Thursday, 9 October 2008

In Depth

I was pleased with the group meeting on Tuesday evening, when as part of the course I have written (so far) we discussed actual liberal theologians of the nineteenth century, namely Grandfather Schleiermacher, Father Ritschl, and Sons Harnack and Troeltsch. One starts in the eighteenth century and two come into the twentieth.

The sudden and intense downpour of rain saw one new attender come soaked, and another new attender come out of an earlier meeting, get soaked and went home instead. I presented the paper, and I have six more in the pipeline, but one new attender and present will become presenter of the feminist paper as she is more expert than me of the wide range of the subject.

The issue at the moment was that of Hegelian synthesising of the newly forming specialist academic subjects in the nineteenth century and theology, and that in particular history was unable as a discipline to establish any unique Christology. Ritschl started with Christology, but it remained subjective to individual faith positions. It is only when you get to Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and even Reinhold Niebuhr that you have closed circle Chrisologies that you have to leap into. I made the point that no discipline in the university pauses at any point and asks what God is doing here, whereas Theology does and draws in other discipines. This uneven relationship of the disciplines for me is the weakness of Theology: that it needs special rules of operation, of leaping in first, though in a university it takes in non-believers too as students. It is clearly out on a limb.

However, after the modernists we get to the more contemporary theologians and specialists, and the fact that some theologies are more open again and that there is a departure between university and churches on the ground and even seminaries.

It was interesting just how few of the group thought Christianity was a historic faith. My point was surely it claims to be a historic faith, that at a point in history a revelation was made in a person that is central to the redeeming, through time, and at the end of time, to the world's perfection. I and others might not believe that this is actual, and that the alternative is something mystical or storytelling (two options) and what is just rejected, but surely there is that claim made.

Another point made that is similar to the above is one saying history is given by the winners anyway (and this applies to the form of Christianity produced) and yet, whilst this is so, the peculiar mix of imperial, top-of-the-tree cultural belief and liberality has to be first understood about the nineteenth century mind and only then criticised (the argument is this: you get magic among the savages, Hinduism is an organised Paganism, village Roman Catholicism is a stage higher, later comes far more rational Protestantism and the highest version is liberal Protestantism - and such suits the international imperialist mind.) Before Malinowski, the European Social Anthropologist sat on a very high chair looking down at the world still to develop.

I suppose the academic, particularly the sociologist researcher, is trained to first take and accept an entity describing itself. A historian looks at the documents from a time period and then tries to imagine the mind of the time. You establish the position, the claim, what there was. Only then do you apply the criticism.

This must be so when you do a book or article review. You must accurately portray the sense of the thing itself before you start to analyse it and criticise it - otherwise you are criticising your own distortion. There is a kind of faithfulness to the other that must come first.

I assume - at least to start with - that there is this thing called Christianity and that it claims to be historical: that is objectively within a process through time to the end-time. Of course very quickly we then see the variations (e.g. Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant), many of which also claim to be historical. It's only then that we find the theologies and the individual beliefs that do not accept this: that it is a mythology, or a set of stories or dramas to enact, or something mystical and like a layer over actual history, or something that just points to a greater whole, or an institutional postmodern bubble-like approach (as in Radical Orthodoxy) - and more variations.

Also, of course, we think all these varied thoughts and beliefs whilst confronting (if that's the right word) a liturgy that is unreformed (other than updates of some expressions, and a limited degendering) and overbearing, and a set of promises in the Declaration of Assent that seem as equally overbearing to individual views of religious faith.


Erika Baker said...

" This uneven relationship of the disciplines for me is the weakness of Theology: that it needs special rules of operation, of leaping in first,"

I'm not sure I understand this. Unlike science, the God concept requires faith not knowledge, so it cannot be empirically verified and tested.

Why should that be a weakness?
I rather see its dipping into other disciplines as a strength, and the fact that others don't dip into it as reasonable considering its different parameters.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Then theology can be anything you like, like writing about the Spaghetti Monster. Surely if there is something like an incarnation it has to have accessibility from other disciplines - but it does not, not unless all uniqueness is dropped and Christianity becomes a spirituality of Western culture (say).

Erika Baker said...

Up to a point, of course, theology can be anything you like. The fact that there are so many religions in the world testifies to that.

That does not mean that, once the leap of faith has been made on whichever grounds convince the believer, it isn't possible to create a logical and coherent system of belief.

But, ultimately, of course, Christianity is based on people believing in what this man Jesus told them about God. There's nothing scientific about it.

I still don't see why that's a problem.

It's like Ford said on TA not long ago - science can explain the composition of a picture, that which is not science makes it art. That puts art into a category which cannot be tested by science, but it does not make art unreal or weak.

The term "weakness" only makes sense if you insist that one discipline can only be real and valid if it can be verified by another.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Christianity is based on more than what Jesus said, and that hardly needs a leap of faith. It's the exclusivity that is the issue, beginning with Paul and ongoing afterwards: the faith about Jesus rather than the one Jesus had pointing to his understanding of God (Harnack and all that). Once you accept the condition to leap in you can indeed reason from there, but it does not reason beyond itself, and can only invite the other to leap.

Erika Baker said...

You're right.
I still don't see why that's a "weakness" rather than just a fact.

Erika Baker said...

I'm no longer understanding what you're trying to say, sorry.

Whether Jesus IS something, SAYS something or POINTS to something - unless you believe that his statements have any validity you have no reason to take them seriously.

Exclusivity is a Paulian concept, and there are sufficient universalist Christians to show that it's not necessary to Christian faith.

But an initial leap of faith - yes, that definitely. Why else take anything seriously Jesus pointed to?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Statements have validity on their own terms, Jesus or early Church. A lived life is important, of course, as a model, as a witness indeed. I don't see why there has to be a pre-emptive leap.

Erika Baker said...

Because we're talking about faith in something that is, be definition, not empirically detectable, measurable and quanitifiable.

I know that for you personally the element of an actual reality at the core of faith is missing, but for most people it is precisely that reality that gives religion any value at all.

You don't have faith in it, that's ok. But to deny that faith is needed before it becomes as real to people as observable science and to call that a weakness is... to my mind... missing the point.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I don't deny anyone any leaps they wish to make, to reason from any standpoint. But when certain claims are then made, e.g. historical claims, or realist claims, then I'll remind of a leap that went to another place.

Pity you can't travel to the Barton In Depth group to add the viewpoint. Well I'm sure you can so travel, but it is more than a leap away.

On the other hand you could make a leap of faith and declare the end to distance, in a more profound sense, and reason that you are with us.

(Jokes of sorts made here)

Erika Baker said...

I shall be with you in spirit, it's just a leap of the immagination, after all.
You could to the verbalising on my behalf - this leaping will leave me speechless, and quite possible invisible to those who have not eyes to see.