Monday, 23 February 2009

Some autobiography from John Webster

I know I’m a latecomer here, but last night I finally read Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology, edited by Darren Marks (Ashgate 2002). It’s a fascinating collection of autobiographical reflections by leading theologians (e.g. James Cone, Colin Gunton, Jürgen Moltmann, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Kathryn Tanner).

There are some really nice moments – such as Alister McGrath’s observation: “Why do theologians not write novels, aiming to express theological notions in a narrative manner? … There are many theologians who have written about novels; why not write novels instead?” (p. 43). Or Moltmann’s observation, which could serve as a perfect summary of the history of 20th-century theology: “Looking back, it is a curious thing about theology that problems come up, are discussed to the point of personal recrimination (at least in Germany) and then, still unresolved, quietly disappear again, pensioned off, so to speak” (p. 92).

But the best part of the book is John Webster’s wonderful autobiographical narrative, “Discovering Dogmatics.” This is a great introduction to Webster’s theology, as well as an insightful polemical history of British theology since the 1970s. Even if I’m ambivalent about Webster’s current emphasis on divine aseity, it’s very impressive to hear him articulating the contexts within which this emphasis has become so important to him, and to hear of the very deliberate way in which he has set out to “reinvent for myself the office of theologian.” Webster’s theological style (like his doctrine of God!) is typically marked by balance, poise, invincible serenity – so it’s especially good in this essay to glimpse something of the polemical background to his work. Here’s an excerpt:

“I have found that commitment [to Christian dogmatics] has sometimes entailed a measure of academic isolation. In view of the widespread view that English language doctrinal theology is in a much healthier condition than it has been for many years, this isolation may seem odd. But as I read a great deal of contemporary systematic theology, I am struck by a sense that the centre of gravity is in the wrong place – usually it is heavily ecclesial, strongly invested in the Gospel as social and moral reality, overly invested in the language of habit, practice and virtue, underdetermined by a theology of divine aseity. It is not yet Ritschl; but, without a seriously operative eschatology, it has little protection against slipping into social and cultural immanentism…. And so I find myself at odds with those of my British colleagues who are more confident of the state of systematic theology: where they see an invigorated and invigorating discipline engaged in lively conversation in the academy, I tend to see a soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth, or over-clever Anglo-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology or pneumatology” (p. 133).

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