Tag Archives: Nicholas Lash

Herbert McCabe on de-centering God

I’m not sure what to make of the following remarks from Herbert McCabe’s God Matters. They make moves I wouldn’t have anticipated from him. This is of course part of their charm, but also their opaqueness. At the same time they both foreground the seemingly impersonal character of the classical theist account of divine being and in a way broach the question of theological realism.

Consider then the following two passages (others could have been included). The emphases are my own.

Exhibit A

The Christian holds that in so far as the world receives the Spirit, in so far as it lets itself be destroyed and re-born in grace, the distance between God and man disappears. And this means that in the kingdom to which he looks forward when the love of God for mankind is fully revealed, when all are taken up into the divine life, not only will there, of course, be no religion, no sacraments, no cult, no sacred activity set aside from human life, but there will be no God in the sense of what is set above or apart from man. God will simply be the life of mankind.

Then, but only then, we shall be able to blow the dust off all those books written by the atheists and humanists and even some of the curious works written by the God-is-dead theologians, and find that at last they have come true in an odd way. They all thought that talk of God was just a convoluted and misleading way of talking about man; what we will come to see when we come to the kingdom of divine love is that talk about man is then the only clear and luminous way of talking about God. (23-24)

Exhibit B

First of all what God is about is not making but loving — especially loving Jesus. In other words the primal divine activity is not dealing with a dependent, as creativity must be, but an exchange of love with an equal. For love, at least in the sense that Christians came to understand it, is only possible between equals. With the New Testament, then, we make the fundamental move away from the picture of the boss-God, the supreme being in charge of the world. Instead we have the exchange of love in which it is given to men and women to share. We move from seeing God as up there or out there, to seeing an exchange of love between Father and Son — what we call the Holy Spirit — as the life to which mankind is destined. God begins to be seen as a certain kind of exchange between men. God has been ‘decentred’.

The caricature of this position is of course, humanist reductionism: the notion ‘God’ is just a name for human relationships. The essential difference, which turns the whole thing on its head, is that for Christians it is this relationship that defines what a human being is, this is what gives significance to his or her life, and the relationship is not in any obvious sense present. Humanism on the other hand is the canonization of the current world, the ‘obvious’ world (it is in any case the product of bourgeois optimism, the ideology of capitalism in its self-confident phase), while for Christianity the exchange of love is hard to find, it is to be found definitively in one man, Jesus Christ, and in the future for mankind, not (except very oddly and paradoxically) in the present. Human beings are defined, therefore, by the love to be found in Jesus: by the exchange between Jesus and his Father. (174-175) [emphases added]

This is some provocative theology. It’s telling that McCabe does object to the conflation of his position with “humanist reductionism.” He’s aware of how his remarks might be received. My question, though, is, does his disclaimer suffice to ward off the allegation? Is it not possible to fall victim to precisely the error one is trying to oppose?

The nearest I can get to making McCabe’s line of thought more easily digestible is by reading it alongside remarks like the following.

  • Nicholas Lash

What does God look like? The Archangel Raphael, you will remember, suggested: ‘courage and truth and mercy and right action.’ We can now be a little more specific. God looks like the action of the ‘holy spirit’ that God is said to be: like forgiveness and non-violence, solidarity with the victims, the achievement of communion in the one world to which all of us belong. … according to the Christian story of the world, God also looks like a young man, tortured, strung up on a Roman gibbet.

from Holiness, Speech and Silence, (Ashgate, 2004), 44.

  • Irenaeus

“the glory of God is a living man [human being].”

from Against Heresies (bk 4; ch 20; §7).

It’s standard fare in Christian theology to confess that human beings are made in the image of God. Often this doctrine is taken as a point of instruction about humanity, to the effect that humans enjoy a certain intrinsic dignity or set of natural powers. Though this isn’t his way of putting it, I take McCabe to be inquiring into the extent to which this doctrine also works in reverse. To what extent, that is, can humanity’s creation in the image of God, its endowed capacity to reflect divinity, instruct us about God? I think McCabe, Lash, and Irenaeus, in their own ways, are suggesting that attending to humanity–not necessarily on the terms of natural theology–can yield some knowledge of God. I don’t think this is a particularly original or controversial claim. To be sure, McCabe is also careful to add a point of christological determination: he isn’t interested in attending to humanity in some supposed natural state, or as limited by the scope of natural reason. Rather, he’s interested in the humanity of Christ and the human form of life as it stands informed by Christ’s mission and ministry. Not a trivial qualification! Nevertheless, I would still have questions for McCabe when it comes to his suggestion that talk of humanity could somehow provide an adequately evocative resource for all that our talk of God aims to accomplish. If we’re going to grant that reflection on creation can generate knowledge of God, it seems to me a curious decision to limit the scope of creation we would take into consideration. It’s just harder for me to imagine how even talk of glorified humanity could succeed talk of God without remainder.

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.

Commentary:

This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.

Nicholas Lash on media of theological authority

1. scripture

A “high” doctrine of scripture as the Word of God does not, cannot, make it easier to understand the biblical texts — and hence, to enable them effectively to be authoritative — than would be the case if they were “merely” the words of men. [64]

[cf. Robert W. Jenson here and here. It goes without saying that one’s doctrine of scripture will inform one’s approach to scriptural interpretation, but does it follow that talk of, say, inerrancy, adequately reflects the multi-dimensional character of our life with scripture? The actual authority we acknowledge scripture to exercise, I’d submit, is revealed less in what we have to say about scripture and more in the scope of our lives to which we hear scripture speaking.]

2. creeds

Any discussion of the “irreformability” of dogmatic statements should begin from a discussion of the “irreformability” of scripture. This elementary principle is, in practice, too often ignored. And yet it is unthinkable that a “higher” view of “irreformability” can be taken in respect of church doctrine than of the scriptures themselves. If, therefore, we feel that faithfulness to the New Testament does not demand a slavish, literal repetition of New Testament propositions (and that such faithfulness may, indeed, often demand that we say quite different things today in order to capture, in our very different historical and cultural context, the basic intention of the biblical teaching) then this must be equally true of creedal affirmations and dogmatic definitions. [66]

3. providence

just as a ‘high’ theology of scripture as the Word of God cannot make it easier to understand the biblical texts than would be the case if they were ‘merely’ the words of men, so also a ‘high’ theology of the providential governance of the church in history by the Spirit of truth cannot make it easier to know how contemporary beliefs and practices are faithful to the original message than would be the case if we had to do with a ‘merely human’ history. [65]

from Voices of Authority, (Sheed &Ward, 1976).

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.

Michael Root and Nicholas Lash on theologians as authors

1. Michael Root

A curse of recent theology has been the cult of the virtuoso theologian, the creative mind who recasts the field, the Schleiermachers and Barths of the discipline, Promethean figures who blaze the path others are to follow. Much academic work in modern theology seems less the study of God or of the Christian message about God, and more the study of the creativity of great theologians.

from “The Achievement of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” First Things (Mar 2012), linked here.

2. Nicholas Lash

Theologians have always written books, have always been in some sense auctores. But only since the early nineteenth century have they considered it their business individually to be creators of some new vision, original interpretation, fresh achievement of erudition or imagination: to be ‘authors’. The point is familiar, but I know no other study [than John Thiel’s Imagination and Authority] which so carefully explores not only theological authorship’s first appearance on the scene but also its implications for the prospects of theology, beyond modernity, and for relations between Catholic theologians and ecclesiastical authorities or auctoritates.

from Review of John Thiel, Imagination and Authority. Heythrop Journal 34/4 (1993): 445.

Juxtaposing Comic and Tragic Theological Accents

There are few theologians I admire as much as Nicholas Lash. In fact he’s the subject of a thesis I’m currently writing. That fact in itself, however, is nothing remarkable. What I do find puzzling, though, is the fact that I would also consider John Webster to be one of the few other theologians whose work is comparably masterly. So here’s my rub: in more than a few respects they seem to operate more or less on the bases of antithetical premises. Whereas Lash’s sensibilities tend toward the critical, interrogative, and multidisciplinary, Webster, on the other hand, prefers a constructive, declarative, and monodisciplinary posture. Though I’ve tried to register what light the juxtaposition of these two theologians may bring to view before (e.g., here), I thought I’d like to do so again. If nothing else, I hope this post may at least serve as a modest reminder of the fact that you’re actually still allowed to like (and learn from) those you disagree with.

  1. John Webster

In order to speak about conflict (including the conflict of theological controversy) theology must first speak about peace, because peace, not conflict, is the condition of creatures in both their original and their final states. In order to speak about the peace of creatures, furthermore, theology must first speak about the God of peace, who is the principle and pattern of created tranquility. … Apart from the gospel of peace, conflict and peace are not transparent, self-evident realities, and our knowledge of them is at best half-knowledge. Conflict threatens knowledge of God and of ourselves, and hinders the tranquil operation of reason. Though in conflict we commonly pretend to a sharpened sense of our situation, this is an illusion born of the drastic simplification of the world which comes upon us in the grip of strong passion.

from “Theology and the Peace of the Church,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 150.

  1. Nicholas Lash

There is no trace, in the Scriptures, of the banality, the cliché-strewn abstractness, which disfigures so much of our talk of life, and love, and justice. Our mistake, perhaps, is to suppose the brightness of the world to be imaginable without reference to the dark in which it dawns — unlike the psalmist, who writes so well about creation’s flourishing because he feels the garden-world’s fragility: its vulnerability to drought and desert storm.

Without in any way compromising the announcement of God’s sovereign faithfulness, and hence the primacy of life to death, of peacefulness to conflict, daylight over dark, the Scripture interweaves the strands into a single, sometimes quite disturbing tapestry.

from Seeing in the Dark, (Darton, Longman & Todd), 148.

Nicholas Lash on Christ’s priority to the Church

Is it the case that the church is a community of people who, at any given moment, pre-exist the presence of Christ in their midst, or is it rather the case that the presence of Christ pre-exists, and is the essential precondition for, the existence and activity of that group of people whom we call the church? […]

The very idea of the church pre-existing the presence of Christ in her midst is theologically meaningless. The church is that community of people constituted as church by being personally ‘addressed,’ called, by the living Christ. Christ is not ‘able to be present’ because we, ‘the church,’ can fix things that way. We are the church because Christ is present to us, present in us, present as the objective significance of our gathering. We become ‘more church’ (which is to say that Christ becomes ‘more present’ to us) by responding, in word and deed, to his objective, constituting presence.

from His Presence in the World, (Pflaum Press, 1968), 110, 112.