Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ETS as it was, ETS as it might be

What’s on the docket for theology, philosophy and biblical studies for 2050? That’s the question that was asked at the 2006 meeting of the Southeastern chapter of the Evangelical Theological Society in Columbia, SC, March 17-18. The question is bold, even visionary. The answer was anything but.

The original outlay was fairly straightforward for anyone whose eyes have been open in the literature. Here is a smorgasbord, in no particular order, of the points made by keynote speaker Millard Erickson (Western), as well as others such as Bill Arnold (Asbury), Andreas Köstenberger (Southeastern) and Jerry Rankin (SBC IMB) during the conference’s opening session:

Evangelical theology needs to re-examine its methodology and, leaving its reactionary tendencies behind, find its own even creative way through the current postmodern climate. In doing so, it should avoid ideological solipsism, and be careful to foster dialogue with the best in other theological and non-theological disciplines, including thinkers from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. There are some key areas which need work, such as anthropology, ecclesiology, and theological methodology. Further, scholars need to remember to write for the laity, for churches, for classrooms, for contexts other than those of the industrialized west, and for those interested in the calling and craft of the Christian scholar. Some suggest that the pendulum has swung too far to the side of immanence, weight should be thrown toward transcendence. Others believe that new treatments of the basics, a more comprehensive treatment of sanctification or better grammatical references based on improved computer studies are overdue. Others, New and Old Testament scholars, suggest a way be found to curb the solipsistic dangers of so-called “theological hermeneutics” and purely literary or narrative treatments of the biblical text by grounding them in real historical analysis. They point to the mid-century renaissance in biblical theology, and to Don Carson’s “Studies in Biblical Theology” series as a praiseworthy point of continuity.

Other comments in no particular category:

  • Most Wesleyans are not involved in ETS because they understand inerrancy as the product of a peculiar Calvinistic hermeneutic. Why? As one said, “There isn’t much we can do. The epistemology is just too irreconcilable.”

  • History is theology’s laboratory, and also the best predictor of future behavior. Erickson said, “I don’t like to use the word ‘evangelical.’” With the increasing polarization experienced in the evangelical movement today, we are risking another fundamentalist/modernist debate; fundamentalists continue to add criteria to the “in-list”, and liberals just further critique the fundamentalists. Both need to dialogue, there should be more openness one toward the other.

  • Biologist think we know more and more, whereas physicists say we know less and less. Human beings are aware, through scientific analysis, of only 4% of the universe.
Alongside these points, however, was a far more disappointing message. Postmodernity was the anthropomorphized Darth Vader at every public address. Dr. Erickson spent forty-five minutes dismissing it as a has-been on Friday night. A spokesman for the Evangelical Philosophical Society spent at least as much time Saturday morning doing the same. Allow me to quote from his talk, Setting the Agenda for Evangelical Philosophy to 2050, in which he addressed postmodernity from the outset.

“I am persuaded,” he said, “that William Lane Craig is correct in his assessment that postmodernism is simply an intellectual fad that cannot endure. At best it will lead to what Gene Veith calls the “new tribalism.” At worst, the fragmentation and anarchy of postmodernity will give way to totalitarianism. People cannot live in a community without a shared moral vision. So it is inevitable that postmodern thinking and behavior will be replaced by some new social metanarrative—a new worldview. The only question is what worldview that will be. If evangelical philosophers lay the intellectual groundwork now, it may be that the “old paths” of the Christian faith will appear more attractive than any alternative.” Indispensable to that task, he continued, is a “rational defense of theism.” Christians theologians “who have looked toward the Continent for their philosophical inspiration have imbibed heavy doses of postmodern and deconstructionist thinking which has in turn lead to the almost total destruction of theology.” He encouraged the society to turn away from Continental philosophy and embrace analytic philosophy. “If theologians would put aside Derrida, Ricouer, et al., and read more contemporary analytic philosophy, I believe they will find a true friend who will guide them out of the fog.”

What was missing from all of this was any real dialogue with post modern thinkers. The consensus was to circle the wagons and wait for it to die. Several individuals publicly stated they would welcome a return to preEnlightenment worldviews, or even declared themselves “medievalists.” In short, it was shallow and intellectually pathetic. Dr. Erickson’s address, for example, characterized postmodernism as a desire to create an inclusive community and to silence all dissenting voices. He painted the picture of a movement devoid of intellectual energy or creative production, and he scoured it for being skittish toward all metanarrative. Indeed, his demeanor was so trite, his preparation so breezy, it was as if to say, "You foolish children, come back to Father Modernism, listen to the voice of reason and natural theology and be still." The irony was unbearable.

Unable to help myself, I challenged him on his mischaracterizations, making an appeal toward the future rather than the past. Instead of waiting for postmodernists and their critiques to die (he said he had made no such claim—which is totally untrue) so that evangelicals can rush into the resulting vacuum, why not realize the points in common between the Christian confession and postmodern critiques and enter a dialogue with the culture? He backpedaled into denial and then side-stepped back into vroom vroom vapidity. (If only I hadn’t been so nervous at the microphone and had made a proper stand for the hard work of intellectual scholarship.)

On the airplane over, I read an article by Dean Blevins at Nazarene Theological Seminary. One of his footnotes kept playing over and over again in my mind. It reads:

Postmodern theorists are not obligated to jettison all of modernity as enlightenment colleagues did of the pre-modern period. In a postmodern world, “strands” of postmodernity, modernity and premodern narratives carry validity. One of the main traits of postmodernism is a suspicion of historical chronology, resulting in preference for diverse styles rather than progressive movements so that history as continuity becomes history as collage. The result is that a modernist categorization (with postmodern “following” the modern movement) may be problematic in attempting to locate whether any theological or philosophical movement is “pre” versus “post” modern.

In other words, Erickson didn’t know a thing about postmodernism. He didn’t cite, even by way of ad hominem, a single postmodernist until after I mentioned meeting Derrida in 2000. Then he had to rise to the occasion, and “quoted” a few damning sentences from the same (who knows if he quoted them correctly). And, if you are following me, the very critiques made against the post-shibboleth turned out to be but a conference-wide Freudian slip.

Thankfully, this did not prove true of the younger scholars present. I attended three honest and rigorous breakout sessions. All three of these scholars—David Battle of Southern Methodist College who compared the Mosaic Law with the Law of Christ; Daniel McGregor of Columbia Biblical Seminary who proposed a theological and largely practical methodology for including the arts in church worship; and Keith Goad of Southern Baptist Seminary who took Colin Gunton’s criticism of Augustine to task with a close reading of De Trinitate, chapters 5-7 (kudos to Goad for the sophistication of his theological language: "Intead of being controlled by the Aristotelian categories, it will be argued that Augustine modifies the logic and language of the day in order to defend the Trinity revealed in Scripture," and the honest engagement with his own questions "How should the church talk about the Trinity? Is there a grammer presented in the Scriptures? How does one express the inexpressible? What language should be used? What does Scripture direct the church to say and what safeguards are provided?")—cited sources outside the evangelical tradition and demonstrated close familiarity with the scholarship surrounding their topic. I was also glad to hear one young man cite MacIntyre and Milbank even if, by his comments before his own presentation, he had no real understanding of them. Particularly telling was McGregor’s question at the end of Friday afternoon’s panel discussion. Addressing the keynote speaker, McGregor asked if, in his opinion, there was theological hay to be gathered in the anthropologies being created and shaped by the loss of time and space as a self-making horizon with the internet and other technologies. The answer may as well have been “I write with a pencil.”

Intellectually ambitious evangelicals can either fragment the currency of their participation into subject-specific conferences or stick together and pull the fingers of established evangelical scholars from the dead corpse of Enlightenment epistemology. These younger scholars gave me hope that this is exactly what is happening underneath the keynote surface of ETS. Perhaps this past weekend smelled of opportunity. This scholar is going to find out.

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