Thursday, March 05, 2015

Horizons and Proper Theological Education

Good theology is always involved in mediation.  I am not here directly talking about the Vermittlungstheologie of the nineteenth century, a theology inspired by the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), and associated with such names as Isaak Dorner (1809-84), Julius Mueller (1801-78), and Richard Rothe (1799-1867).  A look at Vermittlungstheologie is, however, important to clarify what it is that I don't and do mean when talking about theology as mediation.

Historically, Vermittlungstheologie commenced with the 1828 founding of the Heidelberg theological journal Theologische Studien und Kritiken.  The founding editor of the journal was obviously thinking Hegelian thoughts when he wrote:  "Mediation is the scientifically tracing back of relative oppositions to their original unity, through which an inner reconciliation and higher standpoint is gained by which they are transcended, the intellectual position arising out of this mediation being the true, healthy mean."  [See Roger Olsen, The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction, p. 242.]  

As practiced, however, Vermittlungstheologie was less concerned with making proper Hegelian moves, and more interested simply in carving out a bridge between two apparent opposites, e.g., between the Gospel and the secularized culture, between rationalism and supernaturalism, between Hegel and Schleiermacher, between theology and the life of the church.

Dorner was perhaps the most famous of the mediating theologians, trying as he did to mediate faith as Christianity's subjective standard with Scripture as its objective standard.  He also wanted to combine aspects of the "feeling approach" of Schleiermacher with the deeply rational intellectual approach of Hegel [Olsen, p. 243].  In his reflection upon God, he searched to mediate between transcendent immutability and immanent changeability.  His "progressive incarnation" attempted to mediate orthodox and kenotic Christology.  

Many of the moves of historical mediating theology can be associated with the tension between rationalism and romanticism, between objectivity and subjectivity.  While this dialectic remains with us today - - I am thinking specifically of views of scriptural authority advocating a causal relationship between God and Scripture versus views that claim authority arises in the meaningful confrontation of text and reader  - - I am not thinking primarily of objectivity/subjectivity or thinking/feeling when conceiving mediation, but rather the the poles of message and context, kerygma and cultural situation.   All good theology is contextual because all effective theology must start with the historical proclamation of the particularity of Christ and the constellation of events so linked, and connect this to the universal human situation - - or at least that which is considered universal within a particular cultural trajectory.  Theology mediates the horizon of the proclaimed Christ event with the intellectual and cultural horizon of its reception.  

As I look at the current situation within Lutheran churches within North America, I see a general attempt to avoid effective mediating theology.  This is no surprise in this.  This type of mediation is very difficult work.  The problem is that one pole of the mediation seems often to be cancelled, redescribed, or otherwise assimilated by the other.   This seems true of theological education in particular.  

In order to see this, consider one antipode of the dialectic to be the proclaimed Christ event, the kerygma of Christ and Him crucified for our salvation, and the other pole to be the present intellectual and cultural horizon, the sum total of received contexts of significance and meaning, the assumed cannons of rationality, the intellectual/cultural ethos.   Thinking about theological education, it is easy to see that Lutheran seminaries have a tendency to concentrate upon one of the poles and, accordingly, seek to understand the other pole on the basis of the former.   For instance, there are a number of Lutheran seminaries that know deeply the intellectual and cultural horizon of the present and, upon this basis, seek to articulate the relevance of the historic kerygma for the contemporary horizon.   Although it is dangerous to generalize, I will do so nonetheless simply for the sake of illustration.  (I am not seeking to establish here or in the next two paragraphs that particular seminaries have a particular orientation.)

The ELCA seminaries seem sometimes to be engaged in assimilating the particularity of the proclamation to the generality of the cultural standpoint.   For instance, the faculty and students at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago clearly know what positions are just, right, compassionate and loving with regard to same sex relationships and same sex marriage.  Their position on this issue is not one that they assume needs profound argumentation; it is clearly and immediately experienced as just and loving.  Its rectitude is in the cultural air, following facilely from vague and inchoate cultural intuitions about natural rights.  Something so clearly known must be given theological legitimation as well, of course, and thus appeal is made to the prophetic element within the theological tradition to do just that.  Kerygma and context are thus not mediated, but rather the general context tends to assimilate the particularity of the proclamation.  Here the contour of the intellectual/cultural context trumps that of the traditional kerygma.  

One might regard the LCMS seminaries as occasionally emphasizing the other pole to the exclusion of the former.   Here the effort is to hold on tightly to the particularity of the kerygmatic proclamation against the horizon of the cultural context.  While it is important to understand deeply the particularity of the proclamation, sometimes the focus on this risks ignoring the subtleties of the intellectual/cultural horizon.  This can, occasionally, lead to an effort to repristinate the past articulations of kerygma at the expense of being open to more deeply understanding the contemporary horizon.   Now the kerygma can trump the context.

At the Institute of Lutheran Theology we want profoundly to explore both the contemporary cultural/intellectual horizon and the tradition's proclamation of kerygma.  Why?   It is because we believe that effective theology must mediate proclamation and context, kerygma and the contemporary situation.   In this way there is a mediation between the horizons that keeps in tact the contour of each while yet bridging between that which might prima facie appear as disparate.  The goal is never to reduce one to the other; never to understand the kergyma as a movement upon the horizon of the cultural context, nor to understand the cultural context as a movement brought forth from the determinate contour of the proclamation.   Ultimately, God's work in creation, obscured by the Fall, is nonetheless still dimly palpable within the contemporary situation.  It is therefore always "addressable" by the kerygma.  Good theology always mediates kerygma and context, forming, as it were, an isometric between the two hands of God.