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).

13 Comments:

Brian Lugioyo said...

I especially appreciate his emphasis on the need for exegesis for doing theology.

michael jensen said...

I am still chortling about the 'over-clever Anglo-Catholicism'! It is interesting how 'ecclesial' British theology can be without at the same time ever having much to do with the actual church...

Christopher said...

When you mentioned theologians writing novels, I immediately thought of Marilynne Robinson!

roger flyer said...

Theologians should be writing symphonies. Words don't fail me now...

Chris TerryNelson said...

"I tend to see a soft revisionism chastened by bits of Barth, or over-clever Anglo-Catholicism with precious little Christology, soteriology or pneumatology.” I love his use of "over-clever," in that it takes willful ignorance of Christology, soteriology or pneumatology to provide an account of ecclesiology. Webster is always good about making distinctions between divine and human agency, and so I imagine he's taking shots at theologians that rely on their vacuous ecclesiologies to do the heavy lifting. Too much talk of Church apart from Christ.

kim fabricius said...

Picking up on Michael and Chris:

"... without a seriously operative eschatology ... [and] with precious little Christology, soteriology or pneumatology" - if British theology were the Cheshire cat, that would about leave it with a docetic ecclesial smirk!

Stephen C. Rose said...

I'm an agnostic as regards aseity and indeed as regards theology but I do not assume such a posture precludes having what Tillich called an ultimate concern or even a Barthian respect for the word. The most revelatory thing I have ever done was to get some college students to write a song based on the opening of Mark. It was cheaper than psychotherapy and possibly more revealing. I see Christian aseity as a flip side of atheistic aseity. Cheers, S

Chris TerryNelson said...

Indeed Kim! What "bits of Barth" do they use most often do you think?

kim fabricius said...

Hi Chris,

This "they" is presumably different from the "over-clever Anglo-Catholicism", which is clearly a swipe at RO; so I suspect Webster's "soft revisionism" (which is not specific) refers, for example, to post-liberal drawing on Barth's anti-foundationalist and counter-enlightenment strategies, perhaps certain pre-enlightenment retrievals, that kind of thing.

Szaszi Bene said...

I do not know whether you have done this before or not. But it would be interesting to read some biographical reflections on theology in form of a blog entry and responses. "Where do we see theology move in our own lives and work as theologians?" could be the guiding question. Its just a thought for what it's worth.

Shane said...

"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"

Second.

Phillip said...

Has anyone had a chance to read Marks' follow-up volume, 'Shaping a Global Theological Mind.' I enjoyed Graham Ward's essay, 'Being Radical and Hopefully Orthodox.'

Anonymous said...

Michael's comment seems to nail a major issue. Churches in Western Europe are dead and dying. They are being converted into eating establishments, etc. Meanwhile, in place like the UK, where this is happening, there is a resurgence of strong ecclesiology? Are there more apt illustrations of theology as merely an academic discipline, with smug and canny theologians who clearly are not terribly concerned about the local churches dying all around them?

If one's theology is too thin and anodyne to permit much less encourage evangelism, if one's Gospel is so loaded with terms whose meaning is sufficiently vague and underdetermined to please one's academic colleagues while allowing one to sound orthodox before those who will never read your articles in the academic theological journals, and if one's concern for the church as polis is sufficiently this-worldly to make you practically indistinguishable from a secular but humane liberal, it's time we admit that something has gone radically amiss.

There is an ethical seriousness and theological hard core to Christianity that will always be offensive to those outside the church. If it's not, one can be sure that whatever Paul preached, it was not that.

Webster is refreshing for his unflinching affirmation of orthodox Christian doctrines that have long gone out of fashion. May his tribe increase.

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