When Did We Open the Pandora’s Box of Theological/Doctrinal Pluralism?

When Did We Open the Pandora’s Box of Theological/Doctrinal Pluralism? November 28, 2012

When Did We Open The Pandora’s Box of Theological/Doctrinal Pluralism?

Recently, as occasionally in the past, I’ve been reading a lot of liberation theology. Or perhaps it should be “liberation theologies.” I use that term somewhat loosely; not everything that usually comes under that category heading is regarded as such by its adherents. I’m not sure what better label covers all the diverse special interest theologies that claim an experience of oppression as one of, if not the major, source and norm of their theological reflections. Perhaps they could all be called “special interest theologies,” but I’m sure many of them would protest that. I’ve also occasionally called them “protest theologies.” But, of course, they would not want to be relegated to that description. There doesn’t seem to be any label that fully accurately fits them all, and yet it seems there should be because they all display a, to me, disturbing common tendency.

Before describing that tendency I’ll name some of the theologies I’m talking about here: Latin American Liberation Theology, Native American Theology, Feminist Theology, Womanist Theology, Gay (or Queer) Theology, Black (or African-American) Theology, and Theology of the Disabled. What do these (and others like them) have in common? First, and most obviously, they are theologies done by (not for) persons who claim to experience oppression by majority-dominant cultures. They claim that traditional theology has been done by oppressors (white, straight, affluent males), that traditional theology is biased by that perspective such that they, the oppressed, cannot identify with it or do theology in that mode. Second, they are theologies that identify their particular experiences of oppression as a source and norm for theological critique and reconstruction. Third, they believe that their particular experience of oppression gives them a privileged insight into God (and truth about God) because God has a preferential option for the oppressed.

Now, to be sure, not every individual theologian identified with one of those types of liberation theology interprets or emphasizes those common features in the same way or to the same extent. There is real diversity among them—even about those common traits. And once one gets beyond those three common ideas, a great deal of diversity flowers forth. For a long time, for example, feminist and black theologians have debated which is the worst form of oppression—sexism or racism.

I have for many years defended liberation theologies as valid and important. By that I mean the churches, the academies, and societies need to heed them. We of dominant, majority cultures need to listen long and hard before responding, especially critically. There has been too much of a tendency, especially among conservative, white, males, to react to them before even attempting to understand them.

On the other hand, I worry that too much heeding of liberation theologies has led many sectors of Christian theology into a loss of even the vision of a universal theology that makes truth claims that are intended to be true for everyone. The problem I am talking about is sometimes called the “Balkanization of theology”—where there is no unified conversation aimed at ecumenical truth but only special interest theologies based on politically correct special pleading. To far too great an extent, I believe, in the interest of being sensitive to the oppressed, the academy, the guild, of Christian theologians has given up on the search for truth about God. That is, we have given up on even the ideal of discovering truth that is consensual. The result is that theology has laid down its claim to being a discipline, a science (in the German sense of Wissenshaft), and has become by-and-large a collection of disparate voices speaking out of incommensurate experiences treated as authoritative sources and norms.

An illustration presses for use. Instead of even attempting to be a choir singing in harmony (unity in diversity, diversity in unity), we have become a cacophony and we even celebrate that. No wonder, then, that theology is the “sick person of the disciplines” (to paraphrase the common response to the health of metaphysics post-Kant when it was labeled “the sick man of philosophy” or “the sick man of the sciences”). Who, outside of the theological academy, guild (such as it is), takes theology seriously anymore? Even within it, much of what goes under the label “theology” isn’t recognizable as theology in any traditional sense, as the search for truth about God, but is really politics (in the broadest sense of the word) disguised as theology.

Some years ago I attended a prestigious theological society meeting to hear the feminist president of a leading Protestant seminary give a paper about God. Her thesis was that we (Christians) once thought of God as our savior but now we must think of ourselves as God’s saviors. The result would be nuclear disarmament and deep ecology. When, during the discussion time, a theologian asked her to elaborate on her idea of God she said “I don’t know anything about God.” What was clear to many of us was that she was using “God” as a cipher for nature.

To too large an extent, contemporary theology has become social ethics only with “God” used as a cipher, a tool of liberating rhetoric. And, to too large an extent, when someone dares to challenge such reductions, he or she is dismissed as an oppressor or at least as someone without liberating consciousness.

Please pay attention here. I am not complaining about new and unusual (in the sense of previously excluded) voices entering the theological conversation. That’s good; I celebrate it. But I only consider it good and celebrate it insofar as the conversation remains aimed at a (however still distant) consensual, ecumenical truth about God using sources and norms everyone can use.

So what has changed the conversation so radically that it isn’t even really a conversation aimed at consensual, ecumenical truth about God anymore? It is the appeal to experience as an authoritative source and norm in theology and especially to private experience (as in some extreme forms of pietism) or the special, unique and incommensurate experience of a group of people (as in some forms of liberation theology). By the latter I mean—“oppressed consciousness” elevated to the status of an authoritative source and norm of theological truth. When a theologian (or anyone) says “My experience as this particular kind of human being, especially because it includes oppression, that is, my ‘social location’ as an oppressed person, gives me a privileged insight into truth about God that is not open to critique—especially by those not possessing my social location and the experience that accompanies it” theology in any traditional sense of the word is left behind. Some will celebrate that, but they should not be surprised, then, if “theology” is ignored by most people as just special interest politics.

Is it true that traditional theology has been done entirely by an oppressor group, white males? To a large extent, yes. (Although I would argue not all white males are oppressors.) At least since the middle ages. Before then, much Christian theology was done by African and Middle Eastern males. Does that make it entirely invalid? To anyone who says that, I ask “How would it be different if it had been done entirely by, say, African females?” Would there still be a doctrine of the Trinity? Would there still be belief in the hypostatic union—Jesus Christ as one divine person possessing also a human nature? Would salvation still be by grace alone?

What I have noticed in reading widely and deeply in liberation theology is that liberation theologians, like other theologians, tend to fall into two broad categories—when they deal with Christian doctrines. They are still, broadly speaking, either liberal or conservative (by which I mean here either anxious to accommodate to cultural trends of thought or anxious to adhere to the authority of Scripture and tradition).

I argue that if Christian doctrines had been developed by, say, African women instead of (mostly) European, white men, they would be basically the same insofar as Scripture was considered authoritative. Insofar as Scripture (or before there was a Christian canon the apostolic teaching) was not considered authoritative, heresies would be orthodox (whether shaped by males or females). I said “basically the same,” not identical. I admit that some interpretations of Scripture and some doctrinal shapes have probably been influenced by the lack of female perspectives in theology. For example, I am ready to admit that some of Augustine’s interpretations of Scripture and doctrinal views were influenced by his misogyny. But I think what many women theologians criticizing “Christian tradition” ignore is that there have been many corrections of that—by white males such as Wesley. What I am objecting to is anyone saying that there can be an entire body of theological truth that is based primarily on women’s experience such that the entire sweep of Christian orthodoxy is invalid because it was developed by men. I strongly believe that women, working with the same original sources of revelation, would have developed the same doctrines even if they bore a somewhat different aspect. Scripture may not be perspicuous, but neither is it plastic.

So when did the current malaise of theology begin and who opened the Pandora’s box of pluralism? I believe the culprit is Schleiermacher. Once he made experience the primary source and norm for theology, the box was opened and the current malaise, the Balkanization of theology, was made inevitable insofar as others followed his method of “theology from below” (which they did). Our task as theologians should not be to allow our social locations to determine our theological conclusions; it should be to set aside our social locations, as much as possible, in order to adhere to objective, given, divine revelation and interpret it objectively (as much as possible). Interpreting it objectively includes listening to other voices that we would normally not listen to, but it does not include setting up our own voices, arising out of our experiences, oppressed or otherwise, as normative.

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