Friday, August 20, 2010

Concluding Remarks on the Barthian Turn

I would like to wrap up this set of posts by presenting the concluding remarks of my chapter esssay. Radical Historicism and the Disclosive Word of God, which also brings to conclusion the six pereceding chapters in a book project on contemporary Protestant biblical theology that remains in search of a publisher. To the extent taht time allows (and time is tight at this point) I will attempt shorter posts. I wanted this concluding statement to stand in full on its own terms


Concluding Remarks on the Barthian Turn to the "Strange New World of the Bible"

At this point what I can offer is a summative statement. At the core of the argument is the persisting nature of the great divide at the heart of 20th century American Protestantism as reflected symbolically in its evangelical and mainline camps, on whether one starts with the Bible or the culture as the primary source of faith in God revealed through Christ. As evident even in the mediating theologies of Hall and Lints, there is something enduring about this split along the fault line of contemporary Protestantism. The divide exists at the congregational level as well as throughout the fabric of formal theological discourse, exemplified, for example by which authors are read or ignored in particular seminary or congregational settings. The result is that a great many Protestant ministers, educated lay persons, and even theologians do not have a substantial understanding of the nature of scriptural exegesis, theological argumentation, or even basic biblical understanding of those whose positions substantially differ from their own within the camp of Protestant discourse. The consequential impact is an all-too-quick resort to clich├ęs, stereotypical thinking, or downright dismissal of even highly cogent alternative depictions of self-identified Christian scholarship and approaches to worship, preaching, and teaching at the congregational level.

In covering the ground from J.I. Packer to Jurgen Moltmann I have sought to imaginatively traverse some of the distance within 20th century Protestantism within a broad-based orthodoxy, in which its different streams need to be placed in critical dialogue for any even imaginative healing of the great divide to take hold. This schema of placing these five theologians and biblical scholars in the sequencing that I have is based on a rough ordering from conservative to liberal within the context of an overarching generous orthodoxy. Both singularly and collectively the studied biblical theology of these five offers an abundance of riches in the ongoing work of contemporary Protestant theological construction. My strategy was to juxtapose core concepts of these authors in a predominantly irenic manner in order to draw out all that I could of the immense value of their insights even as I raise critical issues with certain aspects of all of these authors’ works. The value of their many reflections is enhanced by the fact that each has taken a mediating approach in the effort of reconciling a broad swathe of theological insight within a given sphere of their respective theaters of influence. In this respect, the five represent a very broad range of theological insight that a close focus on their work enables me to address, if not exhaustively, at least in some substantive manner. Additional study is obviously needed. Even still, I have attempted to cover the basic ground in relation to the specific issues I am addressing, first and foremost the role of the theology of Scripture in contemporary Protestant discourse.

I have taken the position throughout this book that any substantial revitalization of a Reformed-based renewal within mainline and evangelical sectors will require some substantial embrace of the Barthian turn toward the strange new world within the Bible. To this I add the proviso that apologetics take on a supportive, supplemental role beyond what Barth addressed in his massive Church Dogmatics particularly within the faith community where cogent reasons to believe require solid articulation. This is especially the case in our secular era where convincing reasons to believe are anything but self-evident, given the compelling force of other metanarrative construals among large sectors of the contemporary faith community. This is so not only on the impact of such secular narratives among the mainline sector, but also with large segments of evangelical laity and clergy.

Thus, a rigorously nuanced apologetics is extremely important work. However, it is not the focus of this book. Nor, do I think, is it the most pressing issue in terms of faith identity facing the contemporary Protestant community at this time. That, I believe, particularly in this era of mainline, and according to Wells, serious evangelical diaspora, is the press of the onslaught of an engulfing secularization on the impact of Christian consciousness, which is the focus of this book. The challenge of secularization I would posit in the broadest of senses as roughly analogous to the influence of Hellenistic culture on the first few centuries of the emergence of the early church. On this analogy, secularization holds attendant dangers and possibilities for theological reconstruction on grounds that could enhance foundational kergmatic claims even if such work would require different epistemological bases from other constructions of faith as historically conditioned in previous eras, as allusively suggested, for example, by Moltmann.

On this analogy, as imprecise as it may be, critical dialogue, including the prospect of some mediation between faith and culture is quite warranted. That mediation will take place is inescapable in any event. The more important issue is the conscious intentionality through which such reflection would be undertaken on the relationship between faith and culture in any given context and where ultimate theological priorities are placed. With Hall and Wells, I discern the primary challenge in contemporary Protestant identity at this very time as the painful need for a radical coming to terms with the persisting reality of its diaspora context in contemporary U.S. culture. This is clearly cultural work and simultaneously profoundly theological. The implications of this realization will require, among other things, the delineation of a sharply defined, sophisticated, and comprehensible countercultural identity based on the core precepts of its most fundamental and foundational kerygma in sharp juxtaposition to the secular metanarrative. Without this, I fear the press of the secular trajectory of the past two centuries maintains such a persuasive pull that it can only further engulf the prospect of any flourishing of a sophisticated, sharply defined, and comprehensible theological identity within contemporary Protestant congregational life based on its core biblical metanarrative claims. It is this, I argue, that is perilously at risk in our secular age in which a broad array of countercultural resources are most urgently needed for even the maintenance of a viable Protestant identity in our time.

The important dialogue between postliberal and critical evangelical perspectives at the academic and congregational levels provides one of the more important resources for the building up of the Protestant body on its own foundational terms. So does a strengthening of the local church and the denominational structure at the ecclesial and theological levels, pivotal areas that I have not been able to tackle in this book, which Fackre, for example, whose work I am in broad sympathy, has done so much to address throughout his career as a pastor, theologian, and ecumenical churchman. My work has been more directly focused on the theological, particularly the role of Scripture on the Bible/culture axis. It is this pivotal question on whether the Bible will be the basis for interpreting the culture or whether culture will be the basis for interpreting the Bible that requires some dramatic resolution, complexity notwithstanding for Protestant identity to emerge with any semblance of coherency in our time. It is the outcome of this pivotal challenge, the kerygmatic claim of God revealed in Christ as attested to in the New Testament through the mighty clouds of apostolic witness, which, I posit, will determine the viability of ecclesial and congregational renewal of contemporary Protestantism stemming from any sustainable reformation of the faith grounded in its most fundamental principles.

I do not presume that one cannot be Christian without making this metaphorical Barthian turn. I can only encourage those who take the position to the contrary to continue to make their own case and to acknowledge, too that theirs is a faith-based position, however compellingly riveting it may seem. The predominance of culture over Scripture in the broad sense of Brueggemann’s funding postmodernity one verse, one miracle, one revelation at a time remains a shadow voice in my own faith walk. I presume that this cannot but be so given its preeminence through a significant period of my life, which I, nonetheless have not at this point given nor choose to give a great deal of emphasis to on warranting more attention than I believe that it deserves as discussed in Chapter Five. The more important need is the persisting challenge of deconstructing any sense of absolutism that historicism may hold on my own faith-based identity and as a persisting stranglehold in contemporary Protestant theology.

Given the press of my broader argument, this struggle for a sharply demarcated and theological rich Christian identity based on the fundamental presuppositions of a biblically inspired faith is far from mine alone. In making the Barthian turn there has been some deliberate intentionality in my deciding that one construction of reality, the theological, is more substantial than the philosophical, especially, on my construction through the pragmatic reflections of John Dewey, who has had a preeminent influence in my academic work in adult literacy education. Such a paradigmatic shift has been born through much struggle extending over a three decade period in which coming to a new resolution has been anything but easy or self-evident. Writ large, Dewey’s pragmatism is a subset of the philosophy of naturalism which underlies a very broad set of presuppositions reinforcing the engulfment of the secular turn in our time.

One might plausibly ague that I have been operating out of a modern/postmodern identity based on the mythology of a self that has the capacity to act in such an apparently intentional manner in deciding whether one would embrace a distinctively religious or secular identity, with all complexity again, well noted of what such a formation entails. In faith, I assume it has not been solely “me” deciding, but Christ within the very fabric of my identity pulling me toward this construction of reality through the various means discussed in this book, via the instrumentality in more recent times of H.R. Niebuhr’s concept of “centers of value.” This Niebuhran turn toward an imaginative Bathian identity has included increasing awareness of the inescapability of making absolute claims through whatever sets of value upon which one places one’s ultimate concern. It was this insight that resonated at a particular place and time that provided an imaginative resource to loosen the hold of the overwhelming presence of a postmodern identity embedded within the inescapability of radical historicism. Not that I have completely escaped historical constructivism or even desire to do so, though I do believe that historicism as an absolute is one of the primary centers of value of the past 150 years, and, to use biblical imagery, a potent form of idolatry which speaks very compellingly to the citizens of the secular city. A deeper appreciation of this reality, which Niebuhr’s Radical Monotheism and Western Culture helped to crystallize, was one pivotal factor, from below, so to speak.

The other is the enduring press of Jesus’ critical challenge to Nicodemus on the necessity of entering into the faith that Christ proclaimed by being born again, in which, to simply state it, nothing else will do (Jn 3:3-20). To put it otherwise, at some time and place, if one is going to walk within the precepts of a New Testament-based faith in any coherent and sustained way at all, persisting questioning, searching, doubting, and grappling with the complexities of the self in its varied subtle cultural formations, needs to come to some dramatic and imaginative resolution in “new creation.” Life in its complex and diverse richness, tragic depths, intellectual searching, and aesthetic wonderment still pertains, even more so, arguably in the abundant new life that a reasonably consistent walk within the Christian pathway opens up. As with all constructions of reality there are boundaries, in our case defined by the life, teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Christ in which the challenge becomes the placing of all other narratives within this wide expanse; one that has edges as well, which one may transgress, but not without consequences, sometimes extremely painful ones that can extend to the very breaking point of faith.

The capacity to expand the Barthian project as an ongoing theological work is an issue of the most critical magnitude given the foundational status of the Bible as the classical Protestant magisterium. The persisting reality of the cultural divide between fundamentalism and modernism permeates all sectors of U.S. Protestantism to its core, which compounds the challenge of embracing Scripture as the primary narrative of faith in its complex relationship to church tradition and the broader cultural matrix. An imaginative coming to terms with the implications of this chasm in which critical theological issues are probed represents a crucial baseline for any viable Protestant renewal even within the context of its culturally marginalized diaspora setting. As argued throughout this book, any such reform within Protestantism will not come easy and will be ultimately limited in any event, although to what extent, one of course, cannot say. The point is there is a viable basis for some fruitful enhancement of centrist ground as exemplified for example in the critical dialogue between evangelical and postliberal theology and in the reclamation of the neo-orthodox legacy, both of which have the capacity to speak to searchingly attuned sensibilities underlying the confessing Christ movements within the mainline denominations and to critically articulated evangelical perspectives.

The challenge, I believe, is to lay out a sharply clarified baseline on the essentials and to allow for and even encourage (but not romanticize) latitude in things where liberty can pertain. Through such critical and faithful dialogue new light may break forth, indeed. Yet any new insights that emerge need to resonate with the apostolic faith once for all delivered to the saints. This can only be the standard for any hermeneutical renewal that seeks to be faithful to both the context and the text, however difficult and invariably flawed the process of discernment may be and the attendant disagreements that remain even of the most substantial penultimate points of contention.

However problematic the Barthian turn may be, I maintain that the alternative of positing some aspect of culture in the more privileged position than the Bible as anything less than the Protestant magisterium is even more so. That is the case because it undercuts the potential depth of what a theologically sophisticated and ecumenically grounded faith commitment could come to mean and be for a contemporary Protestant identity that seeks to be faithful to the core keygma in a manner that also has the capacity to be profoundly culturally relevant, which I view as an important secondary concern.

On this I have made the comparable argument that dialectics needs to be subsumed within dogmatics and cannot stand as the final arbiter of faith. To make it such is to situate paradox and doubt as positive theological values in their own right as independent centers of value rather than as essential experiences along the pathway of faith in “work[ing] out our salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). I contend that in all periods and situations believing “with no doubting” (Jas 1:6) is the biblical norm even in the acknowledgment that we see in a mirror, dimly and cannot practically avoid a degree of hopefully healthy skepticism at least in terms of our capacity to grasp what we seek to attain, in any event. Even in this acknowledgement, believing faith as the substance of our identity rather than doubt in itself is the critical biblical norm, which is one of the main countercultural outcomes of any imaginative embrace of the Barthian turn, one that comes to terms with the gap between what we can know and can hope for through the vision of faith. It is this radical scandal, which speaks to a central tenet of 20th century epistemology.

Such a faith, in its ecumenical and kegymatic fullness is a radical rejoinder to the most fundamental precepts of the secular paradigm. It is a faith stance that needs to be embraced with both humility and boldness within the contemporary Protestant sector for any even plausible effort, however incomplete, of overcoming some of the more pernicious, all-engulfing, and subtle idolatrous forces of the secular era. The case may be overstated in that the relationship between the Bible and the culture in any given context, including the current one is infinitely more complex than one can hope to describe through the symbolism of words. Yet, the matter of ultimate identification is an inescapable one, however partial our knowledge can only possibly be. In this respect there is something enduringly pressing in the typology described in Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, notwithstanding the limitations and provisos as earlier discussed.

The critical issue in our context for Protestant life and identity formation remains the basic one on whether the culture in all that that implies becomes the source for interpreting the Bible or whether Scripture, in all that that implies, becomes the basis for interpreting the culture, with attendant implications for theology, congregational life, denominational polity, and personal piety. Thus, for all of the complexity and nuance in the relationship between modernity/postmodernity and contemporary theological discourse (lay and academic), the issue of placing centers of value somewhere cannot be avoided. It is this realization and the identification of radical monotheism as the ultimate center of value underpinning all of creation as an uncompromising ontological assumption that requires sustaining epistemological assent in the embrace in faith of whatever grace is given that is the enduring legacy of H.R. Niebuhr and a pivotal underpinning of this book. It is the acceptance of this realization at least for those for whom the Bible has been made problematic that opens the biblical text as the most singular viable entry point to the strange new world of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, who in faith, is “the expressed image of his [very] Person” (Heb 1:3).

On the substance of this incarnational epiphany, I contend that the very identity of Christianity stands or falls in this era and in every age. It is this faith claim about the nature of reality which grounds the search for a continuously greater understanding of its many manifestations within and through its various embodiments in the time in which we live. In this era we live in a time of unaccustomed diaspora in all that that implies for identity reconstruction. In the more fundamental sense our residence is between the first and final coming of Christ’s appearance in all that that implies for grappling with the ineradicable tension between that which we are called to believe and that to which we can know by sight. Faith is the substance that mediates the difference.

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