Friday, July 31, 2009

Differences Of Perspective

The on-going discussion here, led to this extended quote from theologian O. C. Quick:
It is then an imperative duty to keep alive the theological tradition, not hastily to hide or throw away old doctrines at the first demand of those who have never had occasion to study their real import, but to let them renew their youth in the fresh interpretations which fuller knowledge brings. And to fulfil this task we must first go back to the old theology of our creeds, that we may disentangle its essential meaning. We must try to clear away the rust which our neglect has suffered to collect upon it, that it may once more shine in use. We need not, we must not, reaffirm every word that the fathers of the Church thought to be true, still less must we adopt all their methods of enforcing it. But we must remember that though their language is not ours, at least it was for them, and it may be for us, the vehicle of an eternal revelation of the ultimate constitution and ordering of the universe. For them theology was not primarily the result of any reflection upon their own experience. It was the revelation of God which created both their experience and their theology, and the theology was designed quite as much to guide experience as to interpret it. For them intellect was not a tin‑kettle tied to the tail of feelings, urging them to wilder extravagance as it clattered helplessly in their wake. Rather they thought of intellect as a divinely inspired faculty of vision, whereby they were able to see the goal, and point out the direction, of that long and arduous journey which human experience has still to tread. They held it a sacred trust to guide in the light of that vision the steps of the people whose souls, as they believed, had been committed to their charge. The better part for us is not to set their authority at nought, but to sit at their feet till we have learned the lesson, that some things in their teaching which must be removed are shaken, only that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. The first necessity is not to restate the creeds, but to explain them. Perhaps after the explanation, the need for restatement will not seem so pressing.(italics added)

From my interactions with Feodor, I can only surmise that this particular paragraph encapsulates much of his own perspective - a reverence for theology as a means of grace, a privileging of intellect of reflection on experience, an interest in the relevance of ancient theologizing. I wouldn't presume to assume that Quick speaks for him; I would presume, at the very least, to notice that this paragraph tracks pretty close to themes that recur in his comments.

My own perspective on theology, and the relationship among experience, reason, and the theological task, is quite different. I would never deny that theology, if rooted in a person's experience of Divine Grace in the person of Jesus Christ, most definitely shapes our experience, and directs it toward its divinely ordained end. Yet, to say that it is not about interpretation misses the point. If we are not reflecting on the experience of our faith; if we are not interpreting through the lens of faith; if Divine Grace has not unsealed our eyes and loosed our lips, I wonder what, exactly is the point? Indeed, the whole tenor of this particular quote seems to be a desire to stop listening to the whispering of the Spirit in our own time, as it comes to us in a different voice, in a different place and time.

It might be useful to ask, as Feodor once did, what do the Cappadocians have to say to a resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Might be. For the most part, however, I am unmoved by the impulse to even ask such a question. A late fourth century Greek neo-Platonist would have very little in common with an early 21st century resident of an historically neglected neighborhood in our largest city. The language is different. The needs are different. The whole social, cultural, historical, religious context is so different as to make even the most dedicated Christian wonder if the faith of two adherents - one, an ancient Greek, the other a contemporary urban resident - is the same one.

The ancient voices of the church are important, and should indeed be heeded. But only, to use a journalistic term, on deep background. We need to find our own voices, use our own language, our own metaphors, be conscious of issues of class, of race, be cognizant of the multiplicities of histories that interconnect in a place like Bed-Stuy, histories undreamed in the darkest fantasies of the Cappadocians. If our theology does not emerge at the meeting point of our faith and the world's experience, the real lived experience of the world, then it isn't theology, but masturbation. I hate to be blunt, but as far as I'm concerned, far too much theology today, even and perhaps that which tries so hard for relevance and depth, ends up being nothing more than intellectual self-abuse.

And, I would also insist that theologians learn a bit of humility. Theologizing is the last task of the church, not the first. Doing theology, whether consciously (and sometimes self-consciously) with reference to the broad and deep rivers of the past, or only taking what is at hand and making the best of it, is no more than stock-taking, making sure we know what we are talking about. At the end of the day, it is not theology that shapes our faith, nor assent to this or that sentence that grants us liberty and life. Jesus was clear on one point, if nothing else. Truth is not a proposition, or set of propositions. Rather, truth is no more and no less than the Incarnate Son of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, Truth is Him, something very specific, concrete, real, and crucified and risen.

None of our words, no matter how deep, no matter how close to the nub we may get, can capture that reality.

Ours, Feodor's and mine, are just different perspectives on the question of theology. There is much to commend. It just isn't my way.

Virtual Tin Cup

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