Review by Joseph L. Mangina
We might think three things are certain about the theological movement known as postliberalism. First, it is quintessentially Protestant, and mainline Protestant at that; thus its alternative designation as the “Yale School.” It can be seen as the natural successor to neo-orthodoxy and the Biblical Theology movement of the 1950s. Second, it is mainly about issues of theological method. It talks a lot about narrative, but rarely gets around to dealing with the actual substance of Christian narratives — God, creation, redemption, and so forth. Third, postliberalism is a thing of the past. Having had its moment in the sun, it is destined to follow the movements just named into the dustbin of history.
Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, and
These certainties are rendered radically uncertain, however, in two recent books by John Wright and Peter Ochs. Wright, a minister in the Church of the Nazarene, and Ochs, a Jewish philosopher, are hardly Protestant mainliners. Yet each finds the postliberal turn in theology worthy of sustained attention. They effectively show that it takes us to the heart of the substance of Christian faith. In their very different ways, each makes a strong case for the continued viability of postliberalism.
John Wright’s slender volume packs a remarkable wallop for its size. At its center is a series of interviews and conversations with three leading postliberals: George Lindbeck, David Burrell, and Stanley Hauerwas. Wright gathered them at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, in 2007, and set them talking. Much of this material will be familiar to students of postliberalism, yet it is still fresh. We hear Lindbeck speak of his studying theology in postwar France and Germany, going on pilgrimage to Rome with thousands of young, idealistic, reform-minded Roman Catholics. A decade later he is in Rome again as an official Lutheran observer at the Second Vatican Council. One will fail to understand Lindbeck’s version of postliberalism apart from his deep ecumenical passion. Likewise, we hear Stanley Hauerwas speak of his studying at Yale in the 1960s, where he discovered both Karl Barth and Aquinas. It did not occur to the Methodist Hauerwas that what Barth had to say about Christology and what Aquinas had to do say about the virtues need necessarily be in conflict. By the time he arrived at Notre Dame in 1970, he was already a walking ecumenical movement:
When I went to Notre Dame, they asked “What do you want to teach?” And I said, “I want to teach a seminar on the Prima Secundae and the Secunda Secundae” [the treatises on ethics in St. Thomas’s Summa]. They said, “Oh, Aquinas is a Catholic theologian.” I said, “Oh really? When did that happen? You guys didn’t exist before we existed. You had to have Protestants to make you Catholic. He’s sure as hell as much in my tradition as he is in yours. So I don’t know why you get to claim possession.”
Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic is more than just the interviews, however. The book opens with a long essay by Wright, in which he makes the case that postliberalism should be seen as continuous with the Roman Catholic nouvelle théologie. This middle 20th-century movement, embodied by such figures as Henri de Lubac and Yves Congar, was driven by the return to early Christian sources. As Wright comments, “Congar and de Lubac practiced ressourcement to rediscover the ‘grammar’ of the historic Christian tradition before the distortions of modernity” (p. 21).
Wright’s proposal works, I suppose, at a very high level of generality. It is true that both postliberalism and the nouvelle théologie employ ressourcement as a tool. It is true that both are concerned for Christian unity; thus Congar’s pioneering efforts in ecumenism. Still, the theological DNA seems rather different in the two cases. While Wright dwells on de Lubac’s wrestling with the question of nature and grace, this question, as such, has never been at the heart of the postliberals’ theological concerns (the possible exception being certain of Lindbeck’s Roman Catholic students). It is striking that to a very great extent Wright neglects or ignores the Protestant roots of postliberalism. He mentions Barth and Hans Frei only in passing. Yet it is impossible to imagine Hauerwas without Barth, or Lindbeck without Frei — an Episcopal cleric with a strongly Reformed outlook. This eclipse of Protestantism is unfortunate to say the least, though perhaps Wright felt this story has been told elsewhere. Yet despite this one-sidedness, Wright’s account has the virtue of painting on a large canvas, helping us think about postliberalism in light of much broader developments in modern Christian thought. It’s important work that needs to be done.
Still, the real value of the book lies in the interviews, which are really extended monologues by each of the three principals. Of these Burrell is the least well known, and if this volume serves to promote his cause I’m all for it. Burrell, a Holy Cross priest, is associated with the movement known as analytic Thomism, which views Thomas through the lens of linguistic philosophy. If that sounds dry, think again. Burrell has a wicked sense of humor and is a gifted storyteller. Some samples: “In the American Catholic community if someone becomes a priest, it is really an honor. In Italy, the young women say, ‘What a waste!’ So I learned that anticlericalism is part of a Catholic diet.” Or the time he was serving as a priest in Rome and a man came for confession: “So he tells me, in a typically Italian way, ‘Father, I did a little bit of everything!’ That was my pastoral introduction to Italy.” Burrell shares with Hauerwas a gift for a certain holy irreverence. It is not surprising that they became fast friends at Notre Dame in the 1970s.
But there is also great theological insight here. Good Thomist that he is, Burrell knows both the necessity and the limits of reason in theology. A story illustrates the point. During a semester spent at Southern Methodist University, Burrell struggled to make sense of Schubert Ogden’s embrace of process theology, a view that entails major revisions to inherited Christian doctrine. Then the penny dropped: “I finally came to see that if you were a liberal Christian, and you had to find a place for Jesus, then you needed some philosophy to do it. But if you hung on with Chalcedon, you were okay without it.” A Jesus whose “place” must be justified by reference to some systematic metaphysic or worldview would not be the Lord Jesus Christ.
In short, Jesus for postliberals is unsubstitutably particular. He resists our treating him as a “symbol” of some general or higher truth. The Son of God, the eternal Word, is not other than the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. But that means, inevitably, Jesus the Jew. A fascinating common thread that emerges from these conversations is what might be called “the matter of Israel.” It is remarkable that Wright’s postliberal informants end up talking so much about the Jews. The classic liberal Jesus (Harnack’s or Bultmann’s, say) is one whose Jewishness is there to be overcome. But the Jesus of postliberal theology is and remains the Messiah of Israel. How should we — and especially how should we Gentile Christians — think about that?
To help answer that question, we may wish to read Christian theology through Jewish eyes. This is the gift offered us by Peter Ochs in Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews. The book examines not only such usual suspects as Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Robert Jenson, but also Daniel Hardy and David Ford (Ochs calls them postliberalism’s “Anglican school”) and even such outliers as John Howard Yoder and John Milbank. Ochs views postliberalism through two major lenses, one substantive, the other methodological. The substantive lens is that of Israel. One of the things that first attracted Ochs to postliberal thinkers as a group is their rejection of supersessionism, and that for reasons internal to Christian theology. This point is quite crucial. Christians who reject supersessionism merely out of consideration for Jews have, in effect, given up on their own tradition. Christians who reject supersessionism for the sake of Christ are more reliable — and far more interesting — partners for the synagogue.
The methodological lens Ochs employs is the American pragmatist tradition in philosophy, especially as embodied by the great Charles Peirce. Classical European philosophy sought after Truth; pragmatism, more modestly, looks for the truth in particular situations and contexts. It has a typically American problem-solving outlook. Ochs suggests that much modern thinking is dogmatic, and that the dogma takes shape as certain fixed alternatives. You are either premodern and traditional, for instance, or you are modern and critical; there is no third way. Ochs calls this binary habit of mind “dyadic logic.” Pragmatism on the other hand is heuristic, experimental, and open to unseen resources. It was Marx who said that the goal of philosophy is not just to understand the world but to change it. This is true of pragmatism as well, though not in the way Marx envisioned. One of Ochs’s favorite words is repair, as in the Jewish notion of tikkun olam, the repair or healing of the world. Philosophical and theological activity are forms of “reparative reasoning.” The world is hurting, men and women suffer, traditions are becoming dysfunctional. The question then is How can we help?
It is this habit of mind that Ochs brings to the reading of Christian postliberals, and the results are often illuminating. He is at his best in showing how postliberal theologians, far from being dogmatic anti-modernists, are driven by a passion to effect the healing of divisions. A central insight of Ochs’s work may be summarized as follows. If you think of Christianity as being mainly about ideas, you will easily succumb to both gnosticism and supersessionism: spiritual Christianity is superior to carnal Judaism. But if you think that Christianity is about bodies — the body of Christ, the body that is the Church — you will be less prone to commit these errors. Postliberals, being committed to a vision of this kind, therefore think of theology itself in practical and reparative terms. It is no wonder that the correlation among postliberalism, ecumenism, and non-supersessionism is so strong. Postliberal theology points to the healing and renewal of the Church in our time — hence “another reformation.”
The exceptions here prove the rule. While Yoder and Milbank both show traits of being postliberal, each harbors commitments that tempt him to leave Israel behind. In Yoder’s case, it is an apocalyptic wariness of all tradition, Jewish and Catholic alike; in Milbank’s case, it is a universalist metaphysics that threatens to absorb Israel without remainder into Christ. Yet even with these figures, Ochs consistently seeks to offer the most generous and inclusive reading possible.
Sometimes, however, Ochs’s generosity and penchant for mediation leads him astray. While I appreciated his efforts to stretch the boundaries of postliberalism, I remain unconvinced that Daniel Hardy and David Ford are engaged in the same kind of enterprise as Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Jenson. Ochs wants to divide the terrain in terms of the persons of the Trinity: American postliberals favor the Son, whereas the English theologians privilege the Spirit. It is pneumatology that explains the more freewheeling, experiential style of the Anglicans as compared to the more severe — dare we say Barthian — approach of the others. For Ochs this remains a difference in emphasis within a shared vision.
But arguments about the relation of Christ and the Spirit are theological arguments. The mere fact that theologians are postmodern — and who, nowadays, is not? — or that they are engaged in reparative forms of reasoning does not by itself signify agreement. One needs to look at the substantive claims. Ford’s Wisdom Christology, for example, proceeds out of the pneumatic experience of “affliction” in a way that is simply not true for Jenson or Lindbeck. Prioritizing Wisdom represents a particular theological decision. It may be a good decision, but it is not the same as prioritizing narrative, which for the Americans is in turn a function of their high Lutheran christologies. This is more than just a matter of balance, but of differing construals of Christ, gospel, Church, and salvation. While Ochs wants all his favorite Christian theologians to sing in the same choir, there are certain dissonances that seem hard to ignore.
Yet for all this, we can be grateful for this extraordinary intervention in Christian theology from one of its chief Jewish friends. This book is indeed a gift. Neither this volume nor Wright’s should be read as a vindication of postliberalism. Better to read them as a vindication of substantive, scripturally serious Christian theology. Insofar as postliberal theologies further that end, the movement will have been worthwhile.
Joseph L. Mangina is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.