Friday, September 25, 2009

How do you get to the hermeneutics of ecclesiology?

Practice, practice, practice.

Yes, it's a joke, but beneath the humor is truth. I've been looking for method in systematic theology, and where better to find it than where it's being done?

I started off looking at dogmatic/systematic theologians and their doctrines of the church as part of larger theological constructions. That only tells you where the doctrine of the church fits, and what it means in light of everything ideologically prior to it. Ecclesiology that resembles the doctrine of God in any number of ways, or that resembles anthropology in a select few. Practical ecclesiologies based on the marks of prior dogmatic commitment, polemically so in the Reformation and Counter-reformation cases. The doctrine of the church is inevitably one of the later doctrines, one of those higher up the edifice, dependent upon the foundations we have built below it for its position and shape. We cut it to fit. But a large part of that perception is the fact that we don't see it going on; we see the edifice and have to look for the workmanship. To get an idea of the process is often a dissertation-length project, even for small pieces of the process and limited elements of the edifice. The hermeneutics simply are not on display. The material underlying the finished product and its stages is often only as visible as an iceberg -- what the author acknowledges is so much smaller than the formative mass bearing it up. The post-facto appearance of its construction is not the way in which it was actually built, and the pieces in their places are intentionally worked together so that their origins are obscured by the work of art itself.

I looked at the Second Vatican Council, one massive ecclesiology project in and of itself. Definitely done in a way that is accessible as a process, but only partially and only after the fact. A process of doctrinal updating undertaken within the Roman Catholic Church, conceived as an attempt at self-improvement (and in Pope John's eyes, survival). Expansive, for a council, considering that the curial proposals were overturned by the body of bishops present, many sectors of which took the opportunity to exert influence quite possibly unprecedented in that church's history. A council at which the "separated brethren" were represented, and whose representatives were heard in ways clearly unprecedented. A council at which laity were present, if not necessarily heard. And yet a council at which contribution remained remarkably closed, and formative discussion still more so, considering the sixth of the world's population represented by its polity. Still, more open to analysis and the possibility of seeing practical hermeneutics than any finished and univocal work. Its impressive collection of documents is backed by a still more impressive collection of developmental stages in the proposals and drafts. (In languages I can't read yet, most of them -- my Latin will never be that good.) Which are in turn backed by a documentary history of mammoth proportions, no matter how summarized in the CIC. Sources, stages and products galore, a multitude of synchronic representations and diachronic displays. And yet all closed. Closed in contribution and participation, quickly closed off from responses, even today closed off from further development in that direction. There is certainly the eminent possibility of a study of the development of ecclesiological doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church, but for whom, or for what? It is an anomaly in history, an open door in an empty hallway, sealed off after the church walked out and away from it. Understand that I mean this in terms of the utility of Vatican II as representative of a hermeneutical process in any ongoing sense, as a Protestant who remembers Luther's dying hope in conciliarism. The RCC learned much from Vatican II that shaped who they are now in ways that make the Catholicism of today profoundly different from the Catholicism of prior centuries. However that church reaches behind the council to find and recover its past selves, it does so with the hands of a post-conciliar church. It cannot unlearn those lessons, both positive and negative. But if doctrinal change happens again in the Roman Catholic Church, I find it terribly unlikely that Vatican II will be the model.

So, what then? Where does an open-source geek go for functional, accessible, reusable hermeneutics and method in the development of theology?

At the moment, the World Council of Churches, Faith and Order Commission. Ecumenism in a very broad oikos. From the beginning, the question of church unity has been constitutive, but since Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, there has been real motion toward an explicit consensus ecclesiology. And that motion happens slowly, it happens with the consultation of 349 member churches and as many scholars as they care to bring to bear, it happens in public with open access to the documents, and it happens with ongoing feedback. I know it's always dominated by certain interests over others, and I don't claim that it works perfectly or that it produces ideal theology, but for observable hermeneutics of theological material and the construction of doctrinal statements, it seems hard to beat. And the statements, studies, and documents it does produce and solicit are generally of excellent quality for understanding this multiplicitous reality we call Christian theology, and how it reacts to world issues. Right now (for ongoing values of right now stretching back to the 90s), the process toward an ecumenical ecclesiology is represented in the study The Nature and Mission of the Church, and its parallel sets of documents that stretch from the prior stage, The Nature and Purpose of the Church. It's a messy process, and the effort to neaten it looks to largely be expended with respect to organizing statements out of material, and publishing collections of the material -- not toward making the contributory process neater and more streamlined for greater efficiency. I've studied efficient ecclesial processes, and efficient systems of theology, and I prefer the messy ones where you can see what is going on. So, at the moment, that's where I am, studying Faith and Order documentary history alongside my Barth work.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On The Uses and Disadvantages of Atheism for Life

(For those keeping score at home, I'm reading the Gay Science and a variety of other aphorisms.)

I've been saying for a while now that the "new atheism" could learn a lot from the old atheism. When I read Bertrand Russell on religion and Christianity, and I understand the cultural reality at the root of his complaint, I learn to be a better Christian in external and culturally relevant ways. When I read Nietzsche, well, I'm still working on understanding the cultural reality at the root of his complaint, but it is clear that there are cultural effects that he finds deleterious and that he attributes them to the religion itself. And yet, as with Russell, there are things we can learn about how our public piety and its principles do not align with the internal logic of Christianity. Now, I don't plan to get into a Ditchkins rant here, I'll leave that to Terry Eagleton, but what bothers me about so many of the new atheists is that the substance of their attacks on Christianity is based in what seem so often to be the trivial phenomena at the edges of the thing itself. Hitchens starts one of his books by grounding his atheism in the ignorance of a Sunday School teacher. To a great extent, what I mean is that I value the intellectual qualities to be found in the writings of the old guard, moreso as I encounter what passes for the new guard. But might not the banality of the now owe itself to a corresponding banality of Christian popular piety? Isn't it always the surfaces?

The writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were dealing with a Protestant Christianity that had taken the Reformation and its humanist foundations and turned them into Protestant Orthodoxy and Pietism. There was something to be respected in the thinkers that was not seen in their epigones, something that set Luther apart from the Lutherans. In popular religion there was, on the one hand, a doctrinally exclusive protectivism extended from the articles of faith back over the canon of scripture, and on the other a lay experiential theology that, like Catholic mysticism, was frequently left to fend for itself because of the disapproval of the doctrinally orthodox. The gripping hand held a moralism that became the defining characteristic of "Christian," upheld and rationalized by both sides because it was in their common cultural conditioning. Perhaps not an entirely fair characterization, but a common one for those stymied in the application of rationality to religion. But what do we have now? We still have culturally conditioned morality dictating both popular piety and doctrinal orthodoxy. The magisterial reformation went magisterial, which is to say clerical. The radicals, the popular reformations, stayed popular, which is so often to say anti-clerical, but by no means in the direction of radical equality. No, a perverse clericalism settled in, of flock-tending in the wilderness. And the spirituality of the laity remains banal to its roots, of a type not essentially different from popular religion before Luther even where its material trappings have been updated. Thirsty and drinking from wherever plentiful springs bubble up, because the mainstream has capped its springs and rationed them out. Why should they buy Lutheran water when the Evangelicals are giving theirs away for free? (Switch the names to suit yourself.)

The atheistic complaint sees this situation and asks, why get your water from a church in the first place? What are they giving you, but moralism and rules? Why take a gospel that seems custom built to do nothing more than saddle you with law? Of what good is this God, if he comes with a form of life that seems destined to kill you? Now, Nietzsche was as opposed to the dogmatism of science as he was to the dogmatism of religion, something we've lost in so many modern atheists who prefer a divinized secular science. Why take a shallow humanism over a shallow religion? This is the mistake made when we take the epistemological substitution of reason for ecclesial authority, and make it a change in piety. No, if we're not going to believe what the church tells us is true, why would we take another oligarchy? (Because the laity are thirsty still, and have been trained to depend upward upon an institution -- that is, to be laity.)

We never really learned what the value was for Christianity in discarding an epistemological reliance upon its own authority. The church would not take critique of its institutional self from the religious, and it certainly wouldn't take it from those outside the fold. For all the halfway-houses and compromises to accommodate reason and religion, the institutional church remains profoundly itself -- which was the point every time, to preserve a territory in which the church could be itself. But of all people, the Christian should know the truth of "God is dead and we have killed him." The Gospel narratives are full of the same sort of essential condemnation for the Judean religious institutions. And We have killed Him, which was perhaps the point, since God came back. But we keep showing the shadow of the God in a box, as though he really were the kind you have to wind up on Sundays. We have made it a contemptible thing through ritualized familiarity, through the piety that accrues upon traditions, through our reverence for our own view of things and a corresponding lack of reverence for the God. The pity is, when we refocus on reverence for God, we do it all over again. Our holiness never comes from us, because the holiness we can generate is pitiful and deserves the charge of the atheists.

Banal criticism or not, we have a place for the critic who stands outside and tells us what fools and unbelievers we truly appear to be. Just as we have a place for the heretic who believes according to another choice, and for the reformer who believes along with us, but sees what fools and unbelievers we truly are from inside. Because we have made the history of religion monumental, and antiquarian, and critical, but not for life. And there are those throughout our history who have seen Christianity in its monumental sense for its models of greatness that spur us to be great in new ways. Who have seen Christianity in its antiquarian sense for its insights into who and what we are, where and how we came to be, so that we might be who we are in the future. Who have seen Christianity in its critical sense for the possibilities it offers us to know our first selves, and to become better second selves. But they are not the defenders of orthodoxy, or of morality, or of the institution. The shadow is for them of a living God.

Still, to play the title track in a different key, there is an atheistic criticism that serves to lower, to bring religion down to its own level, to destroy what it can't understand, to make today the imprint of yesterday. Just as there is a theistic criticism which does the same from inside. And yet there is a criticism we need, from inside or outside, that dissuades us from our idolatry and pushes us forward to serve the living God. That at the very least, when it reminds us of our foolishness and patent unbelief, intends us to live tomorrow better than yesterday in new ways. Because it is always the surfaces, and we always need to be pushed away from them and toward a more credible and living faith.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy, and systematics

Having already started the Untimely Meditations, and especially having read On the Use and Disadvantages of History for Life, The Birth of Tragedy makes a lot of sense. I don't say he's right about the nominal subject, but this early work participates in major trends in his thought. The dialectical mockery of the Apollinian, the Dionysian, and the Socratic works at a fundamental level in ways that remind me of Hofstadter's Godel Escher Bach. What Nietzsche reaches for in the Socratic participates in the monumental, antiquarian, and critical disadvantages. Fundamentally it is science as the antithesis of art/life that is the enemy.

The commencement of the Apollinian/Dionysian dialectic automatically causes me to place myself in the Apollinian, the ordered illusion, because I don't fundamentally understand the Dionysian. Nietzsche's resolution of the two, however, makes it clear that these are alike in their fundamental conformance to deity. At the point where Euripides enters the scene, it becomes very clear that the Socratic is the misuse of the Apollinian, the disadvantage of the ordered sense of the world because it no longer seeks to place and arrange the cosmos -- instead it seeks to strip away all illusions, all appearances, everything that is manifest, the phenomenal, in an attempt to understand and rationalize the cosmos. The Platonic deprecation of shadows in favor of forms, an elevation toward the noumenal, is likened to the stripping away of the veils over the world, a descent of sorts in search of the noumenal. The Socratic replaces the Apollinian, and rather than the story of conflict that demands the continued existence of the Dionysian, Nietzsche presents a story of the destruction of illusions necessary for life in favor of the merely comprehensible. Which causes me to be wary of myself because I've been taught to be the Socratic.

Nietzsche's contempt for the common culture, or the culture of the ordinary masses, is founded precisely on their lack of comprehension of art. He condemns Euripides for placing the mere spectator upon the stage, removing both the Dionysian participation in the chorus, and its Apollinian dream. He would think worse of reality television, the audience that loves to watch itself be horribly and extraordinarily ordinary, than he does of the Euripidean audience that loves to watch itself sublimely elevated into a form where they can become better ordinary selves. The drama of the gods and the godlike spectacle of the tragic characters have not merely disappeared; they have been discarded by the intelligent common man who could not participate in their art. This contempt returns in the Untimely Meditations, and is especially reserved for those who cannot serve life by forgetting, and cannot remember in ways that serve life -- whose memories bind the future to strict repetition of the past, to the limitations of their sense of good taste, and to their critical leveling of its path. A tame, restricted and ordinary future.

There is a systematic drive that serves life, that is amenable to art, that may be Apollinian, and there is certainly a more common systematic drive that serves the sort of mere scientism that Nietzsche designates by the Socratic. Deconstruction, in the wrong hands, is subject to a similar observation. Analysis that serves to tear down, to void the complex of significations that make a thing what it is in pursuit of the thing itself, misses the point. Nietzsche says that the artist will rather cling to the discarded veil, and this is not to make a shallow thing of art, but to make an artless thing of divinized science. In the analysis of theological history and its materials, and the construction of theology as a system, it is the failure to respect art and serve life that destroys the usefulness of theology. I've been asked, jokingly, not to give up on systematic theology because I'm reading Nietzsche. I think it is a reasonable request, but I plan on doing it one better. The reason I am reading him is precisely the destruction of systems. What Badiou recalls out of Nietzsche as the urge to idolatry, to envisioning God in ways that cause us to cease looking at God, is the ironic result of much that is Socratic in systematic theology. The illusion that we can remove the illusions. But if systematic theology is to respect God, it must be the chorus and not the spectator. It must not be on stage, and it must not be outside of the action. It must see and cherish the new thing that God does, and participate in it, rather than binding theology to what we have understood of the history in which God has acted. The only order that works in the long term is order held in tension with chaos in a system which respects the appearances, but respects God more.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What does it mean for us to do systematic theology?

That might be a nice philosophical or methodological question, but I mean it as a paedagogical one right now. Since we're back to school again, the question was asked "what could we be doing better in Advanced Studies?" A persistent refrain from those of us in the nominally systematic theology division was that actual systematic theology is not being taught at our level. Related beside that is the question of whether we're teaching enough courses in the division to support our students, but even that comes back to what is, and isn't, being taught. Many of us go elsewhere to fill in our needs in basic and solid theological education, balancing out the otherwise excellent selection of topical courses and specializations. We teach courses called Systematic Theology to the ministry students, and follow their practical ministerial formation with a course called Constructive Theology, but these are oriented toward introduction to the loci and consolidation of theological awareness into usable forms. Only as a TA for these courses is it really possible to get educated in how to teach them. Even then, I'm not sure we're turning out teachers whose desire is to teach dogmatics as a constructive and beneficial theological framework. So, what does it mean for half of the division nomenclature to be explicitly "systematic theology"?

One aspect of the problems underlying this, especially at this school, is the sense that the motion toward reconceiving theology as a particularized field of contextual disciplines has deprecated traditional dogmatics. The more I read, the more I see this as a reference-frame error. Up close, we see motion and understand it in a straight line. Farther away, I think this really looks like a pendulum, as with so many other fields. We have been in a correction reaction for a very long time, moving from the universalization of one perspective toward the reality of plural particular perspectives. The fact that dogmatics has been done by the dominant and universalizing perspectives, and that dogmata have been used by them as tools of marginalization, has not stopped the theologians of marginalized perspectives from returning to the task of dogmatic or systematic theology out of the fullness of their distinctive communal identities. It has simply been the case that getting out from under the domination of perspective takes generations of effort -- simply to be valid selves outside of the mythos of normative sociological orthodoxy. Certainly there are reactionary movements to drag the pendulum back toward encompassing sociological and dogmatic orthodoxy and hold it there. However, when it swings of its own accord, theology does not return to the same position. It can't -- everything has moved around it. As ever, it remains an enterprise in building the larger meaning of the faith for us, building a representative structure from which we can draw usable conclusions that allow us to live and work in our relationship with God. But precisely because of that, doing dogmatics or systematic theology now means something different than it did before. Discard constructions that don't work, but by no means discard the knowledge of construction itself. The fruit ripen, fall away, and rot, and they should. But if all we are left with is various stages of rotting fruit because we have cut down the tree, then it is no wonder that so much of theology looks like a food fight. We haven't taught how to plant, nurture and grow better trees.

Since our division faculty is mostly liberation-oriented at the moment, it is understandable that we teach that aspect of the field. However, when asked what our emphasis is in systematic theology, I should not be stuck answering that we do two disparate things: classic (historical) dogmatics through the lens of the Lutheran confessional traditions, and liberation theology. (At a Lutheran seminary, I will let you guess which is the elective emphasis. Because of our populations, this reverses at the upper levels.) It is certainly unique and interesting that our Constructive syllabi aim toward the integration of these two areas, and I believe in the idea of Lutheran theology as a fundamentally liberating enterprise (so did Luther!), but that does not make it pedagogy for autonomous systematic construction of a theological perspective. And it could be made so! We don't teach hermeneutics in the "theology" division, as a practice of living into and living out of the corpus of Christian theology in a faithful and selective way. To be sure, we inculcate one particular theological hermeneutic, but while I may even agree with it I see its divisiveness in the reactions of our student body, a disproportionate microcosm of the reactions of the larger church. You may be able through law to enforce compliant action, and the dogmata of all sides are engaged in that attempt, but throwing entrenched hermeneutical perspectives and their doctrines at one another is no solution that enables life.

I may be accused of teaching the master's tools for building the master's house, but I'm not sure that we aren't still teaching people simply to live (however uncomfortably) in the master's house as it is. Improved interior decoration, even to the extent of rearranging walls, is not the same as building a better house. It's a step in the right direction, but any and every dwelling may be a place in which the Master resides. That discretion is God's alone, without respect for human opinion. I'd rather send out workers into the creation with tools and the ability to use available materials to build appropriate dwellings that respect the relationship between God and creation.

What do I mean by tools? I want theory and praxis, in the same way that we teach it in pastoral care. And it is fair to say that for the ministerial students, we have made their ministerial formation experiences theological opportunities, such that every time they come back, they have had a chance to see what theologies do to and in and for the minds and hearts of people. We have given them the tools to make theology pastorally useful, and I am proud of my classmates whose hearts and hands and feet have been their theological lenses. It is my goal to be a theologian for the life of the church, but where are we teaching that? My classmates from the mission fields know more about it than I do. But they aren't interested in dogmatics. They're interested in what works. (Note which category I fall into.) I, too, am interested in what works, but my field is not a parish, be it here or elsewhere. It's one thing to teach theology as the theory for which ministry is praxis. It's another to teach it as the theory for which dogmatics is praxis. To teach the material and at the same time teach the methodology, and to put candidates in the position of working with real ecclesial theological life. Tools, material, and the experience in a faithful environment to discover what works and how it works in real life. Dogmatics is only a theoretical science because we have divorced ourselves from the world. We fear to be practical dogmatic theologians because the exercise of dogma has been what the powerful have made it for so long. The practice of understanding and describing our faith is not a question of enforcement, the victory of the dead fruit over the living tree, but of attentive cultivation of the churches along the path of life that follows the Spirit. And it is happening, even if we do not teach it. To be faithful and practical dogmatic theologians we must teach it.

Odd as it sounds, I want a systematic theology division that looks like a Bible division. Our corpora may look different, even when you keep in mind that we should hold scripture in common, but what we are doing in Biblical theology is the foundation of the systematic task. Interpretation, the uncovering of meaning, the determinations to be made about application, our quest for best approximations of truth, these are common. 20th Century Theology and 8th Century Prophets are not so different at heart, and Gadamer and Ricoeur were performing a task that is as central to the SBL as the AAR. I believe in the value of courses in the material and courses in the methods, best when combined. And perhaps this is the reason that I belong at a seminary and not a divinity school, but I believe most strongly in the value of the processes within and between churches -- these are the places where what and how we believe are tested, and the places from which we can best take our sense of praxis as dogmatic theologians. If we are going to teach people to build livable theological frameworks, we need all of this, and this is the best model I have for it.