Tag Archives: Kathryn Tanner

In defense of an irony

Owen Chadwick has a remark about John Henry Newman that’s left a lasting impression on me, namely, “Newman was an intellectual who distrusted the intellect.” There’s something about this characterization I find highly suggestive. It works not only as a description of how Newman proceeded in theology, but also as a proposal for how much weight we should accord certain kinds of considerations in our theological deliberations today. If you’re curious about what it might look like to take this lesson from Newman to heart, I’d suggest you need not look any farther than the work of Nicholas Lash, himself a Newman scholar. (I’ve tried gesturing to this same point before here). We’d be misinterpreting Newman and Lash if we take them to be advocating for a species of anti-intellectualism, some sort of principled refusal to submit their work to the review of their peers. Quite to the contrary, both theologians are examples of exceptional intellects at work on their craft. What they’re actually engaged in is an effort to overturn reigning prejudices favoring the primacy of the intellect in our understanding of religion.

Fortunately Newman and Lash aren’t alone in this endeavor. We can number other theologians among their ranks. Consider the following passage from Kathryn Tanner:

in the early 1980s […] the main worries of both theologians and philosophers of religion were methodological in nature: to justify religious thought, either by showing how it met the usual standards of meaning, intelligibility and truth endorsed by other disciplines, or (the preferred tactic of Frei and Lindbeck) by showing, with an ironic display of academic rigor, why no such justification was necessary. (Shaping a Theological Mind, Ed. Darren Marks, Ashgate, 2008, 115)

Tanner notes the irony of the rigor Frei and Lindbeck had to exert in order to make the case that university-wide criteria of accountability would be misplaced in theology. Whatever Tanner’s evaluation of their efforts, I’d say Frei and Lindbeck were on the right track. Even when (maybe even especially when) one is setting out to delimit the vocation of humanity’s rational powers, one must do so as thoughtfully, intelligently, as one can, if the critique is to have any chance of sticking. After all, it’s no disservice to reason to apprehend the limits of the intellect’s competencies by way of reasoned appraisal.

D. Stephen Long’s formulation of a live dispute on the question of theology and culture

[Kathryn] Tanner’s postmodern feminist theology is more of a “style” of theology than a distinct practice or culture. Christianity never has enough of its own substance such that it can be an “alternative society” or a distinct culture. […] But if postmodern feminist theology argues Christianity in no way functions as a culture with a logic intrinsic to its own language, it differs greatly from radical orthodoxy. Thus, Kathryn Tanner, one of the ablest proponents of postmodern feminist theology, finds that radical orthodoxy, like Lindbeck’s postliberal theology, assumes a too easily defined and stable Christian identity. Radical orthodox theologians would tend to find Tanner’s position too allied to certain trends in postmodernity that identify cultures only by what they oppose, that is to say, these postmodern accounts of culture tend to be “reactive.” Because they do not contain any inherent logic internal to their practices, they can only be identified by their adoption and opposition to the borrowed cultural products that can alone allow us to recognize them at all. This means that they are not only “mediating,” which is to say that they express theology by mediating it in and through available cultural forms, but they are also “accommodating,” they accommodate those cultural forms to such an extent that they finally subordinate the logic inherent in Christianity to the logic inherent in the secular rationality by which most accounts of culture are presented to us, especially as they are given to us by the social sciences.

from Theology and Culture: A Guide to the Discussion, (JamesClarke&Co, 2008), 100-101.

Book Notice: Darren C. Marks

It’s been said that it’s “when we begin to discern the entire shape of a person’s life, [that] we also begin to understand why a particular belief might or might not be important to that person.”* I at least have found this a suggestive insight. That’s probably why I was pleased to happen across the following title from Darren Marks. Back in 2002 Marks published Shaping a Theological Mind: Theological Context and Methodology (Ashgate). I wish I’d known about it earlier. The modest volume is a collection of short autobiographical essays that offers an array of noted theologians the opportunity to reflect on the circumstances and deliberations that forged their theological sensibilities. Marks’s choice of contributors leaves the reader with a fair impression of the varied methodological options operative in theology today. We end up hearing from voices as diverse as those of James Cone, Colin Gunton, Alister McGrath, Wayne Meeks, John Milbank, Jürgen Moltmann, Keith Ward, Gerald O’Collins, Rosemary Radford Reuther, and more. For me, though, the standout contributions had to be those from Kathryn Tanner and John Webster. What I especially appreciated was how the juxtaposition of their respective theological orientations in such close proximity to one another brought to the fore a dilemma I’ve previously tried to register (here). But before we rehash that old ground, let’s hear from Tanner first:

With the onset of a postmodern humility about pretensions to such things as universality and disinterestedness, … the theoretical deficiencies of which theology has been accused are now so spread around [the academy] that they appear to be the defining fault of no one field in particular. … The legitimacy of theology … is no longer a matter of whether theology can meet some scholarly minimum in its procedures. Theology’s warrant now centers on the question of whether theologians have anything important to say about the world and our place in it. …

Answers to these questions require new methods. Theology’s closest analogue is no longer a perennial philosophy, addressing the most general questions of human moment purportedly common to every time and place, but a political theory (broadly construed) of cultural meanings that is quite situation-specific in its focus. In other words, the theologian — like a Weberian social scientist or a Gramscian political theorist – now asks about the way Christian beliefs and symbols function in the particulars of people’s lives so as to direct and justify the shape of social organization and the course of social action. As a historian of Christian thought and practice, the theologian needs a thorough knowledge of the various permutations of the Christian symbol in all its complicated alignments with social forces for good or ill. With this knowledge in hand, the constructive theologian is better positioned to intervene in the current situation adroitly, effectively and responsibly, with suggestions for both rethinking Christian claims and refiguring human life for the sake of the greater good. (116)

Bearing Tanner’s thought in mind, let’s turn to Webster:

[Systematic theology as Webster was taught it] tended to lack a robust sense of its own integrity and coherence as a field of intellectual inquiry, and so [expended] a great deal of energy in forming alliances with other disciplines (principally philosophy and history, but sometimes social theory or philosophy of natural science) as a means of reassurance. […]

A number of things came together to extract me from the inhibitions of my theological formation. One very prominent factor was a half-conscious but remarkably emancipating decision to teach confessionally, in two senses. First, I resolved to work on the assumption of the truthfulness and helpfulness of the Christian confession, and not to devote too much time and energy developing arguments in its favor or responses to its critical denials. I discovered, in other words, that description is a great deal more interesting and persuasive than apology. Second, I resolved to structure the content of my teaching in accordance with the intellectual and spiritual logic of the Christian confession as it finds expression in the classical creeds, to allow that structure to stand and to explicate itself, and not to press the material into some other format. Thus my survey of Christian doctrine was (and remains) simply a conceptual expansion of the Apostles’ Creed as a guide to the Gospel that is set out in Holy Scripture. Once I resolved to work in this way, I quite quickly found that the substance and order of Christian doctrine displayed itself as much more grand, and much more comprehensible, than when I had approached it as a series of critical problems. (130-131)

The questions that Tanner and Webster leave me with are ones I’ve asked before.

To Webster I’d want to ask the following:

  • Is every multi-disciplinary approach to theology, e.g. Tanner’s, indicative of a lack of confidence in the adequacy of theology’s explanatory power? Is insecurity the only motive that would lead one to reach for a multi-disciplinary mode of inqury?
  • Is it not possible to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that would not distort theology’s aims and procedures, or press it into a model of inquiry that obscures its subject matter?

And to Tanner:

  • What tools of description and assessment can theology’s cognate disciplines provide that theology’s own categories don’t already equip it with? Can theology account for the blind spots being attributed to it?

I don’t have satisfying answers to all of these questions yet, but I do intend to return to them. Though we may be in a season that’s witnessing a shift in attention away from methodological issues to more substantive concerns, a trend both Tanner and Webster applaud, I still can’t help but find questions like these fascinating.

*This nugget comes from David S. Cunningham, Reading Is Believing: The Christian Faith through Literature and Film, (Brazos, 2002).

Kathryn Tanner on the risks of Christian discourse

“The problems of Christian practice that prompt theological reflection are legion. If we narrow them down to those that afflict religious discourse, it is possible to give a rough classification of them. First, Christians may exhibit a tendency to mis-speak: they may make statements whose well-formed character or Christian authenticity is a matter for dispute. Second, they may deploy well-formed Christian statements inappropriately. Third, they may be unsure how to speak, how to continue the practice of Christian discourse, in strange or novel circumstances. Fourth, they may make Christian statements whose well-formed character is undisputed and yet fail to understand how those statements are compatible with one another. In all four cases, Christian discourse begins to sputter; theological reflection becomes necessary as a result.”

from God and Creation in Christian Theology: Tyranny or Empowerment? (Blackwell, 1988), 17.

On theological judgment

A. Wayne Booth

“It is true that ‘gut reactions’ can be very bad reasons for action. But so can logical proofs. The real art lies in the proper weighing—and what is proper is a matter finally of shared norms, discovered and applied in the experience of individuals whose very individuality is forged from other selves.”

from Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, (University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 164.

B. Kathryn Tanner

“Everyday theological investigation … is not often directed by the entertainment of general principles. Making a decision about proper action or belief seems less a matter of application of explicit precept and more a matter of tact and good timing – knowing when and where a certain affirmation or deed is called for, knowing what affirmation or action to add to a situation so that its various elements form some sort of agreeable balance or harmony. […]

“The basic operations that theologians perform have a twofold character. First, theologians show an artisanlike inventiveness in the way they work on a variety of materials that do not dictate of themselves what theologians should do with them. Second, theologians exhibit a tactical cleverness with respect to other interpretations and organizations of such materials that are already on the ground. […]

“Judgments between competing theological proposals are rarely cinched by outright evidence of fallacious inferences, inconsistency, or unclarity on some party’s part. Instead, the issue of whose theological position is most compelling is decided by judgments of an aesthetic sort, ones like those used to determine, say, the best interpretation of a poem. […]

“When engaging theologies already on the ground – and, as we have suggested, this is almost all the time – theologians use a kind of tact requiring numerous ad hoc and situation-specific adjustments. In contrast to what the values of clarity, consistency, and systematicity might suggest of themselves, even academic theologians do not simply follow logical deductions where they lead or the dictates of abstract principles when arriving at their conclusions.”

from Theories of Culture, (Fortress Press, 1997), 81, 87, 91, 92.

C. John Webster

“The most illuminating systematic theologies are often characterized by (1) conceptual ingenuity, resourcefulness, and suppleness, which enable a projection of Christian claims suitable to draw attention to their richness and complexity; (2) conceptual transparency, which enables a more penetrating understanding of the primary modes of Christian articulation of the gospel; and (3) broad knowledge and sensitive and creative deployment of concepts inherited from the Christian theological tradition. By contrast, systematic theologies are less successful if they are conceptually monotonous or stiff, if concepts threaten to overwhelm or replace that which they are intended to represent, or if the concepts do not have a discernible relation to well-seated theological usage. […]

‘System’ ought not to be confused with ‘deductive system,’ fully elaborated more geometrico. The criteria for appropriate systematic construction might then be as follows: (1) the systematic character of the schema should not be imposed by analytical reason but should emerge from attention to the subject matter’s self-unfolding; (2) systems must retain provisionality and openness to revision from sources which cannot be given exhaustive description within the system; (3) systems must be indicative of, not a replacement for, the persons, events, and acts which form the substance of Christian teaching; (4) formal, systematic coordination must serve material scope and coherence.”

from “Introduction: Systematic Theology,” from The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, Eds. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Iain Torrance, (OUP, 2007), 10, 14.