Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today



When Good Is Not Enough (3/3)

This week I have been writing a little about my interest in Practical Theology (PT) and  the subsequent philosophical orientation with which I will be engaging research: social constructivism. 

I had some very heady (and public) conversations with colleagues this Summer who desperately wanted to paint me as a ‘Liberal’ who is afraid of my own shadow (afraid to admit it/come out of the theological closet, etc.)

My assertion was that, as a social constructivist, I am more in a agreement with communitarian concerns than I am with liberal loyalties. Communitarians have a very harsh critique of liberalism where it:

considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.

While I clearly hold some positions that overlap with liberal stances, and while I do presently serve at a classically Mainline church that exists within the liberal tradition of church expressions … I do not do so as a liberal. I grew evangelical, went very charismatic and then emerged into whatever kind of deconstructed christianity this is.

I jokingly said that I don’t identify as a liberal for the same reason that I don’t wear a medium-size Tshirt. It doesn’t fit and doesn’t cover some things I find important (ie. my belly).Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

The problem with being progressive:

I have flirted with the idea of just being a progressive even while I bristle at the notion of societal evolution, inevitable progress or the consequences of a colonial notion of ‘civilization’.

I realize that some liberals have engaged in post-colonial, feminist or liberation approaches – so that those concerns are not mutually exclusive.

So what do I mean when I say that Liberal doesn’t go far enough?

 Take post-colonial concerns

Classic liberalism has had two responses to the colonial problem. I will call them:

assimilation and reservations.

They can either come to us, act like us, learn to think like us, speak like us and live among us … or they can go over there and do their own thing without bothering us.

In fact, is it self-congratulatory either way. If indigenous folks assimilate we feel validated as open and accepting – even multi-cultural or diverse! If we ‘give them their own space’ we pat ourselves on the back for being understanding and accepting of other cultures. Let’s be honest – at least it isn’t conquest and genocide after all.

Neither one of those approaches is satisfactory. The first is unacceptable because it still presumes the hegemonic power of the dominant culture and it is looking at the indigenous community as something that needs to be absorbed, adapted or modified. The second is unacceptable because it sees the two cultures as incommensurable without realizing the power differential to  conquest.

I am not looking for a nicer, more gentle version of colonialism or empire. As a researcher-advocate, I want to hear the voice and experience of impacted communities in their own words. If that leads to an opportunity for partnership, great. If not, I have to accept that I am not in control of the outcome nor am I referee to make sure that people play by my rules. In the post-colonial context, indigenous peoples are not to be adopted & adapted … nor are they to be ‘left to their own devices’. Neither of these approaches is acceptable.

Something else is needed. Practical Theology and its qualitative methods provide me a starting point to engaging in a different way – one that addresses larger issues of systemic and institutional concerns, one that hears the voice of the communities most affected, and one that provides the possibility of change in the real lived experiences of those involved.

Let me give you an example. James Cone writes near the end of ‘The Cross and The Lynching Tree’:

White theologians in the past century have written thousands of books about Jesus’ cross without remarking on the analogy between the crucifixion of Jesus and the lynching of black people. One must suppose that in order to feel comfortable in the Christian faith, whites needed theologians to interpret the gospel in a way that would not require them to acknowledge white supremacy as America’s greatest sin. 

Then Cone comments on perhaps the quintessential evolving- liberal theologian that America has ever had:

Reinhold Niebuhr could write and preach about the cross with profound theological imagination and say nothing of how the violence of white supremacy invalidated the faith of white churches. It takes a lot of theological blindness to do that, especially since the vigilantes were white Christians who claimed to worship the Jew lynched in Jerusalem.

I hope that these past three posts have helped to clarify why Practical Theology holds possibilities for me as a discipline and why I have chosen a social constructivist orientation within the research.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read these 3 posts and to give me such high quality feedback and/or affirmation.


Limits in (religious) Language

I just finished my semester this past week and was going through my desktop cleaning up all the icons when I discovered this post and realized that I had put it up over here yet.
It was originally posted at HBC

I like reading Lindbeck.* I used to say that I love Lindbeck but I ran into two snags.

  1. I didn’t realize what people did with Lindbeck. I did not know that it often led to retreat into a neo-Catholic expression.
  2. There is some philosophical wrinkle that I don’t fully understand about why the language that creates our religious experience implies a one-way limitation of language -it is a bit technical for me but I wanted to acknowledge it because it eventually becomes a real sticking point.

Having said that …

What I am a big fan of is Lindbeck’s critique of Language. He has a riveting analysis of the way that religious language functions in our communities and personal experiences.  I was susceptible to liking Lindbeck because of my deep appreciation for Nancey Murphy’s book “Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism”. I was primed for what Lindbeck brings to the table.

To become religious–no less than to become culturally or linguistically competent–is to interiorize a set of skills by practice and training. One learns how to feel, act, and think in conformity with the religious tradition that is, in its inner structure, far richer and more subtle than can be explicitly articulated. The primary knowledge is not about the religion, nor is that the religion teaches such and such, but rather how to be religious in such and such ways. p. 35

Then I found out that saying you appreciate the Lindbeck’s (post-Liberal) approach is like saying you cheer for the New York Yankees in Boston. I understand the concern with the descendants of Lindbeck’s work … but I am still suspicious that he is right about how language works in our faith communities.

Fast Forward: I was reading some stuff to get ready for the 2012 Emergent Village Theological Conversation this past January and I stumbled onto a section of Whitehead’s thoughts on religious language.** I got to a section called “Doctrine and History”. After dealing with the fact that language does not have a one-to-one correlation and that all language thus requires interpretation, the author explains:

“The language of a tradition and the central doctrines that reflect and support that language are the prime turbulence of the particular mode of existence characterizing that tradition. Furthermore, as human existence is shaped in specialized ways during the course of history, experiences occur that are not possible to persons shaped by other traditions.”

I resonate with the idea that a person is shaped by the language one is groomed and conditioned by – and that would both empower and naturally shape the experiences that one has and the interpretation of those experiences … even (or especially) the religious experiences.

It just makes sense that because religious in a communal endeavor – one is always a part of a community that has a tradition and set of practices/beliefs – that it determines, at some level, both the types of experiences one has , can have and how one translates or interprets those experiences.

This is a vital assertion for the 21st century! We no longer live in the monopoly of Christendom or the frameworks of the Colonial Era where one tradition imported and imposed foreign expectations and alien interpretations on another.

With works like “The invention of world religions” by Tomoko Masuzawa and “God is not One” by Stephen Prothero (among many others) we are entering a time in world history (and thus church history) where we need to come to terms with two things that both Lindbeck and Whitehead are pointing out:

  • Language is both inherited and powerful in shaping our experiences and subsequent interpretations of those experiences.
  • Language used in doctrines like ‘the Church’ and ‘Eucharist’ actually facilitate the ability to have certain experiences that are simply not available to those outside the community or language game. Practices like Yoga or Ramadan would be the same for those in different traditions. That is why North American Christians who do yoga are not have the same experience as those in India.

We live in an era where the realities of inter-religious education, cross-denominational communication and trans-national citizenship are going to challenge all of our inherited traditions and conceptual frameworks.

If we are unwilling to do so and insist on simply repeating the same rote answers week after week under the misguided impression that we are being faithful to the tradition … we are in danger of an irrelevance that leads not only to extinction but ultimately failure to accomplish our great commission.

*George Lindbeck wrote “The Nature of Doctrine” and along with Hans Frei (author of “Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative”) is credited with starting the Yale School of thought. One of the most famous proponents of which is Stanley Hauerwas famous for his books like  “Peaceable Kingdom” as well as other things.

** Alfred North Whitehead was a 20th century philosopher who is credited for helping to come up with what became Process-Relational thought.

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