by Forum ralls
This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 20 2004, pp. 25-36. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Four theologians discuss the many attempts to understand the assumptions of the scriptures in light of scientific investigations into the origin of the universe and of the species.
(How do Christians understand their faith in light of insights gained from history, social science, natural science and other modes of inquiry? How, for example, do Christians understand the book of Genesis in light of scientific investigation into the origin of the universe and of the species? How do they understand theological references to sin in light of scientific accounts of genetically determined behavior? Such questions have been at the heart of modern theology and especially that sprawling tradition known as "liberal theology."
In An Examined Faith: The Grace of Self-Doubt (Fortress), published this year, James M. Gustafson considers the ways that secular modes of inquiry – and their results – have been absorbed, accommodated or rejected by theologians. The book reflects Gustafson’s concern, evident through his career as a theologian and ethicist, to engage people in other professions and thinkers in other disciplines. It also reveals his dissatisfaction with recent "postmodern" or "postliberal" efforts that seek – in his view – to avoid scientific, social-scientific or other constructions of reality.
In these pages William C. Placher, P. Travis Kroeker and S. Mark Heim comment on Gustafson’s account, and Gustafson responds.)
Conversations that Count
By William C. Placher
William C. Placher teaches at Wabash College.
With characteristic clarity and quiet passion James Gustafson argues that theologians and ethicists should be regularly engaged in serious conversation with other disciplines: "It is not possible to avoid intersections between science and other secular knowledge on the one hand, and religious discourse on the other." When Christians address ethical problems, we should draw on the best expertise available. When we think about the world, most of us, most of the time, use the categories of contemporary natural and social science. If we do not connect our faith to those categories, we will end up compartmentalizing Christianity off in a corner and treating it as not about the real world.
The central target of Gustafson’s polemics, prominently represented by John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas and George Lindbeck and less prominently by me and others, is a kind of theology he variously calls postliberal theology narrative theology, or (using the title of one of my own books) unapologetic theology. He thinks those of us so labeled, lacking the courage to be straightforward Barthians, have borrowed from the arcane fads of postmodernism to justify our misguided ghettoizing of theology.
Those of us thus lumped together could justifiably, I think, protest the lumping and insist on important differences among us. But that’s a conversation for another time.
Gustafson speaks to one central divide in contemporary theology. He raises important questions that apply in some degree to all of us on the other side of that divide, and they deserve an attempt at an answer. Let me organize my response around three topics where we seem to disagree: With whom should theologians be talking? What should we talk about? How should we talk?
If I and others seem unusually argumentative and defensive when discussing this book, it may be because we remember how wise Jim Gustafson was when we were young and callow. We are intimidated when we disagree with him by the recognition that Gustafson always arrives at his positions thoughtfully and judiciously.
With whom should we be talking? When Gustafson says theologians should be in conversation with those in secular disciplines, he seems to mean principally natural scientists and empirical social scientists. They are the people who change the world, who can provide the necessary background for informed ethical decisions, whose categories provide the dominant ways people today think. Even at the pastoral level, he believes, preaching and counseling will have little credibility if they are not related to the best knowledge generated by these disciplines.
In contrast, he thinks that dialogue with the philosophers and cultural critics usually labeled "postmodern" is generally a waste of time. Scientists cure diseases and develop technology; empirical social science contributes to public policy. But postmodern theorists are not taken seriously by sensible people. ("The same authors, Foucault, Kuhn, Feyeraband, Derrida, Lakatos, Lyotard and others, are cited almost as a litany of sacred names.") Gustafson assures us, "Nothing is this book charges anyone with deliberate dishonesty, self-deception, or deception of others, but some passages come close. He seems convinced that theologians in dialogue with postmodern thinkers are playing tricks -- appealing to these authors only because they might justify our odd ways of doing theology. Even if these are the current intellectual "fads," he says, references to them are so "arcane" that they will not make any connection to the lives of ordinary people.
This is frustrating. As a theologian, I’m supposed to get out there and talk to my nontheological colleagues, but, when I try to connect theology to books widely influential among many of those colleagues, Gustafson tells me that that’s not what he meant. Sure, talk with natural science and empirical social science -- but why not postmodern theory too?
I have not -- honest!--latched on to these folks after a desperate search for somebody who might permit particular theological moves. Goodness knows I dislike the prose in which much of this stuff is written, and I would in some moods have welcomed an excuse to dismiss it. But this "litany of sacred names" figures prominently in many academic departments these days; their works appear in large numbers on the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble bookstore. My students may not in large numbers read Lyotard, but they have watched a show called Postmodern Videos on MTV, and many of their favorite movies (Fight Club, Memento) play with issues of time, reality and perspective parallel to those discussed by postmodernists. If they become architects, go to an Ivy League law school, or study the perplexing problems of race, gender and sexual orientation, they will likely find themselves engaged in debates shaped by some of these postmodern thinkers.
A generally accepted big theory -- rational choice theory in the social sciences, or contemporary quantum mechanics, for instance -- provides criteria for evaluating the truth of hypotheses within its purview. But how do we decide on the truth or falsity of fundamental theories? How can we decide who is winning when the rules of the game are one of the subjects up for debate? Is it just a matter of power politics, and those with the relevant institutional power decide? Or is it a more complicated matter, in which rhetoric and persuasion play their roles in the telling of alternative stories? Or can we recover a sufficiently qualified theory of rationality even for decisions among fundamental theories to survive contemporary objections? But has not "rationality," with all its importance and all its virtues, sometimes been misused as a slogan to dismiss the radical and the marginalized?
Postmodernists confront us with questions like these. However we answer them at the end of the day, they seem to me good questions, not to be dismissed out of hand. I concede that some of us engaged in such conversations -- John Milbank seems to me particularly guilty on this score -- often fail to make it clear whether postmodernism has unique affinities with Christianity, or whether we have adopted its language to talk about Christianity simply because it happens to be the current intellectual lingo. That is a complex question with which I’ve wrestled in much greater detail elsewhere. But concede the worst case -- even if it is just a prominent language of the time, could Gustafson not concede intellectual integrity to those of us trying to speak in it of Christian faith? I thought that’s what he said theologians are supposed to be doing.
What should we talk about? Gustafson keeps wanting to bring us down to earth. He recalls how, nearly 50 years ago, he was commissioned to study whether Standard Oil could reduce shipping costs without unfairness to its workers:
I read the efficiency analyses of thirty-three oil barges and ten tugboats in the New York Harbor, spent several days on the barges and tugboats, and interviewed people from harbor personnel to middle managers, to board members of the international corporation. . . . Social ethics done only at abstract conceptual levels, or even through middle axioms, leaves a huge gap between theory, quantified information, and the role obligations of persons.
He keeps reminding us that, whether we are thinking about social problems, medical ethics or the doctrine of creation, Christians need to know the up-to-date facts about economics, genetic causes of disease, or astrophysics.
But another range of questions is surely also important, questions having more to do with what Aquinas called "the beginning of things and their last end, and especially of rational creatures." Faced as I am with an aged parent rapidly losing short-term memory, one of course wants to know about medications or forms of therapy helpful in delaying the effects. But also, late at night, one wonders about whether the meaning of life fades with memory, or whether the richness of an individual’s experience is somehow preserved. Here the middle-level experts Gustafson usually urges us to consult offer little help.
Gustafson several times dismisses George Lindbeck’s claim that the biblical world ought for Christians to "absorb the universe." The world we live in, Gustafson insists, includes "neurosciences and genetics, black holes and quarks," and the Bible has nothing to say about them. No well-educated person today actually uses biblical categories as a first language for speaking about the world of his or her experience.
Lindbeck knows, however, that modern science has taught us all sorts of things of which the biblical authors were unaware. But does all this amazingly complex world make sense, and what kind of sense does it make? Does it have a purpose, and if so, what sort of purpose? Why is there so much tragedy in it?
I take Lindbeck to argue -- and I would agree -- that the basic framework provided by the biblical narratives still provides a way of thinking about the world helpful in answering such questions. Certainly the complexities and occasional brutalities of those narratives and all that we have learned about the mechanisms of the world since they were written render ambiguous their relation to the one world in which we live and move and have our being. The only way to define the meaning they give the world and show that it admits of having such a coherence is to work out enough details to make the argument plausible, and that is a big job. It took Karl Barth thousands of pages, and he never finished. Still, given some of the matters that haunt our hearts, it seems to me the alternative would be to search for some different framework for understanding the universe, not to think that, when we have talked with technicians about the details, we have answered all the important questions.
How should we talk? In his powerful concluding chapter, delivered as a lecture in Sweden shortly after 9/11, Gustafson ruminates on some lessons for our time. He has moved, he writes, "from boredom to frustration to anger with the exaggerated religious rhetoric" that afflicts us-whether from those sure that God is on their side or from those who make "promises that God probably cannot keep" concerning a better world soon to emerge. Repeatedly, he quotes Lincoln: "The Almighty has his own purposes." Let us not too hastily identify them with our own, or suppose that we can confidently predict their results.
To this I can only say, "Amen."
Gustafson is a man passionately worried about the dangers of passion. He summarizes his rhetorical conclusions:
Politicians, don’t exaggerate!
Theologians, don’t exaggerate!
Social reformers, don’t exaggerate!
Christian clergy, don’t exaggerate!
Faced with the various idiocies of our time, the political talk shows that degenerate into shouting matches, the confident assurances that God is on our side, whichever side that happens to be, in every cultural battle, who could disagree?
Yet one of the topics on which I ruminate is how few students these days have been truly inspired by the liberal, mainstream Protestantism in which I grew up and of which James Gustafson has been and is so eloquent a spokesman. It seems as if most of the next generation of Christian pastors -- and maybe of laypeople too -- will have been raised in evangelical or fundamentalist churches or parachurch movements, even if they move somewhere else later in life. That’s where young people today seem to get excited about Christian faith.
I remember how thrilling Bill Coffin made liberal Christianity seem when I was in graduate school. I assume Gustafson has similar memories of the Niebuhrs. Whom will my students remember? No, we should not exaggerate. But we mainstream Protestants need to find and convey the poetry, the vision, the passion of our understanding of Christian faith, and to that end maybe too much rhetorical caution is a dangerous thing too.
Wisdom -- Divine and Human
by P. Travis Kroeker
P. Travis Kroeker teaches at McMaster University in Ontario.
In keeping with the intellectual tradition of classic liberal Protestantism, James Gustafson has devoted his distinguished career to testing the faith claims of traditional Christianity against the truth claims of the secular sciences. To isolate Christian teachings and practices from secular perspectives that may require a radical revision of Christianity, Gustafson argues, is not only intellectually suspect; it is morally and theologically offensive. It is an egregious denial of the very object of Christian theological concern, namely, God and God’s relation to the created world. Self-isolating, sectarian theology is sinful theology, Gustafson believes. Thus framed, it is hard to disagree.
Self-isolating theology has devastating consequences for the church and for ministry because it requires Christians to separate their religious lives from their public, secular lives, creating cognitive and moral dissonance. It is devastating for theology and theological ethics because it makes those disciplines unintelligible to other disciplines in the university: theologians end up speaking a language of idiotic specialization with little moral relevance or intellectual purchase in the wider culture.
The sectarian form that most troubles Gustafson is not that of agrarian religious communities like the Amish but those academically prominent movements -- variously labeled "postliberal" or "radical traditions" or "radical orthodoxy" -- which are critical of modernity, secular liberalism and the Enlightenment project. According to Gustafson, these movements tempt Christians to retreat from critical engagement with the "liberating curriculum" of the modern secular disciplines, especially the natural and social sciences.
What is it that Christians ought to be liberated from, in Gustafson’s view, and why are these Christian critics of modernity nevertheless so appealing with their siren call to retreat into the imprisoning caves of unexamined faith? This is an especially important question given Gustafson’s descriptive premise that the secular is the primary discourse in our culture, that "Bible-speak" and traditional theological discourse seldom constitute the primary language even for Christians as they seek to understand their lives, whether personally or socially. The discourses of our secular "scientifically informed culture" inevitably shape the common sense of Christian theologians, pastors and laypeople in ways that call into question traditional beliefs and practices and that liberate us (here Gustafson’s claim turns normative) from their false and inhibiting intellectual and moral claims.
If Gustafson’s descriptive premise is true (and who can gainsay its considerable empirical veracity?), it becomes all the more surprising that the traditionalist critics, largely found in universities and cultured cosmopolitan centers, who publish learned books that seek to defend the truth of traditional Christian faith and the biblical vision of reality, appeal to anyone. What is it about biblical language that still addresses people (and perhaps not only traditional Christians) with its claims, calling modern, scientific common sense into question even when such common sense pervasively defines our world?
I expect Gustafson might explain the appeal by saying that traditional Christianity appeals to our egoistic anthropocentrism, since it teaches .(as Gustafson depicts it) that "all things were created for the human" by a personal God in whose image we are made, and that the Christian doctrine of the resurrection consoles our fears about suffering and mortality and caters to our desire to live eternally beyond death, suffering and evil.
Such a religious faith, Gustafson might claim -- agreeing here with accounts of these doctrines set forth in the 19th century by such thinkers as Nietzsche and Feuerbach -- lacks contact with reality. Worse, it contributes to irresponsibly escapist fantasies that distract us from taking realistic worldly action grounded in the stoical acceptance of our limited mortal agency and significance in an infinite impersonal cosmos. Gustafson might also say that appeals to traditional texts -- whether the Bible, Augustine, Calvin or Jonathan Edwards -- are in principle misguided insofar as they derive from "less complex" times and places.
Gustafson raises important intellectual challenges and identifies certain dangers of self-isolating theology. It seems to me, however, that the "besetting sin" that tempts contemporary Christianity is not only or even primarily the "rejection of modernity" evidenced by authoritarian, closed-minded fundamentalists or postmodern Christian intellectuals, who seek to out-narrate all rivals in the academic power game. The "besetting sin" may also be found in the liberal "accommodation" and "absorption" strategies that accept uncritically Kant’s Enlightenment motto, in which Horace’s sapere aude (dare to be wise) is translated, "Have the courage to use your own understanding!" To this I am tempted to counterpose Proverbs 3:5f. in order to raise again the question of where liberating understanding is to be found -- challenging the modern temptation to lean upon our own understanding, our own public secular reason.
But here I dare not appear to be deliberately unintelligible and obscurantist. It is important to try to be particular and precise about where the conflicts and challenges lie. Gustafson criticizes critics of modernity who operate at high levels of metaphysical and epistemological abstraction, and in the same vein, generalized references to "scientifically informed culture," the "Enlightenment project," and the "secular" over against the "religious" do not clarify matters. I will discuss below a couple of specific examples of the conflict of interpretation which are alluded to by Gustafson himself.
First, however, I want to contest Gustafson’s caricature of Christian critics of liberal modernity as those who simply reject modernity, who speak in an autonomous religious language unintelligible to the secular world because they are not engaged with it. Consider the example of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who is a powerful, prophetic critic of modernity precisely because he is not a detached religious critic but an engaged one, immersed in modernity’s imagination and living within its central questions and challenges. Anyone who reads Dostoevsky simply as a "rejection strategy will be hard-pressed to defend such an interpretation.
Does this mean that he simply accommodates his Christian vision to modern secularist ideologies? By no means. Dostoevsky’s art displays a deep internalization of the biblical word within the discourses of modernity, which enables him to narrate and unveil the spiritual crisis within modern secularism with penetrating clarity.
Let us now consider two Christian teachings mentioned by Gustafson as being incompatible with modem secular scientific realism. The first is Calvin’s interpretation of divine providence with reference to Psalm 8. Calvin celebrates God’s providence in preparing food for infants in mothers’ breasts -- though, as Calvin notes, some mothers’ breasts provide more abundant food than others, in keeping with the divine will (Institutes I, XVI, 3). Rather than offer a biological account of the differences in lactation, Calvin relates these differences to divine providential causality.
Calvin’s account is preceded by Augustine’s meditation on his infancy (who am I? whence did I come to be? whence comes the human desire to praise the divine creator?):
So I was welcomed by the consolations of human milk; but it was not my mother or my nurses who made any decision to fill their breasts (ubera), but you who through them gave me infant food, in accordance with your ordinance and the riches which are distributed deep in the natural order (Confessions I, vi, 7).
Both Calvin and Augustine bring together the spiritual meaning of embodied goods, the biological and the providential, in an affirmation of the ordering of love -- both divine and human -- that sustains breast-feeding. They are offering more than a description of physiological lactation.
It is this sacramental integrity, if I may so depict it, that enables Augustine (that much maligned "body-hater"!) later in the Confessions (IX, x, 24) to express with resonance the erotic mystical ascent he shared with his mother, Monica, in the garden at Ostia toward Wisdom herself. portrayed as a "region of inexhaustible abundance" (regio ubertatis indificientibus) who breast-feeds Israel with truth food.
Do we say, upon reading this passage: "Too bad Augustine got his biology mixed up with his theology"? Do we say: "What has poetry to do with truth claims"? Can there not be a lived integrity, not only poetically entertaining but metaphysically significant, in joining breast-feeding, mystical ascent and providential divine wisdom? Do we experience here an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance as moderns? Would we be embarrassed to speak this way, and if so, why? Is it because we have lost something in our primary discourse about human experience insofar as our speech and common sense have become accommodated to the dead metaphors of modem secular scientific discourse?
We can stick with Augustine to consider a second problematic Christian teaching alluded to by Gustafson -- original sin. This teaching is difficult to maintain, it would seem, in the face of the complex interaction of "two information systems" -- those of genetics and (secular) culture. Augustine’s account of the deficient causality that results in the defection of human wills from the true order of being and goodness (a defection that is transmitted both culturally and genetically) can be rendered intelligible only in the context of a personal, spiritual divine ordering agency that is nevertheless rationally present in bodily reality, including human sexuality and procreation. It is precisely such a divine causality beyond finite human reason that cannot be rendered rationally intelligible by human scientia, especially those sciences that collect and organize data according to impersonal, instrumental measures.
I do not wish to defend (nor to imply agreement with) everything Augustine has to say about the ways in which human sexuality and procreation are implicated in original sin and its transmission. But I do want to suggest that his interpretation of the biblical account may help to render intelligible our own modern sexual experience and its many pathologies in ways that our genetic, physiological and psycho-chemical accounts may not. This is not to dismiss or to reject the latter; it is to maintain that the latter cannot simply be appealed to as the primary public authorities for what may or may not be rationally believed.
Are those who wish to read the biblical and Augustinian accounts of human temptation and sinful defection as serious, rational accounts being "sectarian"? What if the "sectarian secularism" or "sectarian scientism" of our public life leads us to ignore the rich resources of’ biblical and Christian tradition for addressing the malaises of modernity, a secular modernity that so often wishes to marginalize or privatize religious voices and truth claims from the outset as having nothing to do with "common sense"?
The point is that if sin is a principle of personality -- and not merely individual personality but social or corporate personality because human existence is a social existence -- then it may not be comprehended directly or translated speculatively into an order of rational control or logical necessity (indeed, this would, ironically, be to understand it sinfully). It will have to be interpreted and communicated "dramatically" and in the language of myth or story that respects the kind of reality it is, namely, having to do with divine-human relation.
In the biblical account (and in Augustine’s and Kierkegaard’s interpretations of this account), sin is itself an offense that offends rational human understanding. The teaching of original sin, of human sinfulness, is by definition an offense to our own understanding, since it can be seen only when we are being called back into relation with a wisdom that transcends that understanding. It cannot be grasped by a human gnosis or knowing; it can only be repented of by forgiving love, a divine possibility.
Of course, all of that requires a longer narrative and the habituation to its principled speech and practices that we may call "traditional Christianity." But the point is not to believe or simply assent to a tradition and its discourses; it is to allow the truth claims of that tradition to be tested in real life, without either excluding or privileging interaction with the discourses of the secular human and natural sciences.
The truth claims of Christian faith, furthermore, are not simply a matter of informational knowledge. Perhaps the greatest temptation for Christian theologians and ethicists of whatever stripe is to want to know "like God" -- whether that be the knowledge of the doctrinal tradition or the knowledge of the modern sciences. The temptation is no more or less complex today than it has ever been, rooted as it is in the human desire to transform "godlikeness into one’s own possession for purposes of control and domination, rather than accepting it as God’s gift to be shared in the posture of humble, serving love.
The most difficult and complex time in which to live by faith is always one’s own. It is tempting to want to avoid this fate either by retreating into an imagined, more simple past and its secure knowledge, or by accommodating the difficult disciplines of faithful obedience to the powerful and controlling human wisdoms of the day, the saeculum (time or age) in which one dwells.
The Christian faith at its center confesses that both the content and the human form of divine wisdom is revealed in Christ -- whose example of humility and serving love is scandalous to both such strategies. The wisdom of God is foolishness to discursive human reason (whether doctrinal or scientific) that seeks to possess certain knowledge for itself; and the power of God is weakness to those human traditions (whether religious or secular) that seek to control and dominate the saeculum. What the alternative might be is known only to the eye of faith.
A Faith Worthy of Doubt
By S. Mark Heim
S. Mark Heim teaches at Andover Newton Theological School.
The great virtue of liberal Protestantism was that it submitted Christianity to tests it could fail. If Christianity cannot meet the norms of contemporary secular historical study, the rigor of current scientific explanations or neutral comparison with other religions, liberalism was willing to render an honest verdict: Christianity must be changed. However therapeutically transforming it may be for me or however comprehensively its narrative may order my world, if a version of Christianity is not tine, I must exchange it for one that is or give it up altogether. One cannot draw interest on the bank account of some grand, meaningful narrative while remaining indifferent to whether each individual check that funds it is overdrawn against shared standards of rationality and credibility.
There is an admirable intellectual asceticism in the best exemplars of this conviction, who embraced the self-doubt that modernity introduced to religion as a spiritual discipline as well as a rational obligation. It is in such a spirit that James Gustafson surveys the current religious scene. He is not pleased by what he sees. Across the spectrum from left to right, Christian thinkers and leaders finesse questions of consistency that are obvious even to a college sophomore. How does religious discourse, its claims and descriptions, relate to the many other concrete explanatory languages of biology, anthropology or history? Does Christian talk of sin and redemption have anything to do, for instance, with research on brain function and religious experience or sociobiological accounts of the development of our psychology and morality? Are they talking about the same thing in different ways, or are they not talking about the same thing at all?
Gustafson’s question is a simple one: how do these ways of describing the world fit together? How does language of God’s action work in relation to a scientific view of nature or to a social scientific view of humanity?
Gustafson’s low-key jeremiad critiques contemporary religious thinkers (especially "postliberals") for their failure to accommodate Christian beliefs to the descriptive perspectives of the natural and social sciences. Theological extremes oddly converge in a flight from engagement with this challenge. With sophisticated jargon or pragmatic indifference, they avoid the task, while denigrating the liberal theology that once made it central.
In Gustafson’s view, the post-Enlightenment perspective announced by some thinkers is neither possible nor desirable. In fact, some form of accommodation is always going on, or religious language would hardly be intelligible at all. As he puts it, "The trajectory and agenda of the classic forms of liberal Protestant theology are alive even in the Christian coroners who have certified its death."
But this accommodation is largely episodic, rationally ungrounded and culturally facile. The crisp rational confrontations that liberalism cultivated are few and the resulting self-criticism correspondingly rare.
The result, Gustafson says, is an excess of certainty in religious declamation, found for instance in contentions that terrorist attacks on New York reflected God’s judgment on the U.S. for its moral failings. Whether this dogma comes from the right (the moral failings are family dissolution and secularism) or the left (the moral failings are imperialism and greed) such categorical prophecy feels no need to tether its conclusions to sober empirical studies of history, economics or science.
Gustafson’s liberalism is an honorable creed. It could hardly have a more admirable champion. But a creed that exalts doubt might entertain a few more doubts about its own universality and objectivity, particularly as it is a certain perceived absolutism in the older liberalism that led to the divergent movements that vex him.
Gustafson is well aware that claims of objective universality for scientific prescriptions and social scientific knowledge have been sharply contested in recent decades, though in these lectures he allows no good reasons why that might be so. He repeats the challenge to Christian thought to stand up to the bar of history, science and comparative religion, exhibiting a relatively untroubled certainty that each of these is an objective and unequivocal authority. But is not the questioning of such assumptions an example of the very doubt he commends? And are not the extremes this questioning has reached -- extremes he so effectively critiques -- in part a reflection of the absolutizing of his preferred principle of critical self-examination? We are on a well-beaten path when we ask if the liberalism of self-doubt can be sustained on a ground about which it requires agnosticism. Some nontenuous conviction is needed to convince us that the examined faith he commends is an unequivocal duty or path toward God.
Nor is the landscape quite as uniform as Gustafson argues. Much of modern conservative Protestantism continues to argue precisely for the conformity of religious convictions with a supposed scientific model. A strong stream in its literature is thick with empirical appeals for proof, with apologists as likely to use Bayesian logic as Derrida. The intelligent-design movement may be faulted on many scores, but surely in comparison with earlier contestations of evolution it is notable for making a step up in scientific rigor rather than a step down.
At the other end of the spectrum, postliberals are attacked by Gustafson because their approach is an expedient conformity to postmodern fads they have caught from other disciplines. This is a backhanded acknowledgment that these theologians are working at the very intersections with contemporary disciplines (literary, anthropological and historical) that Gustafson claims they have deserted. The currents of postmodern insularity and dogmatic parochialism are strong in regions of the humanities and social sciences, in secular and political forms. It is not so much that those Gustafson critiques have turned their backs on accommodation. They are simply accommodating what he regards as the wrong kind of academic company: postmodern trends in literary and social studies.
"Scriptural reasoning" or ‘thinking through a tradition" may in his view be trendy excuses for insularity -- telling our own story to ourselves and ignoring other voices. But practitioners in these areas have fostered some decidedly cross-disciplinary and cross-religious conversations. When Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims get together to talk about scriptural reasoning together, this is not exactly insularity. He may object that they are sheltering together from the blunt critical historical questions they should be confronting, but one could hardly argue that they are hiding from the interreligious ones. In fact, such dialogue seems an enhancement of an examined faith, not an abdication of it.
Behind the recent diminished confidence in atomistic rationality stands a sense that there is a holistic dimension to religious practice and belief that requires us to draw out connections and structures (narrative structure being one of these). This is not necessarily a flight from rational accountability: it is an observation that some tests (not to the exclusion of tests of individual components) can be carried out only on wholes as opposed to parts.
Can Christian perspectives produce distinctive insights into the understanding of complex issues? To answer that question requires one to construct and coordinate a variety of Christian sources into a meaningful whole that then proves to have value and intelligibility or does not. One does not wait until every individual link in the chain has been demonstrably verified before assessing if it can support something. In any event, the verdict on many links can never be more than a matter of probability. Even in the hard sciences, the idealized "decisive experiment" is rare, and one uses theories that are only possibly true in order to make predictions and test coherence and meaning. Success or failure of such efforts is one of the ways to test the level of acceptance such theories deserve.
Gustafson suggests that concern for the larger picture and grand narratives is simply flight from accountability and dialogue. At least part of the time he may be right. But why isn’t the development of such interpretive forms just an additional kind of test and dialogue alongside others? Religion could be deeply significant, in hypothetical terms, but actually prove false, failing to bear up under examination. This is the caution Gustafson rightly wants us to remember. But religion could also be true in most of its component particulars and still prove essentially irrelevant or counterproductive as a source for ordering and transforming human life, likewise failing to bear up under examination of a slightly different sort.
Granting that in some form Christianity may be defensible, the questions arise: Does anything of significance flow from that? What difference might it make? As I understand it, postliberalism is asking those questions. If Christian faith cannot, even theoretically, offer distinctive levels of insight into the world we describe through the use of our other tools, cannot offer different ways of being in that world, then it is pointless to expend much energy testing its components.
Religions occasionally pass away because some central particular becomes incredible and untenable. Christianity with its footing in history holds itself out as especially vulnerable to this possibility. The sensitivity to this point in Gustafson and classical liberalism is a profoundly Christian instinct.
But religions as often pass away not because of a decisive shift in the ability to salvage any particular but because the whole seems insufficiently meaningful to support even modest exertion to accommodate its particulars with other perspectives. A strong, world-altering faith may be liable to error and exaggeration. It desperately needs the grace of self-doubt. A parsed, tentative, accommodating faith may be liable to triviality and indifference. It needs the grace to venture in uncertainty, to doubt its doubts, as Tillich put it.
The more that religion converges and identifies with what is known to be true in other disciplines, the less it can support a critical perspective on them. The more sharply it contrasts with them, the more doubt will be turned against religion. Accommodation has the virtue of diminishing cognitive dissonance and tension, but it is far from clear that this is an exclusive good. Rather it seems that there are competing virtues. Doubt about religious formulations is important. But relatively well-developed religious formulations are an important resource for maintaining an "examined life." Their very tension with established conventions provides a perspective for critique of the dominant views of the age.
A clear concrete gap between religious narrative and mundane descriptions is essential if faith is to support alternatives to the cultural norms. Such a gap is also necessary if religion is to provide a bridge for individuals and communities from one accommodation to another.
It is a cliché to note the rate of change in knowledge and assumed knowledge today. Accommodation is a task with a bewildering number of moving targets. An Augustine or an Aquinas might produce a synthesis that flourishes for centuries. But just as one job is unlikely to make a career today, so one adaptation of belief is unlikely to suffice for a lifetime. In such a situation, there is even more need for large and flexible constructs of faith that can make sense of the transitions themselves.
The ethical and spiritual imperative to be honest, to be specific and to be modest is as valuable as Gustafson says it is. Yet it will not suffice alone, nor is it immune to the diminishing returns of extremism. The tension, the gap we just discussed, requires that religion makes sense in and of the world we think we already know, but not too much sense. It must also make sense of a world we don’t yet see, at the very least a dramatic transmutation of our historical one and at the most a reconstituted reality.
As we face new challenges, one difficulty is that our feet are often set too firmly in the concrete of earlier. detailed accommodations. Many Christians, for instance, resisted the Copernican revolution because they had come to identify the Ptolemaic cosmology with the Bible, forgetting that only with difficulty and continuing tension had earlier Christians managed to integrate Ptolemaic "knowledge" -- that the center of the universe where earth was located was instrinsically the supreme point of corruption and imperfection, for instance -- with basic convictions such as the goodness of creation or the incarnation of God. That is no argument against the need for accommodation. It is a caution that we can suffer from both too little and too much success in meeting it.
We live in a world where meanings are the things most worth passing on, not because they are an escape from the struggle for truth but because only such meanings face up to a central truth of our existence: it is a story in which we and all we know and make end. A faith that does not face this has not even begun to be examined, and such examination places a seed of doubt over all our discoveries and achievements.
On the other hand, we live in a world where we can never limit in advance the mystery of reality and the scope of novelty. Religious faith can be challenged as imagination running far beyond any empirical basis. But in our time it is as likely to be challenged because its range is too prosaic, its notions of mystery too small. Accommodation is not only an apologetic, defensive necessity but an avenue toward renewed wonder. Modest and sober examination of our scientific frontiers is likely to expand and not diminish the dimensions of religious awe, even as it tests our ability to reconstruct our traditions.
The honest questioning Gustafson commends is valuable on both fronts. The parties to his quarrel really have a common venture. We search for a faith that is neither a flight from the world’s questions into its own conventions nor an assent to the world’s conventions that leaves them untroubled by faith’s questions. Though the modes of their testing may vary, liberals, postliberals and evangelicals alike seek a faith that is worthy of doubt.
James M. Gustafson replies:
James M. Gustafson held professorships at Yale University, the University of Chicago and Emory University before his retirement.
My book is neither an explication nor a defense of theology and ethics, though its analyses reflect that. Let me state the major religious and intellectual concern of the book in my own terms.
The book works from a descriptive premise set forth in the first chapter: The same actions, events, texts and other phenomena that are addressed or accounted for by theological, ethical, moral and other religious discourses are also addressed by other disciplines. These points of overlap I call intersections. A familiar example: the New Testament is an intersection addressed by theological, historical and literary disciplines.
The primary analytical inquiry follows: What kind of traffic takes place in an intersection between religious discourse and other disciplines? Does the traffic meld into a smooth current flowing in one direction? Are there head-on collisions between the disciplines? Are they diverted to avoid meeting? What reasons are given for rejecting religious or theological significance to incoming secular traffic? Or for absorbing it so that religious discourse is radically altered? Or for finding ways to accommodate evidences and theories from it? Only recall how different biblical theologians relate to historical scholarship, from Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar to fundamentalists.
I chose to analyze examples from contemporary theology. I offer a simple typology of three ideal-constructs to interpret theologians and to make comparisons between them: rejection, absorption and accommodation.
I also state that interactions take place on four intertwining levels: as descriptions, as explanations, as evaluations and as bestowing meanings. This is the case both in secular knowledge and in theological responses to it. Do theologians describe and explain events differently from other scholars in disciplines? Do they evaluate their significance differently and bestow different meanings on them?
I do argue that theologians who tend toward rejection, and thus away from the need to amend religious discourse in light of secular knowledge, are most inadequate for Christian life and thought in contemporary culture. My critics focus mostly on the basis for that judgment. I chose not to use the Warfield lectures, on which the book is based, to defend or advance my theological-ethical program, and I continue to believe that the central concerns raised in An Examined Faith stand independent of my own constructive resolution of them.
I intended the lectures to consider matters which inhere in theology and other religious discourse, and in the life and work of the ministry and churches. Of course, traffic control of different disciplines in intersections is not unique to theology and religious discourse. But religious discourse is my primary concern, The concern is not only theoretical; it is also practical and exists in ecclesial life and activity.
The lectures had primarily a pedagogical purpose. My hope was that my typology would facilitate comparative analyses, and that others would think about their own answers to my questions. For this reason, I described what I see as "gains" and "losses" from literature illumined by each type, and by comparisons between the authors. The intent was to stimulate the audience’s own thinking, not to tell them what to think.
The book emphasizes that the intersections are "in us" and not just "out there" for arguments in scholarly literature. Indeed, the sequence of the chapters was deliberately chosen to highlight the "in us" dimensions. In the second chapter, I constructed a story by following a college student through various courses in which she is exposed to radically different descriptions, explanations, valuations and bestowals of meaning on the human. Different disciplines describe and explain human nature" and activity differently. For example, courses in earth history or evolutionary biology see the human in radically different time-and-space contexts than courses in ethics and psychology. In a course in religious thought she notes the centrality of the biblical claim that the human is made in the image and likeness of God. Because she is a thoughtful student, she is perplexed. She cannot avoid what has been called "cognitive dissonance."
The intensive experience of a college student is an explicit example of what is present in our own lives. We are daily exposed to different interpretations of ourselves and our actions, of political events and our social relations. We have ways, usually implicit, to live with the dissonance. The second chapter was an effort to make us see ourselves in this student’s experience. For the student and ourselves, dissonance is a profound human experience, both individually and socially. While it is surely proper to analyze its causes in intellectual engagement "out there," I was trying to issue an invitation to self-examination.
My critics do not seem to pay much, if any, attention to the "in us" or "in them" dimensions of the chief intellectual concern of the book. I did not expect them to say which biblical passages or elements of traditional theology they have scuttled, ignored or allegorized, but I am asking readers -- theologians, clergy and other reflective Christians -- to examine the dissonance that in fact takes place in everyday life. I am not proposing a theory about interactions. My ideal-constructs of rejection, absorption and accommodation, and my distinctions between description, explanation, valuation and bestowing meaning, are meant to help in comprehending and illumining what is taking place.
My audience is not only theologians, but also clergy and other thoughtful Christians. I reiterate: there is some direction of traffic already taking place, if only implicitly, in pastoral work, in preaching and in moral activities. Pastors whose counseling is informed by psychology have a position. Christians who accept both a biblical interpretation of the human and a developmental account of the physical universe have directed traffic in some way. Or again, changes in the traditional condemnation of homosexuality are supported by secular sciences.
The third chapter analyzes all three "types" of theological literature, not just the "rejection" type. The point is to show how different theologians direct the traffic. My critics say nothing about my analysis of selections from books by Philip Hefner, Edward Farley and Karl Barth. Each of them self-consciously directs traffic where sciences and other secular knowledge intersect theology.
The unbelievably learned Barth is important because he shows where he is going relative to both secular and religious alternatives. He argues that scientific and other secular accounts do not know "real Man." The real human is known only in Jesus. Sciences and other secular knowledge do give "symptoms" of the real human, but they do not alter his theology.
Hefner has long been a major figure in the intersection of theology and the sciences, particularly biology. His interpretation of the human is more deeply directed by the sciences than Farley’s. But Farley argues that theology must take relevant sciences into account to avoid the dualism ("the ghost of Mani") that has always shadowed Christian thought.
I am left to wonder what my critics think about these alternatives and my analysis of them. My critics are not fundamentalists, and I suspect that their academic reasons for rejecting fundamentalism are similar to mine. That is, secular disciplines developed in the Enlightenment-both historical and literary criticism as well as the sciences -- make the fundamentalist claim for biblical authority worthy of rejection. I cannot help thinking, then, that my critics not only accept my descriptive premise but have made an accommodation on a critical issue in Christianity.
William Placher asserts that I insist that the Bible has nothing to say about neurosciences and genetics. As sciences, it does not. It says a lot, however. about phenomena -- for example, human nature and activity, about which the sciences also have a lot to say. My query about absorbing the universe into "the biblical view" is about its difficulty. Most things that are truly absorbed into something else change what they are absorbed into. Any nonfundamentalist has absorbed a particular part of the modern world, and consequently has a very different view of what the Bible does and does not authorize.
Mark Heim mentions the "intelligent design" movement as an instance of openness to science by conservative Christians. Why is the enterprise deemed necessary? "Intelligent design" is an interesting accommodation. To what? To the fact that contemporary Christians are exposed to, and cannot deny the effect of, scientific interpretations of biblical narratives about the origin, development and ends of nature. "Intelligent design" incorporates an interpretation of "the universe" into a biblical perspective, but it does not absorb it. The biblical narrative is unaltered. The desired outcome is to show that the Bible, without losing its infallibility, is congruent with a "scientific" elucidation. The authority ascribed to Genesis remains unchallenged; its believability is supported by borrowing some "scientific" authority. Or it is claimed that the Genesis account cannot be disproved by the sciences.
Heim suggests that my work implies some kind of ahistorical "absolutist" stance, but I have always assumed a relational view of knowledge in which what is known is related to its social location. I realized that long before I grasped its implications and learned theories about it. As a boy, I observed that some of my friends were Catholic because they were Italians, Belgians or French-Canadians, and some were Protestant because they were Swedes like me. World War II experience in Burma and India was a powerful exposure to cultural variation. At Northwestern University I concentrated on sociology and anthropology, rather than philosophy, to learn how social and cultural factors shape ideas, persons, institutions and events. One of my two sociological doctoral examinations was in sociology of knowledge. Sociology of science examined the conditions necessary for it to develop and flourish, and exposed assumed scholarly neutrality. That field was somewhat similar to the modern "archaeology" of knowledge.
My book Treasure in Earthen Vessels: The Church as a Human Community was written to show that interpretations of the church by theologians masked aspects that a sociological interest unveiled. There is also a sociology of academic theology, as feminist and black theologians have made clear.
Because knowledge is socially located does not entail, however. that its construction is shaped only by that location. Assuming a critical distance from religious or scientific knowledge does not entail an ahistorical absolutism.
Two chapters, "The Importance of Contexts" and "Navigating the Intersections," follow the analysis of theological writings, and both are important for the pedagogical purpose of the book. Particular theologies are shaped in part by their authors’ understanding of the context of Christian life and thought. The persuasiveness of "rejectionist" writings requires acceptance of their interpretation and evaluations of the "culture." To be persuaded by Hefner requires that one assent to his conviction about the importance of the sciences.
The "navigation" chapter develops and uses the distinctions between description, explanation, valuation and bestowal of meaning. Examples are given to help readers analyze what specific arguments are about. Are they about differences in descriptions between secular and religious accounts? About differences in explanations? Etc. Answers intertwine. For example, how does a preferred explanation affect what is described?
My critics ignore these chapters. Is it because they do not perceive the pedagogical purpose of An Examined Faith, or do they discount their importance? The materials they bypass are there to evoke a self-awareness that readers might not have, and give some guidance for critical analysis.
Placher asks how one determines the truth or falsity of a general theory. But my writings are not about proving theories. Theories change (for example, plate tectonics as an explanation of "continental drift" was ridiculed by respectable geologists with whom I studied). Given my calling, I study and am informed by arguments about theories, but I use them heuristically, like ideal-types, to advance understanding of particular phenomena.
I am not interested in determining whether feminist theories are false or true; I am interested in feminist interpretations of things. What I see, my description, is enlarged or corrected; their explanations test those I had assumed were sufficient. Feminist writings have disclosive power because scholars have a particular interest.
Placher asks three important questions about theology which would set the agenda for an interesting symposium. Different answers to these and other questions would occur because of conflicting judgments about the appropriate context for theology. Although analytical articles could demonstrate the significance of the differences, arguments about how to address a context would have to be theological. "Postmodernists" and I have similarities in our interpretation of the culture; their theology stresses a prophetic Christian stance against it; mine stresses responsible participation in it. Our differences are theological. (I must say that I do not understand on what grounds Placher asserts that I think that dialogue with postmodernism is a waste of time. If it is, I have wasted many weeks.)
All three authors state that the biblical narratives provide a distinctive way of thinking about our world. I agree, of course. The sermons that affect me deeply are examples. But so do Freudian, behaviorist, economic and other ways of thinking. A theological explication sometimes radically clashes with the news of the day. I heard a sermon on how all things are made new in Christ on a day that Israelis and Palestinians were killing each other in Bethlehem. Theological explanations of why the religious affirmation and the events of that Sunday do not ultimately contradict each other neither eradicate the radical dissonance nor solve my religious problem. Pragmatic fruitfulness is only one basis on which to justify any perspective.
Like Placher, Travis Kroeker focuses on the position from which my critical analysis of "rejectionist" tendencies is made. Both of them appear to believe that my work leaves almost nothing for theology and religious life. Kroeker puts me in company with Feuerbach and Nietzsche. I believe no theologian ought to ignore their arguments and aphorisms. The theology, ethics and religion of my book Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective may not please my critics, but it is not vacuous. Kroeker shows the kind of interpretation he does so creatively, but it does not answer the questions of An Examined Faith. I appreciatively read his coauthored book on Dostoevsky, and commend it.
Parts of Kroeker’s essay might be misleading. He says that I allude to original sin. It is Hefner who discusses it and I analyze his argument. Readers should not infer that the language of "two information systems" of genetics and culture found in Kroeker’s article is mine. Hefner quotes it from Donald Campbell. Hefner believes that theology ought not ignore secular interpretations of the same experiences that theology explains. Kroeker believes it can.
Heim is more open to my basic concerns than the other critics. He takes my inquiry seriously and approves of self-criticism in theology and other religious discourse. Our differences are clear, but to engage his thoughtful article would require at least as many words as he has written. I especially appreciate his irenic consideration of various theological and religious movements that "seek a faith that is worthy of doubt."
I, however, am alarmed by what I see on the four "Christian" TV channels in our "market." My wife and I watch a few minutes of various broadcasts almost every evening. The Christianity they promote is broad and deep in American life. A viewer writes that his computer was repaired immediately when be placed a signed prayer cloth on it. "Prophetic" preachers use the same texts to expound "evil" Islam that they used to interpret the evil empire of communism. To hear about "the rapture" makes me believe that those who joyfully anticipate the pending Second Coming really are "resident aliens." Charitable theological and religious generosity, I hope, does not impede forthright criticism of these kinds of Christianity.
In both Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective and An Examined Faith I explicitly describe reefs that classical liberal theology hits. In both I quote Troeltsch’s acknowledgment that it could lead to the loss of the distinctive particularity of Christianity. However, the ideas, myths and practices of other religious traditions, the implications of historical relationalism for Christian life and thought, and the impingement of the sciences and other secular discourse on traditional Christian beliefs have to be faced by theologians, institutional religious leaders, pastors and others. The intersections are in young people preparing for confirmation, in college students, in church members and their friends and families, and in persons deliberating about church membership. Many Christians are most aware of cognitive dissonance in experiences of tragedy and despair.
The "agenda" of classic liberal theology is unavoidable; the "liberal" spirit which takes seriously critiques of received Christianity is essential for the well-being of its life; a critical analysis of how a theologian, a church or an individual is willy-nilly an intersection of Christian faith and "modernity" is important. I conscientiously risk a "liberal" outcome in Christian thought and practice, as do other theologians, pastors and church members, if only to avoid some of the equally dangerous reefs that alternatives hit.
My own deep religious and theological convictions are expressed in the final chapter. "The Almighty Has His Own Purposes." In it I meditate on some current events in the world in the light of some important religious and theological claims. The title comes from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Political theologians go from theology to insightfully interpret events. I, like Lincoln, am compelled to go from tragic human affairs and events to theology. The resulting incongruities might be resolved "out there" in ideational terms, But they are not so easily resolved in the lives and thoughts of many conscientious Christians.
To end my book with Lincoln’s affirmation that "the Almighty has his own purposes," and to assert again that "God will be God," is hardly what some people call liberal theology. Whether others agree with my views is less important than encouraging critical self-awareness in my readers.