Tuesday 29 March 2016

Jenson as teacher: an almost-review of A theology in outline

Robert Jenson writes and speaks neatly. Such a gift is rare within the academy. This generation’s greatest baroque theological stylist, David Bentley Hart, once lauded Jenson’s ability to produce “formulations of a positively oracular terseness”, even if this tone contrasts with Hart’s own “taste for the sesquipedalian and pointlessly elaborate.” (Jenson returns the compliment by observing that “Hart never uses one clause where twenty will do”). Such rhetorical reserve may appear casual—and frequently masks both the imaginatively spectacular and fervently orthodox character of Jenson’s theology—but it is in fact the sign of a strictly disciplined teacher.

Academics are often maligned for their delight in linguistic obfuscation. We will, we are told, always find the most difficult way to say something. Such judgements represent a deplorable misconstrual of the situation. Explaining a complex idea by the employment of technical and complicated language is easy. The great challenge is disciplining oneself to say something plainly. Why do academics speak and write incomprehensibly? Because we are not clever enough to speak neatly. Colouring inside the lines is beyond us.

Given this situation, there is no task more difficult for the professional theologian than teaching an introductory course in theology. In our cowardice, many of us take the painless option by giving a comprehensive historical survey of the discipline liberally peppered with Latin axioms and eloquent anecdotes: providing the students with dates, technical formulae, and names to memorise. The more difficult way to teach theology is to inhabit the world of these thinkers and their arguments, and attempt to speak plainly of their concerns and ours. This is how Robert Jenson teaches.

And we owe our thanks to Adam Eitel for allowing us to see this clearly as he invites us to sit with him in Jenson’s classroom during a series of undergraduate lectures given at Princeton University in 2008. The manuscript of these lectures, A Theology in Outline: Can these bones live?, shows that Jenson’s skill for “oracular terseness” extends to his extemporaneous teaching (as Eitel describes it in his introduction).

This is not Jenson’s systematics in brief. It is rather a public performance of Christian theology. Jenson describes it in his preface as something of a taster of Christian thought intended to whet the appetite. For this reason, the book bears more in common with a catechism than a standard academic introduction to theology. What Jenson introduces us to here is not theology as an academic discipline, but as a vocation. What do we receive from the tradition and the great thinkers of Christianity, “from Augustine to Hildegard of Bingen to Barth”? The exhortation to pray.

Jenson follows his usual method of explaining the tradition while simultaneously reinterpreting it and presenting it as a living option for present life. There is no need to summarise Jenson’s arguments: the book is short enough, so just read it yourself. Rather, it is Jenson in the mode of a teacher that is of particular interest. In all of his writing, Jenson asks us to evaluate how we undertake the theological task. 

A typology suggests itself here. Take a basic Christian claim: “Jesus is Lord”. Theology done in the usual way will consider this to be a densely-packed idea needing to be unfurled into elaborate theological rhetoric. Jenson’s theology, on the other hand, treats “Jesus is Lord” as a large billowing idea that needs to be compressed into theological claims to be shared. It is this compressive character of Jenson’s theology that leads Hart to write that a single phrase of Jenson’s might “detonate” if mishandled. Rather than expending his energy by expressing simple ideas through grand flourishes, Jenson saves the grandness and the energy for the ideas themselves.

This, I suggest, is what we learn from Jenson as a teacher. The basic stuff of Christian faith is conceptually grand: “Christ is risen”, “this is my body”, “your sins are forgiven” and so on. Moreover, they are grand in a metaphysical sense. Metaphysics is not to be contrasted with existence: “when we begin doing metaphysics—that is, when we begin asking questions like ‘what is it “to be”?’—we are not just playing empty word games. The questions we ask and the answers we give both express and shape the way we perceive and act in the world" (p. 108). Our metaphysical construal of such claims is the manner by which we decide how we will live. As Jenson treats the gospel, any word spoken about Jesus is simultaneously a telling of our own stories. A grand story, Jenson suggests, is one that makes room for all of us. Theologians might do well to foster more audacity in their thinking, and then they may be enabled to write neatly of the things of God.

A postscript on the “comprehensive” bibliography:
Eitel has enlisted the help of Keith Johnson to compile a very good list of academic works published by Jenson for inclusion in this volume, but it is a shame that it is not as “comprehensive” as advertised. Two of Jenson’s ALPB books are missing, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, and On the Inspiration of Scripture. His book, Lutheranism, co-authored with the late Eric Gritsch is omitted, as is the volume of essays that Jens and I produced together, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation. While essays from The Futurist Option (co-authored with Carl Braaten) appear, the book itself has no entry. Seemingly by design, Jenson’s occasional writings are left off the list (published letters and his many captivating editorials written for Dialog). And a significant number of essays are nowhere to be found: “What kind of God can make a covenant?”, “Deus est ipsa pulchritudo”, and many others. This does not reflect poorly on Eitel or Johnson, since Jenson himself has lost track of his publications. But it does seem that researchers wanting access to all of Jenson's writings will have to continue compiling their own lists.


David Mackinder said...

Thank you for a very helpful piece. Two observations.

1. I assume you've had access to a pre-publication copy? OUP site still only gives a provisional estimated publication date, which is tantalising.

2. Regarding a comprehensive bibliography, mightn't it be possible to perform a bit of 'theological crowdsourcing' and improve on the current situation that way?

Steve Wright said...

Hi David--no such special treatment here, I'm afraid. It is possible to order the book from the US, even though it is yet to be released to the rest of the world.

David Mackinder said...

Thanks for the tip. Might have to wait, though. Any thoughts re bibliography suggestion?

Anonymous said...

Why not using the wikipedia page ?

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