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Monday, June 2, 2003

Modern theology 101.

Prof. Chutney is teaching a crash course in twentieth-century theology over at My Irony [update: My Irony has gone off the air]. The introductory lecture compares and contrasts philosophy, theology, and mythology. A brief second lecture dismisses a lot of post-WWII theology as stagnant — although I feel like protesting on behalf of Paul Tillich. Lecture three discusses liberation, political, and process theology. And lecture four assesses postliberal and "radical orthodox" theology. Good stuff — and brief, too!

My own theological thinking is probably a some kind of process-postliberal hybrid. I buy the postliberal contention that a religion is very much like a language that must be learned, and that one can't adequately "translate" one religion into another. This approach rejects the "perennial philosophy" view of religion (made famous by Joseph Campbell) that there are many paths up the mountain. Instead, there are many mountains. You pick your path, and each path promises a different outcome. We can talk about the differences, and we may even find analogies and similarities, but the different religions just aren't the same at a fundamental level.

But I also take process philosophy seriously in its attempt to see how modern science informs our ideas about the world; I find the postliberal deference to ancient dogmatic formulations a bit precious. Language evolves, after all, so why get so hung up about maintaining a fifth-century definition of Christianity's "grammar"? Science has changed how we view the world, and those changes have implications for religion. Too much of process theology, though, follows Whitehead's Process and Reality and picks up on his highly elaborate metaphysical structure. I wish the theologians had paid less attention to the "phases of concresence" and more to the historical observations he makes in Religion in the Making, Adventures of Ideas, and Science and the Modern World. When Whitehead is describing the intellectual development of Christian theology, I love him. When he starts defining God, I get a bit lost. But I appreciate his interest in broadening the theological view beyond the boundaries provided by orthodox Christian theology.

The basic problem for postliberal theology is that its "cultural-linguistic" approach seems to assume that Christianity is somehow hermetically sealed off — a language that its believers adopt in place of the cultural language of, say, secular American culture. And yet even orthodox believers and faithful churchgoers don't just "speak" Christianity; they continue to inhabit several other cognitive universes, many of which they probably experience as inseparable. Since you can't move to Christendom, you end up being a citizen of multiple kingdoms, speaking a patois of the sacred and profane. This is what I wish postliberal theology acknowledged: No one is really "a Christian" in the postliberal sense, because every believer continues speaking as many dialects as their lived experience requires: professional, national, regional, familial, even tribal dialects with vocabularies and grammars all their own. And just as slang and neologisms and even new grammatical patterns emerge in languages, they do in religion too — but we call them heresies.

So I guess I would be interested in post-orthodox postliberal theology. James Luther Adams, anybody?

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 2 June 2003 at 5:53 PM

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