On the Role of Justification in Lutheran Theology Today’s post is prompted by the following remark from the contemporary American Lutheran moral theologian Gilbert Meilaender. However much some contemporary Lutherans have attempted to think of Lutheranism as a freestanding theological system, it can really be understood only as a correction within the Catholic tradition. It degenerates […]
In Defense of a Hymn Or, when was the vice of worldliness dropped from our vocabulary? There is a hymn that I’ve witnessed a number of times now, and for the same reason each time, get short shrift among theological compatriots of mine. This is something of an unhappy occurrence for me. The hymn is one […]
Herbert McCabe on de-centering God I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and […]
More credit is probably due to literature and rhetoric scholars than philosophers for impressing upon me the importance of a text’s rhetorical form and prose style. My philosophical training primed me to concentrate on a work’s contents. This was largely a matter of targeting assessment at the plausibility of premises, the validity of inferences, the soundness of conclusions — basically its operating model of rational argumentation. Now don’t get me wrong, of course I still think there’s value in attending to these sorts of details. It’s a defining purpose of philosophy, after all, to equip its students with the know-how needed to project the discipline’s apparatus of judgment into any given circumstance. (That is, to learn how to carry on its kind of conversation, as it were, no matter the company.) But there can be a downside to limiting one’s focus to this angle of criticism alone, to nourishing oneself on what I now take for an incomplete diet. For one risks losing touch with other sensitivities, other categories of praise and critique, deployed in the conceptual apparatuses other disciplines traffic in as their matter of course. That downside is the shrinking of the capaciousness of one’s own critical sensibilities.
All this just to say that I’ve learned that how an author pitches their voice is not an extraneous detail, mere decoration incidental to what is really being said. So, to correct this oversight, I wanted to take some time to register this lesson to be mindful of the persuasive powers latent in the aesthetic features of texts (philosophical, theological, and other). As Nicholas Lash said it, and said it simpler and better than I have: in the case of theology, “God’s beauty is not well served by ugly prose.”
To illustrate something of the above I’d like to single out a particular literary moment of texts easy to look past, namely, titles. I think a memorable title does more work than we might at first think. Here, then, are some of the titles that once gave my imagination pause when I first happened upon them and have stayed with me ever since.
- The Joy of Being Wrong (by James Alison)
- Suffering Divine Things (Reinhard Hutter)
- No Handle on the Cross: Meditations on the Crucified Mind (Kosuke Koyama)
- Solved by Sacrifice (Robert MacSwain)
- A Community Called Atonement (Scot McNight)
- Christ the Stranger (Ben Myers)
- A Ray of Darkness (Rowan Williams)
- The Wound of Knowledge (Rowan Williams)
Whether the contents of these works sustained the curiosity these titles piqued, though, is a question for another time. For my purposes here, that’s beside the point.
Owen Chadwick has a remark about John Henry Newman that’s left a lasting impression on me, namely, “Newman was an intellectual who distrusted the intellect.” There’s something about this characterization I find highly suggestive. It works not only as a description of how Newman proceeded in theology, but also as a proposal for how much weight we should accord certain kinds of considerations in our theological deliberations today. If you’re curious about what it might look like to take this lesson from Newman to heart, I’d suggest you need not look any farther than the work of Nicholas Lash, himself a Newman scholar. (I’ve tried gesturing to this same point before here). We’d be misinterpreting Newman and Lash if we take them to be advocating for a species of anti-intellectualism, some sort of principled refusal to submit their work to the review of their peers. Quite to the contrary, both theologians are examples of exceptional intellects at work on their craft. What they’re actually engaged in is an effort to overturn reigning prejudices favoring the primacy of the intellect in our understanding of religion.
Fortunately Newman and Lash aren’t alone in this endeavor. We can number other theologians among their ranks. Consider the following passage from Kathryn Tanner:
in the early 1980s […] the main worries of both theologians and philosophers of religion were methodological in nature: to justify religious thought, either by showing how it met the usual standards of meaning, intelligibility and truth endorsed by other disciplines, or (the preferred tactic of Frei and Lindbeck) by showing, with an ironic display of academic rigor, why no such justification was necessary. (Shaping a Theological Mind, Ed. Darren Marks, Ashgate, 2008, 115)
Tanner notes the irony of the rigor Frei and Lindbeck had to exert in order to make the case that university-wide criteria of accountability would be misplaced in theology. Whatever Tanner’s evaluation of their efforts, I’d say Frei and Lindbeck were on the right track. Even when (maybe even especially when) one is setting out to delimit the vocation of humanity’s rational powers, one must do so as thoughtfully, intelligently, as one can, if the critique is to have any chance of sticking. After all, it’s no disservice to reason to apprehend the limits of the intellect’s competencies by way of reasoned appraisal.