versions of the territorialized Christian religions of Europe" (p.99). (An upcoming 'Books Worth Reading' will be summarising Brent Nongbri's Before Religion: The History of a Modern Concept (2013) which addresses this issue in much more detail.)

What then of the origins of science? Those who first developed an experimental approach to understanding the natural world did not at first necessarily consider themselves 'scientists'. Yes, they were producing bodies of knowledge about the world that represented a shift from scientia as an internal virtue to something objective and measurable. In producing such bodies of knowledge they would have they thought they were doing 'natural philosophy' or even 'natural theology'. But, at some point, not before the nineteenth century, these experimental activities, and their consequent bodies of knowledge, came to be described as 'science' and to break free of their philosophical and theological frameworks. Harrison quotes an 1867 article which defines science in terms of "physical and experimental science, to the exclusion of theological and metaphysical" (William Ward quoted by Harrison, p. 145f.). This is the significant move which constitutes modern science: not that people were only now using experimental methods to increase their knowledge of the world, but that the knowledge so produced was being separated from any philosophical or theological framework. Harrison summarises this shift in these terms:

In the nineteenth century, 'science' as we now understand it, came to be constructed in a way that resembled the early modern construction of the idea 'religion'. That is to say, it was aggregated from a range of activities and distanced from the personal qualities of those who practiced it. This took place when 'science' came to be linked to a putatively unified set of practices ('the scientific method'), associated with a distinct group of individuals ('scientists'), and purged of elements that had once been regarded as integral to its status and operations (the theological and metaphysical). Modern religion had its birth in the seventeenth century; modern science in the nineteenth. Properly speaking then, this belated appearance of 'science' provides the first occasion for a relationship between science and religion (p.147).
Only in the nineteenth century, therefore, do religion and science - both defined as bodies of knowledge, produced by particular communities engaging in certain practices to make particular claims about the world - become the kinds of phenomena which can be compared, contrasted - and brought into conflict.

Yet, as Harrison explores developments in science's self-understanding, it becomes apparent that certain remnants of its theological origins remain. (This is also a helpful way to return to the disquiet about those theological origins noted at the outset of this post.) The early experimental scientists used theological ideas to evaluate and understand their scientific work and its achievements. To take one example of the many which Harrison provides, Francis Bacon. With a particular understanding of Genesis providing the backdrop, Bacon writes as follows of how science is able to 'repair' the fallen state of humanity.  
For man by the fall fell at the same time from this state of innocency and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses however can even in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith, the latter by arts and sciences. For creation was not by the curse made altogether and forever a rebel, not by various length in in some measure subdued to supplying of man with bread; that is to the uses of human life (From Bacon's Novum Organum, quoted by Harrison, p.138).

This leads to a link between science, the 'relief of the human estate' and therefore 'progress'.  "The stuff of nature is pursued not only for the purpose of moral edification, but also to yield technologies that will offer ways of relieving the human condition. In time the latter will completely displace the former" (136). In other words, the link between the rhetoric of progress and modern science has a theological foundation, and even if the theological foundation is discarded (which it now has been), the nexus between science and progress has its origins in that cluster of Christian theological convictions.  From this emerging independence of the rhetoric of progress other things flow: "Progress had once been understood as progress towards a particular end. Now it had become an end in itself" (p141). A new cultural status is now granted to both the discipline of science and its practitioners:  "Now the wonders of nature become the wonders of science, understood as the product of scientists' rigorous application of the scientific method" (169). So yes, the theological origins of science are clear enough: but given the ambiguity of 'scientific progress', Christians might pause before pointing to the 'Christians' origins of science.

Harrison concludes the book by referring to various contemporary debates. These include debates about the coherence of science, something which is prone to being exaggerated. He insists that 'science' and 'religion' are not cultural constants, highlighting as he does so the manner in which ideological atheism is parasitic on the distinctly modern construct of 'religion'. He also cautions against over-enthusiastic claims about a "consonance between science and religion", precisely because such claims often involve conceding the cultural authority of science and the propositional nature of religion.

It goes without saying that this book is a work of advanced scholarship. It would be most easily read by people with some existing knowledge of the history of ideas in general and, more specifically, the history of science and religion. Nevertheless, Harrison presents his arguments in an accessible and engaging style. Some of the more technical details of the various arguments are placed in endnotes, thus allowing the general reader to take in the larger argument more easily. The book would be of interest, I imagine, to anyone (Christian or not) involved in the science/religion discussion. It would also be of value to ministers and preachers who confront the pastoral issues raised by the rhetoric of conflict between science and religion (remembering, though, that this is not a book of Christian apologetics) as well as to anyone who wishes to know a little more about the history of Western culture and some of the formative ideas which have given it the particular shape it has.

* * * * * *

Links to videos of the lectures at which Harrison first presented the material making up The Territories of Science and Religion are available here.

 * * * * * *

(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Some (sort of anonymous) thoughts on theology

The following list of various approaches to, and understandings of, theology includes some that I've been canvassing with my students in my introductory unit, Faith, Theology and Doctrines. I've added some others as well. The authors are unidentified for now. Some of the approaches are dead give-aways, and in this age of all-powerful search engines, the sources of most of these quotes could be tracked down pretty easily. But for those who would like to think about who might be the authors, I'll wait a few days before adding their names. Inclusion in this list does not necessarily constitute endorsement on my part!

At the request of one of my readers here's a list (in alphabetical order) of the authors of the following quotes. I'll link the authors to the actual quotes in a day or so.
Karl Barth - Sarah Coakley- Gustavo Gutiérrez - Robert Jenson - Elizabeth Johnson - James McClendon - Wolfhart Pannenberg - Dorothee Sölle - C.S. Song -
Medi-Ann Volpe



So, all is now revealed.


Sarah Coakley
If must start from a new perspective if this is the best way to recapture the contemporary imagination for Christ, or to reinvite reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel. Such is the inspiration of the notion of systematics that informs this work. Systematics, in other words, does not convey the hubristic ideas of a totalizing discourse that excludes debate, opposition, or riposte; but on the other hand, it does not falter at the necessary challenge of representing the gospel afresh in all its ramifications - systematically unfolding the connections of the parts of the vision that is set before us.

James McClendon

Theology means struggle.

Karl Barth
Thus the real results of dogmatics, even though they have the form of the most positive statements, can themselves only be new questions, questions to and fro between what the Church seems to proclaim and the Bible seems to want proclaimed, questions which can be put only with the greatest modesty and a sense of supreme vulnerability if they are perhaps serious and significant questions.

Gustavo Gutiérrez
The function of theology as critical reflection on praxis has gradually become more clearly defined in recent years, but it has its roots in the first centuries of the Church's life. The Augustinian theology of history which we find in The City of God, for example, is based on a true analysis of the signs of the times and the demands with which they challenge the Christian community.

Dorothee Soelle

But can there be any Logos, any systematic and rational clarification, of God? If theology were simply a 'theory about God', analogous to ossology (the theory of bones), then it would be an insult to God, blasphemy. The object of theology can only be the relationship between God and human beings: in other words, reflection on the experiences that have compelled human beings to talk about something like 'God'.

Robert Jenson
[T]heology is actual as a continuing consultation. Theology is not the adding of proposition to proposition in the steady construction of a planned structure of knowledge. It is a discussion and debate that as it continues regularly confronts new questions, and from which participants drop out and into which new participants enter.... It is the fate of every theological system to be dismembered and have its fragments bandied about in an ongoing debate.

Elizabeth Johnson

Rooted in the Christian tradition and equipped with scholarly tools, those of us in the theological guild think about the meaning of faith and the way it is practiced. The purpose is to shed more light on the gospel, so it can be lived out with deeper understanding and vibrant love of God and neighbour.

Medi Ann Volpe

The riches of the imagination can aid the task of discipleship, but in order to do so, the imagination itself must be trained by doctrine to nourish hope, encourage perseverance in faith and demonstrate the love in which Christians participate as members of Christ. Doctrine is a gift of the rationally capacious to structure our imaginations according to Christian hope.

For most Christian faith traditions and schools of Christian theology, the question of God is the beginning point. And yet, when we think of the whole more deeply, we may realize that this time-honoured way of doing theology parts company with the methods of science and technology. Science seeks to discover what is presently unknown by the study of what is known. God is a great unknown. To begin with God, therefore, is to attempt to explain what is known by what is not known, quite the opposite of how science proceeds. Rather we should begin where we are with what can be known through our experience in the world and see where it take us.

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Dogmatics as systematic theology proceeds by way of both assertion and hypothesis as it offers a model of the world, humanity, and history as they are grounded in God, a model which, if it is tenable, will 'prove' the reality of God and the truth of Christian doctrine, showing them to be consistently conceivable and also confirming them, by the form of presentation. In this way dogmatics expounds the truth claim of Christian teaching. it shows how this teaching must be understood in context if it is to be accepted as truth.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Books Worth Reading (5): Christianity: A Very Short Introduction by Linda Woodhead

Linda Woodhead, Christianity: A Very Short Introduction 2nd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

This book is neither a work of apologetics directed to non-Christians nor an exposition of the Christian faith written for insiders. It is a social, historical and cultural description of Christianity written for readers who are theologically uncommitted and culturally-  and/or  intellectually curious.  But it is, nevertheless, a book that the theologically-committed insider could find well-worth reading, precisely because it gives something of an outsider's perspective on this phenomenon we know as 'Christianity'.

Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University.  She is one of the most prominent and prolific sociologists writing on religion, especially on religion in the UK. As a sociologist she has particular ideological commitments shaped by that discipline, but that in no way devalues the book or lessens its value to a Christian reader. It is impossible to tell from this work her own relationship to the Christian faith (and this is a strength and not a weakness of the book)
Belonging to this particular OUP series, it is, obviously enough, a very short book: only 120 pages. It is divided into 6 chapters: (1) Jesus: the God-man; (2) Beliefs, rituals and narratives; (3) The spread of Christianity; (4) Church and Biblical Christianity; (5) Monastic and mystical Christianity; and (6) Christianity in the modern world. Then follows a Conclusion, a two-page chronology of the major events in Christianity's history, and the customary Suggestions for Further Reading.
She describes the first two chapters as introducing "the basic Christian repertoire" (1). It's an interesting phrase which offers a rather different framework than might, say, 'doctrines' or 'beliefs'.  Indeed, she uses it to identify what it is typical of Christianity across it doctrinal diversity. She refers to how "we can turn down the volume on such differences in order to introduce common themes in the Christian repertoire" (p.21).

It is of course, the person of Jesus and some basic beliefs about him which constitute the core of this 'repertoire'. She makes the fairly obvious point that the "canonical Jesus is far more influential than any 'real' Jesus who lies behind the gospels and inspires their portraits" (p.7). Because she is not writing for the theologically-committed, she can make this historical and cultural observation without having to enter contemporary theological debates about the relationship between Jesus and the gospels: "So far as history is concerned, it is the Jesus of the New Testament who has inspired more lives and worked more miracles than the elusive figure historians struggle to reconstruct" (p.7). The theologically committed will take comfort or discomfort from this depending on their views of the status of the 'biblical' or 'canonical' Jesus, but the theologically-neutral observation about the historically-influential Jesus, needs to be weighed in any attempt to find a more 'real' Jesus allegedly more germane to contemporary or culturally-specific interests.

Woodhead's sociological framework is perhaps most evident in her alertness to the connections between social conditions and the spread of Christianity over its 2000-year history. In this regard her brief overview is a helpful foil to the often romanticised and triumphant accounts of Christianity's expansion. For instance, she notes the pre-700AD limited eastward-spread of Christianity towards India and China and their existing religions. She then  contrasts this with the more successful westward spread during the same period. Of this contrast she notes: "Without political backing Christianity was unable to do more than win over small marginal social groups when other religions dominated a territory". On the other hand, the alliance between Christianity and power which accompanied Christianity's renewed attempts to move into those areas in the area of European colonisation did not necessarily lead to greater acceptance. If anything, it has been the "withdrawal of Western colonial powers [that] has led to greater opportunities for Christianity than before" (p. 54). In an important passage, she notes the alliance between certain forms of Christianity, globalisation, and the twentieth-century expansion of Christianity into the global south. Here she finds parallels with the spread of  Islam in the same areas during the same period. Her comments are worth quoting at some length.
In this post-colonial phase, Christianity has been more fully owned and adopted by people who were previously colonial subjects. Many parts of the southern hemisphere have witnessed the growth of new globally networked forms of Christianity, most notably the Pentecostal and Charismatic.... Since their rise has been contemporaneous with that of resurgent Islam, it is interesting to compare the two. Both have flourished in territories which were previously under western colonial control. Both have a globalizing tendency. Both represent indigenous movements of modernization. To be part of recent Islamic or Charismatic upsurges is to be part of global movements with the resources and sense of universal, triumphant purpose that entails. Individuals' horizons and sense of identity are raised from the local or even the national to the global level by belonging to these religions, and power is enhanced accordingly. Through membership one can lay hold of many of the benefits of modernity - including education, technology, and affluence - but without having to westernize. The best of both worlds (p. 54).
There are all sorts of interesting sparks to reflection here, not least the connection between faith, power, globalization and modernity. And the relation of this phenomenon to the attraction of earlier power-less forms of Christianity to 'small marginal groups' warrants considerable theological reflection. 
The expansion of Christianity during the previous century has, of course, taken many forms. Yet, for Woodhead,"[u]nderstanding this huge internal variety within Christianity is less important than understanding the religion's main fault lines" (p.57). To this end (and with a sociologist's nod to Ernst Troeltsch) she believes the diversity of Christianity can best be described in terms of what she designates as its four major types: church, biblical, mystical and monastic. Her descriptions of each of these types are highly illuminating. Perhaps just as illuminating is her suggestion that despite the recent expansion and diversification, none of the new manifestations of Christianity in Asia or Africa, for instance, has introduced any new basic type. Pentecostalism, Fundamentalism, and Charismatic Evangelicalism can still be classified by new four-fold typology, even if in different configurations (see p. 89). In other words, the expansion of Christianity in Asia and Africa is proceeding along trajectories which are generated by the basic reality that Christianity is and has been.
As she surveys the contemporary global phenomenon of Christianity, she does seem to suggest that there is one particularly decisive fault line which runs through and across all the different types of Christianity: "More than modern science, it is modern liberal values and a turn to subjective experience which have challenged and divided Christians" (p. 90). She also suggests that Liberal Christianity will have to come to terms with its own failed promise. At it origins, Liberal Christianity saw itself as part of the onward march of modern history which would sweep aside tyranny and "superstition, and replace them with more liberal political arrangements and more rational faith" (p. 97f). 'History', however, has pursued different paths and Liberal Christianity is largely being bypassed:  "Right up to the 1970s it seemed reasonable to think that Liberal Christianity would continue to dominate the Christian, especially Protestant world.... Despite the considerable the end of the 20th century it was clear that confidence in its inevitable triumph had been misplaced" (p.98f). (This observation certainly warrants reflection within the UCA and other mainline protestant churches which have been deeply shaped by the traditions of liberal theology, but that's a task beyond this present post.)

As I noted above, although the book is written for the theologically uncommitted, I think that the theologically committed would find it well worth reading precisely to get a taste of how Christianity is presented when there is no grinding of the theological axes which (inevitably and often quite properly) preoccupy the churches. In that way the book could be a helpful change of pace for church discussion groups which might otherwise draw on typically internal resources to spark their discussions. In short: this book could serve such groups very well and help them get even just a hint of what Christianity looks like from the outside - across both time and place. I can't help but think that that would be a good thing.

(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)