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.