Monday, June 06, 2011

Some rather unanalytic thoughts on analytic theology: reflections on Logos 2011

I returned on Sunday from Logos 2011, a superb three-day conference at the University of Notre Dame, sponsored by the Center for Philosophy of Religion and under the specific auspices of the Analytic Theology Project. Let me begin by thanking Michael Rea and the other organizers of the conference for inviting me to participate in the conversation. It was an honor to be there and I greatly enjoyed my time at Notre Dame.

After writing a number of tweets (#logos2011) about it, I’ve naturally been asked to comment at length about the experience. I will do so now, though my assessment here is merely provisional in nature. Larger issues raised at the conference will have to be addressed at another time. This year’s topic on divine revelation, scripture, canon, and biblical authority is a central interest of my work, and for that reason, many of the most interesting theological insights from the conference will have to wait for a future occasion. Here I only want to raise some concerns that I have about the project of analytic theology more broadly, in light of the conversations I had at the conference.

But first, let me gush about the fantastic people I was so privileged to meet. I very much enjoyed conversing with Evan Fales (Iowa), whose paper was a favorite of mine at the conference, and whose use of Leach, Durkheim, Levi-Strauss to interpret scripture is immensely interesting to me. Getting to know Tamsin Jones (Harvard) was a highlight of my time. I was also happy to meet and interact with Andrew Dole (Amherst). It was a pleasure to interact with Oliver Crisp (formerly of Bristol, now at Fuller) and Michael Rea (Notre Dame); both graciously answered my questions and Crisp especially is a lot of fun at a bar. After years of reading his work, I finally met Kevin Vanhoozer (Wheaton) for the first time, as well as his family. More recently, I have taken a great interest in Kenton Sparks (Eastern), whose book God’s Word in Human Words is perhaps the best evangelical treatment of modern biblical scholarship—a work I cannot recommend too highly. Sadly, however, I had to miss the opening session with Peter Enns, a man I highly respect and admire. The reason for this is a little long, but suffice it to say, my luggage was lost during a layover at O’Hare airport. I received it the next day around noon at our hotel, but the last shuttle for the morning session left at 11 am. I also did not have a chance to talk personally with William Abraham (SMU), who provided what was for me the highlight of the trip (see below).

Second, let me also state the obvious: for a conference organized under the auspices of analytic theology, there were very few actually analytic theology or philosophy papers. Unlike previous Logos conferences (from what I’ve heard), this conference broadened the scope of participants considerably. They also chose scholars known for their work on this particular doctrinal topic, as opposed to picking analytic scholars to speak about the topic. The result was an excellent discussion about scripture, though perhaps not as satisfying on a philosophical level for those working in analytic philosophy of religion. Since I’m not interested in analytic theology myself, I found the papers very interesting and worthwhile. Some of the papers were even critical of analytic theology, whether implicitly (Paul Nimmo) or explicitly (Vanhoozer, Abraham).

In the rest of this post, I want to raise some concerns I have about the whole project of analytic theology. I raise these as part of a good faith effort to understand what the project is trying to do. If I have misconstrued anything, I do hope those in the analytic theology circles will correct me. I view myself as a friendly critic, an outsider interested in helping those “inside” do their work better.

My general critique is a classically “continental” one: viz. that I am concerned with the apparently ahistorical and non-social conception of reason with which the analytic people appear to be working. That is to say, there seems to be a sense that theological claims and concepts can be evaluated in abstraction from the historical, cultural, and political contexts within which such claims and concepts originate and develop. So we can evaluate someone like Schleiermacher or Barth by distilling a set of propositions and deciding whether the conclusions rationally follow from the premises. While this appears quite objective, it does not properly take into account both the inherently contextual nature of these theological texts but also the intrinsically social nature of reason itself. The former comes from the fact that these and other theologians are writing within a particular tradition, responding to developments within that tradition, and seeking to speak for this tradition within a new historical situation. The latter is a larger claim that goes back at least to Hegel (see Pinkard’s The Sociality of Reason), with whom I agree. But I cannot defend that tradition of thought here. That’s not to say analytic philosophy cannot take up this Hegelian line of thinking. People like Robert Brandom and John McDowell have done just that, within an analytic pragmatism or a particular reading of Wittgenstein that socializes our thinking, speaking, and doing in the world. (One could justifiably say that the analytic tradition is divided between two different readings of Wittgenstein. By and large, those I met at Logos don’t read him the way I do.)

I bring up this “continental” argument, because I think it illuminates a lot of the disagreements and misunderstandings that I overheard at the conference. I don’t just mean the dismissal of Barth I encountered, or the statements about Schleiermacher having a God who cannot act in the world and does not love humanity. These were certainly very bad and did not inspire confidence about the future, but these are not views unique to analytic theologians; many people hold such notions out of a general lack of knowledge of these theologians and an unwillingness to charitably engage them on their own terms. The problems I am referring to are things like the incredulous stares of some at the notion that I or another person are happy to get rid of inerrancy. While it wasn’t made entirely clear, I gathered that this is because the doctrine of inerrancy is a key premise in a syllogism regarding the authority of scripture. If one dispenses with this doctrine, one dispenses with the logical argument for scripture’s authority and meaningfulness. It became clear to me that many of these analytic grad students are simply ignorant of the entire theological tradition regarding this doctrine. They’ve never read the Protestant scholastics on verbal-plenary inspiration, never studied the writings of Hodge and Warfield in their historical context, never examined the arguments Barth gives for rejecting these doctrines or assessed the cultural and historical reasons for his claims. What these philosophers of religion want to know is: is this doctrine rational or irrational? is scripture authoritative or not? The idea that inerrancy could be a culturally-loaded term, with a complex web of historical relations that have to be entangled before it can be rightly evaluated, is viewed as either irrelevant or foreign or both.

This is why I think people like Enns and Sparks—both of whom, like Barth, make a very sharp distinction between the “humanity” of the text and the “divinity” of God’s word—provoked looks of puzzled astonishment, as if they’ve heard a new language for the very first time. The analytic crowd seemed to insist that unless we could directly predicate inspiration, revelation, and authority of the biblical text (qua text, i.e. words on the page), the whole Christian game would be up. The Barthian/actualistic position—that revelation is directly identified with the person of Christ himself, and that the word of God is a christic-pneumatic event in the encounter between text and reader—got no hearing at all at the conference. I’m not sure anyone in the analytic crowd knows what to do with it. An event resists any logical proposition. It is an existential disruption, not a syllogistic conclusion. Every analytic evaluation of Barth that I’ve read ends up greatly misunderstanding Barth’s christocentrism. They seem to forget that what distinguishes Barth from someone like Charles Hodge is not the various doctrinal propositions with which each agrees; it is rather the entire nature of what theology is as a discipline: its origin, ground, and telos. Between the systematic arrangement of discrete timeless, universal, propositional facts and the contextual-historical reflection on the faith and proclamation of a particular community—between scripture as the revelation of universal truths about God and Christ as the contingent actualization of God’s being that demands ever-new interpretation within new contingent situations—yawns a great chasm.

Returning to Enns for a moment: I think at the end of the day much of this conflict comes down to a christological disagreement regarding the very nature of incarnation. Enns and Sparks could both use some greater sophistication in their use of christological categories, but their essential insight is quite sound: scripture is a fundamentally and thoroughly human document, bearing all the marks of our finitude and fallenness. But precisely as a human document, God speaks in and through it in a way that remains truthful and normative. The incarnational analogy that Enns uses helps to illuminate this very point. Jesus is not God “in spite of” his human form, but precisely “as” a human, including everything that being human implies and demands (insofar as what is not assumed is not redeemed).

However, this is where we run into problems, because we have to clarify just what we mean by incarnation. The classical Chalcedonian tradition is both helpful and dangerous in this regard, because people like Cyril of Alexandria were quite willing to instrumentalize the human nature. The divine Logos was understood to be the sole active agent in the incarnation, while the flesh functioned passively like a garment worn by God in the world. So the incarnational analogy can easily support a very instrumentalist doctrine of inerrancy, even a full-blown theory of dictation (which a couple people at the conference came very close to accepting outright, and are at least sympathetic with). A better incarnational analogy requires a better christology, one that affirms the full human agency of Jesus. The way to do so, in my view, is through Barth, Jüngel, and McCormack—where Jesus is God precisely in his historical existence, where the “human nature” is not something appended onto the “divine nature” because the human existence is precisely where divinity is ontologically located (which to the analytics appears like a collapse of the natures).

I say all this because I think the lack of comprehension regarding incarnation and inerrancy is really indicative of a larger disagreement regarding the very nature of theological reasoning. This became clear at the after-dinner talk given by Billy Abraham (title: “Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine”!), in which he made it very clear that all Christian theology is a “spiritual enterprise,” which has spiritual formation as its rightful telos. Theology cannot escape things like diversity of tradition, historical and intellectual diversity, and the diversity of audiences. In short, the very idea of a universal rational discourse is, at least for theology, an illusion. He didn’t put it quite this way, but his point was that theology is about Christian discipleship, and discipleship involves concrete human beings within concrete historical contexts. It speaks from and for a particular group of believers, seeking to upbuild them in the faith and orient them toward love of God and neighbor. I do think most everyone in the room was on board with this, but there were some clear misgivings by some of the analytic types. The most telling moment occurred when one young man asked, “I really don’t understand why theology has to be concerned with spiritual formation at all. Why can’t it be just about logic and reason?” Abraham’s response was to the point: “Go do philosophy.” In other words, don’t call yourself a theologian, because you’re not doing theology. This particular man wasn’t the only person to raise this concern, and I suspect many people in the audience agreed with him.

So let me step back and assess what I take to be the general issue here. Is there such a thing as universal truth? Does theology trade in universally-valid propositions? Do we have access to timeless facts whose validity is universal in scope because not historically-conditioned? These are the kinds of questions that really divide the camps. I don’t want to get into how I would answer those questions here, since that would make this post even longer than it already is. For now, I’ll just say that even if there is universal truth, it’s not universal in the sense of being accessible to all—it is only truth for faith, i.e., within the context of the community of believers. The universality of truth is thus inseparable from the contingency and particularity of history.

My position thus stands in stark contrast to those in the analytic theology school, and I think there is a fairly obvious reason for this. Analytic theology is a subset of analytic philosophy of religion. According to proponents of analytic theology, this field is simply the systematic extension of the analytic philosophy of religion to every doctrinal locus. The aims of analytic theology are not fundamentally different from the aims of the philosophy of religion; there is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, difference between the two. Now the academic discipline of analytic philosophy understands its task to be the logical analysis of propositional arguments about various topics. Those who have not swallowed the Wittgensteinian, much less the Hegelian, pill—who still operate within the sphere of so-called universals—see themselves as capable of abstracting concepts from the historical contexts within which they are used; they can be analyzed apart from their concrete uses in particular situations for particular ends. A logically-justified claim has universal significance. Contrary to the “postmodern” continental tradition, everything is not hermeneutics.

For me, on the contrary, everything is hermeneutics. Every concept is culturally situated, every claim is determined by its location within history. There is no universally-valid ontology, no metaphysic that is not conditioned by a particular sociopolitical context. Now I think there are many ways of reaching this “continental” conclusion, but my reason is purely theological: Jesus Christ is the historicization of God, thus the historicization of theology. Speech about God is not speech about a universal concept of deity; it is contextual speech about the concrete reality of God in the world. This means that the very being of God is the ground for the hermeneutical nature of all theological discourse. There is no speech about God that is not essentially a matter of hermeneutical understanding. All talk of God is interpretation.

Is this an absolute divide? Are these two approaches to theology mutually exclusive? I’d like to think they aren’t, because I do want to engage these analytic theologians in constructive conversation that will be to our mutual benefit. But I am deeply skeptical. I am concerned that we have such radically different views of God, Christ, scripture, and revelation that we will never be able to move past prolegomena to actually do joint work in doctrinal reflection. I hope I am proved wrong and that my suspicions and worries are misguided. Based on the conference, however, I am left with decidedly mixed feelings.

Personally, I do not believe you can start with philosophy of religion and ever reach Christian theology. I am with Barth on this one. Or as Bultmann put it, “There is no alternative; [philosophy] must be either maid or mistress.” With Barth and Bultmann, I want the former (philosophy as maid). There are many at the conference that would probably agree with this, making theology the queen of the sciences. But exactly what they mean by this is often unclear. It seems that, in practice, philosophy is in fact the mistress—or, rather, they see no qualitative distinction between philosophy and theology, and whenever such a view is held, philosophy is inevitably the one in control.

I must reiterate again my deep gratitude for the invitation to attend Logos 2011. It was a pleasure to be there. I had some of the best conversations of the year (including some of the best drinks!). I met many incredible people, whom I look forward to seeing again in the future. I hope my misgivings are themselves misguided. I eagerly await future opportunities to discuss these important topics in more depth. In the meantime, consider me a friendly but critical outsider wishing the analytic theologians the best. There is still time to turn the philosophical water into theological wine.