On discerning virtuous and vicious amounts of talking
One step in recognizing a virtue is distinguishing it from vices of excess and deficiency. This is why virtues are sometimes described as “golden means.” They’re goldilocks dispositions — neither too much, nor too little, but just the right amount. So, for example, consider the virtue of hope. Too much hope we call presumption, too little despair. Somewhere between those extremes is a space with a fitting measure of hope.
The same logic regulates how much theologians should have to say and how they say it. We can say too much or too little, and we can say what needs saying either too timidly or brashly. How might we think about where to draw appropriate boundaries? Well let’s register some occurrences where theologians have worried about precisely these sorts of issues.
- Against Deficiency
- David Bentley Hart
… if I may be frank, what I often find wearing is the faltering, apologetic, restrained, and hesitant tone of much modern theology. It is what I quite shamefully and unfairly tend to think of as “the modern Anglican inflection”: the sorrowful diminuendo towards embarrassed silence, by way of prolonged clearings of the throat and the occasional softly whistled tune, as one contemplates changing the subject before anyone is so indiscreet as to venture a firm opinion. I have little patience for the notion that we know so little (on account of the mystery of evil) that we must abandon our efforts to advance the story of Christ as the true story of the world. And I have even less patience for the claim that “we must speak . . . only ‘tentatively, indirectly, metaphorically’,” etc. I cannot, try as I might, make that description of evangelical rhetoric conform in my mind to the practice of Christ, the Apostles, or the martyrs of the Church, nor can I bring myself to think of that practice as in any sense violent, or even excessive in its confidence. And I should hate to think that theology should now become little more than a judicious preparation for Christianity’s ultimate obsolescence, and faith little more than a nostalgia for vanished gods. I simply do not believe that we have always somehow refused to recognize ambiguity or ignored the brokenness of others’ lives or been insufficiently attentive to uncertainty and pluralism if we choose to be forthright and even a bit unrestrained in our rhetoric.
from “Response to James K. A. Smith, Lois Malcolm and Gerard Loughlin,” New Blackfriars 88, no. 1017 (2007): 619.
b. Robert Jenson
As the essays succeed each other, the bishop’s fear of closure begins to seem far too obsessive to be truly helpful in the life of faith. The confession into which teaching is supposed to lead us begins, after all, “I believe…,” not “I wonder about….” Is it really the chief proper use of dogma and other theology “to keep the essential questions alive,” (p. 92) indefinitely to sustain puzzlement? Should dogmas and other theologoumena serve mostly to remind us of the problems they pretend to resolve? God is indeed a mystery, but between honor for the biblical God’s specific mystery and the kind of endless semi-Socratic dialectic Williams often seems to commend, there is, I would have thought, some considerable difference. No doubt argument and perplexity are permanent in the church’s thinking, and no doubt this is a good and necessary thing; so that stirring up stagnant conviction must indeed be one task of theology. But, e.g., the phrase just cited, “to keep the essential questions alive,” occurs in an exposition of “the doctrine of Incarnation,” (pp. 79-92) and the fathers of Chalcedon and 2nd Constantinople themselves certainly thought they were settling certain essential questions, in such fashion that conflict about them should not thereafter legitimately trouble the church. Their answers, of course, posed further and again difficult questions, but to say that this also was a good thing — as I do — is a different point than the one Williams presses — or anyway I think it is. Apophatic thinkers though they were, the fathers of the christological councils — to stay with that instance—did not suppose that the purpose of their formulations was to keep alive the debates that brought them to the meetings. Williams is a notable scholar of theological history, who commands long stretches of the tradition far better than do I, and his knowledge flows easily and rewardingly in this volume; but I cannot but think that his appeals to tradition are sometimes more to what he wishes the Fathers and medievals had been up to than to anything that would have occurred to these teachers themselves. Martin Luther famously maintained against Erasmus that it belongs to the very holiness of the Spirit to deal in assertiones, and at least in some contexts of discourse most of the church’s teachers have been of the same opinion.
from Review of Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology. Pro Ecclesia 11, no. 3 (2002), 368.
II. Against Excess
Not all caution is identifiable with pusillanimity.
from His Presence in the World: A Study in Eucharistic Worship and Theology (Pflaum Pr, 1968), 155.
One man’s nerve is another’s naïveté.
from “Newman and A. Firmin,” in John Henry Newman and Modernism, Eds. Jenkins and Kuld (Glock & Lutz, 1990), 67.
To take refuge in silence may…be an evasion of the responsibility to speak. …[Yet, alternatively, b]usily to evade the issues is still evasion.
from Theology on Dover Beach (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005),16. Here Lash reminds us it’s possible to fail to say what needs saying not only by saying too little but also by saying so much we eclipse the point in question.
Where the mystery of God himself is concerned it is paradoxical, but true, that the deeper a man’s faith the more difficult he may find it to speak about God. One of the most disturbing features of much theological and devotional writing is that it seems to have so little sense of the incomprehensibility of God. It seems to find it so easy to rattle on about God; …The man who finds it easy to speak of God, or the ways of God with man, is the man whose mind and heart are not sufficiently open to the mystery to be dazzled and silenced by it.
from Voices of Authority (Reprint, Wipf & Stock, 2005), 105-6.
- Paul Hinlicky, Preaching God’s World according to Luther’s Doctrine in America Today (ALPB, 2010), 22.
In the real world of human polytheism, people name their gods and the gods war with each other. As for us Christians, it is just as much idolatry to be silent when God has spoken as to speak where God is silent.