Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Task of Dogmatics: Thoughts on LATC2017

I spent Thursday and Friday of last week at Biola University, Los Angeles, attending the fifth annual LA Theology Conference. The theme was 'The Task of Dogmatics'. Here are a few observations.

  • Kevin Vanhoozer opened the conference with a very Vanhoozerian tour de force under the title, "'Can I get a witness?' Analytics, Poetics, and the Mission of Dogmatics". The paper explored the question of where dogmatics exists on the spectrum between analytics and poetics. I appreciated how he pointed out the reality of poetics (with some good historical examples) within dogmatics  and then his appeal to Charles Taylor's use of the 'social imaginary'. He spoke of the 'dogmatic imaginary' - which I think he was proposing as a kind of norm which guides the diverse work of contemporary dogmatics. I wondered whether the appeal to Taylor might have suggested a different set of imaginaries, say a 'gospel imaginary' and an 'ecclesial imaginary' to which the work of dogmatics would be accountable (rather than to its own imaginary). I realise that much depends here on the nature of the analogy drawn with Taylor's idea.

  • I know that for me, and for at least quite a few others, the highlight of the conference was Katherine Sonderegger's "A lamp unto our feet". It was one of the most compelling instances I have ever witnessed of rigorous theological thinking presented in the most gentle, gracious and inviting style. (The published conference papers will be worth purchasing for this paper alone.) Noting, with Augustine's help, the sheer strangeness of the biblical material, she noted the cultural reality that the "days when the Bible is not met with offense have gone". This allows us freshly to grasp its uniqueness: it is non-naturalised; it cannot be identified with anything else; it cannot be wholly described by any other category. So, "The Bible is strongly unique and in just this way it stands at the beginning of all our theology". And it is for this reason, i.e., that it doesn't fit any category, it demands - rather than suppresses - our intellect, our humility, and our openness to the mystery of revelation. I couldn't help but reflect on Professor Sonderegger's emphasis on the Bible's uniqueness and the use of the word 'unique' in the description of the Bible in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia. Its use in that context still invites much reflection.

  • Not far behind Sonderegger's paper in my own appreciation was Douglas Harink's (elective) paper, "The abiding power of Romans for Dogmatics". After giving a brief historical overview of how the structure of Romans has shaped the doctrinal structure of Christian dogmatics, Harink posed the question whether this history had been brought to an end by the New Perspective readings of Paul and therefore of Romans. His qualified answer was 'not necessarily'. There is still a structure to Romans that addresses the metanarrative of Christian faith, but the theological shift in the New Perspective readings has been from an anthropological to theological orientations of Romans and this must shape the dogmatic use of Romans. The challenge to systematic theologians who draw on Romans will be to read creation and redemption theocentrically and messianically. Harink suggested that he already sees this tendency in the work of John Howard Yoder. I wondered whether we also see it in Moltmann, especially his The Way of Jesus: Christology in Messianic Dimensions.

  • Another fine, and superbly-crafted, paper was that of Michael Allen, "Dogmatics as Ascetics".  The substance of the paper was a comparison of the ascetic impulses in both Sarah Coakley and the late John Webster. Allen outlined his appreciation for the way both theologians treat theology as a work of self-criticism, renunciation and destabilisation. As such, theology is properly a contemplative task, and one that itself engenders contemplation. Allen argued that the ascetic element was more strongly grounded in Webster than in Coakley. He proposed that Coakley located theological self-criticism in the human capacities of the theologian whereas Webster placed this in the reality of the Triune God who cannot be mastered. Personally, I thought there was more room for Coakley and Webster to complement each other (or to be appropriated in complementary ways) than to be contrasted as sharply as they were in Allen's account. Nevertheless, his treatment of the general theme of 'dogmatics and ascetics' was full of insight.

  • A particular highlight was to meet Josh, a Pentecostal pastor of a largely Hispanic congregation north of LA. He came to the conference because, after reading Sonderegger's Sytematic Theology last year, he wanted to hear her in person. This was not the only reading he did last year. He had also been reading Jame's Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree and a whole range of Russian novels. In conversation he relayed how he disciplines himself to such reading precisely for the sake of his ministry and for deepening his preaching. He had some fascinating - not to say inspiring - insights into the links between critical theology and pastoral ministry.

The general tenor and theological orientation of the conference was more self-consciously Reformed than I had anticipated. I was left wondering how the inclusion  of Catholic and Orthodox voices amongst the plenary speakers might have differently shaped the conversation about 'The Task of  Dogmatics'. Similar wondering was suggested by the absence of non-Western voices. To be fair, Kevin Vanhoozer pressed the claims of non-Western theologians at a couple of strategic points during the conference. These ecumenical and cultural limitations were echoed in the striking gender imbalance of both the speakers and participants. My guess would be that the male majority in the conference overall would have been around 8:1. Even as one who inhabits a male-dominated academic discipline, it was a long time since I have participated in an ecclesial or theological gathering where the gender balance was as acutely skewed as it was at this one.

Despite these concerns, I'm extremely glad I went. It was as well-organised a conference as you could hope; the standard of scholarship and discussion was very high; the general mood was very friendly. And, as usual, the lunch-time and over-coffee conversations were often as significant for one's learning as the papers themselves. I know that the conference has very helpfully fed my current project on Christian doctrine.

Judging by even the plenary speakers, next year's conference promises to be less susceptible to the gender and ecumenical limitations I mentioned above. With Frances Young, Megan DeFranza, Marc Cortez, Hans Madueme, and Ian McFarland tackling the theme of 'Theological Anthropology', it is sure to generate deep and spirited discussions. With Young and DeFranza I would imagine that the discussion of anthropology will be brought into close association with disability and sexuality. Look out for further details at the conference website.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Sabbatical Sojourns

One of the great privileges of academic life is that of sabbatical (or study) leave. The Board of my college has granted me the next six months as sabbatical. The major task is to complete the book, Christian Doctrine: A Guide for the Perplexed.  This is part of the Bloomsbury series of such guides. The contract requires me to finish the manuscript by January 31st 2018. The aim is to get the first draft completed by the end of the sabbatical.

The book won't be (yet another) introduction to Christian doctrines. Its main focus is actually on the question how doctrine functions in the church and, indeed, beyond the church (as part of the church's public witness). My short answer is that the overarching function, amidst its specific functions of teaching, apologetics, pastoral care etc, is that it helps to form the church's social imaginary.

But an equally strong focus of this particular book will be how the answer to that question is shaped by the realities of the theological and cultural diversity of the global church. This is a particularly contemporary challenge given the historical dominance of the Western tradition of doctrine shaping Christianity's social imaginary. For me this is not best addressed, however, by trading off Western traditions against non-Western traditions. I'm more interested in how these traditions are together shaped by and give shape to the church's emering doctrinal tradition - and how they find some unity around shared convictions about the living God.

To this end, I'm spending time over the next month engaging very intentionally with some particular examples  of both traditions. This week  I'm attending the LA Theology Conference at Biola University where I'll get to hear, among others, Katherine Sonderegger and Kevin Vanhoozer.  Then after a short stay back at home I'll be heading to India for several weeks where I'll be spending time at both the Mar Thoma Orthodox Seminary in Kottayam and then the United Theological College in Bangalore. I'll be given a paper to colleagues at both institutions on, 'Doctrinal Change and Constancy in a Global Church'.  Later in the sabbatical I'll be giving a similar paper to colleagues at Nanjing Theological Seminary. I'm really looking forward to the responses and insights from the Indian and Chinese colleagues.  For the outcome of all this look out for the book sometime in 2018!