The following is a conversation between Herb Davis and myself on the potential grounds for constructive dialogue between post-liberal, neo-orthodox and serious evangelical discourse on the critical issues relating to the faith/culture nexus in contemporary Protestant thought and culltural practices. The discussion took place on the Confessing Christ listserv posted on August 4th.
Herb: Dear George, You amaze me with your broad, generous, gentle reading of the theological landscape of the last 80 plus years. I think you are right to see the critical divide between Christianity that is defined primarily by "the strange, new world within the Bible" and Christianity that is defined primarily by culture, or some defining signs of God in the culture, such as "feeling of absolute dependence" (religious experience) or building the Kingdom or divisively, multiculturalism, etc. I think we both agree that no church is free of Bible or culture, it is where and how we lean on these sources.
George: Agreed on all this. The only thing I would add (my hypothesis) is that the divide is exacerbated by the enduring and in many ways, unconscious culture lag based on the foundational issues that shaped the modernist/fundamentalist polarity of the early 20th century in coming to terms with academic biblical criticism, science, professional historical studies, and the significance of the social gospel. Thus while the acute early 20th century crisis has been attenuated both by many theologically informed evangelicals and ecumenists, the cultural and psychological force of that split remains pressing, often exhibited on a most instinctive basis. part of what I am up to in this project is to "imaginatively exorcize" this conflict; I say imaginatively because I don't think it's very likely, but I maintain that the effort to do so needs to be enacted with the motivational impulse that it is so possible and that it is essential to do so nonetheless.
Herb: You see the major theological moves of the 20th century being suspicion of culture or historicism as defining the faith. Barth is most stark in his refusal to allow any natural theology or any clear signs of the God expect in Jesus Christ. Tillich is pushing to relativize all culture and talks about "the God above all gods," Bultman is trying to find a way to make "the strange, new world of the Bible" meaningful in the modern, scientific world (Barth you claim shares Bultman's hope), Bonheoffer is trying to find a way to be Christian without "being salve to individual consciousness or experience or being slave to the other, the winners or the victims or the culture icons." The Niebuhrs also distrust the culture and both raise deep questions about the values of nationalism, racism, or even love as being identified with God. What you call neo - orthodox, that movement that had some credence in the liberal church in 1940- 60's, remember Douglas Horton, leader in formation of UCC, translated Barth's "Word of God and Word of Man", which contains the essay on "The Strange New World in the Bible". You claim the future of Protestant rest on the renewal of this theology in the mainline/liberal church making a bridge to the evangelical theological that are beginning to see Barth in a new light. I think you may be right but I wonder if the liberal church can recapture neo-orthodox.
George: To take your last phrase on the liberal church reclaiming neo-orthodoxy; there are some serious efforts by Hall, Dorrien, Robin Lovin, Larry Rassumussen, and Gabe, to name a few. Thus, there may be a bridge between theological liberalism and post-liberalism as exhibited also in the work of Brueggemann, though I'm not too sure how far the theological liberals are willing or able to go or if those like Dorrien and Hall in particular are willing to merge their dialectical empathies with a willingness to embrace direct truth claims even as a regulative ideal with very strong intent moving into the realm of coming to terms with the particularity of the faith once for all delivered to the Saints. I also do not know to what extent the post-liberal theologians/biblical scholars are willing to engage in serious dialogue with evangelicals such as Richard Lints, Mark Noll, George Marsden, David Wells, and J.I. Packer, but I do think such a probing is also very critical on both sides of this divide. At the least this would require, in my view, a rigorous embrace of the Barthian vision of the reality and desirability of placing the strange new world of the Bible first and some giving up of a rigid doctrine of inerrancy in the midst of adhering firmly to the Bible as the revealed Word of God which can only even begun to be grasped through the power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit.
Herb: Fackre was a pioneer in this effort as you continually note. Years ago at Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) he tried to move the school to a closer relationship with Gordon Cornwell Theological School. He helped hire a Pentecostal theologian who believe that Pentecostals need the mainline church and the mainline church needed Pentecostals. He help hire a Latino evangelical liberation theologian who became Dean. He shared your vision. Recently ANTS has moved away from building bridges to the evangelical community to a tight relationship with a religious society deeply defined by culture, granted the best and finest of our culture. What you would hope for would be a deeper relationship in the UCC seminaries with evangelical seminary such as PSR with Fuller Seminary, ANTS with Gordon. This doesn't seem possible but it would be thinking outside the box.
George: I think that's essential and I thought there was potential between ANTS and Gordon; apparently not so much at this time
Herb: I have your hope. I think you are right about the "strange new world of the Bible" vs.. the culture. I see some glimmer of this in the UCC Vitality Resources but.....where do you see signs of possibility that the "strange new world of the Bible" might be emerging? You seem to suggest the Confessing Christ movements but I think many of these may be move culturally motivated than theological? Is there any other places?
George: Perhaps there's more theology here than you seem to note. last time I checked the United Methodist Church has a type of Confessing Christ movement, and let's do play up the potential significance of this movement within the UCC, which, at its best, I believe, will remain a solid dialogue partner. I think some of the work by Marva Dawn has some value. Also, there may be some value in re-visiting some of the UCC breakaway churches. The one I attended last year broke from the CT UCC Conference some years ago for what they viewed as the broader purposes of drawing in and drawing on the more deeply rooted legacy of British and American congregationalism. The religious literacy of the laity of that church is stunning, including lay led book clubs and Bible study. The monthly book club has read the likes of Augustine, Bonhoeffer, Chesterton, Lewis and many others and those who participate in the Bible studies have a solid grasp of the text and the capacity to relate it to the complexities of everyday life. Moreover, the political philosophy of the membership ranges from liberal to conservative and I saw Obama stickers on cars parked there for Sunday morning services.
In short, I think there are places, movements and texts to draw. Even though I do not think the center holds, I do believe that its radical pursuits at least on the precepts that I have attempted to lay out is more than worthy of the effort. That's me, though.
Herb: Tomorrow comments on Hall, Dorrien and Lints which might be the hopeful signs. Herb
George: Looking forward to it.