Saturday, September 16, 2006
Uh oh, it's salvation by hermeneutics.
If you miss the kinds of conversation that take place in graduate seminar rooms, Michael Hogue, a young scholar at Meadville Lombard Theological School, is trying to launch a "new Reformation" in liberal religion at a new Meadville-sponsored blog.
I'll confess two things up front about his project: When I heard Hogue deliver his speech calling for a new Reformation at G.A. this summer, my early hopes quickly faded: The substance of his critique is not at all new, though he delivers it with passion and sincerity. (I heard a much better version from Paul Rasor at G.A. two summers before.) In the 1930s, James Luther Adams introduced the style of liberal theology Hogue is trying to practice. You could call it "salvage theology": pull apart key concepts in the tradition in order to expose "demonic" aspects and recenter attention around the enduring "divine" impulses. Unlike Adams, though, Hogue doesn't yet offer a way forward. Instead, he tells us what a way forward would look like. Instead of a proposal, a prolegomenon.
Regrettably, the conversation really does sound like graduate school. It's salvation by scholarship, a dismal prospect. If Unitarian Universalism were faced merely with a shortage of academic theologians, the rest of us might be cheered to know that what few of them there are had set up a forum to talk shop. But when most UU ministers, seminarians, and theologically curious laypeople like me talk about a theological crisis in Unitarian Universalism, we aren't worried about hermeneutics, phenomenology, or the phases of concrescence. It's not the absence of high-level abstraction that depresses us; it's the absence of gospel. What are we about? What's the point?
There's no gain in describing what a better theology will be like. Analytical thought is best applied to something at hand: We are, bless our wandering hearts, already practicing a popular theology. The critical task is to analyze that popular theology to see what is life-giving in it and what is dragging us down. And if, as no small number of us suspect, we have arbitrarily cut ourselves off from a larger religious conversation and even from our own wise and sustaining traditions, the trick will be to help reconnect the popular theology to those conversations. This is not fundamentally an academic task; it's a pastoral one.
But there are things I wish to commend about Hogue's project. First, good for him for being ambitious enough to launch such a conversation. It takes moxie to set out to revive "theological literacy" within Unitarian Universalism. (One could say that it's also a bit presumptuous for a non-UU, freshly hired by a UU seminary, to reform us. I'd be very interested to know, for example, how deeply he has mined the Unitarian and Universalist theological traditions. As a proponent of "liberal religion" who is not himself a Unitarian Universalist, Hogue could clarify what, precisely, the tradition he is championing includes and what it does not — and whether that tradition requires churches or can evolve independently in seminar rooms.) I don't mean to be unhelpful with this criticism: If he does nothing more than help younger UU scholars find each other, that will be a good and important achievement.
Second, I am genuinely interested in what "theological literacy" means in a Unitarian Universalist context. I'm content to let the academics hash out the finer points of metaphysics, hermeneutics, and all that jazz. (No one should ever hope that we will all become philosophers.) But the rest of us could benefit from clear, succinct introductions to the range of liberal religious responses to basic theological questions.
Third, Hogue's discussion of the "crisis" in liberal theology reminds me once again to recommend Gary Dorrien's wonderfully illuminating overview of the last fifty years: "American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity" (CrossCurrents 55:4, Winter 2005-2006). Dorrien is one of the leading interpreters of the broad tradition Hogue seems to want to explore. How does Hogue see liberal religion's relationship to this tradition of thought?
Finally, good for Hogue for making use of blog technology (if a bit clumsily) to launch this conversation. It's great to see Meadville embracing a tool like this, and I'm sure that over time better uses of the technology will enable all sorts of dialogue that could not have been possible before. The best thing about a blog is that it is both interactive and highly mutable: A blog can be reconfigured and the direction of the conversation shifted whenever necessary. I'll be very interested to see how Hogue's conversation evolves.
Although this post may sound like a rather backhanded welcome to the UU blogosphere, I really am pleased to welcome Hogue to the "interdependent web" — and to the community of people who care about the liberal theological tradition.
Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 16 September 2006 at 11:37 AM