Friday, August 29, 2008

Personal Reflection (to be continued)

The following reflection is a response to an article by Gary Dorrien on American liberal theology. [“American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, Decline, Renewal, Ambiguity,” Cross Currents, Winter, 2005-06, Vol. 55, No. 4.]

Finding a way between conservative Christian orthodoxy and secular disbelief drove a lot of my reading and study when I was in high school and then more intensely during my first months at Georgia Tech. A deep sense that our society needed profound reform in the face of nuclear strategy, racism, and even to some degree budding concern for destruction of nature drove me to look critically at what I heard, saw, and otherwise experienced. Unfortunately, my home church had failed to address even my most basic concerns, at least in large part, because of my father's brutal bulling of our pastors. All the time, I knew that religion, particularly certain forms of Christian religion dominated much of the energy, time, and work of people I knew. And I heard something in reading the Hebrew Bible (in English) that caught my imagination and interest because it pertained to the threat of nuclear war, the corrosion of racism, and the ruin of the natural world. These interests drove my study and reading.

Dorrien relates that at the time I began reading theology in a serious way, liberal theology had allegedly declined in the face of trends variously named neo-orthodox even though these neo-orthodox styles of doing theology were in certain ways themselves branches of liberal theology so that I must confess that in some ways the influence of liberal theology on my Christian experience is indirect, though not always. The conflict between neo-orthodox and liberal theologies might, perhaps, be between the notion reason and crucially interpreted religious experience that lies beneath liberal theology and some sort of authority that inspires neo-orthodox theology. Both poles of this contrast present problems for me. Those problems define much of my experience in reading theology and Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Three Presbyterian pastors, all chaplains at the University of Georgia, forced me to take neo-orthodox theology seriously because their preaching had a prophetic edge about the struggle for civil rights. Further, my major professor was, I suppose, a liberal, but one forged by his prior experience as a progressive Baptist minister and encounters with the struggle for social justice.

At the time, I began reading theology, I am not sure whether I had any sense of what evangelical liberalism or personalistic idealism were. I am not certain I know much about either of them now. However, I probably did have some sort of feeling for naturalistic empiricism though I don’t recall knowing that name. Some form of it seems to pervade my thinking.

Part of this is because for me, reading neo-orthodox theology, whatever it is or isn’t, feels problematical. Much of it continues to be after almost 50 years impenetrable, indistinct, and even inarticulate to me, except for the criticism of liberal theology when it is conformist liberal theology. That creative critique haunts me.

Critical liberal theologians write provocative books, but I almost never encounter pastors who embody critical liberalism. The liberal pastors I encounter too often hold to unproductive intellectualism. Too often they subjugate themselves to little more than primitive commercial and industrial interests. Too often they flounder in bland pessimism masked as personal optimism and petty and unbiblical positive thinking Too often they engage in fruitless reformism. But a ghost of prophetic biblical realism endures. It endures in a vast literature of critical liberal theologies that set foundations for critical, progressive Christian experience.

1 comment:

Ted Michael Morgan said...

During the more than fifteen years that I have been a member of our congregation, I have found it effectively not viable to voice what I think and feel in our small groups and classes. Members have actually shouted down people who do voice what I think and feel. Members have told me not to discuss what I find important in groups or classes. Members have insulted those who share what I believe and belittled opinions similar to my own.

Members of our congregation have acted even more appallingly during the past decade and a half than some Disciples I knew in Georgia during the sixties acted in response to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War struggles.

Some people wonder why our the growth of our congregation essentially stands still. I don’t. We are a closed shop. And I don’t know how to react to the recurrent verbalization of fanaticism and impoliteness.

At university, I was a member of a literacy society, which was one of two such societies on our campus constituted to foster debate. We debated the university debate team which was and still is one of the best in the United States. I am used to diversity of outlook and forceful disputation in small groups. I have belonged to two other congregations with a rewarding sense of involvement in each. But I found neither an arena for discussion in our congregation nor a rewarding feeling of participation.

I presume that there are people in our congregation who are traditional political liberals or classic political conservatives. I presume that a few people have a background in liberal religion simply because we are a Disciples of Christ congregation with a large number of university educated members. However, I don’t really know because I rarely hear anything progressive expressed in groups or classes.

I agree that e-mail is probably not a good medium to voice one’s opinion or belief, though I have not found any alternative mode of expression within our congregation.


In this my personal Christian blog, I hope to be discursive and now and then critical. What I write here is tentative and tensive. I post thoughts, feelings, and observations somewhat randomly and often in immediate response to current events and posts on other blogs.

"Serendipitous Creativity" from Gordon Kaufman

"I suggested that what we today should regard as God is the ongoing creativity in the universe - the bringing (or coming) into being of what is genuinely new, something transformative; …

"In some respects and some degrees this creativity is apparently happening continuously, in and through the processes or activities or events around us and within us(…) is a profound mystery to us humans(…) But on the whole, as we look back on the long and often painful developments that slowly brought human life and our complex human worlds into being, we cannot but regard this creativity as serendipitous …

"I want to stress that this serendipitous creativity - God! - to which we should be responsive is not the private possession of any of the many particular religious faiths or systems …

"This profound mystery of creativity is manifest in and through the overall human bio-historical evolution and development everywhere on the planet; and it continues to show itself throughout the entire human project, no matter what may be the particular religious and or cultural beliefs."

Gordon Kaufman, Mennonite Life, December 2005 vol. 60 no. 4

Melville is a rational man who

"Melville is a rational man who wants God to exist. He wants Him to exist for the same reasons we all do: to be our rescuer and appreciator, to act as a confidant in our moments of crisis and to give us reassurance that, over the horizon of our deaths, we will survive." (John Updike)

And that is a problem for me.

Fragmented Notions

Fragmented Notions
Copyright © 2007 Jean and Alexander Heard Library, Vanderbilt University

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