Sunday, July 04, 2010

sharpening the definition of "theology"

A correspondent asked me, in an email, whether my my chosen definition of theology might use some careful examination.   I think that I can distinguish the kind of writing and discussion of spiritual and religious "doctrine" with which I have become so dissatisfied.

In contrast to the act of talking up and elaborating on that kind of doctrine, there is something that Marge Abbot writes about (To Be Broken and Tender, p. 58--get this book, by the way, for yourself and your meeting's library) called “narrative theology,” which does not appear to me to be exactly the same as the Narrative Theology “movement” that is said to have begun with Niebuhr.

What she has in mind, she writes, is the kind of writing found in traditional Quaker journals.  Friends wrote (and write) about their encounters with God.  This kind of narrative amounts to telling our stories and by so doing we help point others to that essential connection to the Light and with their own developing sense of discernment.

This speaks to me because my experience is that the faculty of discernment is basic to living in the Spirit, to recognizing which “spirit” is speaking to me at a particular time or what it means when more than one such spirit is.  This faculty of discernment is different from the faculty of reason, which is what we use to figure out choices we should make based on an ideology or a theology pieced together out of second hand sources like the Bible or some other "received tradition."  (This paragraph is my own, not part of  Marge’s, take.)

This kind of narrative opens the heart, Marge writes and, to me, it models the process of convincement of which George Fox wrote, this kind of narrative takes people to Christ and leaves them there; it takes people to the base of the mountain so that they may climb, themselves, to experience the transformational thunder, lightening and shaking of the earth/soul that is where the spiritual perfection and maturation Quakers seek, and others have undergone before us,  takes place.

This kind of narrative speaks from one’s own experience (and not from, as I say, “second hand” or “hearsay” religion) and, if one does not run ahead of one’s measure of light, this narrative will not incude unwarranted, speculative and divisive conclusions about the nature, character or purposes of God that are not part of and do not come from the experience, itself (even though we might be led to defend such speculation because it fits in with, or we can rationalize it into, some pre-existing ideo-theological framework or a notional part thereof).

I also appreciate this "kind" of theology because it supports the appropriate relationship between the Spirit and the letter:  the former should validate the latter, not the other way around.  I continue to be amazed the people believe the notion that the Bible provides some kind of constant meaning that curbs the danger of "unanchored" revelations claimed to  be "from the Spirit."   Human rationalizing capacity has led to many completely delusional "leadings" straight out of the book.  Whether one is listening to the Spirit or using the Bible like an oracle, seasoned discernment is essential to keep from being overcome by the power (or the powers) of one's own ideas and agendas.  "Moral relativism" is about reasoning/rationalizing, whether one reasons from a propositional data base that is secular or religious.

Finally, it seems to me that the kind narrative theology of which Marge writes tends to support orthopraxy/spiritual practice  rather than orthodoxy/religious belief, focusing on what is functional, on what reproduces the transformational outcomes that Friends (and others) have experienced in the past.  These common, consistently reproduced, unifying outcomes are a stronger basis for community than is intellectual assent to a set of propositions about who and what God might be.  It was this shared transformational experience, rather than a set of intellectual beliefs about God, that initially gathered Friends, at least according to Barclay in Universal Love.

With my take on "narrative theology" I contrast, then, theological works such as Barclay’s Apology (published a year later than Universal Love) which does not open the heart to God but floods the mind with human wisdom, that moves the reader toward an orthodoxy that is rational, abstract (and often speculative), incorporating Protestant notions (chief among them the subordination of the Spirit to scripture—reversing the proper relationship between the two).  (I know that Fox said that, after his experience with Christ, everything he was taught he found in scripture did he also say that he found in that experience everything that is in scripture?  I can't say that--there are a lot of things in the Bible that are not confirmed and, instead, are contradicted by my experience.)

That rational religion (or religion of rationality) is one of the main "gifts" that the Enlightenment, with its deification/idolization of human reason, gave to us:  a rational "spirituality" (or a spiritual rationality) that literally tries to talk me out of the trusting the experience of God and instead into trusting my ability to figure things out (or the ability of "certified smart" theology types who know more about such things than I do) based on what I know or have been told and my ability to reason.   Dr. Dobson, just like Dr. Dawkins, looks to reason as the ultimate authority.  Both point me away from the work Christ is trying to do in me toward their own notions about what God or reason "wants."  (If I am unsure what God wants me to do I listen to what God is telling me to do.   No "figuring" necessary.)

It was this kind of rationalistic theology that, on legs provided by revivalism, ran the Society to distraction, division and disintegration in the 19th Century.  That outcome should not have come as a surprise given that, whatever else The Apology may have set out to accomplish, it was a part of a conscious "walking back" of radical (from the root) Quakerism that was necessary to purchase toleration from the Protestant establishment.

It is the value of this rationalistic theology—which I think is most of what I hear people talking about--that I have of late been questioning.   It is actually the outcomes of this rationalistic theology, and the human reason that animates it, that has me turning my back on it.

I quickly add that if reading and studying the Bible, and reasoning from it, has the outcome for some people that they are drawn into the spiritual unity (or humanistic consensus) that is summed up in the Fruits of the Spirit, the Quaker Testimonies of the so-called Liberal domain of the Society or the Golden Rule, then it's fine with me for them to reason away.   My personal experience is that trying to live that way led me to be characterized by completely different lists.  I don't care if people paint themselves blue and wear mismatched socks--if it leads to spiritual transformation, maturity and completeness, as Friends (and others) have experienced it for centuries then I am heard to have no complaints.  I am more concerned, in myself, with righteousness than I am with orthodoxy.  Harvesting to feed the hungry, and healing the infirm, are fine with me anytime--even on the Sabbath.


Hystery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hystery said...

I'm sorry to delete my first response. It was prematurely offered. Sort of half-formed. Your explorations strike me as greatly important and inspired me to spend more time in my response. It is too long to post here but can be found on my blog here

Jim714 said...

Dear Tim:

I think the primary reason that I find this line of thought disturbing is the division that underlies it between the idea that narrative is experiential and that theology is somehow non-experiential. I think this division is artificial. And I also think it is anti-intellectual in a way that is markedly American. Reading and contemplating Barclay’s ‘Apology’ is an experience; it is not a non-experience. Reading and contemplating theology is experiential just as much as eating breakfast or walking on the beach. If someone finds theology unsatisfying, I have no problem with that. If someone finds the Bible unsatisfying, I have no problem with that. If someone finds walking on a beach unsatisfying (the sand keeps getting in their shoes, very annoying), I have no problem with that. What I don’t understand is the need to generalize from a personal inclination to the Quaker community in general. I’ll be honest with you, I think it would be a good thing if more Quakers were more familiar with Barclay’s Theology. But I doubt that will happen, and I accept people’s choices in this matter. I only ask that those of us who find nourishment and spiritual assistance in contemplating these kinds of works not be characterized as somehow deficient in experience or foundational understanding.