An Unapologetic Middle Ground
by Paul Nelson
Paul Nelson is assistant professor of religion at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and the author of Narrative and Morality: A Theological Inquiry (Penn State University Press). This article appeared in the Christian Century October 4, 1989, p. 882. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
As in his earlier book, A History of Christian Thought: An Introduction, and its two supplementary volumes of selections from primary sources, Placher shows himself to be an insightful, judicious and reliable interpreter of the tradition and of significant figures and issues in contemporary debates. But although it can be used in the classroom. Unapologetic Theology is not really a textbook, nor is it merely a catalog. Rather. Placher uses a cumulative argument that, in the end, makes a convincing case for his own position. It has been observed that there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who think people are more diverse. Placher is in the latter category. Thus he is impatient with classifying theologians as either "revisionist" or "post-liberal." Revisionists are said to "think it particularly important to correlate Christian beliefs with concerns and experiences that all people share and to stand ready to defend Christian convictions according to ‘publicly acceptable’ criteria of truth." Post-liberals, on the other hand, insist that "Christian theology should focus primarily on describing the internal logic of Christian faith -- how Christian beliefs relate to each other and function within the life of a Christian community."
Kaufman, Tracy, Langdon Gilkey and James Gustafson are among the many revisionists. Lindbeck, Frei, David Kelsey and Stanley Hauerwas are members of the more recently identified post-liberal camp. Many younger theologians have allied themselves with one side or the other, but Placher recognizes the concerns and insights of both sides and seeks a via media between the two.
Nevertheless, he confesses that his greater sympathy is for postliberalism. Apparently he is a born-again post-liberal, having overcome a "religious upbringing and sensibilities" which made post-liberalism "uncongenial." Ironically, his conversion occurred when he came to the conclusion that post-liberalism "offered the best account of how to do theology, given the philosophical views I found most persuasive."
The irony here is that post-liberals. according to their critics, are supposed to be indifferent (at best) to public discourse with those in disciplines outside the theological circle. Yet Placher’s experience is not unique. It was reading sociologists, anthropologists and philosophers (including philosophers of science) that moved Lindbeck to propose a "cultural-linguistic" model for understanding religion. Frei, acknowledging intellectual debts in the preface to his groundbreaking book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics, listed literary critic Erich Auerbach and analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle alongside Karl Barth. Placher performs a useful service when he corrects misconceptions and deflates rhetorical hyperbole on both sides of the revisionist-post-liberal debate.
Much of his book is devoted to discussing the philosophical perspectives that make post-liberal theology seem appropriate. Of course, to speak of a philosophical foundation would compromise post-liberal axioms. Placher avoids this paradox by insisting that his constructive theological proposals do not depend on his philosophical arguments. He is willing to risk intellectual isolation if it should come to that in order to remain faithful to a Christian vision. However, this is not likely to occur in our post-Enlightenment, pluralistic intellectual environment. As Princeton philosopher of religion Jeffrey Stout has written, ‘There is no method for good argument and conversation save being conversant -- that is, being well versed on one’s own tradition and on speaking terms with others’
Placher is conversant in both senses. He engages the writings of Rawls and Haberman. which represent "the greatest contemporary efforts to rescue something like the Enlightenment dream," but finds in their liberal tolerance a "hidden intolerance" toward views embedded in particular traditions. Placher detects "two unhappy forms of relativism in Foucault and Rorty, influential critics of Enlightenment liberalism: first, "a tendency toward nihilism in which nothing can be defended as good or tine," and second, "a kind of self-satisfaction in which one retreats to the way the world looks to us, . . . an intellectual ghetto." Neither the liberals nor their arch critics are sufficiently open "to genuinely pluralistic conversation in which people from very different starting points can debate and sometimes reach conclusions."
Placher stands between these two extremes in a middle ground which allows for genuine dialogue between science and religion and among different religious traditions. Only on this basis is it possible, he insists, to avoid the dishonesty, disrespect, subtle religious imperialism or superficiality which often attend such encounters. Here he discusses the interreligious dialogue strategies of Karl Rahner, John Hick, John Cobb and Paul Knitter. In various ways each fails to acknowledge or accept the particularity of differing religious convictions and traditions and therefore resists authentic pluralism.
In addition to its call for a truce between revisionists and post-liberals, the book’s principal constructive contribution is Placher’s account of Christian truth claims. It is often alleged that post-liberals -- especially those who, like Placher, wish to employ biblical narrative within a cultural-linguistic conception or religion -- are sort on truth claims. Truth for postliberals is said to be merely intra textual -- " true to the biblical narrative" or true as "an adequate use of concepts and symbols within the Christian linguistic community." Post liberals are accused of not adequately explaining what it means to say that Christian beliefs are really true.
Understanding a religion as a cultural-linguistic framework does not in itself presuppose or require that any of the religion’s claims be true in the ontological (as opposed to categorical’) sense. Yet this view of religion in no way precludes making the strongest of truth claims, as post-liberal theologians working within it have shown. Critics’ suspicions are not entirely unfounded, however, because post-liberals have not shown how, on the basis of their assumptions, truth claims can be accounted for.
This criticism will he harder to sustain after Unapologetic Theology. Placher picks up on Stout’s observation in Ethics After Babel that it is important to distinguish claims about truth trom those about justification. Justificatory arguments for what we believe to be true are always context-dependent, but this does not diminish the sense in which the belief is claimed to be true. Placher explains that Christians discern certain "patterns": they "see the universe as the creation of a loving God"; they read the Bible, and "find in the pattern of Jesus’ life a pattern which reoccurs again and again elsewhere in the Bible, in extrabiblical history, and in their own lives"; they see in Christ’s story "the center of a larger pattern that is for them the shape of all things."
Placher’s struggle to avoid the errors of philosophical foundationalism and radical relativism and his quest to find ways to "avoid the stultifying force of tradition without refusing to listen to the voices of tradition altogether" leave him in the middle, where he risks drawing fire from all sides. But Placher has made considerable progress toward his destination, and those who accompany him through these debates -- whatever their allegiances -- will find a rich itinerary and a stimulating guide.