In my introductory theology courses I organize the syllabus around the three legged stool of Anglicanism. Good theology, I tell my students, will engage text, tradition, and reason (which seems to me to be very closely related to experience). On any given question each must be given its proper due, lest the stool wobble and ultimately fail. This Lent, however, I have been reflecting on the fact that each of the legs themselves are incredibly unstable. The stool, it turns out, does not stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s look at the text first (here I have been deeply influenced by Robin Scroggs little article, “The Bible as Foundational Document”). Despite fundamentalist cries to the contrary, the authority of the text has been thoroughly deconstructed.
1) More than 5,000 Greek witnesses and more 10,000 Latin witnesses (to say nothing of the other important early versions) do not allow for any sense of the purity of the text. At best we can reconstruct a 2d-3d century approximation of the New Testament.
2) The historical accuracy of the text presents serious issues. Leaving internal contradictions and questions about the miraculous aside, many events described in the bible simply do not line up with the archaeological and historical record. An Exodus of hundreds of thousands of slaves at the height of Egyptian power? Not likely. A sudden and total destruction of Jericho? No evidence of any such event. A mass arrival of a foreign people into Palestine? No material artifacts supporting the claim. In the New Testament, no massacre of babies by Herod and no census under Quirinius present the same challenge.
3) Some may argue that these historical problems are insignificant since the bible is primarily a theological and moral document. And yet, the theological and moral claims of the text have been found wanting as well. Again, we can point to the conflicting visions present within the text itself (Are there many gods or just one? Is divorce permissible or not?). We could also look to places where the text is relatively consistent and see that the vision of God and notions of morality are lacking as well. The prophet Samuel’s anger with Saul in 1 Samuel 15 is a good example here. God, through Samuel, commands Saul to attack and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, not sparing man, woman, child, infant, or animal. When Saul fails to obey the command (which is abhorrent to us today and raises serious problems with respect to God’s justice), God strips the kingdom from him. Astonishingly, the author of Hebrews finds this story instructive in his argument for fidelity to God.
In short then, the purity of the text, the historical accuracy of the text, and the theological and moral claims of the text each undermine any claims to the authority of the the text.
We (or at least I) find similar problems with the tradition. Tradition can be conceived broadly as the history of the church and more narrowly as the creeds, dogma, and doctrine received. With respect to the former, the history of the church is nothing to be emulated. The great tradition is marred with petty infighting, greed, power grabs, blatant racism and sexism, and violent upheaval (both within and without). We whitewash it to to tell the great story of the triumph of the church, but really it looks a whole lot like any other empire in history.
The church today looks the same. Church folk boycott gay rights while covering up for pedophiles. They drop 50,000 eggs from a helicopter on Easter Sunday but are unresponsive to global poverty. Too often Christianity is little more than an identity marker, a club in which to claim membership. Church attendance has become little more than a weekly reminder of the impotence of the Gospel.
As to creeds, they suffer from many of the issues that plague the broader history of the movement. They are political compromises that represent who held the power at the time. The Nicene Creed, a form of which is faithfully repeated in many churches every Sunday, originally contained a series of curses for any Christians who thought differently. The insistence on papal infallibility was in response to the challenges of the Enlightenment. The perpetual virginity of Mary arose out in the midst of historical-critical challenges to the bible that were discussed above. Lutheran insistence on sola scriptura, in addition to displaying incredible naivete with regards to the role of the reader and the reader’s culture in interpretation, was little more than a convenient way to distance itself from the Roman Catholic Church.
Political forces aside, the creeds and dogmas, with all their venerable tradition, are largely irrelevant. First they are historical documents reflecting concerns from an earlier time. We are no longer Neoplatonists concerned with how Jesus is fully God and fully human. The question is just not too pressing for us. Good Lutheran theologians recognize the impossibility of sola scriptura and have moved on to the bigger questions that confront us today. Second, creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are primarily concerned with belief, and the belief has been framed in terms of intellectual assent. We can debate how valuable we find orthodoxy (certainly some do, I’d venture to guess that many more do not) but we cannot deny that there are more compelling ways of thinking about how the world works. After the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution affirming many creeds requires suspension of judgment that many cannot bear.
REASON (AND EXPERIENCE)
The two previous legs have been undercut by reason, but reason itself is not infallible. The modern conviction (dare I say belief?) that science and reason can explain the great mysteries of life and existence is misguided. First of all, and this is because I probably read Peter Berger when I was too young and delicate, I understand any epistemology to be shaped and defined by culture. In other words, there is no absolute way to know anything, all understanding is limited by the scope of one’s worldview. Sure, science and reason make great sense to me (I’m a fan!) but I am also a post-Enlightenment product of the Global North who has spent way to much time in the academy. And there are places where a scientific ethos may be of help. I’ll take my anti-malarials before I visit a shaman in a remote African village. That said, there are limits to what science can answer. There are times when life is irrational.
Second, reason is also grounded in experience. The collective wisdom of a tribe determines the limits of what can be known and I as an individual interact with the world as constructed. I choose which parts of the ethos makes sense and which can be abandoned. These choices will be somewhat arbitrary based on my nature and my nurture (but mostly the latter :)). Here I come back to the Masters of Suspicion, who, as I understand them, invite me to apply a radical hermeneutic of suspicion to everything I think I know. The world that I construct is fraught with neurosis, self-medication, and will to power. My experience must be relentlessly tested. And whenever I honestly apply that hermeneutic, I find that I am not a very reliable interpreter of the meaning of life.
WHERE TO NOW?
So there you have it–my argument that the stool upon which we sit when we do theology is horribly unsteady. No matter how careful we are in our deliberations, the work is little more than individual and societal projections on material that is more or less archaic and irrelevant. Theology may be helpful for critical self-reflection but I am not sure about much else. However, the big problem is not for theology as a discipline. There is still much to be examined and dissected–histories to reconstruct, ideas to be unpacked, theologies to be contextualized. What is scarier to me are the implications of this post (and they do scare me). I am not just talking about the limits of our understanding but also how we encounter and understand the divine. If text, tradition, and reason/experience are unreliable guides, where then shall we turn?
The big question for me as the sun sets on Good Friday is whether or not I should be waiting for a resurrection. God is dead. Can God rise?
I am sure that there are many points that can be refuted, corrected, or nuanced. I would love to have your feedback. Let the conversation begin!