Book Notice: Darren C. Marks

It’s been said that it’s “when we begin to discern the entire shape of a person’s life, [that] we also begin to understand why a particular belief might or might not be important to that person.”* I at least have found this a suggestive insight. That’s probably why I was pleased to happen across the following title from Darren Marks. Back in 2002 Marks published Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Ashgate). I wish I’d known about it earlier. The modest volume is a collection of short autobiographical essays that offers an array of noted theologians the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and deliberations that forged their theological sensibilities. Marks’s choice of contributors leaves the reader with a fair impression of the varied methodological options operative in theology today. We end up hearing from voices as diverse as those of James Cone, Colin Gunton, Alister McGrath, Wayne Meeks, John Milbank, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Gerald O’Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and more. For me, though, the standout contributions had to be those from Kathryn Tanner and John Webster. What I especially appreciated was how the juxtaposition of their respective theological orientations in such close proximity to one another brought to the fore a dilemma I’ve previously tried to register (here). But before we rehash that old ground, let’s hear from Tanner first:

With the onset of a postmodern humility about pretensions to such things as universality and disinterestedness, … the theoretical deficiencies of which theology has been accused are now so spread around [the academy] that they appear to be the defining fault of no one field in particular. … The legitimacy of theology … is no longer a matter of whether theology can meet some scholarly minimum in its procedures. Theology’s warrant now centers on the question of whether theologians have anything important to say about the world and our place in it. …

Answers to these questions require new methods. Theology’s closest analogue is no longer a perennial philosophy, addressing the most general questions of human moment purportedly common to every time and place, but a political theory (broadly construed) of cultural meanings that is quite situation-specific in its focus. In other words, the theologian — like a Weberian social scientist or a Gramscian political theorist – now asks about the way Christian beliefs and symbols function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and justify the shape of social organization and the course of social action. As a historian of Christian thought and practice, the theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol in all its complicated alignments with social forces for good or ill. With this knowledge in hand, the constructive theologian is better positioned to intervene in the current situation adroitly, effectively and responsibly, with suggestions for both rethinking Christian claims and refiguring human life for the sake of the greater good. (116)

Bearing Tanner’s thought in mind, let’s turn to Webster:

[Systematic theology as Webster was taught it] tended to lack a robust sense of its own integrity and coherence as a field of intellectual inquiry, and so [expended] a great deal of energy in forming alliances with other disciplines (principally philosophy and history, but sometimes social theory or philosophy of natural science) as a means of reassurance. […]

A number of things came together to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation. One very prominent factor was a half-conscious but remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally, in two senses. First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130-131)

The questions that Tanner and Webster leave me with are ones I’ve asked before.

To Webster I’d want to ask the following:

  • Is every multi-disciplinary approach to theology, e.g. Tanner’s, indicative of a lack of confidence in the adequacy of theology’s explanatory power? Is insecurity the only motive that would lead one to reach for a multi-disciplinary mode of inqury?
  • Is it not possible to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that would not distort theology’s aims and procedures, or press it into a model of inquiry that obscures its subject matter?

And to Tanner:

  • What tools of description and assessment can theology’s cognate disciplines provide that theology’s own categories don’t already equip it with? Can theology account for the blind spots being attributed to it?

I don’t have satisfying answers to all of these questions yet, but I do intend to return to them. Though we may be in a season that’s witnessing a shift in attention away from methodological issues to more substantive concerns, a trend both Tanner and Webster applaud, I still can’t help but find questions like these fascinating.

*This nugget comes from David S. Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, (Brazos, 2002).

Book Notice: James Wetzel

How do you introduce a mind as cavernous as Augustine’s to those unversed in the terrain of his literature? Answering this question is the task James Wetzel sets himself for his contribution to Continuum’s series on Guides for the Perplexed. It may be worth noting that Wetzel’s Augustine (2010) is not his first venture into Augustine studies. Quite the opposite is the case. Wetzel holds the Augustinian Endowed Chair in the Thought of St Augustine at Villanova University. Augustine, the point is, is a specialty of Wetzel’s. In fact, he has already offered the well-received Augustine and the Limits of Virtue (Cambridge, 2008), and more recently Parting Knowledge: Essays after Augustine, (Wipf&Stock, 2013). Both of those volumes, however, are more specialized in focus. For that reason, it will serve my purposes better if we simply consider Wetzel’s Guide, which works as a general and more accessible introduction to its subject matter. Wetzel selects as his point of departure Augustine’s moral psychology. It makes for demanding reading. But I would be quick to add that your efforts will be abundantly rewarded. The results of Wetzel’s account are soul-stretching. Wetzel’s Guide doesn’t just introduce you to Augustine, it is itself an exercise in Augustinian spirituality.

What Wetzel so helpfully brings to view is the character of Augustine’s theology as a “great refusal” — the refusal of a lie (125). “The lie is that he [Augustine] is most himself when he is nearest a self-contained intelligence” (126). The truth, however, so often lost amidst our aspirations to a god-like epistemic self-sufficiency, is disclosed in “Augustine’s ideal of a life,” namely, that “of a life confessed” (8). It was a trail of trials and tears that taught Augustine how to surrender his self-definition to others (35); he had to learn that perspicacious self-perception is a fruit of friendship, divine and human. Even in matters of self-knowledge there can be no elimination of truth’s character as a gift received, extra nos, and not the product of an individual’s genius.

Augustine’s insight points to a critical moment for theology and philosophy. Augustine is building to the conclusion that an ingredient of either enterprise is the pursuit of a right spiritual posture. Wisdom is with the humble, we’ll remember (Pr 11:2). The truth is, the blind spots in the field of our self-vision are not exceptions to our general epistemic condition. Rather, they’re indicative of the fundamentally cooperative and dialogical character of all inquiry (i.e., bringing into view some of the moral liabilities of intellectual endeavor). Wetzel is alert to the significance of this consideration, and he aims to practice what he finds Augustine preaching: “I respect and share his [Augustine’s] view that philosophy is not about gaining the upper hand in an argument. It is about risking self for the sake of truth and a more generous self” (10). Here Wetzel reminds me of another philosopher (Joel Backström) who’s made a similar point about this reflexive dimension of inquiry, “Winning arguments and proving others wrong is quite useless. The promise of philosophy is that one may come to prove oneself wrong, to see through one’s own illusions.” Surely theology would applaud this sentiment with a hearty Amen. It’s been a defining task of theology to bid us to mind our sins — even in our theologizing. For theology’s promise, at the end of the day, is the divine unmasking of our idolatries, to have our own unconfessed reserves of faithlessness disclosed.

We, however, Augustine has been cautioning us, ought not to presume to be experts in self-diagnosis (37). We stand in need of a Confessor. “I beg you, God of mine,” prays Augustine, “show me me, that I may testify to what I find mangled in me” (Conf.10.37.62). The truth we can apprehend, we learn, is a measure of the company we keep. This is the difference a student’s spiritual state makes in their intellectual formation. Our temptations to distort or refuse friendship will figure into our capacity to discern truth. But if we would follow Augustine, it will become our prayer that our as-yet disparate spiritual, moral, and intellectual labors would begin to image the integrity of the one God.

So who do I think would profit from spending some time with Wetzel’s Augustine? Well, if you’ve had trouble “subordinating [your] responsibility for sin to [your] more fundamental responsiveness to God” (9); if you’re someone who questions “the value of the life that makes a person liable to grief” (17); if you’ve found yourself tempted by the desire for knowledge that “banks on the notion that knowing the good and being willing to live by it are entirely separate things” (52, 67); if you’re curious as to how the Christian religion functions as a map of the human soul (51); then to you I would suggest letting Wetzel be your guide to both Augustine and Augustine’s God. May they impress upon you the integrity of truth and love. Rest assured, Wetzel knows better than to “stay too long with a negative moral” (111).

Book Notice: John R. Betz

Ever wondered who’s the source behind this maxim? “Reason is language.

It’s from a writer worth knowing a thing or two about — Johann Georg Hamann. I’d understand if you hadn’t heard this name before. It’s been an obscure one for a while, though there are signs that scholars nowadays are trying their hardest to remedy this injustice. He was an 18th century Prussian. Here are his dates: 1730-1788, for those who mind such details. He resided in Königsberg, which you may recall was the home of Kant. Hamann was in fact a contemporary, friend, and critic of Kant. Other interlocutors of his included Mendelssohn and Lessing. He’s considered by some to be the first critic of the Enlightenment. He was praised by the likes of Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Dilthey, and Kierkegaard for his towering intellect and humane sensibilities. And it’s no wonder why. Hamann anticipated the rise of historical consciousness, philosophy’s turn to ordinary language, existentialism, literary Romanticism, and postmodernity’s suspicions of the sufficiency of ‘reason alone’. He was a philologist by training and a journalist and civil servant by profession. His forays in philosophy and theology were those of an amateur (in the best sense of the word). Though early in life he frequented pro-Enlightenment circles, it was when he was on business in London, at 27 years old, moneyless and friendless, that Hamann was converted to a devoutly confessional Lutheranism. He picked up a Bible, read it cover to cover, and learned that “the same one who authored the Bible was also the author of his life” (31).

For aiding in the recovery of this “postmodern prophet” (xi), Loyola College’s John R. Betz is to be applauded. Recently, Betz published After Enlightenment: The Post-Secular Vision of J. G. Hamann, (Wiley Blackwell, 2009). The work offers a comprehensive introduction to Hamann’s life and corpus of writings, all of which were short, highly occasional and composed in notoriously obscure prose. Even Hamann’s admirers are willing to concede that “no work in the German language is as difficult to understand as every one of Hamann’s writings.” (with the likes of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger for countrymen, that’s a bold claim.) Lest you theologians out there be scared off prematurely, Betz proves a genial guide, and he crafts his narrative with the aim of situating Hamann in the history of theology, bringing to view the resources Hamann’s provided to theological projects as diverse as those of von Balthasar, Milbank and the German Lutheran systematic theologian Oswald Bayer. Betz also writes with an eye to Hamann’s postmodern resonances, concluding with a chapter that situates Hamann in relation to the projects of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida. Betz’s monograph has earned its standing as the leading English-language account of Hamann on the market today.

To give you a sense for Hamann’s range, here’s a snippet from Betz’s introduction: “those interested chiefly in the fundamentals of Hamann’s Christian vision might simply read Chapters 2 and 9. […] For those interested in Hamann’s radical, Lutheran use of Hume or his doctrine of Socractic ignorance, Chapters 1 and 3 will be most relevant. For those interested in his theological aesthetics, Chapters 2 and 5 will be most relevant; for those interested in his biblical hermeneutics as an alternative to merely rational or historical-critical approaches to Scripture, Chapters 2, 5, and 12 will be most relevant; for those interested in Hamann’s view of language, Chapters 5 and 6; for those interested in his critique of Kant [his was the first review of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason], Chapter 11; for those interested in his understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and the possibilities he offers for Jewish-Christian dialogue, Chapter 12; for those interested in his spiritual life, teaching, and influence as a spiritual father, Chapter 13” (21-2). Needless to say, Hamann has something to offer a broad swath of readers.

If Hamann’s style and achievements are piquing your interests, you’re in luck; in addition to Betz, there’s plenty of more literature out there for you to peruse. You may consider turning next to some of the following recent works:

  • Ed. Lisa Marie Anderson, Hamann and the Tradition, (Northwestern University, 2012) – a collection of essays from a recent cross-disciplinary conference devoted to Hamann, gives some attention to Hamann’s stature as a theologian
  • Oswald Bayer, A Contemporary in Dissent: Johann Georg Hamann as a Radical Enlightener, (Eerdmans, 2012) – a translation from Bayer’s 1988 German monograph
  • Robert Sparling, Johann Georg Hamann and the Enlightenment Project, (U of Toronto, 2011) – focuses on Hamann’s considerable contributions to political philosophy
  • James O’Flaherty, Johann Georg Hamann, (Twayne, 1979) – considered a classic biographical portrait

Book Notice: Scharen & Vigen

I’d be the first to admit it. I’m a big Clifford Geertz fan. I can’t think of many others who match his fluency in so broad a range of disciplines. That being the case, it may come as no surprise that anthropology’s significance for theological inquiry is a question I have a fair bit of patience for. We already know that theology and philosophy, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, are singularly bound to one another; this is so tired a tale that it doesn’t need further rehearsing here. Elsewhere I’ve tried to give some attention to the ties between theology and literature, which I don’t think many would consider all that great an imaginative leap either. But now I’d like to put the spotlight on theologians building bridges with anthropology. The connections between these disciplines may be less obvious. To help bring their affinities into sharper focus, Continuum released this title in 2011: Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics edited by Christian Scharen (Luther Seminary) and Aana Marie Vigen (Loyola University Chicago). The volume is divided into three parts: the first presents the theoretical vision grounding their proposal, the second collects seven examples of the sort of theologically conscious ethnographic work the editors are calling for, and the third is a concluding essay offering advice on how one may proceed as a theologian equipped with ethnographic sensibilities. Though in its execution the volume foregrounds its revisionist sensitivities to an extent that threatens to eclipse its primary purpose of showcasing the powers of ethnographic discourse, you needn’t hesitate to give this volume a hearing on that account. The project still succeeds in alerting us to a neglected perspective (and its accompanying limits), and that much remains logically separable from some of its proffered conclusions. Nevertheless, a few more words on the theological warrants motivating the juxtaposition of these disciplines may be in order.

All scholarly disciplines, and theology is no exception here, will inevitably face the question of whether and how distinct fields of study hang together. One answer to this question takes its cue from the tautological axiom that “knowledge is knowledge,” consequently authorizing a vision of the gamut of intellectual inquiry as a cooperative venture in a shared enterprise. In this paradigm, theologians would be duty-bound to consult with natural and social scientists, philosophers and historians, and so on, revising their truth-claims in the process, because they supposedly share canons of judgment and verification that transcend the differences between their discipline-specific objects of study. The prospect of talking past one another isn’t a live fear here. Since all inquiry registers in the same key of discourse, there’s nothing to worry about.

A second answer to the question of how disciplines hang together rejects the defining axiom of the first. Here inquiry starts instead with the premise that “knowledge for you isn’t necessarily knowledge for me.” This paradigm just can’t shake its perception that greater significance needs to be accorded to the discontinuities between disciplines and their respective deliverances. Scholars, they’ll say, aren’t simply schooled into a general competency for “intellectual inquiry” — there’s no such thing. Rather, they’re enculturated into discipline-specific memories, idioms, and procedures of discourse, etc., all of which contribute to generating distinctive imaginative capacities. Here theology’s autonomous and non-foundational character is celebrated, sometimes even touted as the safeguard of its orthodoxy. (The Tertullians we’ll always have with us.)

Of course in reality we don’t face so stark a disjunction, as these two answers are really only two poles on a spectrum broad enough to accommodate a variety of more nuanced positions. Hans Frei, for example, once contemplated five possible answers. I, however, have painted the picture in this fashion so as to motivate this question, what does theology stand to gain from increasing its circle of interlocutors? Which are its closest cognate disciplines? What I see as at stake in this question is the formation of our theological imaginations. Let’s face it — theologians are impressionable. Who they choose to converse with will shape their sense of theology’s tasks and audiences. Why I find ethnography particularly worth heeding, finally getting back to the matter at hand, is its capacity to recover theology’s ecclesial roots and responsibilities. Among the throng of theology’s potential conversation partners, ethnographers stand in a unique position to amplify the voices and attend to the practices of actual Christians. You may find yourself surprised by how much mere description can uncover. As the editors put it, “Ethnography is a way to take particularity seriously — to discover truth revealed through embodied habits, relations, practices, narratives, and struggles.” These are touchstones theologians would do well not to neglect. I’ll leave it to Scharen and Vigen to unpack ethnography’s significance for theology further.

You might also consider:

  • Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, edited by Peter Ward, (Eerdmans, 2012), which includes contributions from Paul Fiddes, Alister McGrath, John Webster, and Richard Osmer. (This volume would have served just as well for this notice.)
  • Nicholas Adams and Charles Elliott, “Ethnography is Dogmatics: Making Description Central to Systematic Theology,” Scottish Journal of Theology, vol. 53, no. 3, (2000), 339-364.

(Maybe you’re wondering what discipline I’ll try putting theology in dialogue with next? Well I won’t leave you in the dark. There’s no question that it will be historiography. Theologians, this is a field pleading for theological attention.)

Book Notice: Taylor & Waller

There is taking place within a niche of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy something of a turn to literature. Now I don’t mean by this to draw attention to the resurgence of interest in the philosophy of literature per se, into philosophical accounts of literature’s powers, devices, aims, etc., though this is also taking place. I mean instead to bring to view philosophical projects that attend to literature as an aid for treating properly philosophical vexations. Of course philosophy and literature are old sparring partners, making attempts at their cross-fertilization nothing new, but it seems that Stanley Cavell and more than a few of his interlocutors (it’s not a coincidence) have been producing a steady stream of work marked by its bi-disciplinary imagination and agenda. Consider, for a small sampling, works like

  • Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 1992)
  • Walter Jost, Ed., Ordinary Language Criticism: Literary Thinking after Cavell after Wittgenstein (Northwestern, 2003)
  • Stephen Mulhall, The Wounded Animal: J.M. Coetzee and the Difficulty of Reality in Literature and Philosophy, (Princeton, 2008)
  • —, The Self and its Shadows: Essays on Individuality as Negation in Philosophy and the Arts, (OUP, 2013)
  • Richard Eldridge, Ed., Stanley Cavell and Literary Studies (Bloomsbury, 2011)
  • —, Ed., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature (OUP, 2013)

These philosophers at least are finding in literature a rich and ready resource that the currently reigning conventions of philosophy would otherwise train its students to overlook.

Because this is a set of philosophers whose work I regard highly, I can’t help but ask whether theology has contributions to make to this pocket of inquiry (or lessons to learn from it). This is why I was pleased to learn of this 2011 Ashgate title: Christian Theology and Tragedy: Theologians, Tragic Literature and Tragic Theory edited by Kevin Taylor (Pfeiffer University) and Giles Waller (Cambridge). The collection is divided into three sections: the first on tragic narratives in biblical and theological literature; the second on theologians who deployed tragedy as a theological category (namely, Balthasar, MacKinnon, Simone Weil, and C.S. Lewis); and a final section on theological assessments of tragic theory. Contributors include, among others, Ben Quash, Michael Ward, David S. Cunningham, and David F. Ford.

Now you might be asking, why tragedy? Is tragedy really a category in pressing need of theological attention? Should we put much stock in its promise to increase theology’s imaginative reach, explanatory power, and patience with the harder-to-assimilate stories of the human lot? These are fair questions. But, so as not to lose your interest too soon, perhaps this bread crumb will entice you to stay tuned — theologians of no less stature than Hans Urs von Balthasar and Donald MacKinnon, the volume points out, both reflected on how theology’s original preference for Greek philosophy, to the neglect of the Greek corpus of tragedies, had a mis-shaping influence on theology’s ability to articulate its own gospel. Maybe a storyline like that piques your interest as much as it does mine? Or maybe the editors’ own articulation of their aims will do the trick:

“The chapters in this volume show that, far from there being an inherent antagonism between Christian theology and tragedy, they share at the very least areas of profound mutual concern: the experience of suffering, death and loss, questions over fate, freedom and agency, sacrifice, guilt, innocence, the limits of human understanding, redemption, catharsis. We might even press this further, and maintain with MacKinnon that an attentiveness to tragedy is vital to a properly disciplined Christian theology and that, by the same token, Christian theology can be a way of vouchsafing the true significance of tragedy.”

I for one would care to see what inquiry along these lines will turn up.