Saturday, July 18, 2015

Evaluation of Nancy Pearcey’s Theology

This link provides a review of Nancy Pearcey’s new book, Total Truth:  Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (
I saw much of Pearcey’s presentation of the book, recently, on C-Spann.

I take issue with her politics, which is clearly conservative in its elevation of issues surrounding abortion and the definition of marriage as the core of Christian morality and her embrace of President Bush who some may view as Christ’s Vicar in America. However, there is much in her theology that I would embrace as viable for a comprehensive (or “generous”) orthodoxy, particularly in the author’s insistence that Christian orthodoxy, broadly defined, articulates a solid worldview that can effectively engage other worldviews (secular and religious). 

Where I would challenge her theology is in her assurance that Christian orthodoxy does represent the absolute truth in relation both to the human condition and the cosmos as well as her insistence that the depiction of Christ and the early Christian community as portrayed in the NT is synonymous itself with historical experience and sound science.

With Peacey, I accept the crucial importance of embracing what Brian McLaren refers to as a “generous orthodoxy” as an article of informed faith in order even to begin to experience anything closely resembling the fullness of Christ as the embodied incarnation of God in human flesh.  In that, there’s much that I share with G.K. Chesterton in his two books, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity and other key books, and with many other fine authors such as John Stott.

The challenging issue which these authors bring to the forefront is the exclusivist claim that the Christian revelation is the universal final word about the relationship between God and humanity, in which “all other ground is sinking sand,” as a certain hymnist put it.  What I like about all of this work is that these well read and astute authors are unafraid to push the issue. To a person, the published authors mentioned unequivocally make the case that there is not only something unique, but ultimate and final bout the Christian revelation, namely the Incarnation through the mediational character of Jesus the Christ.  In a respectful and enlightened presentation, in Truth and Tolerance:  Christian Belief and World Religions, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger makes a similar case in juxtaposing Christianity to other world religions.

Collectively, these are important books, and those within the Christian who are grappling with the critical issue of the uniqueness of the Christian revelation would do well to work their thinking through some of this literature.  For the purposes of this message, I focus on Pearcey’s Total Truth:  Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity based upon her C-Spann comments.

Pearcey makes an important distinction between truth and values. This potentially adds important clarification to one’s thinking in the association of orthodox Christianity with the truth rather than simply what one values.  Thus, on her argument, Christianity not only speaks to individuals at the evaluative level but has a ring of objectivity to it which can stand the test of truth through rational argument and empirical evidence.  Again, there is much that I accept here, specifically, that unless Christianity (or any other revealed religion) can speak compellingly to the fundamental issues (intellectual, political, and cultural) of the era, it is ultimately only a marginalized reality that may resonate with an individual or a community, but has no higher source of authority than its subjective claims.  With Pearcey, I believe there is something of primary importance in the Christian revelation, particularly on the claim of the fullness of God via the Incarnation of Christ.  If there is something fundamental about this claim in relation to the human condition, then it is crucial that those embracing this faith find compelling ways to speak to the complex and diverse exigencies of our (or any) time. In short, to what extent does the Christian revelation matter, to whom, and how so?  How far, to what extent, and how should formal apologetics be carried out in the mediation of the faith to our times?  Whatever the answer, I argue that these are no minor questions.

With H. Richard Niebuhr, however, I point to the ineradicable nature of the value issue, wherein Niebuhr spoke to three primary value centers which he characterized as “radical monotheism,”  “henotheism,” and “polytheism.”  On Niebuhr’s reading, whatever it is we believe at the core of our identity we place a sense of ultimacy on it, which can be applied to various aspects of the created order, or in the belief that the center of value is transcendentally grounded in another source, namely the, monotheistic God as revealed in the Bible.  This value center or faith precedes knowledge even as there is reason operating as to why one chooses one value center over the other.  Once a value center is chosen, e.g., radical monotheism through the Incarnation of Christ as the very embodiment of God revealed in human flesh, then a certain understanding emerges through the revelation of the Holy Spirit, Christians claim, that otherwise would not be accessible.  To put this in secular language, there is a hermeneutical unfolding through an empathetic bonding with the very text of faith, which partially reveals its message in the act of living through its core narratives, however partially and fragmentarily that may be. 

With Pearcey, there is knowledge here, and a knowledge that is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12), in which the fullness of Christ is revealed, but in a glass darkly.  While for the Christian seeker, all the mysteries of the universe are far from revealed in Christ, still, for the orthodox believer, it is Christ who, on faith, is nonetheless sufficient on which one can rest one’s ultimate identification.  As the various authors cited have argued good reasons can be given for such an identification, the grappling of which may be critically important to working out one’s salvation in fear and trembling.  Even still, the reality remains that faith precedes, even as it inform, reason, so that as long as I am walking in the Christian orthodox pathway, by definition I am placing my ultimate identification on Christ even when that rubs against my own independent thought.  On this reading, either my identity is anchored in Christ or it is anchored somewhere else.  While the reality may be more complex, in matters of faith the critical issue is the intention of the heart in the seeking of Christ to where one continuously keeps moving toward.

There is much within this revelation, which has the capacity to inform and enrich autonomous human understanding, and a truth that extends well beyond mere subjectivism, one of Pearcye’s major concerns.  Where I differ from Pearcey is I’m not so quick to associate the faith with the objectivity of human rationalism, even while I am able to accept that there is much rationalism built into a well thought out theology, and even as I accept the important office of the theological/philosophical enterprise through the rigorous exercise of our embodied minds. 
The temptation here is to associate the Christian revelation with the historical record, which in turn requires a squaring with a certain scientific rationalism—a rationalism, by the way, which feels compelled, if not to reject, to seriously question Darwinian biology in the hope of some type of literal association of the revelation of God with the walking of an Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden at some (not too distant) definable time in history.  That kind of “objectivity” is unfortunate, in my view, in its historical and scientific literalism, and incumbent rejection of aesthetics and the poetry of language.  One can still make profound sense of the orthodox revelation through the spirit of Christ as revealed in the New Testament, however much that revelation squared or did not square with actual historical events.  For the revelation was never merely about Jesus, the relatively unimportant Galilean of the first century, but God working through Christ as revealed in and through the Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the 2000-year history of the Christian church (the cloud of witnesses), notwithstanding its many flaws and hypocrisies.  The revelation, rooted in this historical faith, is ongoing in the hearts and minds of those who seek to walk in The Way, and live out, however partially and imperfectly by becoming the body of Christ to each other and the world.

In terms of the inclusive/exclusive issue, I think one can say in fairness that God is revealed uniquely in and through Christ and that uniqueness, the Incarnation, has much more depth and fullness than we can ever imagine.  How important, or exclusive that Incarnation is to the fabric of all of human experience, is a matter well beyond my ability to grapple.  What I can say, is that it is sufficient for me, as it has been sufficient for many, in faith—a faith seeking knowledge—even while acknowledging that its working out is an ongoing process that can only end with the end of time itself.  In that sense, those of us who walk in this pathway do have a sense of direction and purpose, even as the full mystery of reality continues to elude our puny capacity to understand and grapple with.  For “we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone (Heb: 2:9).  To accept this is to accept much.  Similarly, to equivocate on this is to reject much.

Whatever disagreements I may have with Percey, I am one with her on placing central importance of the revelation of Christ as the Incarnation of God as depicted in the New Testament.  This does not prove the insufficiency of other pathways, but it does point to the centrality of the one, which any serious embrace of Christian orthodoxy demands, by definition.  

No comments:

Post a Comment