On the Christian duty to find error attractive

Exam marking season–oh joy!–intensifies a thought that I have had for a while. One of the repeated problems in theological debate is a particular form of caricature. I can think of published examples of this sort of caricature in theological criticism of historical Biblical scholarship; Evangelical criticisms of Barth; post-liberal criticisms of classical liberalism; liberal criticisms of Evangelicalism; proponents of divine passibility criticising classical theism; and lots more. It is endemic in student papers.

The common caricature is this: a position is attributed to an opponent that highlights the (supposed) errors of their position without pausing to recognise the strengths; as a result, what is criticised is a straw man, a malformed parody that is at best a grotesque semblance of anything anyone ever actually believed. I repeatedly find myself saying to students, ‘if Barth (or Schleiermacher, or C.F. Henry, or John Owen, or the Council of Trent, or …) really believed that, why did anyone ever take him seriously?’ It seems to me an important question: if my reconstruction or presentation of this or that position is so easy to dismiss, then I have probably not understood the position.

There are two forms of this that are perhaps particularly dangerous, because so easy to justify. Conservative critics sometimes feel no need to understand the attraction of liberal or revisionist positions because they assume that all that is not ‘orthodox’ (or what they understand to be ‘orthodox,’ which in my experience is rather too often a far more thorough departure from the historic Christian tradition than the thing they are criticising) is motivated by a caving in to ‘worldliness’. Those who reject penal substitutionary atonement (to take an endemic recent example) are not, on such a telling, motivated by a desire to be faithful to the Biblical witness (even if they have misunderstood it), or by a proper concern for Christian ethical living, but are simply caving in to cultural pressure…

Second, modern scholars seem to find it very easy to assume that ancient writers were stupid. Critics of classical theism blithely assert that the Fathers did not spot that Greek philosophy was a different religious tradition to Hebrew theism, and (when it comes to divine passibility), that they lacked our clearer grasp of what suffering means. The martyrs may have been wrong about all sorts of theological points, but I suspect that they were aware that their faith was counter-cultural, and I venture to suggest that they knew a little about the reality of suffering…

The story is told that, when he taught on Schleiermacher, Barth made it a rule that no-one was allowed to criticise in any way for the first term; until you have learnt just how attractive Schleiermacher’s theology is, you are not yet able to explain why he is wrong. Surely this is true of any theology: unless you feel the attraction, know why another generation of students was captivated, fascinated, by this theology, you have not yet understood it. and until you have understood it, you have no right and no ability to critique it.

Barth had longer than I do; but I lecture through a course entitled ‘Contemporary Theology and its challenges’, and I feel a duty–a duty that is moral and Christian, not just academic–to make the students feel the force of those challenges, before offering an account of some potential solutions. We get to the doctrine of God: an hour on Kant, and von Harnack (and Charles Hodge) following carefully the logic that says Trinitarian doctrine is either spurious speculation or (at best, with Schleiermacher) useless orthodoxy, with no practical implications. Feel it. Feel the problem. Then when we open up Barth and Rahner and Zizioulas, perhaps you will understand why people found them exciting. And then the divine perfections, and of course I want to defend impassibility, aseity, simplicity, immutability, but we’ll spend an hour on protest atheism–starting with Voltaire’s mockery of Pangloss, hearing voices echoing out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald; listening to Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion; suffering (those of a certain age will remember it’s pretty painful) Depeche Mode’s Blasphemous Rumours, even (‘I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour. And when I die, I expect to find him laughing.’). Then we move to Moltmann’s response to protest atheism, the crucified God who, alone, has a right to claim deity. I end reading Shillito’s Jesus of the Scars (‘To our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak–and not a God has wounds, save Thou alone’)

Each year, at the end of that hour, I wonder whether Moltmann and Lewis and Fiddes and the rest are right, whether I need to re-write the lectures that claim to rescue divine impassibility. I wonder even whether Ivan Karamasov was right, whether the fact that one child has once cried in this universe means divine justice can no longer be believed in.

I think that if I didn’t feel these pulls, I would have no right, and no ability, to teach about divine perfection in the next class.

7 Comments

  1. RuthGouldbourne
    Jun 10, 2008

    Steve, I so wish I could attend your classes!!

  2. Chris TerryNelson
    Jun 12, 2008

    Steve, this really is wonderful to read. Thank you for showing what empathetic (not just charitable) theological discourse can look like. I find it so easy to say I believe in such a method, but lack its practice.

  3. Frank
    Jun 18, 2008

    This is just great. I’m so happy to see this articulated so well — I’ve been frustrated with the same phenomenon (as it appears in many contexts, not just theology) for a long time.

    But perhaps to extend the thought a bit: there’s also the danger of the moderate ‘objective’ scholar who presents a plausible interpretation of some thinker — I have in mind a certain professor who introduced me to Kant and Nietzsche. His understanding of these thinkers was traditional; he was rather conservative philosophically. His lectures first described the thought of these thinkers in general outline, then, after several weeks of description, he offered his own assessment of them — what was flawed, what was valuable, etc. It wasn’t a bad procedure, all told, especially not for undergrad beginners like me. But I came away feeling a little cheated; I kept asking myself why so many found these thinkers so attractive if their fundamental flaws were so obvious. Could Kant really have been such a fool not to notice the inherent problems in the way he distinguished between the two worlds of noumena and phenomena? (So … was that even what he was really doing?)

    Yet my professor was at least trying to be objective; he wasn’t being polemical. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe, as you imply, we ultimately can begin to get understanding only when we abandon objectivity (i.e., as the basic precondition of understanding) and throw ourselves into the deep end of the pool and feel the passions of those we study — rather than dismissing their ‘doctrines’ as ‘errors.’

  4. brainofdtrain
    Aug 17, 2008

    Great Post. The reason theology is so challenging for me is that i try to take everyone seriously, and it is frustrating to see the arrogance that accompanies many who dismiss someone too easily.

  5. James Crocker
    Sep 1, 2009

    Steve,

    Have you read David Bentley Hart’s analysis of Ivan Karamazov’s rebellion in “The Door’s of the Sea”? What do you think of it?

    • Steve H
      Sep 1, 2009

      Hi James. No – I’m afraid not. Should I?

  6. James
    Sep 3, 2009

    Possibly – the whole contention of the book is that suffering is simply meaningless, which isn’t exactly a new position. On the other hand, he is very helpful in drawing out Ivan’s speech as a protest against salvation, rather than against the existence (or I think I can assume here, the impassibility) of God – in essence for the purpose of rebutting any sort of ‘best of all possible worlds’ approach to theodicy. Instead he insists that any attempt to see evil as a necessary part of creation is not solving the problem of theodicy, but going directly against the way the Bible speaks about evil (it’s never something necessary, always something to be defeated). He also criticises Calvin direction on the relationship between divine causality and providence and seems to think it doesn’t leave room for the ‘conscious evil’ referred to in the New Testament as ‘the god of this world’. As for how this links to natural science (which he doesn’t really go into, but is something I have to consider given where I am!) it’s an almost Tolkein like view of creation.

    Anyway, I think it’s certainly a helpful read – especially for me given that I must hear something along the lines of ‘it’s a greater sort of good for God to create a creation which creates itself’ every day and it’s nice to read something vaguely coherent! As for whether you need to read it or not – it’s only about 100 small pages.

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