Monday, March 09, 2009

Great Time for Wesleyan Tradition 3

The first two installments of this book idea, A Great Time for the Wesleyan-Evangelical Tradition, were:

1.1 Changes Afoot
1.2 Identifying Wesleyan-Evangelicalism

1.3 Surfing the Waves
With the exception of the "new perspectives" on Judaism and Paul, the other three developments we mentioned at the beginning of the chapter seem to be riding a similar wave of contemporary culture. Theological interpretation, the missional emphasis, and the ancient-future trend all relate in one way or another to the unraveling of modernism that has taken place over the last few decades. As we already warned, it is questionable to characterize an age by a set of ideas. At a particular point in time we have at best a group of people who profess certain ideas, and often it is not ideas that most characterize an age. Ideas are often epiphenomenon, symptoms of more underlying, concrete factors. We should thus sit very loosely to those who reduce a period to a label like "modernism" or "postmodernism" with some simple list of ideological characteristics.

Nevertheless, the three trends we have just mentioned fit certain cultural shifts that seem to have taken place in recent years, shifts in the ideas that people profess. Prior to these last decades, those individuals in power within Protestantism and evangelicalism had argued or assumed that the meaning of Scripture in which we should most be interested is something called the "literal" or "plain" meaning of the words. Indeed, one of the founding emphases of early Protestantism was an aversion to the non-literal interpretations of the Middle Ages and early church, principally, allegorical interpretation.

Also in keeping with some of the fundamental dynamics of the Protestant Reformation, Protestants and evangelicals tended to have little interest in the period between the New Testament church and the 1500's. The very origins of the Reformation entailed a reaction to developments that had taken place after the New Testament. The assumption of all Protestants was that developments needed to be peeled off. The only question was how many. Anglicanism peeled off the least. The Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation peeeled off the most.

What happened to mainstream Protestantism in the late 1800's and early 1900's is well known, namely, the rise of theological liberalism. Here we refer to a dominant group of Protestant scholars who did not believe in miracles or the authority of the biblical texts. They read the books of the Bible as they would have read and analyzed any other collection of texts and derived their meanings entirely in the light of what they knew from the history and literature of the time when these books were written.

To some extent, the shifts that we see happening at the turn of the twenty-first century, including the so called new perspectives, are caused in part by some of the same forces that initially drove theological liberalism. The difference is that, in the case of evangelicalism, the drive to read the biblical texts in their historical and literary context has come from the presumption of traditional faith, while nineteenth century liberalism did not. It has been as evangelicals have pursued the original meaning of Scripture that they have found themselves confronted with the same phenomenon that Lessing proclaimed in his categories the "ugly ditch" between the Bible and theology. [1] The rise of theological interpretation, with its greater openness to figural readings of the text, relates to the perceived distance of the original meaning from the very purposes of Scripture as a word from God for today.

At the same time, philosophy in the twentieth century was heavily preoccupied with language and meaning. The idea that words point to fixed meanings, for example, was undermined by Ludwig Wittengenstein, who argued that meaning was a function of the way words were used not a matter of set meanings to which words refer. [2] J. L. Austin and others then extended his insight to show that words "do" things, indeed far more than simply "declare" meanings. [3] Meanwhile, Ferdinand de Saussure argued that the relationship between the symbols or signifiers of words and the meaning they signify is almost completely arbitrary. [4]

The long and short was a general tendency in the late twentieth century by a number of thinkers to argue that texts did not have fixed or stable meanings. [5] So as the drive of evangelical scholarship to read the books of the Bible in context was distancing the meaning of the text from today, developments in hermeneutics questioned even what a literal reading of the text might be. Indeed, some hermeuticians suggest today that almost all meaning is ultimately metaphorical. [6] This climate once again has loosened the Protestant sense that a text has only one meaning, and that the one meaning is inextricably bound to the original meaning.

François Lyotard described postmodernism as an "incredulity toward metanarratives." [7] What he referred to thereby was a rising number of thinkers who found it difficult to accept overarching philosophical frameworks that claimed to encompass the whole of reality. Nicholas Wolterstorff and James K. A. Smith have ably shown that the rejection of rationally based ideological superstructures need not signal the death of faith-based ideological structures. [8] As for our part, we need not buy into any of these thinkers lock stock and barrel to recognize that the wave they are riding has at least some substance to it.

For one thing, the flattening of the globe has put us into unprecedented contact with others who think and behave differently from us. [9] The age where a group can isolate itself from the ideas of the rest of the world is, for the most part, done. The relativist and pluralistic tendencies of late modernism were not simply the deterioration of faith as part of some demonic conspiracy theory. They were one predictable response to a world where we are thrust into contact with the other.

Similarly, the work of thinkers like Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault have accounted too well for historical changes in scientific paradigm and social paradigm too well at certain points for us to chalk all their ideas up to Satanic influence. [10] To be sure, we do not have to accept every aspect of their thought to agree that interpretive groups have paradigms with which they approach the biblical text and that those in power tend to decide which paradigms are correct. We cannot absolutize their ideas and have this discussion, but we can recognize that there is at least some substance to the wave of culture they represent.

The result is to recognize that the fundamental principles of Protestantism, as well as those of twentieth century evangelicalism, are deeply ensconced in cultural paradigms just as any other set of ideas. That is not to negate entirely their truth value. It is merely to point out that they are as human as they are truthful, and they are subject to critique. Thus one of the ironic twists of the "evangelical" (or perhaps better, "fundamentalist") response to elements of the new perspectives on Judaism and Paul has been a tendency to treat particular Protestant traditions--Calvinism in particular--as absolute paradigms. N. T. Wright, for example, has critiqued John Piper's reaction to his ideas as an ironic placing of tradition over Scripture. [11]

Postmodernism has thus brought an appropriate humility with regard to overarching ideological systems. In consequence, we have seen a revival of interest in symbols and sacraments, in mystery--thus the ancient-future movement. We find a reappraisal of the importance of "works" in the Christian life, which fits not only with the new perspectives on the biblical world, but also with a missional Christianity that is interested in the whole person and the whole world.

These are some of the developments that make the beginning of the twenty-first century potentially a great time for the Wesleyan tradition. We are a tradition that has always taken the deeds of the body as seriously--if not more seriously--than the thoughts of the mind. Suddenly we find original meaning scholarship telling us that whether we are Pelagian or not is a question of later Christian tradition. We had correctly apprehended a key element of Paul's thought.

And as a tradition that has always been more open to Spirit-led interpretation and typology, we suddenly find ourselves not the ugly step-child of the evangelical tradition, but a group that intuitively practiced what is only now becoming philosophically acceptable in theological interpretation. And our sense that experience is as key to Christian life as reason makes us easily appreciate the revival of interest in the symbolic and sacramental dimensions of the ancient church.

We never went to the ideological excesses of certain other evangelical traditions. The missional focus on the whole person, social and economic in addition to spiritual, is nothing but a cultural affirmation of who we have been even when it was not evangelically popular. In short, it is a great time to be in the Wesleyan evangelical tradition. It is a day when, ironically, we are well situated, for perhaps the first time, to lead evangelicalism with our ideas and not simply with our piety.

[1] Lessing

[2] Philosophical Investigations.

[3] How to Do Things with Words. Searle, speech act theory...

[4] Structure of Linguistics.

[5] The more extreme form of this trajectory was of course Jacques Derrida and deconstruction.

[6] Lakoff and Johnson.

[7] Lyotard

[8] W *, and S, Radical Orthodoxy

[9] A phenomenon aptly caught in the title of the book The World is Flat.

[10] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and, for example, The Order of Things.

[11] Justification

1 comment:

don bryant said...

I agree that Wesleyanism has never gone to the ideological excesses of certain other evangelical traditions. I am Calvinistical but I readily admit that it can get strange and something other than what I am comfortable with as an evangelical - theonomy, cultural fundamentalism, "Driscollism",etc. Wesleyanism has such a strong strain of piety that though it can be intellectually less vigorous than Reformed thought it produces on balance healthier communities where love is the dominant value. Of course, I am not so inclined to give the UMC the benefit of the doubt on this judgment. There is hardly anything more liberal than a liberal Methodist.