Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Theology of Labels

"Liberal" v. "conservative." This question was raised with respect to theology in the thread below, and the distinction is nagging at me, because it's really a rather false one, useful for sowing division, not for seeking understanding.

On one extreme you have ardent fundamentalists and "conservatives" who don't like what anyone else does, and aren't too sure their fellow church members are quite up to doctrinal snuff. This group barely has a theology. Rather, they have a set of accepted ideas that are not questioned, lest the heavens tremble and God be enraged by faithlessness. Which is always lack of faith, where faith is usually the "faith of our fathers," whatever that was. It's mostly a mashed together pastiche of middle-brow middle American petit bourgeois attitudes, held together with some tape labeled "God."

Okay, enough about that. This excludes, by the way, Pentecostals who are sincere in their faith, and who are especially unconcerned with social status and skin color, etc. (about sincerity of faith I have more to say later), and lots of other very good, very conservative (or should I say orthodox? In any case, theologically), Christians.

In matters theological, I think the gamut runs pretty much from orthodox to nearly Unitarian, with all manner of degrees in between. Orthodox in its most extreme refers to a rigid adherence to "traditions" (usually selectively chosen) and, again, a strong tendency to define oneself against other beliefs. This is never the standard of any church (except, maybe, the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods of the Lutheran Church), but is usually the preferred stance of some portion of each denomination. This is coming to the fore in the Episcopal Church here in America just now.

Orthodox need not mean unthinking adherence to tradition, and rabid hatred of anything it perceives as "heterodox." But that, too, is another discussion.

"Liberal." What is that? Well, I guess I'd say somebody with seminary (v. "bible college") training. "Liberal" will change with every generation. My training was "liberal" by the standards of my congregation (almost all of my parent's generation). But a pastor of their generation (or nearly so; most were past retirement age) was "liberal" in his day. So it goes. But here's what's going on just now in churches.

Few remember the infamous "God is Dead" movement of the '60's. Now that was REAL liberal theology. Shelby Spong has never touched that baby! But what was it? The triumph of Nietszche? No. It was the attempt to deal with the problem of classical metaphysics, and the ethical problem of: must we be good to be favored in God's sight? Must we, in other words, be Christian in order to be moral? If God is dead, what then?

The 19th century had feared the answer to that question would be chaos. (Don't take my word for it, read Wilson's God's Funeral.) They thought, in a rather Hobbesian view, that the only thing that kept the "lower classes" (they weren't Jefferson democrats in Europe in those days!) in check was, literally, the fear of God. But most of the ruling class was convinced not only that God was not to be feared, but God didn't even exist. After World War I, especially, the rest of Europe began to get this message. There is a lesson there; this is an idea with roots at least in Voltaire's day, and the connection is the earthquake the destroyed Lisbon. But, again, I don't have time for that here.

So the "God is dead" movement was an attempt by sincere theologians to cast off some of the dead weight of Western intellectual history and see if they could start with a fresher slate. Part of the problem, as I say, was the problem of metaphysics, and the problem of theodicy: why does a good God who is all-powerful, permit evil? This was Voltaire's problem (Pangloss in Candide is a stab at Leibniz, who gave us the codified concept of theodicy as he tried to explain away that problem). There were other metaphysical issues, too, which I'll touch on later. Metaphysics, basically, after Sartre and Heidegger and, through Heidegger Bultmann, simply started to unravel in theological circles, and all the king's horses and all the king's theologians simply couldn't put that unmoved mover back together again. So they decided to let him go.

Did anybody notice outside the seminaries? No. We read the neo-orthodoxy of Barth as explained by Robert Short in The Gospel According to Peanuts. And went on our merry way.

(By the way, have you ever tried to read Barth? Must be something about the Germans. And I read Kierkegaard and Derrida for pleasure! Anyway....)

But change continued in the seminaries. 'Twas ever thus. Reinhold Niebuhr set aside the Social Gospel which dominated the seminary in his day, but while he was more orthodox than Barth, he had even less real influence. The Social Gospel collapsed under its own weight, and the weight of the church, just as liberation theology would do a few decades later (well, with a little help from the CIA, but that, too, is another story). Paul Tillich virtually invented systematic theology, and misread Kierkegaard so badly he practically turned the melancholy Dane into the second coming of Hegel; but then, Tillich the German needed a system. (It is something about those Germans!) And still the world sailed blithely on, and A Man Called Peter made headlines in the '50's when everyone came back from war and flooded the churches like no generation in America had before, and baby boomers grew up thinking everybody went to church and thought pretty much the same way about church (with minor variations for ritual or manner of baptism), until the '60's. When baby boomers started to get old enough not to go to church, and decided not to, and the "Jesus Movement" of the '70's came along, and Harvey Cox praised "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" scandalized for a few people for a little while, and then, somewhere along the way, suburbia gave way to exurbia, and the "mega-church" was born to fill the need for a community that capitalism had destroyed with the American nomadic way of life.

And where did the liberals go? Nowhere. They filled the churches, too, but no one listened to them. But as the churches shrank, and the very conservative, not to say fundamentalist, not to say non-theological ("God said it, I believe it, that settles it!") mega-churches took center stage, and demanded central fealty of the public image of Christianity, too. And so "liberals" began to stick out simply because they weren't "conservative."

And that's where the labels come in. "Liberal" is now a perjorative term which means whoever I am not, and whatever I want it to mean. Is Elaine Pagels "liberal"? Dom Crossan? Marcus Borg? Robert Fagles? Stephen Patterson? Depends on who's asking. It doesn't mean anything to me. How do you feel about gay bishops, gay priests, gay marriage? That is supposed to define you as "liberal" or "conservative," but those are still political issues, political categories, political labels. So I don't use them. "Liberal" means I cannot talk to you, because I am "conservative." But theology is all about talking to people.

Why do seminaries teach "liberal" theologies and biblical exegesis? Because scholars always have radically different ideas than lay people. It's what they get paid for; to have new and different ideas. It's how they get tenured, published, famous (or not). It's the nature of the beast. Those ideas "trickle down" into the communities of faith. I came out of a "liberal" seminary. The ideas I was taught as "radical" and "cutting edge," were, some of them, over 100 years old. I studied Bultmann, who finished his major work in the 1940's (his later theological works aren't that good, really; still controversial among people who know nothing about theology [he makes a good punching bag for them], but not that good). I studied more recent thinkers, too, but only barely (process theology is still in its infancy; give it another 100 years or so). And most of what I learned, like the "Jesus Seminar" materials, is already old hat. Newer younger turks have come along, and taught newer, younger pastors and priests. And so it goes.

A large measure of what is happening now is that change has finally caught up with the church. Eliot identified it over 60 years ago in his "Choruses from 'The Rock.' "

What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of God.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of God,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbour
Unless his neighbour makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.
Nor does the family even move about together
But every son would have his motor cycle,
And daughters ride away on casual pillions.
That is an almost perfect description of the city I live in; or almost any American city I've ever lived in. We are just now realizing, in the church, how right Eliot was. We still don't know what to do about it, how to change. And lay people aren't all that interested in change. The ones who support the institution, by and large, want it to stay as it was when they were children, to adhere to the lessons they learned in Sunday school. And there's another problem entirely: it's been accelerating for generations, but young people, by and large, don't want to go to "Grandpa's church." They want their own church, or they want nothing at all. The old ways of teaching and preaching, the old things said, don't reach them at all. Much of the new stuff, that seems so attractive on TV, I wouldn't give a wet snap for. But so long as Grandpa is around to insist on church his way (or, more likely, Grandma!), small churches will stay small, and die off, and young people will leave early, if they come at all (parents assume far less control over their children's lives than even my parents did, and they didn't control me as much as their parents controlled them). And part of the problem is what the church has to say, and how it says it.

And what it does, and who it does it for, or too. It isn't, after all, about doctrine; it's about action. But doctrine determines action, at least in an institution. Doctrine says who is included, who is excluded, and why. The question of who is in, who is out, is a live one in our society just now; has been since I was a child, and schools began to desegregate (and whatever happened to that, huh?). It ain't over yet, and the changes are affecting the church, too. More changes than I can name here, or shake a stick at, are commonplace in society, in the world; how can the church stand unaffected?

So what is a "liberal" theology? One someone doesn't like, I suppose. That's the take in this article, anyway. There's little or nothing there that, theologically, I disagree with. But it does drag theology back into to politics, which is not necessarily a place I want theology to be. I'm happy to see it move people to act in the world as I believe Christians should. I'm not sure, however, that fights over doctrine and the primacy of one theology above another, are ever productive. A systematic theology is a lovely idea. But then it runs into the real world, and gets all smashed up; and what good is it then? Paul said that whatever we do should be for the building up of the church; that we are now without labels. Labels are a way of controlling people, of limiting them. So I'm less worried about the nature of a particular theology, and more worried, like Archbishop Williams, with what it means to people; real people; and about what it leads people to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment