Sunday, July 5, 2015

Books Worth Reading (3): David Ford's The Future of Christian Theology

David F. Ford, The Future of Christian Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

This book is part of the Blackwell Manifesto series. In fact, if you go to this video (and below), you can watch Ford explain how, in the process of writing it, he was in dialogue with the authors of the parallel manifestos for Jewish and Islamic theology. Such dialogue is typical of David Ford's writings and  this Manifesto reflects these and other conversations. There are theological engagements with the state of the 'secular'; he studies how Christian theology can be 'blessed' by other faiths; he explores the multiple communities in which theology is performed; he writes of the need for theological apprenticeship; he addresses institutional and funding issues on which the future of theology will depend. Although written from the heart of British academic theology (Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge), the book reflects Ford's interest in global theology and the diverse communities from which theology emerges and which it serves. For all these reasons the book is worth reading. Nevertheless, I will specify two particular aspects of his argument which make this book an especially worthwhile read.

The first relates to the openness of Christian theology and the grounds of that openness. I am frequently drawn into conversations about the systematic nature of systematic theology and the criticism that precisely by being systematic the discipline over-organises the material of Christian theology. Just recently I was in a meeting where systematic theology was summarily dismissed as 'too rigid'. This is not an unfair criticism of some strands of systematic theology, but not, however, of its best exponents. (See my earlier post discussing Sarah Coakley's reponse to such criticisms). Ford is not preoccupied with this criticism, nor is the book an apology for systematic theology. Nevertheless he has some useful ways of exploring the openness of the Christian theological task. With echoes of von Balthasar, and before him, Hegel,  Ford uses a typology of 'epic', 'lyric' and 'drama' to distinguish different theological styles. The "epic mindset", he writes, "likes clarity completeness, and objectivity, systems, overviews and comprehensive structures" (p.25). Lyric theology concerns itself with "inwardness, self-expression and the present moment" and embraces "messiness and loose ends" (p.25). As such, lyric theology can be a corrective to epic theology. Yet, the danger with the lyric style is that it can "give up on a coherent plot, an overarching meaning" (p.26). Drama, on the other hand, "is able to embrace the objective and the subjective, to maintain a sense of plot and purpose without supressing individuality [or] diversity" (p.26). It can "have epic detachment and lyric intensity, and enable a sense of coherence without assuming one overview" (p.26).

Ford prefers the dramatic because he believes that it is characteristic of the biblical testimony itself, and for that reason has a particular claim on the work of theological reflection. The Bible, he writes,
testifies to a real drama of love and freedom, and the most serious matters are at stake in the interactions of God, humanity, and creation. ... Human freedom is fulfilled in involvement with God and God's purposes, and this means constant discernment of vocation and responsibility within an unfolding drama whose central act is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (p.27). 
David Ford
Of course, the appeal to the dramatic is not uncommon in contemporary theology. What makes Ford's approach especially interesting is the way he deepens the biblical foundation for it. Theology will maintain this dramatic posture if it attends to the different 'theological moods' present in the bible and reflects them in its constructive work. Too much theology, he says, is in the imperative and indicative moods. Christian theology must also develop its discourses in the subjunctive and interrogative moods. He refers to the conventional "deadening lack of recognition of the complex interplay of moods across a range of biblical books" (p.71) and argues that a greater recognition of those moods and their 'ecology' will generate theological styles reflective of the biblical witness itself.

The second aspect of his argument which makes this book worth reading is his discussion of the 'elements' of wise and creative theology. Ford suggests that such theology is characterised by these four elements: retrieving the past; engaging with God, community and world; thinking; and communication. These are spelled out in the book, but their suggestiveness should be immediately apparent. Perhaps the most striking feature of this discussion is Ford's emphasis on 'communication'. Here too he finds precedent and mandate in the Bible itself. He suggests that, historically, theological fruitfulness is linked to theological creativity. "For theology to do what the Bible did, as well as to interpret what the Bible said, means that it should pursue creativity in expression and performance in many modes" (p. 203).

To my mind, this approach to 'wise and creative' theology is a more artful and interesting approach to theological judgement than the much invoked, but somewhat flatfooted, quadrilateral (Wesleyan or otherwise) of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I have used this quadrilateral as a very basic resource for introducing new theological students to the sources of theology. As an introductory resource it is useful. Nevertheless, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with way it often gets taken up. It is treated as an unstructured quartet which any of the other three can displace the Bible from its primary place rather than operate as hermeneutical aids in the reading of the Bible. Secondly, it too easily creates an impression that once you arrange these sources in a particular way you have a theological method which guarantees a 'correct' answer. It thereby tempts the theologian to the wrong sort of confidence. In contrast, Ford's 'wise and creative' theology keeps theologians on their toes, bringing them into a more dynamic, unpredictable, and humble approach to their task.

I think this book would be especially helpful to those in the middle of a theological degree and to those theological graduates who want to acquaint themselves with some important current trends in the task of theology. For both groups it would be well worth reading.


Thursday, July 2, 2015

ANZATS 2015: A Life Worth Living

The theme, A Life Worth Living, stimulated lots of diverse reflections at this week's annual ANZATS conference. In his keynote addresses Scott Stephens addressed the complex history of the ideological intersections of political theory, communication, media, and the body. Electives provided opportunities to explore the theme from the perspectives of biblical studies, philosophy, ethics, doctrine. Below are some of the tweets which emerged during the week.  It's a pretty random collection, but it gives an insight into the various lines of discussion and debate. Most are reporting what was said either in the keynotes or the electives.

  • Scott Stephens  beginning with refs to Lord of the Rings. 'A Life Worth Living'. Tolkein as catechetist (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Devaluing of religions symbols does not build better societies, but removes quest for meaning (@edutheol)
  • 'The greatest critic of Twitter was Soren Kierkegaard' - Scott Stephens. Can't wait to unpack that one! (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Media is as susceptible to vainglory as it is resistant to criticism (@gtsystheol)
  • Moral difference between being silent, and reflecting and deliberating. Because when one speaks they become responsible.(@garagetakai)
  • Australians generally have shown a lack of interest in theology (and theological education) in their own country” Geoff Treloar (@edutheol)
  • 'What has the Trinity ever done for us?' Margaret Campbell, on Tanner, with apologies to Monty Python (@mlindsay_mark)
  • Our value systems are not static but dynamic and is intended for community - Peter Laughlin (@ChristyCapper)
  • It's the abnormal and grotesque that make other countries newsworthy. Scott Stephens  (@Centressrs)
  • The gym as sweaty Pelagianism - Theologian Sarah Coakley via Scott Stephens (@Centressrs)
  • The Levinasian face doesn't mean anything. You can't love the other unless you can smell them - Zizek quoted by Stephens
  • Athanasius: Christ comes to re-sit as the life model for the portrait of humanity. Quoted by Christy Capper (@edutheol)
  • Modern mind is made of 3 parts: pride ignorance and sloth; & joined by 1 principle: the blind acceptance of unreasoned authority (@garagetakai)
  • Lynne Taylor investigates what new Xns say about the process of becoming Xns. Welcome move to listen to their voice.(@gtsystheol)
With thanks to @mlindsay_mark,@edutheol, @garagetakai, @Centress, @ChristyCapper .

And note the final #ANZATS2015 tweet: @mlindsay_mark Introduces ANZATS2016 -- Melbourne @ @ Theme: Atonement. Start Sunday night.(@edutheol). The keynote speaker will be Serene Jones from Union Theological Seminary.