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.


Michael O'Neill Burns said...

A group of three english philosophical theologians attempting to initiate a new theological movement start with a collection and then develop a book series...I think I've heard this one before...

Anonymous said...

What in the world is so complex about the forgiveness of sins for the ungodly that we need to have new theologies and more books?

Am I missing something? I'd better read a few more books...

Anonymous said...

I was at a seminar Davies gave in Durham a couple of years ago on this. We were pretty nonplussed too, I recall.

Jenson's proposal: elegant, maybe, but our imperfect Eucharistic realities make me think this is actually a fairly frightening move. (Being a naturally suspicious Catholic!)

Ben Myers said...

Michael: "I think I've heard this one before..." Yes, exactly! That's what so strange about this book: it's modelled directly on the "mechanics" of Radical Orthodoxy (co-author a book; launch a series; designate the movement with its own capitalised name, etc), but it doesn't have any of RO's coherence, programmatic force or polemical clarity. There's just not much here that you could really sign up to, so in that sense it's hard to see how this can be described as a genuine "theological movement".

Anonymous said...

Had a conversation not so long ago with a Radical Orthodoxy person who was pretty central to it, and in on the initial publishing projects, but who now thinks that the only coherence about it was the fact that they were (almost) all in Cambridge at the same time, and Blackwells decided they ought to capitalise and make a movement out of it!

I think this is possibly Davies' idea though, rather than a publishing gimmick - he was announcing it as a 'new paradigm' (?!) two years ago and seemed pretty convinced.

Pieter Pronk said...

It must be really hard to start a new movement. I guess not every period in time is ready for a new "movement". Barth had a perfect context. But sometimes I wonder if for example, Barths theological works were released now, everybody would just shrug and say "yeah, yeah, revelation is radical..."

From Ben's review, he seems to view this new movement much the same way. What exactly is new about this "Transformation Theology"?

I like their catchy name for the movement though. Reminds me of Optimus Prime.
So, lets all get behind this movement. Sounds like a fun thing to do.
But for their next book they should consider just who should be transformed and in which general direction they should be transforming. Seems pretty basic stuff when dealing with transforming. To transform you need a starting mode of being and an end mode of being.

Ok, let's go! The excitement is in the air! Things will get transformed by this new hip movement. We're the children of this transformational revolution.

(one last tip to the leaders of this movement: a new media to publish your idea, usually works wonders. And don't forget the music! We need transformational music. Worked for Luther, should still work.

I'm on a brainstorming roll now, it seems. I didn't even see it, but it's apparent now. In the coming centuries people will look back at this point in time and say: "that is where the transformation started." (see the clever pun with reformation?)
Soon I will be working not in a Dutch Reformed Church but in a Dutch Transformed Church.

The future is bright indeed.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that this creation of a "new movement" is a funding strategy? Will Kings attract more research funds if they've got their own "movement"? I don't mean to sound cynical, I'm just trying to understand what the Kings "Transformation Theology" webpage is all about.

Anonymous said...

I think the last comment about funding has perhaps some truth in it. It seems harder to find funding theology in england these days. I was reflecting that Barth never sought to start a new way of doing theology, he just wanted be faithful to scripture and the christian tradition. Saying upfront you're starting a new movement/way of doing theology doesn't seem to be the best way of starting a new movement.

Anonymous said...

It's an odd affair, isn't it? Oliver Davies is, I'm pretty sure, completely sincere in thinking that he's riding a serious new theological wave here. And, however institutionally entrepreneurial he might be, I don't think his enthusiasm is reducible to funding or status.

Having said that, I've not yet managed to understand why Oliver thinks that TT is a serious new theological wave. I think I understand the form that this belief takes for Oliver: as I understand it, he thinks there are some specific conceptual mistakes (which are both misunderstandings of early modern intellectual history, and derived misunderstandings of the tasks and possibilities of theology today). He thinks those mistakes affect - and hobble - most interesting forms of contemporary theology (from Barthianism to RO). He thinks those conceptual mistakes are cosmological-Christological. And he's convinced that undoing these mistakes makes a radical difference to the tasks and possibilities of theology today (allowing, for instance, via Janz, a reappropriation of the Kantian heritage).

But I've not yet really managed to get hold of *what* the mistake is, *how* it so hobbles contemporary theology, *what* the solution is, or *what* difference it will make...

There was an interesting session at SST in 2007, where Davies and Milbank went head-to-head, but I'm afraid it left me none the wiser.

ash said...

Oliver Davies was saying similar things in his inaugural lecture as head of the Theology dept at King's, which made me think this book might have potential (although I have still not got around to reading it, the reception has tended to be negative or mixed at best).

Unfortunately, the inaugural lecture isn't on the King's website anymore, so I can't link to it.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if anyone who has actually read this book can speak to Ben's comments. I have heard very good things about the book (and the "movement") but many of the comments here don't actually talk about the content of the text. It's incredible how academics can have such strong opinions about something they know nothing about.

By the way, I found that Janz' recent article in Modern Theology gives a nice account of the conceptual mistakes that concern TT and which Mike wonders about. He identifies an idealist lineage from Hegel to Barth that he argues has permeated much/most theology of recent decades. Barthians may not like his reading of Barth, but I think there is something to Janz's critique.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: "such strong opinions about something they know nothing about"? Most of the comments that touched on content (rather than strategy) have been from people who say they have heard and/or read material on TT in other contexts - material that has, on the whole, been fairly explicitly pitched as a set of manifestos for TT.

The Modern Theology piece you mention is, indeed, an interesting one. But even though I warm to parts of it, I can't quite see how to launch a movement on the back of it. And I'm also not quite clear how PJ's account of this idealist lineage lines up with OD's stuff on the early modern cosmological/Christological mistakes related to the ascension.

My 'not quite clear' is not meant sarcastically, by the way: I don't secretly mean 'It's obvious rubbish'. I genuinely mean that I don't know what to make of TT's content (though I'll admit that I am more decidedly dubious about the strategy).

Chris TerryNelson said...

I am very interested in the charge against Barth of a "positivism of revelation," which Bonhoeffer and others have made, such as Janz. I'm curious if a lack of attention to Barth's Christology also means an inability to take his ethics seriously. How are these two related for Barth? What's being peddled as "Barth" by Janz is all too familiar, but an incomplete picture I think. Did Barth ever respond to such a criticism?

Chris TerryNelson said...

And by "that criticism," I mean the one of a "positivism of revelation," or a theology that's merely analytical.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I hope Ben won't mind me playing John the Baptist to him, anticipating his own no doubt more enlightening response to your question.

As I understand it, Bonhoeffer's problem with Barth, lodged in the context of his appreciation of Barth's attack on "religion" (though a question: by "religion", did both Bs mean exactly the same thing?), is that one should speak of revelation only as one speaks of the community to which revelation is addressed, and that if one says Christ one must immediatetly say Christ-existing-as-community. For Bonhoeffer, theology is always automatically Christology, Christology automatically ecclesiology, and ecclesiology immediately actualised in ethics.

Barth himself couldn't make heads or tails of Bonhoeffer's "positivism of revelation" label. In a letter to Superintendent Dr. Walter Herrenbrück in December 1952, he conveyed his hope that "in heaven at least he [Bonhoeffer] has not reported about me to all the angels (including the church fathers) with just this expression."

And fifteen years later, in a letter to Eberhad Bethge in May 1967, after scratching his head over the phrases "world come of age"" and "non-religious interpretation", Barth continued: "What is the 'positivism of revelation' ascribed to me? I know all the things, or most of the things, that the experts have made of this right up to Heinrich Ott. But to this day I do not know what Bonhoeffer himself meant and planned with it all, and very softly I venture to doubt whether theological systematics (I include his Ethics) was his real strength. Might he not later have simply dropped all those catchy phrases? Even when he uttered them, did he himself really know what he meant by them?"

Presumably unless Barth hasn't yet moved on from his chat with Mozart, the issue has now been resolved, and he and Bonhoeffer are having a good laugh as the terrestrial tongue-tied try to tease it all out.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks Kim, that's very helpful to know.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

many thanks for your review. I have asked Oliver Davies to write a piece for the T&T Clark Blog to reply to some of the questions and issues you and the other commentators have raised. It will appear soon.


Ben Myers said...

Oliver Davies has now responded in this post.

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