Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Books Worth Reading (7): Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed by Ronald T. Michener

I have never been a card-carrying postliberal theologian. Nevertheless, my engagement with the postliberal theologians of the 1980s and 1990s undoubtedly shaped my approach to the study of theology and, and more enduringly, my interest in the diverse roles of doctrine in the church’s life. Central to the postliberal school was George Lindbeck’s 1986, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and theology in a Postliberal Age. I read it for the first time just as I embarked on my postgraduate studies. If I can say this without being too presumptuous, it woke me from my doctrinal slumber. It snapped me out of the dreary liberal/conservative rhetoric of the mainline protestant theology I had imbibed by being part of mainline protestant church. Lindbeck’s typology of doctrine –  experiential expressivist, propositional, and cultural-linguistic –  provided  me with quite different and more interesting ways of mapping the theology I was learning. It made me realise that to describe a theological position as liberal or conservative was to say almost nothing intellectually interesting, let alone informative, about that theological position. Moreover, reading Lindbeck made me realise that the study of doctrine and the many functions it performs in the church was at least as interesting, complex and fascinating as the study of hermeneutics or method or the various backgrounds to the biblical writings.

As a specific school of thought, postliberal theology had a relatively short life. Paul de Haart has even written about its rise and decline. The questions it raised, however, are still worth pondering. Indeed, to some extent, they are inevitable in any study of Christian theology, whether or not that study is shaped by exposure to specifically postliberal writings. So, for instance:
  • If doctrines aren’t propositions, what are they?
  • How is narrative related to truth?
  • What is the relationship between theology and practice?
  • Can theology be non-foundationalist without becoming fidestic?
  • Are the discourses of different religions incommensurable?

So the postliberal school may well have passed into history, but if you want to see how postliberal theology brought such questions to focus and how it helps address them, then Ronald T. Michener’s short 2013 book, Postliberal Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed would be a book well worth reading. As with other books in Bloomsbury’s Guide for the Perplexed series, it’s pitched at readers able to engage arguments typical of tertiary education, it provides a helpful overview of the topic without bypassing the critical questions, it is relatively short (140 pages), and it has many helpful suggestions for further reading.

The book consists of 5 chapters. The first, ‘Introduction’, does what its title says. It’s a very general overview of postliberal theology which locates it in the midst of other twentieth-century theological movements. Chapter 2, ‘Background’, provides a very useful summary of the wide range of philosophical, anthropological, sociological and theological backgrounds to the movement. (Throughout this chapter readers would glean some insight into the important contributions to postliberal theology of Augustine, Aquinas and Barth.) Chapter 3, ‘Theological exponents of postliberal theology’ provides sustained engagement with the three major voices of the movement (Frei, Lindbeck, and Hauerwas) and a quick overview of ‘other voices’ (David Kelsey, William Placher, Bruce Marshall, George Hunsinger and Kathryn Tanner). The title of Chapter 4, Problems and Criticisms of Postliberal Theology, speaks for itself as does that of Chapter 5, ‘Prospects and proposals for postliberal theology today’.

So what is 'postliberal theology'? Early on Michener offers what is less a definition and more a set of observations that help to locate this particular theology:
Postliberal theology has always been more a loose connection of narrative theological interests than it is some monolithic agenda. It represents an overarching concern for the renewal of Christian confession over theological methodology. Rather than reliance on  a notion of correlative common experience, postliberal theology moves towards the local or particular faith description of the community of the church (p.3).
As such it is a  "tertium quid solution" between the two major protestant responses to modernity: fundamentalism and liberalism. More specifically, postliberal theology rejects the identity of truth with doctrinal propositions characteristic of fundamentalism. At the same time it rejects the location of truth within a putatively pre-cognitive domain of human experience (of which doctrines are contingent ‘expressions’) typical of liberalism. In contrast postliberal theology locates truth within Christianty’s own practiced and articulated narratives: i.e.,  the narratives that shape the church’s life – creeds, liturgies, scriptures, confessions etc. And here, of course, is what is usually perceived as the major problem with postliberal theology: it so completely internalises truth, that it is essentially sectarian and fideistic.
Of course, postliberal theologians have frequently addressed this question, but the criticism persists. Michener sets out some of these response as well as his own in Chapter 4. In the response to the charge of the inevitably of isolationism which attached to postliberalism, Michener cites the example of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the massacre of their schoolchildren in 2006. Here was a community which prima face represents what a postliberal church might be: isolated and so formed by its own internal traditions that it was unable to relate to the world. Yet as Michener indicates, it was precisely that internal formation which enabled this community to practice forgiveness under the most extreme provocation. Michener makes this observation:
This is a remarkable example of how a commitment to one's faith, fully embedeed in the narrative and tradition of that faith, even with (what is often seen as) an extreme sectarian context may still have a radically profound impact on society. The Amish are certainly no friends to modern culture and society. ... [Nevertheless] with no regard to society's value or acts of self-aggrandizement  a faithfully devout community can still have a powereful effect on that society (p. 117).
Now, there are quite properly serious limits to this most extreme example. By itself it should not be taken as a justification for postliberal theology or as a response to a major criticism of it. Nevertheless, it does provide a lived example which calls into question the assumption made in theory that faithfulness to a tradition necessarily leads to public isolation.

The other aspect of Michener's critical discussion which is worth noting relates to the Holy Spirit. A little surprisingly, Michener draws some parallels between Postliberalism and Pentecostalism in their shared rejection of modern reductionist rationality. He quotes James K.A.Smith's reference to Pentecostalism's  "more expansive, affective understanding of what counts as knowledge and a richer understanding of how we know" (Smith, quoted by Michener, p. 136) and suggests this as an area of shared concern. It is not entirely clear where that parallel might lead, but the shared concern is at least worthy of note and any pathway to deeper mutual understanding between mainline and Pentecostal theologies is worth pursuing.

This is a good book. It would be useful to any one already interested in and familiar with postliberal theology. It would also be well worth reading for anyone keen to find out about it for the first time.
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In second semester this year I'll be teaching a unit, 'Doctrine, Truth and Pluralism'. Although postliberal theology will be only one part of this unit, questions such as those listed above will be the unit's major driving force. It will be taught as a two-part intensive, July 29-30 and Oct 7-9.  Check out this promotional video and the course outline on pp. 92-94 of Pilgrim's 2016 Handbook. The unit will also be available for on-line enrolment.
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(This series of 'books worth reading' engages an eclectic selection of books: some directly related to my teaching, some to the UCA, and some of more general theological interest. They are not offered as technical book reviews, but as summaries which highlight why I think they might be useful resources, good conversation starters, or volumes that make helpful contributions to scholarly debate.)

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