cjbanning: (Symposium)
[personal profile] cjbanning
Last week, Roger Olson posted yet another intriguing--if perhaps, I might argue, misguided--reflection, When Did We Open The Pandora’s Box of Theological/Doctrinal Pluralism?:
[T]he academy, the guild, of Christian theologians has given up on the search for truth about God. That is, we have given up on even the ideal of discovering truth that is consensual. The result is that theology has laid down its claim to being a discipline, a science (in the German sense of Wissenshaft), and has become by-and-large a collection of disparate voices speaking out of incommensurate experiences treated as authoritative sources and norms.

[. . .] Who, outside of the theological academy, guild (such as it is), takes theology seriously anymore? Even within it, much of what goes under the label “theology” isn’t recognizable as theology in any traditional sense, as the search for truth about God, but is really politics (in the broadest sense of the word) disguised as theology.
This interested me because it reminded me of one of my favorite essays by the American neo-pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. It's called "Philosophy as a Kind of Writing" and is collected in his book Consequences of Pragmatism. In the essay, Rorty considers two different ways of understanding what philosophy is and might be:
Here is a way of looking at philosophy: from the beginnning, philosophy has worried about the relation between thought and its object, representation and represented. The old problem reference to the inexistent, for example, has been handled in various unsatisfactory ways because of a failure to distinguish properly philosophical questions about meaning and reference from extraneous questions motivated by scientific, ethical, and religious concerns. Once these questions are properly isolated, however, we can see philosophy as a field which has its center in a series of questions about the relations between words and the world. The recent purifying move from talk of ideas to talk of meanings has dissipated the epistemological skepticism which motivated much of past philosophy. This has left philosophy a more limited, but more self-conscious, rigorous, and coherent area of inquiry.

Here is another way of looking at philosophy: philosophy started off as a confused combination of the love of wisdom and the love of argument. It began with Plato's notion that the rigor of mathematical argumentation exposed, and could be used to correct, the pretensions of the politicians and the poets. [. . .] The philosophers' own scholastic little definitions of "philosophy" are merely polemical devices--intended to exclude from the field of honor those whose pedigrees are unfamiliar. We can pick out "the philosophers" in the contemporary intellectual world only by noting who is commenting on a certain sequence of historical figures. All that "philosophy" as a name for a sector of culture means is "talk about Plato, Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Russell . . . and that lot." Philosophy is best seen as a kind of writing. It is delimited, as is any literary genre, not by form or matter, but by tradition--a family romance involving. e.g. Father Parmenides, honest old Uncle Kant, and bad brother Derrida.
You've probably by this point already anticipated my thesis: just as there are two different ways of thinking about philosophy, so too are there two different ways of thinking about theology. The first is the science, the Wissenshaft which Olson seemingly prefers, "the vision of a universal theology that makes truth claims that are intended to be true for everyone" whose loss he bemoans. This approach is a "vertical" one in which revelation is understood as something outside ourselves and essentially static. "Our task as theologians," Olson writes, "should not be to allow our social locations to determine our theological conclusions; it should be to set aside our social locations, as much as possible, in order to adhere to objective, given, divine revelation and interpret it objectively (as much as possible)."

The second way of thinking about theology, the way I understand theology, is as a kind of writing, a genre like poetry or journalism, as a conversation--which is of course appropriate for the Trinitarian because, as I've stressed over and over again on this blog, our Triune God exists in and as perichoretic conversation. This approach is a "horizontal" one in which revelation is dynamic and happens through our experience of being the Body of Christ, of which scripture and tradition are integral parts (but not the whole). When I talk about "A Faith without Foundations" or a "Messiah without Metaphysics," this is what I'm envisioning: a postfoundationalist, postliberal theology which, yes, is always-already going to be political, in the broadest sense of the word.

Olson complains that "in the interest of being sensitive to the oppressed, the academy, the guild, of Christian theologians has given up on the search for truth about God." I think this is a bit parochial in its misdiagnosis. Christian theologians have not given up on "the search for truth about God"--but some (not enough!) have given up on intellectually indefensible notions of what it means to be "true." And they have done this not just to be "sensitive to the oppressed," but because their conversation includes Hume and Kant and Hegel and Wittgenstein and Rorty (and, yes, Schleiermacher, but with nowhere near the importance Olson ascribes to him) and has evolved to incorporate their insights.

And obviously, the "family romance" of theology includes quite a bit of intermarriage with that of philosophy. My formal training, such as it is, is in philosophy, not theology, so when I approach theological questions on this blog it is always from the perspective of both conversations, insofar as we can refer to them as discrete and separate conversations at all (which I question).

May the conversation be fruitful and ongoing!
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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