In defense of an irony

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.

Michael Root and Nicholas Lash on theologians as authors

Michael Root and Nicholas Lash on theologians as authors

1. Michael Root

A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.

from “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” First Things (Mar 2012), linked here.

2. Nicholas Lash

Theologians have always written books, have always been in some sense auctores. But only since the early nineteenth century have they considered it their business individually to be creators of some new vision, original interpretation, fresh achievement of erudition or imagination: to be ‘authors’. The point is familiar, but I know no other study [than John Thiel’s Imagination and Authority] which so carefully explores not only theological authorship’s first appearance on the scene but also its implications for the prospects of theology, beyond modernity, and for relations between Catholic theologians and ecclesiastical authorities or auctoritates.

from Review of John Thiel, Imagination and Authority. Heythrop Journal 34/4 (1993): 445.

How to Gain an Ear for Accents in Theology (1)

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

Nicholas Lash on Christ’s priority to the Church

Nicholas Lash on Christ’s priority to the Church

Is it the case that the church is a community of people who, at any given moment, pre-exist the presence of Christ in their midst, or is it rather the case that the presence of Christ pre-exists, and is the essential precondition for, the existence and activity of that group of people whom we call the church? […]

The very idea of the church pre-existing the presence of Christ in her midst is theologically meaningless. The church is that community of people constituted as church by being personally ‘addressed,’ called, by the living Christ. Christ is not ‘able to be present’ because we, ‘the church,’ can fix things that way. We are the church because Christ is present to us, present in us, present as the objective significance of our gathering. We become ‘more church’ (which is to say that Christ becomes ‘more present’ to us) by responding, in word and deed, to his objective, constituting presence.

from His Presence in the World, (Pflaum Press, 1968), 110, 112.

Nicholas Lash on tragedy and hope

Nicholas Lash on tragedy and Christian hope

Bethlehem, the city of Ruth, and Micah, and Jesus, is not far from Gethsemane. In that child’s birth at Bethlehem are ‘represented’ the wastelands of human tragedy, of human history as ‘stillborn.’ And, in that birth, these wastelands are depicted as pregnant with promise. Christian hope is an eminently practical matter: it is, we might say, a matter of transforming tragedy into pregnancy. Surrounded as we are, and as he was, by darkness, we cannot predict the outcome or depict its features. But we can, perhaps, learn to think, and act, and suffer, in trust conformable with the grace of him who alone can make the barren woman fruitful; of him who alone can make our Calvary the birthplace of his peace.

from “Bethlehem and Gethsemane,” in Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005), 98.

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

The following are two antithetical(?) proposals. My problem is that I find myself attracted to both of them. Each, I’m persuaded, lays claim to a measure of wisdom; neither can be ignored altogether. But what is the alternative perspective that “sees round them both”? That’s a question that has occupied my attention for quite some time now. I hope to treat it at greater length at some point. For now it will have to do simply to register the dilemma.

A. Nicholas Lash

Theologians would do well to keep in touch with practitioners in other disciplines, whose methodological problems significantly overlap with their own.

from Change in Focus, (Sheed&Ward, 1973), 180.

B. John Webster

… it [is] increasingly difficult for practitioners […] of theology to state with any clarity what is specifically theological about their enquiries. […] they have been pressed to give an account of themselves in terms drawn largely from fields of enquiry other than theology, fields which, according to prevailing criteria of academic propriety more nearly approximate to ideals of rational activity. And so the content and operations of the constituent parts of the theological curriculum are no longer determined by specifically theological considerations, but by neighboring disciplines — disciplines which can exercise that controlling function because their lack of determination by theological conviction accords them much greater prestige in the academy. This process of assimilation means that, for example, the study of scripture, or doctrine, or the history of the church draw their modes of enquiry from Semitics, or the history of religions, or social anthropology, from philosophy, or from general historical studies.

from “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God, (T&T Clark, 2005), 22.

The Primacy of Practice in Nicholas Lash

The Primacy of Practice in Nicholas Lash

The truth of christian ‘theory’ is too closely bound up with the quality of christian ‘practice’ for it to be possible to press the necessary distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ to the point where they can be handled as fundamentally separate issues. In 1837 Newman claimed that ‘Action is the criterion of true faith.’ His principle that ‘The safeguard of Faith is a right state of heart’ applies, not only to the individual, but to the church as a whole. In order to assess the ‘truth,’ or faithfulness of a particular development of christian doctrine, it will be insufficient to ascertain that the development is a theoretically justifiable interpretation or application of new testament teaching. It will also be necessary to ask whether the development in question expresses or embodies a style of life, an ethical response, which is in conformity with the style of life commanded or recommended by the gospel.

from Change in Focus, (Sheed&Ward, 1973), 102-3.