Friday, 6 October 2017

A Month Without Jenson

“Death indeed will terminate my story, but it will not conclude it; for it will make all my hopes into might-have-beens and my fears into never-minds, and so make absurd the anticipatory coherences by which I have lived. If I am to have a conclusion, it will have to be a resurrection.” 
—R. W. Jenson (Aug 2, 1930-Sept 5, 2017)

It’s been a month since Robert Jenson left us to the tasks of Christian life: the speaking and hearing of the gospel. These tasks directed all of Jenson’s theology, and press towards questions of culture and life. Jenson refused to indulge the strategy of cultural retreat that attempted theology as though all the modern philosophical movements had not occurred. All contemporary theology jostles in the wake of Kant and Hegel and Heidegger and the rest. We must ask how we can speak the gospel faithfully, but without simply capitulating to modernity. We cannot be premodern, but neither can we be simply modern. Jens’s theology rescued this student of the tradition more than once from the worst excesses of modern theology.

As a young evangelical student, all of my brightest ideas were merely stolen notions taken from the reactionary and modernising evangelicals: a full-throated endorsement of divine passibility, a commitment to divine temporality (arising from a tendency towards univocity), credulity towards the “hellenisation” thesis, and a belief that divine love required libertarian human freedom. Like the worst kind of young evangelical modernist, I sifted through the tradition cynically, believing the ancient Christians to have been enthralled by pagan philosophies.

When my masters degree led me to my first detailed study of Jens’ theology, I presumed that his raging against certain elements of the tradition was animated by the same scepticism as my own. I had always taken Jens as holding to the Athenian captivity of the Church, but I found that his approach to the hellenisation thesis was more nuanced than I had supposed. In one reflection, Jens playfully dismissed the purity of theology by asserting that the boundary between theology and any other discourse is “blessedly ill-defined”.

The task of theology, Jens shows, is not to find its own peculiar pure discourse, but to evangelise—to speak the gospel and see what difference it makes. It would later become a commonplace statement for Jens: the early Christians did not “hellenise” the gospel, they evangelised their own antecedent hellenism. This single observation completely eroded the thrall of the hellenisation thesis for me. I no longer looked to ancient Christianity to see what was uncorrupted that could be salvaged, but to see just how the gospel had shaped the thought-forms of the ancient world. Jens taught me how to see the gospel as the engine driving all Christian discourse.

Startled from my doctrinal slumbers, I decided to make Jens the object of my doctoral studies. Though his theology is undoubtedly revisionist, my study of Jens’ writings revealed to me a deep commitment to the Christian tradition. I was amazed to find that he was only partially modernising, tending to keep the architecture of the tradition in place, while putting up new signs or perhaps offering a coat of paint here and there.

Sometimes the awakenings to Jens’ subtle treatment of the tradition came slowly. Having swallowed Hart’s assertion that Jens denies simplicity, and having witnessed Jens’ vociferous critiques of Augustine, I mistakenly concluded that Hart was right. Knee-to-knee with Jens in Princeton, I tried to provoke him to some remarks on divine simplicity. Jens began, “Of course God doesn’t have parts”, and proceeded to robustly defend the necessity of simplicity for a thoroughly Christian theology. I went home to Sydney and read all of his books again and finally found my error.

The revision for which Jens is best known is his regular denial of divine timelessness, but even this bold revision is less radical (if only slightly) than perhaps even Jens realised. The event-character of divine being that seeps through his thinking from his earliest work resonates with classical arguments for God as the Being of beings. Rather than speaking of God as the Being that underwrites all being, Jens opts to speak of God as the Event that establishes all events. For Jens, God is the Act of acts, the Event of events, the Drama of dramas. His critics have suggested that with this move Jens has pulled God down into the world of creaturely causes, subjecting the divine life to the contingencies of history. But Jens did not speak of God’s life as one event among others. God’s life is the founding event of all creaturely being. The architecture of Jens’ doctrine of God is shared with so-called “classical theism”. If our language about God must be imprecise, Jens seems to conclude, let the imprecision centre on the language of God’s activity and not God’s sheer facticity.

It's been a month without Jens—a difficult month for those of us shaped and supported by him and Blanche (and there are many of us). And yet, as he affirmed again and again, we slouch not towards the grave, but towards resurrection. We are each of us drawn forward into God's enjoyable presence, roused to life by the musical harmony of the restless divine activity. Though death may take us, we are each of us remembered by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. "And to be remembered there is to live" (On Thinking the Human, 11).

4 Comments:

Fred Sanders said...

Thanks for this, Steve. Much as I find Jenson's writing uniquely stimulating and helpfully provocative, I have been unable to make any constructive use of some of his most distinctive moves. Reading your autobiographical journey into Jensoniana helped me see that most of those moves share a revisionist profile, and that the revisionism may not be as fundamental for him as I took it to be.

Jenson is such an eloquent promulgator of a certain kind of hellenization thesis! It's idiosyncratic that his work helped you develop incredulity toward it overall. But I see how.

I remember exactly where I was the day I read Jenson's negative review of Pannenberg volume 2, because I felt a gulf open up between Jenson's project and the kind of things I could see myself actually teaching and believing in the future. I would be glad if some of the pages of Jenson that went dark for me that day turn out to have more light in them than I thought. Almost thou persuadest me! Thanks.

Brad East said...

Thanks, Steve. This is lovely.

Chris E W Green said...

Thank you, Steve, for this.

Steve Wright said...

Thanks, Fred. That's mighty nice of you to say.

I should say, Jenson's theology helped me overcome each of those modernist excesses that I list here (DBH helped with passibility).

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