Wednesday 23 November 2011

Neo-Orthodox Realistic?

One of the hidden points inside last week's Rev was that Christianity is not historical. It might be consequential (for some), but it is not sequential. Also it has no primary documents available in terms of history, so that all techniques of historiography have to be from a distance, and in some cases (horror of horrors) a dependency on the consensus of historians. Historians ought to be specialists on primary documents, sceptics in a way that your average amateur (for example making assumptions doing genealogy) are not.

So the New Testament as such is a presentation of community views and beliefs after the death of Jesus and becomes selective in a fast moving reforming of tradition including across a Jewish and Greek cultural shift. Nineteenth century historical theologians soon realised just how limited were the sources, that the history was both less available and more spread out.

The full title of curate Abigail's PhD thesis was (not is because it doesn't exist) NeoOrthodoxy and Realistic Dialectical Theology, later losing the Realistic when stated by the Reader (Rev Adam's sidekick, who thinks he'd make a better Rev.).

The point is, however, that dialectical theology is not realist if by realist it means there is a dependency on the world to back up the realism. Realism is, well, often based in the world (Aristotle). Given the intellectual source and drift, this realism would have to be idealised and located in God (Plato), but then the focus is on the argument of opposites (to extract the truth from exhausting the argument) purely based on the text as received and present. The method leads precisely to dropping the realist element wherever it is (Plato, is, after all, no one but a human philosopher). So whilst no one would call Karl Barth a non-realist, nevertheless a rejection of the world and its institutions (especially religious) and indeed culture - but a focus on the text and extracting its truth (from what is and what is not - very binary in contrast) - leads to others producing a pure text no world narrative conclusion, meaning non-realist.

Why? Because text is cultural and yet culture is rejected as transient and inconsequential. Therefore text is left as itself, like an island, just sent as revelation, but revelation located in a drama of events as understood and therefore to be treated as such.

Failure to understand (though the above is my interpretation, not his), says Hans Frei, leads to The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative. Or, rather, I suggest, telling us this leads Hans Frei to tell about the non-realist basis of the biblical narrative - though he might not use such a descriptor.

Of course the text is supposed to have impact somewhere, but it is not (as the present highly narrative based Archbishop would have it) about having biblical narratives that relate to your own narratives in life. This is where your experience, and your story, is illuminated by the biblical stories. No doubt the biblical stories come first, as revelation, or indeed because they have special relevance, but the relationship on human stories suggests a dependency on human stories and that wouldn't do. That's where liberalism creeps in, because liberalism is always about individual subjective experience, and once you have subjectivity you then have objectivity and you do have realism.

Though of course what is objective and what is subjective can start to clash and each affect the other, to cause something of a breaking down. Just as you can push Karl Barth on, so you can push James Martineau on and produce an open non-realism. Martineau is not dialectical, not at all: the only contrast is between his apparent realism (at a liturgical and collective level - his residual Christianity) and his utter subjectivity or individualism as authority.

Which is where "anagogical" comes in, because it is a mystical interpretation of a word, passage, or text. The extraction of a text into meaning by contrast isn't simply mundane but at a higher level. Humm: but care is needed or the interpretation and impact shoots back off into heaven again and the dialectical between sacred and secular remains unfinished. The enthusiasm of secular theologians for the Karl Barth and Bonhoeffer source was precisely because the anagogical is so limited and because you end up with a busy, secular world with a God so high and dry that the God is virtually invisible. Well, that's non-realism for you, when complete - or, at least, the option of realism is more hidden than ever.

Whereas, the Martineau route is the questions route, the beliefs of individuals route, where individuals might think their beliefs are 'real' but where, thanks to collective confusion, they are not. Or - at least - the option of realism is somewhat more hidden than folks realise.

So I would like to read Abigail's thesis, and wonder precisely at the use of the word Realistic - and what is the meaning of the ic after Realist. A more convincing title would have left the ic off. That then subjects the title itself to a dialectical examination:

NeoOrthodoxy and Realist Dialectical Theology

That's better. Because, had the title been:

NeoOrthodoxy and Non-realist Dialectical Theology

Then she would never have been a high-flyer on her way to St. Paul's.

Note: all the images are from the BBC online broadcast and are here as illustrative.

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