In a recent article in the Christian Century, Jason Byassee tells the stories of theologians who recently left their Protestant denominations and were received into the Catholic Church ("Going Catholic: Six Journeys to Rome," August 22, 2006). Byassee does a fine and sympathetic job recounting the stories of Bruce Marshall, Reinhard Hütter, Mickey Mattox, Gerald Schlabach, Douglas Farrow, and me. More important, he frames these six trips to Rome as a sign of the times, suggesting a new tilt toward Catholicism among the rising generation of academic theologians. He may well be right.
One point, however, invites clarification. Byassee describes me and the others as "postliberal." It is something of a notorious term. Postliberalism is associated with George Lindbeck's controversial theories of religion and doctrine, and it tends to frustrate both liberals and traditionalists as a weasel word that signals a desire to avoid taking sides. Byassee may reinforce this frustration by observing that folks like me "accept such mainline practices as historical criticism and women's ordination while wanting the church to exhibit more robust dogmatic commitments."
I can see what Byassee is trying to say, but I worry that he gives the wrong impression. By the term postliberal, he wants to prevent his readers from throwing up their hands and saying, "Of course they became Catholic. Reno and the rest are threatened by the realities of modern culture, and they want the comfort and assurance of dogmatic authority." I cannot speak for the others, but I certainly appreciate Byassee's intent. It is not the case that I am threatened by modern culture and its critical insights. On the contrary, I find them pedestrian and conventional and often spiritually impoverished.
Historical-critical study of the Bible is a good example. Research into social context and editorial layers of Scripture has long struck me as sometimes interesting and helpful, and at other times tediously speculative and largely irrelevant. I cannot fathom, however, why someone would find historical study of the Bible intellectually or spiritually threatening. If God is the providential Lord over all history, and if his election of Israel is central to the plan of salvation, then the historical layers and processes by which the Old Testament was written, edited, canonized, and transmitted are obviously guided by the divine plan. The same holds true for the New Testament that emerged out of the apostolic community. The fact that the Bible has a history in no way undermines its inspired authority, and the study of that history only adds depth to that authority.
What I can understand, however, is a general reaction against the cultural tyranny and arrogant ignorance of the tradition and practice of modern historical-critical study of the Bible. Countless professors use historical study as a bludgeon to beat up the naive piety of college students, and they do so with no intention of offering an intelligent, theologically informed alternative. The majority of biblical scholars I have met are culpably ignorant of the history of biblical interpretation, the history of theology, and the history of their own discipline. They parade their textual judgments as indubitable facts, and they are ruthless in their ambition to hold exclusive rights to any "intellectually responsible" interpretation of the Bible.
For these reasons, far from accepting historical criticism, I have worked to overthrow its pretensions. The new Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is a forty-volume series of biblical commentaries precisely not written by the supposed experts. If I had control over faculty appointments at seminaries and divinity schools, I would establish a moratorium on the hiring of people with Ph.D.'s in biblical studies. The past decades have shown that doctoral programs in biblical study are unable to produce faculty capable of reading the Bible for the Church. Some succeed in spite of their education. Folks like Richard Hays are working hard to reform the discipline from within. They deserve our support. But we need to be hard-nosed in defending our communities of faith against both the thinly masked ideologies and intellectually embarrassing positivism of historical-critical study.
The case of the ordination of women is different because it is a particular church practice and not an academic method. Nonetheless, I have a typically postliberal "on the one hand ... on the other hand" story to tell. There may be cogent arguments for the legitimacy of women in the ordained ministry. I've heard some good ones, though I never studied the matter closely. My general principle as an Episcopalian was to accept the discipline of my church, which ordained women. But I cannot tell you how painful it was to listen to shallow arguments designed to show that the church must ordain women in order to be faithful to the gospel. The huffing and puffing about "inclusion" and "equality" was a transparent moralizing that turned the apostolic mission of the church into a vehicle for expressing the sociopolitical sentiments of the current leadership.
As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I continue to follow my general principle and I accept my church's practice of restricting ordination to celibate males. I have heard many cogent arguments for why it should be so, and I find them more convincing than arguments advanced by liberal Catholics to the contrarythough, again, I have not made a close study of the matter. Thus, while I accepted the practice of women's ordination as an Episcopalian, as a Catholic I no longer do, and largely for the same reasonbecause it followed then and follows now from being in communion with the church.
At the end of the day, I'm not so much worried about modern methods of historical analysis or modern attitudes toward the role of women in public life as I am somewhat skeptical about modernityand I am frustrated by the folks who congratulate themselves on their critical, progressive mentality but who seem unable to tolerate self-criticism. Perhaps, then, a postliberal is someone who sees the legacy of our modern, vibrant, productive, and liberal culture as decidedly mixed. We recognize the joys of historical insight, but we see their limitations. We affirm the great modern drive toward human equality, but we aren't interested in flattening everything with an ideological steamroller. We affirm the gift of critical reason, but we have enough humility to acknowledge that we cannot think every problem through, and it is not a small gift of grace to be guided by the Church, especially when the object of our intellectual desire is knowledge of God.
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