Friday, 16 May 2008

Oliver Davies, Paul D. Janz, and Clemens Sedmak: Transformation Theology

Oliver Davies, Paul D. Janz, and Clemens Sedmak, Transformation Theology: Church in the World (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 179 pp. (thanks to our friends at T&T Clark)

This is a peculiar book. It is co-authored by three distinguished scholars at King’s College London: theologian Oliver Davies (author of the brilliant Theology of Compassion), philosopher Paul Janz, and ethicist Clemens Sedmak. The book announces a new theological movement called “Transformation Theology,” and it launches a new book series of the same title, with projected volumes on ethics, politics and law, text and language, and the act of reading. But although the authors often refer to “Transformation Theology” as a coherent movement (see also their website), at the end of the book I was still left scratching my head, wondering exactly what it’s all about.

Having said that, I think I agree with some of the book’s basic theses. I like the fact that it’s trying to be an intervention, that it sees the theological task as a critical and polemical one. God deliver us from those “holistic” theologies whose sole aim is to keep everybody calm and happy! I also like the fact that this project takes Jesus Christ’s present reality as its point of departure – this is an excellent step, even though I’m persuaded that Karl Barth’s christology provides a more robust and more interesting way of approaching this question. Oliver Davies’ approach (chapters 1-2) is essentially Bultmannian: the early Christians thought that Jesus floated up to heaven; but that cosmology is meaningless now; so how can we understand Jesus’ continuing embodied reality today? As John Milbank has compellingly argued, such an approach presupposes that there is some secular reality more basic and more “real” than revelation itself. In light of Milbank’s critique, I reckon the best procedure is to follow Barth’s christological method: the first necessary assumption is that the reality of the risen Christ is the only reality there is. Still, I think Oliver Davies puts his finger on an absolutely critical question: if Jesus is forever embodied as a human being, then where in the world is he? (An alternative way of answering this question – which Davies doesn’t consider – is Robert Jenson’s elegant proposal: Jesus is ascended bodily into heaven; and the location of heaven is the eucharistic altar.)

Most of all, I like the fact that this book construes divine revelation not as a conceptual key which unifies thought, but precisely as a rupture within thought itself, a “wound of knowledge” (the book is heavily influenced by Rowan Williams). I wasn’t entirely convinced by Clemens Sedmak’s approach here (chapters 5-6) – he speaks of the “wound of knowledge” and of the rupture in thought, but at times this started to sound like a Kantian “limit” which stands over against thought; thinking can take you so far, but no further.

In contrast, Paul Janz (whose chapters 3-4 are the best part of the book) speaks very acutely of revelation as a generative rupture, an event which sets thought in motion. Thus Janz – following Rowan Williams – describes the divine action as “a creative generation which can never be subsumed within theology because it is theology’s own generating ground and source” (p. 102).

On this basis, Janz develops what I take to be the book’s most promising proposal: that dogmatics needs to be grounded in ethics, since thought is generated by an action which always precedes it. Theology, he writes, “must be an ethics before it is a dogmatics or before it is doctrine…. It is ‘Christian ethics’ which must today take the place of a ‘fundamental theology’, to which all secondary doctrinal treatments must then always refer back, or within which they must be grounded” (pp. 108-9). This is potent stuff – so long as we remember that the relation between dogmatics and ethics is not that between thought and a limit which structures it, but between thought and the creative event which grounds and animates it.

But although I found many things to appreciate in this book, I still wasn’t entirely sure what the book was trying to do, what it wanted from me. If it’s intended as a manifesto for a new theology, then perhaps what’s lacking is a sharper polemical edge. I was very pleased when, in the prologue, the authors insisted that “this theological project is critical and not ‘holistic’” – it’s concerned with “resistances,” not cheap resolutions. But this critical dimension simply isn’t sharp enough or clear enough. At the end, I wasn’t quite sure which theologies were being resisted, or why. At times, the authors frame their work as a critical response to Radical Orthodoxy. At times, it looks like an attempt to retrieve Schleiermacher in opposition to Barth. And at times, it’s framed simply as a critique of all theologies which privilege intellectual “concepts” over the “sensible reality” of embodied life. Maybe the polemics here are just far too broad, and therefore too blunt. Or maybe starting a new theological movement just isn’t as easy as it sounds.

In any case, it will be interesting to keep an eye on this new series from T&T Clark. As far as I can tell, the next book in the series will be Paul Janz’s work on ethics, The Command of Grace – and if Janz’s chapters in the present volume are anything to go by, that next book will certainly be something to look out for.

Update: Andy was disappointed by this book as well – see his review.

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