Thursday, August 2, 2012

Onward and ... Onward

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
-- Karl Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
-- James 2: 26 (NRSV)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
-- Matthew 6:33 (KJV)
Don't worry, gentle reader. I'm not advocating "works righteousness." I'm not trying to undercut the claim that salvation is the gift of sheer grace. My evangelical-reformed-Anglican moorings are still intact.

I'm not about salvation, directly, anyway.  Rather, I'm picking up the thread of several posts a few weeks ago on the question of what theology is.  Theology, I argue, is not faith itself, but a "work" of faith. Some postliberal theologians like to define theology as a "second order reflection" on the basic Christian confession. For reasons that might become more clear as we go along, I don't find this construal of the matter particularly helpful.

Back in June, I was exploring the classic definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding." Now when theologians are seeking to define and describe their craft (Hey, "craft" instead of "science" -- that suits my purposes nicely),  it seems to me they usually focus on one of the two terms , "faith" or "understanding", or perhaps on the relationship between these two.

So one might focus on "faith" as the affirmation of sacred truths deposited with the apostles and passed down by the church through the centuries. That, more or less, is how the Council of Trent understood faith.  Or one might counter, with Luther, that faith is more an existential attitude than a posture of intellectual assent.  Faith, in this view, is more like trust (which, conveniently for Protestants, is close to the meaning of the Greek term pistis). When you say you believe "in" God, that's analogous to what you mean when you say you believe "in" your partner; for example, you believe that she isn't cheating on you, or if she is, then she feels really bad about it. So faith is not so much about signing off on some abstract claims.

You might try out Calvin's attempt to offer a balanced definition of faith that integrates both knowledge and trust. If you want to go existentialist (if so, please do so on your own blog....Just kidding!),  you might echo Tillich's boringly unobjectionable definition of faith as "ultimate concern."

And what about "understanding"? Is the understanding that theology, ostensibly, illuminates more akin to theoretical knowledge or to practical wisdom? And how do you relate theory to practice? Liberation theologians claim to have integrated theory and practice into praxis -- knowledge-formed practice, if you will. I'm okay with that.  I do wonder, though, to the extent that they are still pressing this claim whether the liberationists are still presupposing some sort of theory-practice dichotomy. Since I'm not about to cite any actual texts right now, I'll just leave it at that.

Or maybe the understanding is not so strictly conceptual and objective at all but more like a kind light that suffuses the human capacities of intellect, feeling and wheel. That kind of claim would put you more in line with Romantics such as Coleridge or Schleiermacher, among the illuminati: You don't need Fox News to tell you like it is. You don't need Rupert Murdoch and his minions to show you what really matters in life. You don't need his reporters to tap your neighbors' phones so can know what they're up to.  All the items within your vision twinkle within the glow of a sort of deep, non-conceptual effervescence.

But when it comes to the question of theology, I propose to change the subject. My former teacher Kathryn Tanner's book Theories of Culture has helped me come to understand theology as a set of practices, as a series of processes with specific ends in view. Theologians are not just thinking about something: They are doing something.  More specifically, in more economic terms, they are producing something -- articles, books, lectures, podcasts, blog entries, etc. (There is a vast literature on this topic which I have barely begun to explore.)

I want to focus on that neglected middle term of that classic definition -- namely, seeking.

Theology seeks. I am skeptical, so I keep seeking. I am orthodox, so I keep seeking.  I am timorous and tentative, so I seek solidity. I am confident and brazen, so I (had better) seek humility and wisdom. If I don't seek humility, no matter: It has a way of finding me nonetheless. I am a theologian: Hear me question.

This seeking, as I'm envisioning it, goes beyond just "living the questions." It's more than just the personal faith journey. It's more than just contemplating the mysteries of life.  It's spiritual. And social.  And political. And transformative. And personal.  It's...well...revolutionary.

This seeking is not just the ambling journey through the meadows of life, stooping on occasion to sniff the flowers that sprout from the seeds of contemplation. No, the seeking the theologian (as I understand her) envisions is more like the engine of a steam locomotive.  It's driving something. It's pulling something. It's going somewhere. Theology is not just the script. Rather, it's script plus enactment. Theology is like the improvs they do at the Second City club in Chicago -- new, fresh, on the move -- before Lorne Michals and NBC come along and try to tame them.

But what might all this mean? What would it look like?

Seek and ye shall....

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