cjbanning: (St. Thomas)
[personal profile] cjbanning
Okay, returning to the train of thought inspired by Roger Olson's thoughts on universalism (if you haven't been following along, he's not sympathetic), I'm particular interested, for the moment, in these passages:
I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

[. . .]

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

[. . .]

There is egregious error and there is simple error. One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error. Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error.
I'm not a universalist, of course, but I am a modernist or a liberal theologian? I certainly don't think I'm a modernist, at least not by the definition given by D.A. Carson in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:
Modernism is often pictured as pursuing truth, absolutism, linear thinking, rationalism, certainty, the cerebral as opposed to the affective which in turn breeds arrogance, inflexibility, a lust to be right, the desire to control. Postmodernism, by contrast, recognizes how much of what we know is shaped by the culture in which we live, is controlled by emotions and aesthetics and heritage, and in fact can only be intelligently held as part of a common tradition, without overbearing claims to be true or right. Modernism tries to find unquestioned foundations on which to build the edifice of knowledge and then proceeds with methodological rigor; postmodernism denies that such foundations exist (it is antifoundational) and insists that we come to know things in many ways, not a few of them lacking in rigor. Modernism is hard-edged and, in the domain of religion, focuses on truth versus error, right belief, confessionalism; postmodernism is gentle and, in the domain of religion, focuses on relationships, love, shared tradition, integrity in discussion.
Am I liberal? Well, I'm certainly not illiberal. I've recently stopped identifying as a liberal theologian, deciding to instead to identify as a "post/liberal" theologian (even as I don't yet claim even a simplistic mastery of what that means). From the Wikipedia article on post-liberal theology:
In contrast to liberal individualism in theology, postliberal theology roots rationality not in the certainty of the individual thinking subject (cogito ergo sum, "I think, therefore I am") but in the language and culture of a living tradition of communal life. The postliberals argue that the Christian faith be equated with neither the religious feelings of Romanticism nor the propositions of a Rationalist or fundamentalist approach to religion. Rather, the Christian faith is understood as a culture and a language, in which doctrines are likened to a "depth grammar" for the first-order language and culture (practices, skills, habits) of the church that is historically shaped by the continuous, regulated reading of the scriptural narrative over time. Thus, in addition to a critique of theological liberalism, and an emphasis upon the Bible, there is also a stress upon tradition, and upon the language, culture and intelligibility intrinsic to the Christian community. As a result, postliberal theologies are often oriented around the scriptural narrative as a script to be performed, understand orthodox dogmas (esp. the creeds) as depth-grammars for Christian life, and see such scriptural and traditional grammars as a resource for both Christian self-critique and culture critique.
At the same time, I use the virgule instead of the hyphen (i.e., post/liberal rather than post-liberal) out of an understanding that our post-liberalism needs to be firmly grounded in those aspects which liberal theology gets right. While Olson and I clearly agree that both overly modernistic theology (what I tend to call "liberal historicism" or--worse--"ethical Jesusism") and fundamentalism both rest on the same set of problematic assumptions which need to be removed beyong, reading over past posts by Olsen on liberal theology, modernism, and the Emergent Church movement, however, I get the sense that neither my postmodernism nor my post/liberalism are sufficiently different for his tastes than that which he considers central and problematic to modernism/liberalism (which is probably not the same as I what I see as central and problematic).

That's fair enough; it's silly to get too involved in a debate over labels, and I didn't enter into this expecting to agree with a conservative evangelical Baptist theologian, after all. But I think it's important to locate the exact nature of Olson's critique--which is to say, is there a critique here of the way that liberal theologians might come to universalism which is independent of the overall methodology of (post/)liberal theology as a whole? Is the problem simply that liberals have allowed outside sources of authority (reason and experience) to color the way they interpret the Bible and come to a conclusion different to the one that some might claim one to in a purely exegetical reading (as if such a thing were possible)? Or is there a particular theological error ("denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness)") that liberals might be especially prone to, but which perhaps could be articulated without relying on any specific theological methodology?

If it is the former, then Olson and I are clearly on different side of the issue (no matter how much our final conclusions might seem in agreement) without any meaningful persuasion really possible; our starting premises are simply too incommensurate. I look to reason and authority, in dialectical conversation with scripture and tradition, as legitimate sources of Christian authority, and I don't think an interpretation-free reading of the Bible is possible even in theory (so that the attempt to perform such a reading isn't merely subject to human fallibility, but is profoundly mistaken at its heart).

If the latter however, then it seems there might be some starting-point for dialogue. What does it mean for a liberal theology to deny "God's wrath and human sinfulness"--and is it possible for a liberal theologian, using a liberal theological method, to come to universalist or quasi-universalist conclusions without so denying? Yes, there are liberal theologians who have clearly denied, in a non-controversial way (that is, it's not controversial whether they did the denying), that "sin" is a useful category for 20th and 21st century. I think they're wrong, and if that's all who Olson is critiquing, then I'll join him in his critique without reservations. But they, if anything, seem to be in the majority and, in particular. feminist, queer, and anti-racist theologies are very much aware of the fallen nature of humanity. A Christian theology lacking the concepts of sin and wrath seems to be lacking, in a very profound sense, just on purely practical grounds.

Yet it's not clear to me that Olson intends his critique to be that narrow; indeed, he seems to see the denial of sin and/or wrath as endemic to liberal Christianity. Is there, then,  a way that a liberal theologian can acknowledge that human beings are suceptible to moral evil and that God hates evil and wants to erase it from the world, and still count for Graff as denying the wrathfulness of God? One way would be to view the use of any knowledge of God's nature not derived directly from Scripture using an evangelical hermeneutic in order to come to conclusions about universalism as a de facto denial of God's wrathfulness. Under this understanding, then it'd be a tautology that any liberal theologian who was also a universalist would be, necessarily, denying God's wrath. Again, this doesn't really leave open any avenues for dialogue between the liberal theologian and the evangelical.
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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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