On Theological Method

Recently, at Inhabitatio Dei, the concept of freedom was discussed — the initial move was to oppose proper Augustinian freedom to the more contemporary affirmation of pure freedom of choice.  What’s interesting here, particularly, is that it was noted that there might be an ideological dimension to this opposition. 
In the comments, I pressed the question of what a nonideological account might look like — and giving a fastforward description of what happened, after some relatively serious dialogue, it was said (not by me, but by others) that freedom is “about the divine power to call and create a human person”, that “freedom is the translation of human beings into the triune life of God,” that “True freedom is an event which happens as human persons are taken up, transfigured, re-created by God’s radical grace.”  Etc, etc, etc…
My question: What is going on here?  To what degree should such strongly “theological” responses to the very problematic concept of freedom be leaned upon?  Is this a Barthian tendency that I just don’t get? 
In my mind, such responses exhibit the worst tendencies of transcendence, a kind of eternal trump card that is effectively meaningless, except in order to satisfy one’s capacity to possess answers.

16 thoughts on “On Theological Method

  1. I had very similar thoughts as I read that post. There is a tendency to continue to “elevate” problematic concepts that we wish to preserve (because we are under the impression they apply to God in some way) until they have essentially zero meaning for human life. While these elevated statements may in fact be true, they have completely evaded addressing the problem in a way that bears on human life. I think the theological response to this is an insistence on a “pneumatological” dimension along the lines of: “There’s no way to schematize this sort of thing… it happens as needed by the power of the Spirit.” This might also be true, but it is pretty unsatisfying.

    I’d be curious to know if this actually is a Barthian tendency. It is a phenomenon worth discussing, regardless.

  2. I think the issue here seems to be orbiting around the question of what exactly theological description is supposed to be doing. What exactly is a theologically “thick” description of something like freedom supposed to do?

    Good question, and I’m glad to see it being raised. I agree with Hill that making such descriptions cannot do certain sorts of heavy lifting that theologians often try to make it do. I do think that such theologically thick description is important, but yeah, it doesn’t by any means bring us to the end point of figuring out how things bear on “everyday life.” If anything this illustrates the supremely limited function of theology within the life of faith.

    And, I’ll also just say that these posts, by their very nature were incredibly perfunctory explorations, one of them being simply a few jottings on a chapter I just read from a book.

  3. Theologically, it may well be a Barthian tendency. But I think it extends into philosophy as well. Schelling is, for me, the quintessential case study on this question. Upon coming to an impasse w/ the notion of the Absolute freely creating itself as free, Schelling reacted w/ his anti-Hegelian positive philosophy. While not strictly a confessional account of transcendence, the implications of this philosophy have lent themselves to a non-theological transcendence-as-trump card that you mention here.

  4. Such tendencies may seem Barthian, on the surface – but I think they bear little material relation to Barth. A lot of ‘radical’ Barthian theologians today think it fitting to approximate a kind of strongly Christological methodology, which usually leaves behind (or is simply unaware of) how deep the Reformed notion of the ontological separation of divine and human being is in Barth himself. Barth had a keen sense that maintaining the Creator-creature distinction all down the line, even with respect to Christ’s own ‘divinity’ and ‘humanity’, helped ensure the integrity and freedom of creaturely being in itself.

    Yet it seems very common to have an account of human ‘participation’ or ‘translation’ into the divine, which occur when you get a kind of grab-bag Christology – with a kind of Barthian Christological “rigor”, but usually the Christology itself having some blend of classic or creedal markers and a somewhat liberation-ist articulation of salvation as the implementation of justice. Such theologies – which are often, it seems, what stand behind such notions of transcendence and freedom – can do interesting things, in some regards; I’m just weighing in on what I take to be the superficially “Barthian” nature of their actual material convictions.

  5. I’m not sure these moves are confined to Barthians, as the ascendancy of the rhetorical (which is what I see these examples being primarily, and not simply instances of transcendence as trump card) can be found in a wide range of theologians these days (Hart being the most obvious example). Barth’s response would not so much be pretty rhetorical flourishes but about 100 pages more than you would ever want to know about the topic. Someone, somewhere once said that Barth’s theology is soporific, luring one into a complacent sleep in which good criticism of Barth is rendered nearly impossible.

  6. Ok, I remove the “Barthian” query (though I’m not sure Hart is entirely un-Barthian, as he mentioned that he was accused of this by RO types).

    My main concern, I guess, is with the legitimacy of this sort of theological speech, or really with its apparent autolegitimation. What does such theological speech tell me about freedom, or about existence/nature in general? More importantly, why should I give it any value? Why should I care? To say that I should care because it is theological speech is to fall into the circle of transcendence and autolegitimation I’m criticizing.

    Two quick notes: 1. I’m not advocating a kind of foundationalism — just saying that there has to be some capacity to “test” a discourse, or to submit it to “rivalry” with other discourses.

    2. I actually think Hauerwas is exemplary here — his insistence on “church” is not (as some have recently been saying) an attempt to provide a universal history, rather it is an attempt to actualize the sort of things that theology claims to make possible. Furthermore, he is a pluralist (again, not a universalist!), so there is a rivalry at work with other discourses, the possibility is put in play that Christianity might prove to be less compelling than Judaism, or paganism, or Enlightenment, or whatever.

  7. Anyone would said ‘listen to this because it is theological’ should automatically be kicked in the face.

    I agree that issues of legitimation and auto-legitimate, or any other form of justification cannot be simply resolved by appeals to transcendence, but isn’t this something different than arguing against transcendence per se, and more against how transcendence is used within an argument, or is used to stop an argument?

  8. Yes, there is a difference between an immanent method and an ontology of immanence (though I’d advocate both).

    But am I right about this autolegitimation? And isn’t this autolegitimation irretrievably ideological?

    Obviously I’m arguing yes to both, but I’d be interested to hear from advocates of this theological method.

  9. Granted that appeals to transcendence are bad inasmuch as they are conversation stoppers. But would appeals to transcendence be ‘legitimate’ if they can provide a compelling account of the issue at hand? And inasmuch as the issue is a rivalry between various discourses, then shouldn’t theology be allowed to harness all of its various resources, including notions of and appeals to transcendence in order for their to be a meeting of healthy rivals before any ajudicating can occur?

    As I see it, any theologian worth the title would not be interested in the autolegitimation of theology or its claims, as this would imply that the givens from which theology works (for theology is a positive science), whether it be the bible, revelation, church practice and so, would be something we wield and hold over others and not something that unsettles, bewilders and judges us in return.

    But to put these rhetorical phrases in a softer light: perhaps they are merely conceptual shorthands for work that is done or is to be done elsewhere. They may have the effect of stopping conversations, but this wholly depends on how long one is willing to listen to theological descripion before vomiting.

  10. In such situations, I’ve found that when I ask, “Okay, but what does this mean?” the transcendence-appeallers either ignore my question or attack me for asking. More often the former, thankfully.

  11. “Granted that appeals to transcendence are bad inasmuch as they are conversation stoppers. But would appeals to transcendence be ‘legitimate’ if they can provide a compelling account of the issue at hand?”

    Yes. Though as far as I can tell, at least wrt to the posts I link, there’s no attempt to do this. But as I noted, I find Hauerwas, certainly no immanentist, exemplary here — it’s more a recent trend I notice.

    As for the Bible, etc, bewildering the theologian in return, ok, perhaps, but more often this functions as an inoculating gesture, an accessory rather than a substantive move.

    As for Adam’s comment, “What does this mean?” Exactly. That should be the new title of the post.

  12. Hey Dan,

    Just me digging through your posts. I am curious where or from who or maybe better yet how you became convinced of the sort of immanent orientation that you are working with (or has it always emerged latently . . . maybe that fits in your framework anyway!). Or does this fall into the sort of questioning that is objectionable (See On Asking Why)?
    I guess I am wondering because I often have the same reaction to people espousing immanence (I am think of Larval Subjects here) as you seem to have of many theo-bloggers espousing transcendence.

  13. Hint: there’s a post where Dan already provides some answers to this!

    You really need to stop asking biographical questions, though, or you risk being banned. This is not a forum for us to meditate on our own personal histories, nor for anyone to pry into them.

  14. Ahh, Adam . . . I can’t help myself! It seems to be intrinsic to my own method . . . and is part of why I have similar feelings as expressed in this post. Anyway, I will try and abide. I’ll keep the other stuff over at my own blog!
    The last few comments were never meant to pry, so I apologize for not acclimating to this site more quickly.

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