Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Sort Of Preamble

As I mentioned the other day, I'm reading Gary Dorrien's 3-volume history of American liberal theology. Combined with a renewed interest in some concerns regarding the United Methodist Church, I'm feeling more and more led to make some kind of positive statements regarding what it is, precisely, I believe as a United Methodist Christian in the second decade of the 21st century.

Before I do that, I have found myself in the most odd position of trying to justify, to and for myself, how it is I can affirm both a personal affinity for the kind of mediating theology represented by the best of the liberal theologians, German and American as well as past and present, yet also stand firm in my basic confession, rooted in my heritage as a Methodist in line with John Wesley, of the centrality of the saving Gospel of Christ for the world. Much of the intellectual energy of the liberals was outside this basic confessional center; while the godfather of theological liberalism exuded a Christ-centered, evangelical (in many senses of the word) concern with the meaning of the Christ-event on human life, subsequent generations moved through concerns over Scriptural interpretation and authority, the ethical personalism of Ritschl and his American student in the school known as Boston Personalism (begun by Methodist preacher and teacher Borden Parker Bowne), the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and the process theology of John Cobb and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. The heart of liberal theology is the primacy of human experience over doctrinal or theological rigidity; the first stirrings of American liberal theology was the Unitarian split in the Reformed Congregational churches on New England led by William Ellery Channing. He understood the doctrine of the Trinity as an offense not only against reason, but against experience as well. Later American liberals would couch their attempts to recast our God-talk in to wholly different sets of categories in a vocabulary that privileges experience. As such, they moved through much speculative as well as practical theology as well as writings on ethics and politics with one eye focused on the world in which they lived.

While the Unitarian movement disappears, by and large, from Dorrien's narrative after Emerson's Divinity School Address (except, if memory serves, a short discussion of James Luther Adams in a later volume), one would be hard pressed, I think, to find within the writings under consideration, after a certain period, a concern with such doctrines*. Indeed, Jesus himself seems to become a distant, dim memory as the narrative moves through an exciting, dizzying array of theological and philosophical concerns.

Yet, I find myself nodding in agreement through large portions of the work, as I did five years ago when I read it the first time. As I did when I read Schleiermacher's Glaubenslehre my last year in seminary. Yet, I can also nod in agreement with large portions of the sermons of John Wesley; I can celebrate the polemical dogmatics of Karl Barth, for whom Schleiermacher was a bete noir in every sense of the term.

The only answer with which I can rest comfortably for this contradiction lies in my own wonder why these matters have to be "either/or". Is it not possible, as Schleiermacher insisted, to consider the human experience of absolute dependence as the proper methodological starting point for theological reflection as well as affirm with Barth that such a starting point leads us only so far without the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, precisely because these are two movements that are only intelligible when they meet one another? I daresay Schleiermacher would whole-heartedly agree with my own assessment, considering the centrality of the Christ-event in his own theology, and the hearty evangelical preaching evidenced in his On Religion.

I think we have lived far too long under the illusion that our traditions are like statues in museums. Beautiful works of human art, they are nearly impossible to move, and any attempt to change them destroys their near-perfect balance and proportion. Which is why considering them this way makes them absolutely useless.

We need to think of our traditions as living things, as Christ is alive. We need to consider our traditions as human things, both sinful yet justified. We need to consider our traditions as starting points for speaking our faith now precisely because they were, once upon a time, expressions of faith in their own place and time. Finally, we should never forget that our theological reflection is not the same thing as our confession. Our confession is part, but not the heart, of our identity as Christians. No one was ever saved by doctrine. No soul ever closed a book of theology, and found itself strangely warmed. No life has ever been changed except by the Holy Spirit testifying to the truth of God's self-emptying on the cross of Jesus Christ, a witness that made manifest the reality of God's power as the stone was rolled away revealing the empty tomb.

This simple confession, the heart of any Christian confession, belongs to no school. It is not the sole property of any denomination. It cannot be revoked by any magisterium or council. It cannot be augmented by any unanimous vote or careful consideration of alternatives.

How we go about making sense of this senselessness is our on-going conversation. We should consider the whole range of Christian traditions as fair game for clues as to the wisdom of this Divine foolishness. As such, I do not think any "label" works well for me. I'm happy being a liberal Christian. I'm happy being evangelical. I'm happy being C/catholic, O/orthodox, whatever.

Finally, if there are things here with which you disagree, that's OK. Theology is the church's ongoing conversation in which we try to understand what it is we mean when we confess God was in Christ reconciling the world to God. I don't believe there is such a thing as "wrong" theology. There are just all sorts of steps along the way.

*The exception that proves the rule is a thorough examination of Horace Bushnell's treatment of the Trinity.

Virtual Tin Cup

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