Monday, May 23, 2016

Theological Pluralism at the End of the Mainline

Eighteen years ago William J. Abraham published a dire warning about the future of the United Methodist Church in First Things: “United Methodists at the End of the Mainline.” The article has been shared recently in light of the current social media firestorm surrounding the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference (#UMCGC). Abraham in 1998 saw his denomination facing a “breakdown of a working consensus.”

The problem, he argues, is that the United Methodist Church is composed of three groups—the liberals, radicals, and conservatives—with the liberals in leadership. The liberals have a policy of inclusion and pluralism, but they have excluded those who do not share their pluralistic vision and principles. The result is the old cliché: liberals are tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Abraham sees the liberal position as inherently unstable and incoherent. The conservatives and radicals, by contrast, are defined by being explicitly exclusionary: the conservatives exclude those who are confessionally out-of-bounds, while the radicals exclude those who are politically out-of-bounds. Abraham is clearly sympathetic to the conservative camp and defends their position in the rest of the article. He clearly appreciates the liberals for being able to hold the three groups together for so long, and he seems to blame the radicals for undermining this “working consensus” by forcing the liberals to take a hard stand against certain conservative factions.

What interests me here is his case against theological pluralism. Here is the heart of his argument:
It has long been agreed that United Methodism is a coalition of diverse conviction and opinion, having been formed under the banner of theological pluralism. Church leaders took the view in the 1970s that the core identity of United Methodism, if there was one at all, was located in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and that this not only permitted but in fact sanctioned and fostered doctrinal pluralism. 
Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review. 
The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology. 
Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative doctrine that there is no divine revelation that delivers genuine knowledge of God; it is absolutely committed to a radically apophatic conception of Christian theology, so that no human language or concept, no product of reason at all, can adequately express the mystery of the divine; and it is absolutely committed to using theology to articulate Christian doctrine given the needs and idiom of the day. But it is relativist in its vision of what constitutes the material content of Christian doctrine at any point in history. Doctrine for the pluralists is the expression of Christian teaching as worked out by some appropriate theology and expressed in terms adequate to the culture of the day. To them, Christian tradition constitutes a series of landmark expressions of the faith which are worth exploring, but which must change to incorporate new insights and new truth. On this analysis tradition is seen to be a relatively benign, if not strictly binding, phenomenon.
I am not interested in the internecine squabbles within the UMC, so I will mostly ignore the rest of his article. What concerns me is the characterization of pluralism in this piece. Abraham thinks that the pluralist position is rooted in apophaticism, that is to say, the notion that we cannot have definitive knowledge of God. Because our language does not actually refer to God, our God-talk is merely about human experience. And since human experience is pluriform and constantly changing, our theology must necessarily be pluralistic and provisional.

The liberal position as Abraham describes it makes a crucial—and, to my mind, erroneous—presupposition. It assumes that one cannot confess a definitive revelation of God and hold to a pluralistic and provisional understanding of God-talk. If we have knowledge of God, then doctrinal pluralism is impossible. Whether this is Abraham’s own position or simply the position of the UMC liberals he describes is beside the point. What matters here is that this is not the only option available to us.

Theological pluralism is the necessary consequence of faith’s knowledge of God’s revelation. That is because pluralism is grounded not in a pragmatic attempt to address human diversity but in a theological conviction about the very being and action of God. Pluralism is valid because God embraces sociocultural multiplicity within God’s own being. Revelation is not objectifiable in a text or historical occurrence but is and remains a divine event that confronts us in history. This event of divine self-revelation—insofar as it is concretely defined by the Christ who transgresses cultural boundaries and the Spirit who brings cultural strangers into emancipatory coexistence—is inherently translatable, and thus God is perpetually in the act of translating Godself into a multiplicity of contexts.

The result is that we can affirm each of the three factions that Abraham describes:

  • In agreement with the liberals, revelation “def[ies] precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations,” doctrine “can never be adequately posited once and for all,” “the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine,” and the church must engage in “constant self-criticism.”
  • In agreement with the radicals, this revelation is an emancipatory event that stands on the side of the marginalized and disenfranchised, those who have been oppressed by the unjust distribution of power and the enslaving system of neoliberal capitalism.
  • In agreement with the conservatives, this revelation is grounded in a definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ and is thus the norm and criterion for genuinely confessional claims about God, the world, and the church.

By grounding the liberal project in the being-in-act of God, one can thus move beyond Abraham’s charge of incoherence. The liberal project is, properly understood, not inclusion and pluralism for the mere sake of pluralism and inclusion. Instead, inclusion is grounded in and follows from a particular understanding of God, and since this God has a very particular character the inclusion that follows from revelation has certain limitations. It is not pluralism for pluralism’s sake. It is pluralism as the expression of God’s constant going-beyond-Godself in the action of Christ and the Spirit in the world. Certain positions are necessarily excluded as being unfaithful to this God.

In other words, conservative positions that attempt to stabilize doctrine as timeless and universally valid are in fact denying the truth of the gospel. Positions that attempt to establish certain gender and sexual norms as permanently valid on the basis of creation are in fact opposed to God’s revelation. Positions that do not take matters of oppression and liberation into account fail to follow the way of God in the world.

The charge of incoherence is only plausible where one does not probe the underlying basis for theological pluralism. Once we do, we begin to see that it is possible—nay, necessary—to develop what we might call a radical liberal evangelicalism. Such a position insists on a genuine knowledge of God that makes possible meaningful God-talk. But such a position equally insists that the God we come to know is a God who does not stand still, who is perpetually in movement, who does not put up with being made a stable object for our observation and inquiry. Moreover, this God is in movement on the underside of history, breaking in among those who have been systemically silenced and subjugated. The most genuinely conservative theology is thus the most genuinely radical: a theology that hears and speaks of God in revolutionary action.

My forthcoming book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cascade, 2016), is an initial attempt to outline what a theology of this nature looks like. In that work I propose what I call an orthoheterodoxy: theology must always speak differently, but in the right way, namely, in accordance with the norm of God’s translatable event of revelation. You can see the table of contents here. Stay tuned for more details.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Dialectical Theology and Mission: A Response to Martin Westerholm

I am grateful to Martin Westerholm for his generous review article on my book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015), which he places alongside Kevin Hector’s new work, The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Conditions of Mineness (OUP, 2015). The article is in the latest issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology (18, no. 2: 210–32). On the whole I think Westerholm has done an admirable job summarizing and exploring the key themes of my work. In this post I want to address some areas of critique that he raises and reflect on what this reveals about the state of the conversation.

I.

Westerholm understands well the structure of my argument. He recognizes that it is framed in concentric circles leading, at its heart, into the program of demythologizing. The argument is not primarily that demythologizing itself has been completely misunderstood—though in some respects it has been—but that the program needs to be placed in the proper context: “Rehabilitating this hermeneutic does not mean changing its basic definition, but rather constructing a new framework around it that changes the terms on which it is understood. Congdon’s book is long because it not only describes its object but also reconstructs the theological and historical world in relation to which the object is judged” (218). The new framework I provide is a new understanding of dialectical theology (DT), one that does justice to the theological concerns and historical trajectories of both Barth and Bultmann. Westerholm examines my tripartite definition of DT as soteriological, eschatological, and missional (I use “missionary” in my book, but “missional” captures the same meaning).

Westerholm focuses his main critique around the third term and here it is worth taking a closer look. He writes:
The fly in the ointment is the addition of mission as the third constitutive feature of dialectical theology. The addition appears to be crucial, for Congdon wishes to argue that it is the ‘missionary logic’ that ‘governs’ dialectical theology that demythologizing ‘extends’ into hermeneutics; but the association between dialectical theology and mission is a soft spot in his argument. At the most conceptually consistent moments in the work, Congdon depicts dialectical theology as a soteriological-eschatological form of thought that has implications for mission; but we are in the sphere of fallacy if we name the essence of the thing according to its implication, and stronger claims regarding ‘essence’ typify the book. Congdon seeks to secure these claims through a reinterpretation of Barth’s development that depicts concern for mission as a decisive factor in moving Barth towards dialectical theology; but, in a book in which the historiographical work is generally thorough and rigorous, the evidence provided for Barth’s missional interest is strikingly thin, and even were the interest well substantiated, we should again be guilty of fallacy were we to treat genetic factors as constitutive of essence. (219–20)
Westerholm has a long footnote in here where he attempts to review all the places in which I cite mission appearing in Barth’s early writings (220n38). Readers are encouraged to read the note for themselves. All I want to say here is that he seems to have misunderstood the point of this historiographical section. The point was not to document every appearance of mission in the early Barth. When he says that “mission is then largely absent from Barth’s writings between 1910 and 1914,” that is because I chose not to discuss those years in order to hit the main highlights. Parenthetically, the recent publication of Barth’s 1911 sermons shows that mission was indeed a concern on his mind during that time. Westerholm concludes the note by stating: “No evidence that Barth engages with the theme after 1915, when he actually began working out his dialectical theology, appears, a lack that stands in sharp contrast to the frequency with which other spheres in which a separation between kerygma and culture has implications – social, political, economic – are mentioned.” But again, that is because I largely chose to conclude my investigation with Barth’s turn to DT—though, strangely, Westerholm ignores section 3.3 (esp. pp. 295–303) where I document the way this missionary theme plays out explicitly in 1932. Others, especially John Flett, have already commented on the importance of mission to Barth’s later theology, and I did not want to retread the same territory in a book focused on Bultmann.

But there is a more important issue here. Westerholm seems to think that only explicit mentions of mission count in favor of my argument that there is a missionary logic in DT. This connects with his charge that I have confused essence and implication. Perhaps this is something I should have been clearer about in my book. When I speak about mission as part of the “essence” of DT, I am referring to the “missionary logic” (a term I use frequently and that Westerholm quotes) of DT. When I speak about “implications for mission,” I am referring to the way DT has practical applications for how we think about and practice mission today. I claim both as true, but the former does not require explicit reference to mission. And this is where I think Westerholm misunderstands a key piece about my overall argument.

Westerholm finds my “interest in mission” to be a “liability” because “the emphasis appears in important senses to have been unnecessary to the larger argument.” He writes:
Congdon depicts mission as a third term that is needed to connect dialectical theology to demythologizing; but the most parsimonious form of the claim that demythologizing extends the principles of dialectical theology into hermeneutics bypasses mission entirely and presents demythologizing as the hermeneutical application of the eschatology of dialectical theology. A thesis of this kind would say that dialectical theology is marked by separating human realities that are put under judgement from the event of revelation, and that demythologizing applies this separation to hermeneutics. (220)
Actually, this does not bypass mission at all but is in fact deeply interwoven with it! Here is the real heart of the matter: Westerholm seems to have missed a crucial part of my book’s argument, something I state very clearly in the introduction, namely, that DT is fundamentally about reconstructing theology within modernity and mission is the logic that makes this reconstruction possible:
How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creative transformations?” The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. (The Mission of Demythologizing, xxii)
Westerholm focuses so much of his time in the trees that he misses the forest. DT as a whole is a project in theological reconstruction, an attempt to rethink Christian theology from the ground up within a modern context. This reconstruction is another way of describing mission. Mission, as I define it in the opening pages of the book, concerns the recontextualization of the Christian kerygma. My book is then an attempt to investigate the condition of possibility for this reconstruction/recontextualization. That involves getting at the missionary logic underlying DT.

What I argue is that DT was a contextualization project from the very beginning. It articulated the norm for missionary contextualization—namely, the eschatological event of salvation—and contextualized this norm in response to a missionary situation in 20th century Germany. I argue that, despite the changes in Barth’s theology, his work is a consistent attempt to recontextualize this kerygma in response to present missionary demands. Bultmann extends Barth’s project by reflecting on the methodological basis for this contextualization. Demythologizing articulates DT’s implicit hermeneutic.

To put all of this in another way, what Westerholm misses is the importance of culture. As I state, “the field of mission studies or intercultural theology examines the relation between ‘gospel’ . . . and ‘culture’” (The Mission of Demythologizing, 524). Westerholm seems to think that DT in its original form can be reduced to eschatology, but this eschatology cannot be understood if we do not recognize the way it functions to criticize a certain (liberal-colonialist) collapse of gospel and culture and, conversely, to authorize a more open and free relation between gospel and culture. The point of my review of the early Barth is to show that the gospel-culture relationship is front and center in his mind. Surely Westerholm would not dispute that Barth was responding to a problematic conflation of Christian truth with German culture. My point is simply this: responding to this conflation is already to engage in missionary thinking.

Westerholm is correct to say that “dialectical theology is marked by separating human realities that are put under judgement from the event of revelation, and that demythologizing applies this separation to hermeneutics,” but these “human realities” are cultural realities and thus to engage in this “separation” is to engage in missionary contextualization. Westerholm seems on the verge of making this very point. He says that “Barth’s eschatology implies that no human reality is identical with the movement of God, and so the kerygma cannot be identified with the constructs of a particular culture,” and he adds that “the kerygma must be distinguished from all cultural constructs.” All of this “is, for Congdon, the essence of a missional form of thought.” So why then does he spend so much time questioning the place of mission in my argument? There is an odd disjunction between his summary of my argument and his later assessment. Mission seems essential in the former but then appears unnecessary in the latter. This remains perplexing to me.

II.

Westerholm concludes the article by evaluating the continuity of my position with the classical Christian tradition. Here again mission is at issue:
Mission is invoked at points in Congdon’s work as a criterion of theological propriety; yet that which is significant for us is the recognition that mission must itself be normed by a prior account of Christian teaching, for the missionary work of intercultural translation hinges on concrete judgements regarding the essential content of the message that the translator seeks to convey. . . . On these terms, mission depends on prior judgements about the essential content of Christianity, and is thus normed before it is norming. (228)
Before going on to assess his evaluation of my account of the norm, let me pause for a minute to examine this statement. Westerholm sets up a relation between gospel and culture that I explicitly critique in my book, that is to say, one in which the gospel contains the “essential content of Christianity” that mission then translates for a specific context. This is precisely the view of mission that Barth adopts in his later theology and that I criticize by drawing on the resources of Bultmann and contemporary work in intercultural theology, especially Theo Sundermeier. The point is that the kerygma, insofar as it is given linguistic expression, is already contextual, already situated within history, and thus grasping the message itself is already a missionary endeavor. The kerygma as norm is a divine event that is prelinguistic and preconceptual. DT recovered this understanding of the kerygma in its focus on the eschatologically transcendent word of God.

Westerholm wants to argue that Barth abandoned this early eschatological norm because he realized it was theologically inadequate. He challenges my claim that “the choice for Barth is necessarily at the same time a choice for Bultmann” (The Mission of Demythologizing, 9). First, let me clarify this claim. I am responding to those who think that Bultmann is the one who departed from DT, so my claim is simply that if you accept that Barth was a dialectical theologian then you ought to accept that Bultmann was as well. Westerholm takes my statement in a stronger sense that I did not intend and that is actually contrary to my argument: namely that to be on the side of the later Barth is also to be on the side of Bultmann. On the contrary, I show in my book why that is not the case.

Having said that, while Barth certainly abandons the version of DT he held in the 1920s, I do want to affirm a continuity between the early and later Barth. In this respect I remain the student of Bruce McCormack. If one accepts my argument that DT is fundamentally about mission—about a missionary distinction between gospel and culture—then I believe it is eminently possible to see continuity between the early and later Barth, and thus between Barth and Bultmann. This does not mean that the later Barth and Bultmann represent the same position; rather it means they share a fundamentally consistent norm, even if this norm is fleshed out in contradictory ways. This explains the significant points of contact between their later writings.

But Westerholm does not seem nearly so sanguine about the claim of Barth’s consistency. He states his agreement with Przywara and Balthasar’s criticisms of the early Barth (229), he defends Balthasar (229n71), and his reference to McCormack is tepid: “If, with Bruce McCormack, we define dialectical theology in terms of the concepts that cluster around Barth’s understanding of the formal structure of revelation, then we may perhaps say that Barth always remained a dialectical theologian” (231). Westerholm seems to be of the opinion that the later Barth breaks with the early Barth in a fundamental way. If that is the case, then he is certainly correct that my claim about continuity between Barth and Bultmann cannot be sustained. But my work assumes McCormack’s thesis about continuity between the early and later Barth and only asks what that continuity suggests about Bultmann. Westerholm cannot fairly criticize my claim that “the choice for Barth is necessarily at the same time a choice for Bultmann” without acknowledging this presupposition of my work. By not doing so he shifts the goalposts and then criticizes me for not sharing his own take on Barth.

III.

In closing, I wish to express my genuine appreciation to Westerholm for taking my work seriously. It is an honor to be read so carefully and to be placed in conversation with Kevin Hector, whose work I admire greatly. I found it curious that Westerholm does not mention that Hector and I were both students at Princeton Seminary and both had McCormack for our Doktorvater. I initially assumed this was the reason he evaluated our books together, but he never mentions it. He also does not mention that I have a section in my book where I critically evaluate Hector’s first book, Theology without Metaphysics (see 7.4.2.6).

Westerholm’s overall point of critique is that Hector and I affirm a modern Christianity. To that I must say: guilty as charged! We do not see any intrinsic tension between modernity and the Christian faith. A modern reconstruction of Christian theology is not only possible but even necessary. Westerholm questions whether such a reconstruction “is continuous with the broader Christian tradition” (228). This is a common rejoinder, but it reflects a disagreement over what counts as tradition and thus what counts as continuity. Bultmann reflects on this issue in his own writings. His position is decidedly Protestant in his view that tradition is only genuinely tradition if it “is actually a part of the event which it preserves, celebrates, laments, or even merely describes” (Faith and Understanding, 191). The tradition has to “speak to me” and confront me with the same address and summons. Only insofar as it communicates this kerygmatic event does it actually count as tradition. In other words, the tradition does not stand as an independent norm for evaluating translations of the kerygma. To treat the tradition in this way is already to abandon the tradition—that is, to abandon the gospel itself.

I have said before that the challenge Bultmann poses is whether we are willing to affirm that modernity is a valid context within which to translate and articulate the Christian kerygma. Over the past half-century the tide within the church has turned against Bultmann (and DT for that matter). Today it is a widely held opinion that modernity is in key respects antithetical to the gospel. In our own ways Hector and I disagree with this opinion. For the sake of clarity and honesty I hope that future engagements with our work explore this issue in more depth.