June 6, 2007

Stuff and Nonsense

In a recent interview Dr. Leslie Fairfield of Pittsburgh offers some suggestions as to the historic roots of our present divide. I found his reflections troubling on many counts, not least that a teacher of church history could produce such a one-sided schematic, so bare in its details as to utterly distort the real richness of the historical reality that lay behind the unfolding of theological thought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Surely the great lights of Anglican theology were influenced in positive ways by the winds of modernism, and few were driven onto the shoals of heresy! In addition to John Macquarrie, who died rich in years this past week, and who found a way to make use of existentialism in a helpful and theologically persuasive way, one thinks of earlier English theologians such as Lionel Thornton -- who did so much to integrate a patristic understanding of the Incarnation within a modern philosophical framework -- or Archbishop William Temple himself.

No, this sketch by Fairfield serves no other purpose than to create a false picture, one in which the figures are unrecognizable to those who actually know them, and so fails even as caricature.

15 comments:

*Christopher said...

Macquarrie shall be missed. His work was some of the first I read in systematics. A thoughtful catholicism not afraid of the modern age.

rick allen said...

It is always a little strange to read the obituary of someone who has always been out on the fringe of memory as a "name," and to realize there was a person there with a life hitherto undreamed of.

It's been at least 25 years since I read Macquarrie's Principles of Christian Theology, which I picked up partly as a result of doing an undergraduate "honors thesis" on Martin Heidegger and Alfred North Whitehead. I remember Macquarrie also did a little paperback introduction to Heidegger (and, believe me, every little bit helped).

After all these years I have to say I don't retain much. I recall the identification of God with "Being Itself," a conscious differentiation from Tillich's similarly-existentially-defined "Ground of Being."

Seems to me that much of the change since that time has been the passage from the scene of existentialism (OK, I know very well that Heidegger denied the appropriateness of that label for histhought). I know that it's not gone, and that Macquarrie's co-translation of Being and Time seems surprisingly always in stock at shopping mall book stores. But I don't see a lot of discussion of it on the web, or in the press that I have ordinary access to. Maybe it's different in the universities and seminaries.

The old excitement which led those like Tillich and Macquarrie and Rahner and Marcel to embrace it (gingerly) as an entry to the Christian faith seems to have subsided, and thus its utility as a "non-religious" point of contact, a somewhat daring and dangerous point of contact, has diminished.

Which is not to disparage the work of the above so much as to illustrate the fickleness of the public, even we consumers of weighty Germanic (or Germanic-inspired) tomes.

D. Jonathan Grieser said...

I find Dr. Fairfield's use of the term Modernism particularly telling. The alternative to Modernism was not "traditional Anglicanism" of any sort or party, but rather Fundamentalism as defined by the various Fundamentals conferences, Princeton Seminary, and Gresham Machen (among others).

It's unfortunate that people feel compelled to construct straw man arguments, rather than engage the substance of the philosophical, cultural, and religious challenges to Christian doctrine.

Tillich was on his way out when I began my M.Div at Harvard in the early 80s but those who had known him and studied with him were still devotees. I learned deconstructionism in a course dedicated to deconstructing his Systematic Theology, but have continued to find him useful in undergraduate religion classes, and when trying to help students in our Diocesan School for Ministry begin trying to think theologically.

Mary Clara said...

Thank you for remembering John Macquarrie. I had the privilege of attending his lectures at Union Seminary over 40 years ago and have been the better for it. He was a beautiful human being and a wonderful teacher, not only introducing the important thinkers of our time but showing by example how to train oneself to think about God. It seems that he went on extending his own thinking all his life.

Anonymous said...

John 2007 says . . .
Okay, I think that 'modernity' is a kind of portmanteau designation that would, as Haller says, need to be filled out . . .but that's IF this were a written 'reflection' or a paper. But I wonder. It was an interview. I think it's pretty darn good if it was spoken without notes. It's not a thesis. But it's not bad for a schematic, as schematics go.

And I don't think it is amiss to say that there has been a reduction of God's Godness, alterity, otherness, transcendence--any of these terms will work--and that it has had significant (even pernicious) effects for all denominations. Surely one of the reasons that one of the Scottish Ballie brothers said that all theology would have to go through Barth, was because Barth challenged and exposed, in a massive way, the anthropocentric turn of Schleiermacher and those who, whether intentionally or not, followed him, and offered (Barth that is) a basis for renewed confidence in God's godness , , ,as a known thing. Theology is not, really, SIMPLY coded or disguised talk about us, our predicament, our selves, etc., but is about the triune being to whom Fairfeld refers, who is not plastic, manipulable, or ultimately, wholly hidden. The loss of confidence IMHO in God's revelation in modern church life--and seminary life--is pervasive, and lamentable. So I am willing to give Fairfield some slack and say that he is pointing in the right direction or at least pointing to one serious dimunition of our inheritance

Grandmère Mimi said...

Stuff and nonsense, indeed! Even to me, as little as I know, it's obvious that Dr. Fairfield sets up a false dichotomy. I recognize very little of myself and my beliefs in his descriptions of either side of the division.

On the side of Biblical Anglicanism, he makes this amazing statement:

Finally we believe that Jesus personally affirmed the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures, and personally commissioned and sanctioned the teaching that the Church later acknowledged to be the New Testament.

What a surprise to me to read what he says modernism affirms!

For Modernism, Jesus was simply a Palestinian sage, who was the first human being in evolutionary history to experience "god-consciousness" fully and perfectly. Otherwise he was purely human.

Perhaps, I'm not well-read enough, but I've never heard this. Am I a modernist? Is this truly what the "current leadership of the national church" affirms?

I don't recognize myself in
either category of what seems to me to be this grossly oversimplified definition of the two opposing sides in the Episcopal Church.

Perhaps he describes the Biblical Anglicanism side accurately, but I cannot believe he is accurate about the "other side".

Last, but not least, early on Dr. Fairfield says:

Likewise we trust that God loves the universe and intervenes constantly to preserve it, and to heal it from the toxins that evil has mysteriously spread throughout it.

I do hope that Dr. Fairfield speaks metaphorically here and is not saying that God will come personally to clean up the mess that we humans have made of the good earth by ravishing it and polluting it.

nlnh said...

Is this what passes for scholarship at Trinity?

Anonymous said...

g.m says she hopes that Faifield " . . . is not saying that God will come personally to clean up the mess that we humans have made of the good earth by ravishing it and polluting it." I think Fairfield is hoping, rightly to my mind, that the ultimate restoration of the created order is something God will ultimately bring about even as we labor in the same direction for the best penultimate shape of the world.

As for questioning scholarship . . .Fairfield is as learned as they come. Remember this was an interview. Stand up, pretend you are speaking to someone who asks you about the present divides in the church, and see what you come up with. If you're a mere mortal, like me, what you come up with will be easily interrogated. The same is true of what I would say. What large and simple pictures, for the common lay person in the pew, would you suggest?

Hasn't God generally become immanentized (eg., the power to be)and reduced to a symbol? And what about the emphasis on community--an immanent reality again--over a stress on the communion of saints? Haven't many of our bishops a pretty loose hold on Jesus' uniqueness and on the atoning mission which was the point--or a major point--of the Incarnation? I can name a handful right off the bat, never mind other leaders (seminary deans and teachers). And how many sermons, homilectic professors, and works on hermeneutics, ignore the vitality of Scripture as a sanctifyng agent in God's economy and talk about it simply as a social-cultural creation of the Church?

How do you talk about these trends--if you do--in an interview? And, if you do not, why not?

No, Fairfield's deployment of 'modernity' is not perfect. But to fix that all he had to do was to substitute 'some modern perspectives' for 'modernity.' His substantive points about the reduction of the Christian faith remain, as I see it. And remember our new PB's statements about Jesus being 'the one in whom we see God' and a 'vehicle to the divine.' I think, in my more charitable moments, that she was talking that way to win a hearing. Okay. But she's certainly sits loose to the classical--trinitarian, incarnational--understanding of Jesus' mission as I hear her. And the same see true of her predecessor to me. FWIW

Tobias said...

Anonymous (and I'm assuming you are John 2007 who posted above, and ask that you identify yourself in keeping with this blog's policy, by using at least a pen-name),

A couple of things strike me. While it is true this was an interview, not a paper, one would hope that a professor would be better on his feet than this. I hold teachers to an even higher standard than bishops, when it comes to it, particularly seminary professors, as they form the next generation of clergy -- as Fairfield bemoans.

Moreover, I don't get the sense this particular rant is unique in Fairfield's store. I imagine he's rolled this argument out any number of times, usually to resounding assent from his largely conservative admirers. At the same time, I note that the statements of our PB to which so many take such opposition were also topical questions in press interviews -- the secular press, for the most part. When called upon for a more nuanced explanation, she was quite capable of giving one -- and it was entirely consistent with a biblical understanding of salvation, which, unfortunately, conservatives tend to want to reduce to a formula.

That is where I think the biggest difference lies: Fairfield gives a fair account of his own point of view, but paints a very false picture of contemporary liberal theological thought, in a reductionist or pragmatist mode. I don't know of anyone, personally, who espouses the views Fairfield seems to think "typical" of modernism. Yes, I know of individuals who question the bodily resurrection, or the virgin birth -- but I don't know of anyone who thinks of God in the reductionist way that Fairfield describes it -- at least no one in authority in the church.

I think it most important in intellectual discussions of this kind to be able to paint a fair representation of the point of view with which you disagree. Fairfield flunks on that count

If this were merely a "coffee hour question" I'd score it a D. It might play as is in an already convinced conservative setting, but it is fundamentally false, not fundamentally true, even if a few of the details are accurate. Most are not. (For instance, opposition to the 39 Articles being in the BCP was well in the works during the 1892 revision, spearheaded by no one other than William Reed Huntington. Few, I dare say, would call Huntington a "modernist" though he was certainly influenced by the waves of new thought that were astir in the late 19th century. Point is, we are now well past the 19th century, and many of those winds have long since died down. As a side note in response to the comments above about existentialism, my feeling is that as a philosophical movement it has seen its heyday, so its influence in theology is probably past its peak.) I don't know what period Fairfield specialized in, but he seems more at home with the details of medieval history than modern.

As others have observed, and to be quite blunt, one of the main reasons for the current divide in the church is teaching like this. If this is the kind of caricature students are getting at Trinity (and sadly, even Nashotah) then it is no wonder we have episcopal priests from these places spouting the nonsense they do about Anglicanism being "sola scriptura" and calling out for a return to 1662.

Winnipeg Catholic said...

I found the article interesting even if it is a polemic, or extreme. I am interested in this Macquarrie... I've read a good bit of the existentialists. I've always wondered, for example, what it was about Miguel de Unamuno that got Rome so very unhappy as to ban his books.

rick allen said...

"I've always wondered, for example, what it was about Miguel de Unamuno that got Rome so very unhappy as to ban his books."

I don't know if they were ever banned. "The Agony of Christianity" and "The Tragic Sense of Life" both got put on the Index--which, as a practical matter, made more people want to read them.

Unamuno of course takes an existentialist's stance on reason--he thinks little of it, in rather disregard of the declaration on faith and reason made at Vatican I. He also is absolutely scornful of "so-called social Christianity" in "The Agony." Makes our friend Cardinal Biffi look like Mr. Social Activist. Again, there, Unamuno, in his own distinctive way, rather exemplifies the existentialist tradition (before, one must say, it was generally recognized) in affirming Christianity in a radically individualistic way, utterly at odds with Leo's then-recent social encyclical, Rerum novarum.

I rather doubt that Unamuno's work was banned in Spain during his lifetime. He remained, I recall, the Rector of Salamanca through his death at the end of 1936--though General Millan Astray had to be prevented from shooting him at his last public appearance. He was a brave, unique, and remarkable man.

Grandmère Mimi said...

both got put on the Index--which, as a practical matter, made more people want to read them.

Unless you were an obedient Catholic, which I was back then, with the result that I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was in my forties, at which time I found it silly, rather than titillating - which might have been the point of the Index of Forbidden Books after all.

nlnh said...

Anonymous, I genuinely admire your desire to interpret this interview as charitably as possible, but I can't agree.

I am a professor myself, and every day my students ask me complex questions that require me to provide background on an issue or event. I can think on my feet well enough to do it. It's how I make my living.

Since Dr. Fairfield was a professor himself for many years, it is certainly not unreasonable to expect him to do the same.

Anyone who has seen the "Choose This Day" video recognizes Fairfield's caricatured rendition of "the other side." It is the same line that Pittsburgh's propaganda machine has been putting out for some time now.

rick allen said...

Mimi, it all puts me in mind of the wonderful stanza from Byron's Don Juan:


His classic studies made a little puzzle,
Because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses,
Who in the earlier ages raised a bustle,
But never put on pantaloons or bodices;
His reverend tutors had at times a tussle,
And for their AEneids, Iliads, and Odysseys,
Were forced to make an odd sort of apology,
For Donna Inez dreaded the Mythology.

************************

Juan was taught from out the best edition,
Expurgated by learnéd men, who place
Judiciously, from out the schoolboy's vision,
The grosser parts; but, fearful to deface
Too much their modest bard by this omission,
And pitying sore his mutilated case,
They only add them all in an appendix,
Which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index.



We can all be grateful for those who so diligently gather forbidden fruit into one convenient place so that we may more effectively, uh, avoid it.

Tobias said...

My friend Fr Greg Jones (the Anglican Centrist) has tracked down yet another of Fairfield's mischaracterizations, that "an Episcopal Bishop" said "The Church wrote the Bible, so the Church can re-write the Bible." What Bishop Charles Bennison (a favorite target of the dissenting party) said, was what he "was taught in seminary by
Reginald Fuller: 'The Church wrote the Bible. The Bible did not write
the Church.'"

What Fairfield also neglects in this passage is the important role the church played, even in modern times, in the creation of the canon of Scripture (Anglicans, for instance, setting to one side books which the Apostles would have considered canonical); and the power of the church to interpret the Scripture, effectively setting aside large portions of even the canonical text as no longer binding. I was just this morning reading through the sections of Deuteronomy that the Daily Office Lectionary leaves out. Perhaps the fashioners of the Lectionary should have left all of this in, as a restorative reminder of just how much of the Scripture we no longer abide by....

Thanks, Greg.