by Chris Boesel
Thanks much for your thoughtful and engaging response. I believe you are reading me well, and the critical—though always generous—edges of your response rightly highlight the dicey stakes at issue in my questions, and helpfully call attention to some ambiguous phrasing on my part. I will not respond to all the issues and questions you raise here, but let them stand as invitations to further thinking and openings for others to jump into the conversation. In the interests of space, I will focus on a couple of points that are most interesting and provocative to me.
You correctly discern my worry about modernism, and with the way it can sometimes appear to dismiss tradition—and more importantly, the people who concretely inhabit traditional views and positions—from the outset. I will risk too long (and too self-referential) a response on this point, because the relation of tradition, modernity and postmodernity is written into the DNA of the TTC at its conception and is always worth revisiting and reflecting upon; it is to be expected that we may have both commonalities and differences around the table as to the nature and status of these discourses and their resources. Also, lingering over this issue will lay ground from which I can address a couple of further points.
Though you are right about my worry regarding modernism, you may slightly misplace the source of my worry. Defenders of “the normative and constraining power of tradition” from hasty dismissal are not the only folks who worry about modernism. So-called postmoderns, some of whom I understand can hold quite progressive positions on any number of issues, also worry about modernism. And they do so not for the sake of defending the unquestionable normativity of tradition, but in response to what is perceived to be the assumed unquestionable normativity of modernism. What complicates your reading of my nervousness about modernism, it seems to me, is the postmodern assumption that one in fact needs to be a postmodern to recognize traditions (including the Christian one) as “wildly luxuriant, full of robust conflict about fundamental matters of faith and so marked by considerable scope for theological creativity and play,” because this is precisely what is not recognized, but indeed often erased and suppressed, by so-called modernism.
All this to say, yes and no. Yes, I’m worried about modernism and its dismissal of tradition from the outset (especially as my interests skew toward the methodological: where to begin?). But no, not in the sense of defending the norming and constraining power of tradition in opposition to or in denial of its luxuriant and conflictual wildness. Rather, it is the extent to which modernism’s dismissal of tradition from the outset may entail its own erasure of this luxuriantly wild and conflictual nature that worries me. Correlatively, I suggest it is precisely this nature that allows one to inhabit tradition’s norming and constraining effects—very specifically understood (tradition binds one, but should not be a “power” possessed to bind others; it calls one to contest and appeal, surely, but in a manner distinguishable from control, mastery, domination)—while finding therein quite radical resources of self-critique; resources targeted on the very ways in which said norming and constraining effects inevitably and continually pretend to or are mistaken for certain forms of proprietary power over--. It is not, then, tradition’s own norming and constraining power I’m interested in, but rather the possibility that tradition might witness to—or be in response to—a reality radically distinguishable from tradition with some norming and constraining power of its own, e.g., the living God who has acted concretely and decisively in history as a part of history in an event that can only—the “constraining” part—be given witness as a piece of news (even here, then, “power” is carefully qualified, for as Lessing points out, such a witness is as weak and questionable as a “spider’s thread,” suggesting that divine power is more likely to be active in and through creaturely weakness, and in radical contradiction to creaturely power, of either the material or the hermeneutical-rhetorical variety); a distinctive witness and response, then, that are unaccountable and unjustifiable according to—i.e., that exceed, to use a sexy postmodernism—certain founding assumptions of modernism (and postmodernism, for that matter).
I am not saying that I am a postmodern rather than traditional theologian; or even that I am a combination of the two to the exclusion of the modern (as if that were possible). I assume I’m a messy combination of all three; both in the grips of all three while attempting to strategically use their various resources toward a certain vision of theological and ethical responsibility. For example, I absolutely agree with you that modernism is not entirely problematic (though I have sometimes been guilty of an intellectual laziness that speaks as if it was), and that the gifts of historical criticism, gender critique and notions of human autonomy that you mention as traceable to the Enlightenment are gifts indeed (though not without their limits, of course; as Derrida says, there is no such thing as a harmless remedy). And it is just here that your affirmation of modernism nicely exposes a self-contradiction in much of what passes for postmodern discourse, as the latter is often guilty of its own reductionist and monolithic reading of modernity while claiming the latter’s ethical impulse as its own (e.g., the allergy to imperialistic imposition of external authority).
However, your helpful reminder of the gifts of modernism also raises a central issue of my worry in relation to the themes and concerns of this conference, especially when seen in light of your response to my second question, about whether a comparative theologian is bound to employ ethical norms created apart from the dialogical encounter itself. In your response to that question you quite appropriately ask if I mean to say that Christianity is exempt from the “sad litany of misguided commitments” I suggest might be organically rooted in other religious traditions—“hierarchical, non-egalitarian, monarchical, patriarchal, militaristic, tribal blood feud, warrior code, etc.” I first want to say: I am absolutely not intending to exempt Christianity here (indeed, this is key to the critical edge of my developing “thesis”). And I thank you for raising the issue, as my phrasing could indeed be read that way. On the contrary, I assume that the history of Christianity has been riddled with all of these sad and misguided commitments at one time or another, and that some of them cannot be wholly eradicated from traditional Christian theology and faith—even in the (hopefully) nuanced forms that I inhabit. And I also assume that the modern project of liberal, progressive Christian theology (of which religious pluralism and comparative theology are a part, yes?) is to purify Christianity of these sad and misguided commitments to whatever extent possible and so render it both viable and safe for the neighbor and world. And this, precisely because these commitments are judged to be sad and misguided, and so render Christianity—or any religion in which they can be found—as ethically problematic and in need of ethical remedy.
Now, given that I am not exempting Christianity, but also that you do not attempt to exempt any number of “other religious traditions” from the possibility of being characterized by these various commitments in various ways, what strikes me about your response is the candid nature of your pejorative judgment of these commitments as sad and misguided. It is stated so off-handedly, and indeed, it seems so obvious, I missed it myself—and I would be surprised if it was caught by anyone participating in this conversation (except a practitioner of such a religion—Christian or otherwise—who I assume would immediately recognize themselves as the target of a demeaning dismissal; but would said practitioner be participating in this conversation? This was what I was getting at in the third question about who can actually experience themselves as fully welcomed at the table) so accustomed are we to the authoritative judgments of our modern philosophical and ethical instincts on these matters.
So: When seen in relation to your earlier reminder of the gifts of modernity (which I affirm) as seeded in part (but I would push this: in large part) by the European Enlightenment, how can an off-hand pejorative judgment like this—that I myself make all the time, so second nature is it to so many of us—avoid being seen as an unstated assumption of a philosophical-cultural privilege, and one that is embedded in the discourses of religious pluralism and comparative theology? Is there a sense, then, in which these discourses, rather than remedying exclusion with inclusion, may sometimes “move the goal posts” of exclusion from the religious to the ethico-cultural (the reducing-theology/religion-to-ethics part of my worry), where they—the lines of exclusion—are much more difficult to discern because embedded in assumptions that seem so obvious to us as to be part of the air we breathe, e.g., the assumption that the above list of religiously embedded socio-ethical commitments are sad and misguided? Please hear these as genuine questions expressing genuine concerns (albeit with some growing suspicion that I might be on to something) and not as my own final/fixed pejorative judgment in disguise; I am perfectly willing—and indeed, would not be overly surprised—to be shown that and how I have the wrong end of the stick here and/or am thinking too simplistically.
Having already taken up too much space, I will leave it here.
As to your last request for a more substantive engagement with the content of your paper beyond the introductory methodological issues, I will plead for patience, with hopes to give you a proper response in coming weeks. The focus on your introduction was intentional, as it so nicely demonstrated the connection with last year’s conference precisely in relation to our framing questions. However, I can give you a short yet incomplete answer to your questions here (leading to more questions): “yes, but—.” Yes, you bring very compelling philosophical plausibility to the doctrine of the trinity. But I skew Kierkegaardian, here (hopeless, I know); IF Christian doctrine such as the trinity is itself to be only a self-critical repetition of a highly questionable human witness to unaccountable and improbable divine action in history (and even more, IF that action has in fact occurred; is “actual”), then I’m not sure it is the task of theology to make said doctrine more philosophically plausible, for wouldn’t such plausibility necessarily “dismiss” the possibility (and so actuality) of said unaccountable and improbable divine action in history “from the outset?”
Likewise: yes, you persuade me that Hindus and Buddhists can help Christians do Christian theology, IF the work of theology begins with a question, e.g., the question of divine incarnation: does God take a body? Is this possible? How might it be possible? How might it be plausible? (your own example of a comparative theology project between a Barthian and a Hindu, by way of Francis X. Clooney, S.J.) But what IF Christian theology does not begin with (open) questions, e.g., of whether God takes a body, but begins with (constraining) witness—e.g., the report that God has in fact taken a body (and indeed, its crazier than that: not a body but the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and further, not “taken a body” as a provisional and discardable outer garment—behavior somewhat permissible for a proper if idiosyncratic and capricious divinity—but become this full human person—body and soul—in full, irreversible hypostatic unity for all eternity, etc., etc., you know the drill)? This latter IF is of course Barth’s a posteriori methodology; and this suggests, does it not, that a Barthian could only venture a comparative theological project as you’ve framed it—“beginning with the question”—by ceasing to be a Barthian (from the outset)?
Now I am NOT saying here that Hindus and Buddhists cannot help Christians who skew more Barthian than Tillichian do Christian theology (I really don’t know, and am curious as to how it might work); I’m simply suggesting that if they can it would play out differently than you seem to be suggesting here. I close, then, with a rephrasing of my closing question from last time: IF I am a Barthian—or a run-of-the-mill Christian schmo silly enough to actually believe the incarnational mumbo-jumbo in the parentheses above; or a run-of-the-mill religious practitioner of another religion similarly devout in relation to its own mumbo-jumbo—and the table of comparative theology (and/or religious pluralism) is set for a meal of philosophical (and ethical) plausibility, am I—are we—dismissed from the outset?