Monday, August 29, 2011

Questions of Methodology.

"Any kind of Christian theology today, even in rich and dominant countries, which does not have as its starting point the historic situation of dependence and domination of two thirds of humankind, with its 30 million dead of hunger and malnutrition, will not be able to position and concretize historically its fundamental themes. Its questions will not be the real questions. It will not touch the real person. As observed by a participant in the Buenos Aires gathering, 'theology must be rescued from its cynicism.' Certainly, in the face of the problems of today's world, many theological writings are reduced to cynicism."

- Hugo Assmann, Teología desde la praxis de la liberación, 40.

The words of this small and popular excerpt are piercing, especially for a lover of classic dogmatics like myself. I'm trying to get a head start on my reading for the Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez class this semester and I am repeatedly reminded of the deficiencies within western academic theology. This cry is heard again and again to the point where it seems that either some ignore it or others assume that theology can only be considered as such if it begins with an attempt to bear witness to the cause of the oppressed in society.

Usually the starting point of God's transcendence is attacked and dismissed since this only perpetuates the complacency concerning injustice that has plagued Christianity. Without intending to sound callous to these worthy concerns, I remain convinced that abusus non tollit usum. And I wonder what is ultimately sacrificed precisely for the cause of the oppressed if methodological concerns including the starting point of God's ontology is abandoned and replaced with immanence. In short, I can not stop questioning if the method of immanence often employed by liberation theologians ultimately fails to achieve the end of liberation and hope that is rightfully and necessarily sought for the oppressed.


Matt Frost said...

As a lover of classic dogmatics myself, most of my problems with the quote could be fixed by changing one word: "Any kind of Christian anthropology ..." No Christian theology can be considered to be theology unless it takes as its starting place the real and historical provision of divine revelation and care, and the God revealed in it -- at which point we then follow Calvin by needing a proper concept of the human creature that is the recipient of divine grace.

There is certainly a problem with beginning with divine transcendence -- if God remains beyond human concerns and divine economy is not addressed properly. And first-world theology has a tendency to abandon divine economy because it does not basically need hope in God's action. Which is both a too-small and too-high anthropology, and a basic demonstration of the sin of hubris. It is the transcendent God justifying transcendent Men that I see at the root of the Liberation complaint -- even as they swing the pendulum hard over to the opposite extreme. But the Liberation extreme has the benefit of being more apt, even if it is not exclusive truth.

Kait Dugan said...

Matt, Thanks for your very insightful comment. I have wholeheartedly agreed with what you said concerning "Any kind of Christian *anthropology*" in the past. Take a look at this book review I wrote, specifically the last paragraph:

But I remain unconvinced that the suffering of the world and the oppressed in society (the poor, women, minorities, LGBT, etc.) are simply add-ons to what the Gospel has to say. I don't mean that to sound harsh, but Calvin doesn't even begin to speak about the human creature specifically in relation to any socio-political issues at all (nor Barth really). He does talk about the connection between knowledge of self and God but that isn't what I'm after here. You can read Calvin in such a way as to use him for the ends of these issues. But my point is that the way dogmatics has usually been done fails to place these issues as the heart of concern. I'm wondering if the dogmatic ordering can and should be shifted after we seek a theology for our particularly time period as we start at the beginning again when we encounter Jesus Christ.

I also think, despite my ultimate agreement with notion of God's transcendence, that we can't start there. Such a starting point is rooted in speculation. I think liberation theologians have a lot to teach the academy and I am trying to listen.

Matt Frost said...

Well-put. I have to agree with you that the suffering and oppression and marginalization that goes on can't be justly dealt with by inclusion. We cannot take the anthropology of the historically dominant cultural group and simply permit space within it for those it subordinates. To do that is to baptize and sanctify the oppression and marginalization. That sort of thing must be rejected.

My point in using Calvin here is simply his sense that theology is an exercise done between the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. What the many liberation perspectives mean, at a lowest-common-denominator level, is that the anthropology we've been using, that description of humanity in terms of the historically dominant group, is false. That we need something better, something fundamentally more just, at the center of our concept of humanity. Whiteness, maleness, wealth, heteronormativity -- this is injustice coded into anthropology. It has no theological value, and deserves none.

I agree with you that our traditions of dogmatic theology fail to do justice here. We've been bolting our justice concerns onto the outside of the church, as though they were armor or camouflage. But dogmatics is, as Barth notes, evaluation of the speech and action of the church, and the church has been caught up in these sins for far too long. So you're quite right to suggest that we need to re-evaluate the way we do dogmatics. Dogmatics is exactly the right tool for getting down deep into the mechanicals of the church's theology, finding the problems, diagnosing them, and fixing them. But it can't do that as "business as usual," even though it can't do it without keeping the faith, either.

So follow the symptoms, and chase down the disease, and see what we can do about it. You're in a good spot to do that, both at PTS and at the beginning of your coursework. Keep the faith, justly.

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