God Seminar: Opening the Discussion on God and the Human Future
Preface, Forum 5,2
The Westar Institute was founded on the principles of critical scholarly inquiry into the question of the historical Jesus. For such a question, Christian dogmas and beliefs were and remain outside the proper aims of research.
When considering Biblical Studies, historical-critical research outside the interference of dogma is relatively easy to achieve. It is a question of letting the research of a text follow a natural path according to the context out of which the text arises. To do otherwise, to allow the research to impose its agenda on the text and context, is to put the cart before the horse.
The scholars who compose the Seminar on God and the Human Future have a slightly more difficult task. It is important in any theological endeavor to respect the conclusions, however preliminary, of historical-critical scholarship in relation to the theological tradition under consideration. Yet, at the same time, theology is not expressly in the same category of historical-critical research. Theology is about ideas that emerge from particular contexts but are not necessarily tied to those contexts. An easy example is the platonic idea of “the Good.” In a certain way there is no such “thing” as the Good. It’s just an idea. Yet, in another way, it is a very impactful, significant, and guiding idea difficult to live without. The Good impacts the Western tradition as that to which social formations aim and that under which human relationships are judged. Western law depends on and assumes the idea of the Good even though the Good does not really exist.
The study of theology often involves things that do not really exist. This does not mean that the non-existing thing lacks value. It just means that we need to take great care when considering the value of theology, of the things theology talks about, and of the intentions theology holds, or may hold, when talking. In such quandaries, which compose the hermeneutical tasks of theology, historical-critical scholarship still remains important. Historical-critical scholarship is the ground or weighted anchor that secures the element of realism on every task of the theological imaginary.
The essays collected in this issue of Forum try to address these two significant sides of academic theology. One side is the serious consideration of historical-critical scholarship, and the other side is the effort to re-imagine the value and future of theology as a human endeavor. The essays move from problems related to the deconstruction of old, stable dogmas in theology to a defense of the significance of the historical Jesus for theology, to an understanding and critique of platonic theology, and finally to raising up a uniquely conceived theology.
I offer a critical reply to scholars of religion who belittle, and often assume justification in doing so, the scholarship of the Jesus Seminar that focused on the historical Jesus. To me, such belittlement marks a failure to think in theology. I employ the Heideggerian distinction between “thinking” and being “thought provoking,” indicating that hermeneutics has been restricted to provoking theological thoughts but not very inventive when it comes to opening new questions. Echoing Bessler, I see the historical Jesus question as historic and as a chance to think theology in new ways.
John D. Caputo offers a short autobiographical account of his journey to theology and then helps the reader make a remarkable and insightful distinction between weak and strong theology. The move to theology, for Caputo, rested on the pivot of Derrida and the rejection of hermeneutics as a stable discipline. Hermeneutics is not the universal key that unlocks all doors but, conceived radically as Caputo does, the enterprise of open-ended interpretation always on the move. Such an understanding of hermeneutics leaves the future unsettled and radically open to hope, to what Caputo calls the event— what is to come but never what is here. This insisting voice of what is to come, but what cannot overtly change what is now, is the voice of weak theology. To Caputo, the God of weak theology has the “audacity not to exist” but nevertheless still calls.
John Kelly offers an excellent review of Plato’s thought and how Plato found a home in Christian theology. As Kelly reviews the historical reshaping of platonic thought into doctrinal elements of Christian theology, he touches on some important observations. We are used to reading Plato as a dualist, but Kelly observes how Plato’s forms—such as the Good–are properly unconditional. Like in deconstruction, they are the undeconstructible—not stable things but rather like promises that hang around but never appear in the flux of history. Then, Kelly indicates the failure Christianity has experienced when trying to convert dialogue to dogma and points to the new materialism as a way forward for theology.
Joseph Bessler helps the reader review and then reconsider the significance of theology in the contemporary world. He reminds us of two things. First, that from approximately the 1960s onward, the stability of theology that was assumed by previous generations has crumpled and fallen. To Bessler this opens an opportunity to change the nature of theology, placing emphasis on the rhetoric of theology and the constructive tasks of theology. Bessler very helpfully reviews some of the key theologians who have introduced the instability of postmodern thought into theology as a positive gain.
Jarmo Tarkki turns to language about God, indicating four main categories that have housed the historical expressions of theology. Tarkki leads us through the inadequacy of traditional understandings of the divine and delivers the reader to the consideration of Alvin J. Reines and the ideas of hylotheism. Tarkki’s point is not to extol Reines so much as to demonstrate how thinking about God as unlimited potential and elusive possibility raises new questions. Tarkki offers hylotheism as a complement to Caputo’s weak theology and as a serious consideration among the emerging problems and promises theology offers today.
David Galston (Ph.D., McGill University) is the Academic Director of the Westar Institute, the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University, and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. A co- founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and United Church minister, David is the author of God’s Human Future (Polebridge, 2016), Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge, 2012), and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens, 2010).
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