Monday, January 19, 2015

Davis McCaughey: little substance?

Recently when browsing the newly-arrived journals at my college library I opened up a recent issue of The Reformed Theological Review (73:2, August 2014).  I was interested to see that it contained (pp. 142-43) a review of Sarah Martin’s Davis McCaughey: A Life (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2012). McCaughey was, among other things, New Testament scholar, Master of Ormond College, inaugural President of the Uniting Church in Australia, and Governor of Victoria. The review focused mostly on Martin’s account of McCaughey’s theological and ecclesiastical work. Although this was at the expense of Martin’s engagement with the other areas of McCaughey’s life, within the compass of a brief book review in a theological journal, this limitation is fair enough.
What is not fair enough, however, is the conclusion the reviewer draws. I quote the final paragraph in full:
McCaughey’s earthly pilgrimage came to an end on Good Friday, 2005. He was not without insights and eloquence, but having rejected what he saw as the narrow creed of Irish Presbyterianism, he was left with little of any substance to put in its place. In the end, this is a sad book – and all the sadder because it is not altogether evident that many involved in its telling realise how sad it is.
In fact, to describe this conclusion as unfair doesn’t quite capture my concern. It’s more that this is a quite unscholarly conclusion and, at least in my view, below the standard expected in a peer-reviewed journal. In concluding that this is a ‘sad book’, the author appeals to some deeply personal criterion, to which, apparently, Martin and her sources were simply blind.  And, devoid of this criterion, Martin was unable – so the reviewer suggests – to understand, or provide an informed judgement on, McCaughey’s life. 
Yes, of course, reviewers are perfectly entitled – and expected – to expose an author’s prejudices, failures and errors. But any successful critique on those grounds needs to be backed up by relevant information and data. And the conclusion would be along the lines that the author had failed in his/her own objectives, or neglected to take into account relevant scholarship, or, in the case of a biography, omitted critical moments in the subject’s life.  Nothing like that applies here.  This is an arbitrary claim that Martin didn’t know how to judge her own material: she didn’t know – but apparently should have known – how sad the story was she was telling. So, the conclusion is a judgement on Martin’s inability fully to understand her subject matter. But – and this is my interest – it is also a judgement on Davis McCaughey’s theology.
The reviewer’s reason for making this judgement is his own claim that McCaughey’s journey was one of departure from earlier theological convictions to a position “with little of any substance”. The only apparent basis provided in the review for this journey consists of two quotes from Martin’s book. The first is McCaughey’s comment at Princeton in 1967 that the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church”. The second is from McCaughey’s 1987 Boyer Lectures in which he quoted Niebuhr’s comment that “we must be saved by love” which the reviewer glosses with the comment, “by which he meant love of one’s neighbour”.
Neither these quotes nor anything else in the review can justify the claim that McCaughey’s constructive theological view had little substance to it. To make that judgement in an intellectually responsible way, it would be necessary to study and analyse the corpus of McCaughey’s theological writings. Even Martin’s biography is not the source material for such a judgement. 
The reviewer is perfectly entitled to disagree with McCaughey’s theological views, and to disagree strongly. But to suggest that McCaughey’s theology had “little of any substance” is simply wrong. McCaughey was far from the most prolific or influential theologian; by contemporary academic standards his literary output was significant, but modest. Nevertheless, judging from the body of his theological writings – many of which are readily accessible in various publications – McCaughey was an informed, thoughtful and creative interpreter not only of New Testament texts (his particular area of expertise), but also of the creedal orthodoxy which nurtured the Church catholic and into which he sought to draw the sectarian Protestantism of both his native Northern Ireland and his adopted Australia. It is also seems that in one area he was likely well ahead of most of his theological peers: his deep appreciation of the relationship between literature, imagination and theology. Some of his – admittedly brief – proposals in this area measure up very well alongside the best writings on this now important theme in contemporary Christian theology. Remarks he made to the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination (see below) provide an insight into the personal faith which both nurtured and was nurtured by his developed theology.
There are others far better placed than I am to defend McCaughey’s theological reputation. I can only say that whenever I have read his theological writings, I have found them illuminating, faithful to the gospel, creatively engaged with the classic traditions of Christian thought, and worthy of considered engagement. The RTR’s review makes a quite contrary claim – but does so without fully attending to the criteria of accuracy and fairness to which scholarly discussion, not least scholarship pursued as a Christian ministry, is summoned.
Some readily available examples of McCaughey’s sermons and theological writings:
Address to the 2002 meeting of the Victoria/Tasmania Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia. The text of this speech was distributed widely throughout the synod following the meeting.
Davis McCaughey, "If I had known then what I know now" in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (eds), Marking Twenty Years: the Uniting Church in Australia: 1977-1997 (Sydney: UTC Publications, 1997).
J. Davis McCaughey, Commentary on the Basis of Union (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1980).

J. D. McCaughey, "Church Union in Australia" The Ecumenical Review 17(1), 1965, pp. 38-53.

J. D. McCaughey, "Confession of Faith in Church Union Negotiations" Mid Stream 6(3) 1967, pp. 24-46.
J.D. McCaughey, "Language About the Church", Reformed Theological Review 15(1), 1956, pp. 1-17.


Bunsen said...

Hi Geoff, it is interesting to read this after preaching on the Gospel reading yesterday. Jesus did not present the disciples with a plan or with a set of creeds, but rather the command to "follow me." Following is a task that requires letting go of so much, and one of those things is certainty in one's self and acceptance of dependency on the one who leans.

It seems that McCaughey gave up a bit too much certainty for this reviewer. He was willing to let go of so many old certainties of the denominational age.

From this measure, the reviewer can only see McCaughey's decision to let go as successful if another similar, more persuasive, edifice was built in its place.

From the way I read it, McCaughey chose to lose the edifice and found in its place the ability and freedom to follow Christ in new places and new ways, a gain beyond any sense of loss that the reviewer perceives in his theology.

That being said, without the overarching structure to compare and contrast with, to one within the edifice the subsequent results (no mater how well grounded) will always be piecemeal and provisional. Thus the reviewer would struggle to dialogue with such views, but this is as much a consequence of the views of the fortress he (and his community) have decided to live within.

So, there will always be a sadness when one leaves the fortress, and there will always be a sadness for those in self-imposed separation within. To chose to leave the fortress does come as a cost, but we argue that the benefit far outweighs any such cost.

Ji Zhang said...

This is an excellent defence of the UCA tradition, particularly on the substantial contribution of the first Prisident. I like the thorough nature of the scholarly response, and the gentle and formative instruction to the path to appraise the life and works of McCaughey. One thing, however, I want to add is Martine's oversight of the praxis nature of McCaughey's instrumental work leading the church towards postdenemonational identity. Theological discourse does not have to be an academic scholarship, if it was so, it would exclude the reformation tradition, particular in the area of shaping the identify of the church through active engagements by the people within the movement of the spirit of God in the historical moment. The formation of the UCA is a moment of history still in the making, and that itself demands a deep theological reflection in order to capture the vision and theological discernment that are still capturing the imagination of the church and its members today. Without this deep sense of understanding - I would argue as a new comer to the Uniting Chruch as its minister - there could be no true existential anchoring point in the history, that which is stil radically unfolding in the life, witness, and service of the Uniting Church people. This, for me, is an unfinished identify shaping discourse, unless one participates in and contributes to the postdenemonational identity, could not, and should not, draw a conclusion without the readiness to be interpreted by it. As a China proverb says, whoever interprets Zhuangzi - one of the fathers of Chinese tradition - should be prepared, more importantly be interpreted by him.

Janet Watson Kruse said...

I grew up listening to Davis Mc Caughey preaching. His sermons were eloquent, inspiring, scholarly and rang with conviction. Perhaps more importantly, I spied on him praying before Church - as a child, I was fascinated by the rapt intensity. As Master of Ormond College he knew every soul by name, making provision at his departure that a disabled illiterate groundsman would be able to stay living in his home. His contributions to the Basis of Union are positive and visionary. He lived his faith. I have not read the biography in question, nor the review, but my child's-eye view concurs that the verdict of 'sad' is strangely misplaced.