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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  • Just Sayin’

    It began with the Reformation.

    • rogereolson

      Why not go further back, if you want to do that, and say it began with the schism of 1054? No, I think you’re wrong. So far as I know, all theologians, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant agreed, up until Schleiermacher, that theology ought to be based on objective sources and not on experience.

      • James Petticrew

        Wesley surely argued experience was part of the equation, if a subservient one to Scripture, when it came to formulating doctrine?

        • rogereolson

          Are you suggesting he may have opened the Pandora’s box of theological pluralism? I don’t think so for the reason you give. Wesley’s “quadrilateral” (actually formulated by Methodist theologian Albert Outler but, I believe, true to Wesley’s methodology) subordinated experience to Scripture and tradition. I actually don’t think Wesley meant “experience” to be a source or norm for doctrine. I think he regarded it as a tool in theological reflection, but not as an authority for doctrine. Some years ago I was in the audience at a professional society meeting of theologians where Rosemary Ruether spoke. After her paper, Don Bloesch stood and challenged her to cite her authorities for her truth claims. She appealed to the Wesleyan quadrilateral, but to many of us (I know Bloesch was one because we spoke about it), it seemed she was treating the quadrilateral as an equilateral or even putting experience (“women’s experience”) over Scripture and tradition. This is why, I take it, Billy Abraham is against the Wesleyan quadrilateral–because it has been misused to support and defend theological/doctrinal pluralism in the United Methodist Church (and elsewhere). I think the way to correct theological pluralism, insofar as that’s possible, is to keep Scripture, tradition, and reason over experience when it comes to doctrinal critique, construction and reconstruction.

  • Bev Mitchell

    ” 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.”

    What an interesting thought! I consider myself a fairly liberated male (my mother was a preacher and the business head of the family) but this is a new perspective for me. I really think you are correct, just wish there were some way to prove it.

    “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…”

    I know what you mean and assume that you are speaking of human experience from human sources (environment, people, situation etc.). However, my Pentecostal neurones fire a little warning when such a statement is just hanging there – the best example I can think of is the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. He had lots of theology in his head rather well worked out, we suppose. Yet a series of rather startling experiences with the Spirit motivated him to enter into a rather serious rethink of his position. Of course, while experienced by a human, the source of his experience was not human.

    Don’t mean to nit pick. This just popped into my head as a potential area of misunderstanding. Otherwise, I’m just learning from today’s post since my reading in this area is extremely limited.

    • rogereolson

      I teach that experience can be a source of revelation to individuals for conviction, guidance, etc., but not for doctrine. My post was about doctrine–truth about God that is true for everyone. I don’t think continuing revelation communicates new truths for the churches, for all Christians, even though it may point to overlooked aspects of truth in original revelation.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    A marvelous post. I agree with you that “objective truth” about God and God’s world is the goal of theological thinking. To consider that unreachable or irrelevant destroys the conversation (in my opinion).

    What sprang to mind when you tried to group these “special-case” Theologies into a category were the words Advocacy and Victim. Those both seem like common characteristics of the theologies that you described.

    Question: Aren’t the most important theologians that we look to and read most the authors of the Bible and the people themselves? Jesus? Paul? Isaiah? Surely, we can look to other theologians like Origen, Barth, Olson, etc., and we can see them as oppressors if we wish to. But the most important theologians were Middle Eastern men from 2000+ years ago. If we have trouble with them, then we have trouble indeed.


    • rogereolson

      I agree. But I distinguish between the writers of Scripture, apostles and prophets, and their successors, theologians, in terms of authority. So, to avoid confusion, I don’t call the prophets and apostles “theologians.”

  • Marc


    I think Schleiermacher is perhaps the quintessential culprit, but don’t you think the Anabaptists un-locked the door which Schleiermacher blew open?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t. They appealed to Scripture as their supreme source and norm. They may have interpreted it incorrectly, but they (the main Anabaptists of the Reformation) were not subjectivists with regard to truth. Schleiermacher did not intend to be that, but, in effect, he was. Or at least opened the door to that. A better example before Schleiermacher might be Schwenkfeld, but even he did not base truth on the inner light (so far as I am aware). And his influence on the churches at large was minimal.

  • John Metz

    Thanks for another thoughtful post. I found your analysis very interesting even though this is a subject that quickly out-distances my realization of the theologies discussed! My understanding of liberation theologies is limited to scanning a few surveys of theology that included discussions of some liberation theologies, mostly by Veli-Matti Karkkainen.

    I do think you should point out that nearly every seminary or Bible college of any size will have at least some Asians, male and female, on faculty. There are increasing numbers of African-Americans theologians as well. Additionally, there are at least a few female seminary presidents.

    • rogereolson

      Indeed. I recently spoke at an evangelical liberal arts college with a female president. Barriers to people of color and women are quickly falling in non-fundamentalist Christian circles. I hope to see that progress even further so that even unintentional barriers still in place fall. I have been an outspoken advocate for women and people of color in the evangelical academy.

  • Placing the blame on Schleiermacher would make more sense if we didn’t see the same sort of developments in secular philosophy as a discipline–indeed, I think the same can be said for all of the humanities. I think theology is only responding to the evolving currents of intellectual thought, as any discipline would and should.

    • rogereolson

      Responding is one thing, capitulating is something else. I think Schleiermacher largely capitulated to romanticism’s subjectivism and set in motion (with his theology from below) a trajectory in liberal theology that led directly to contemporary theologians being open to regarding theological truth as little more than promotion of political and social agendas based on oppressed groups’ experiences. Yes, there is a cultural trend in that direction as well, I assume happening independently of Schleiermacher. I saw a book in a secular bookstore with the title “I’ve Given Up My Search for Truth and Now I’m Just Looking for a Good Fantasy.” I think much contemporary “intellectual” activity, both theological and secular, is like that except the “search” is for liberation through empowerment. I’m all for that, but not for giving up the search for objective truth about God.

      • Referring to it as a “cultural trend” relativizes secular philosophy to a degree I’m really not comfortable with. I’m old-fashioned in that I believe in progress (although of course much of that is due to the fact that I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in human history!), with the progression from Plato to Boethius to Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel and so forth being more than mere sequence. As such, when theology abandons foundationalism as intellectually indefensible, I cheer.

        • rogereolson

          So you regard Hegel as progress over Plato? On what grounds? And what about Nietzsche? Was he progress over Hegel? I’m not sure I grasp your meaning.

  • Joshua Penduck

    I think the term ‘Balkanisation’ really sums the situation up. I was reading Lisa Isherwood’s ‘Controversies in Feminist Theology’ a few weeks ago, and was shocked to see how little common ground there is even among feminist theologians. It seemed like many of these so-called feminist theologians were no longer talking to men, nor having a conversation in any way with Scripture or the tradition, and now not even talking to one another. In one sense, reading a book like that is sad in seeing how atomised contemporary ‘particularising’ theologies have come, but in another sense it shows the eventual logic of making experience as the primary lens through which we approach theology. When you read that a certain so-called feminist ‘theologian’ considers that Xena Warrior Princess is a greater example of what ‘Christ’ means than Jesus (genuinely!), you realise that certain particularising theologies can now only speak what is essentially meaningless hot air.

  • Steve Rogers

    Theology, to be worth anything, must be incarnated. Otherwise it is mere abstract theory. That means social location is a vital feature of any functional theology. One could argue that, “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),” is in itself a special interest approach to theology.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, of course, it’s “special interest” is in truth.

      • Steve Rogers

        By implication, then, you are saying that you are more interested in truth than those who work out their theology within their social context in a way that fails to meet your self-defined standards of “objectivity”. How could you know you are more interested in truth than anyone else?

        • rogereolson

          I certainly didn’t say I’m more interested in truth than “anyone else.” I think I am more interested in truth than someone who bases their truth claims on experience that is not open to critical examination and correction.

    • Rob

      Wait, explain what is wrong with abstract theory and then explain what on earth it means for theology to be “incarnated”. Is “incarnate” a verb? If it is you are using it metaphorically. I am not familiar with that metaphor so please cash it out.

      • Steve Rogers

        Incarnated as I intended it means a theology that is lived out in a practical way in one’s everyday circumstances, I.e., social context. Perhaps there is value in the halls of the academy for abstract theologizing, but at some point its merit can only be measured by how one actually relates to God, neighbor and enemy. That involves experience.

        • Steve Rogers, you say “[a theory’s] merit can only be measured by how one actually relates to God, neighbor and enemy.” I thought a theory’s merit depended upon whether it was true or false. Seems like you can have a false theological theory that makes you feel close to God and helps you love your neighbor and enemy. For all that, it’s a bad theory because it’s false. Wouldn’t you agree?

          About “incarnating” your theology. Sounds like you’re going to need some abstract theories about what God is like, how he interacts with humanity, and what he wants from humanity in order to do that. So, maybe abstract theories are just as important as “incarnating” your theology since having abstract theological theories is a necessary condition for “incarnating” your theology.

  • Sean

    I teach theology in an Asian, ecumenical context & agree with every word you’ve written. There’s a very heavy push in my situation to abandon older, “universal” theologies in favor of contextualized, social theologies. My main difficulty with the latter is that they are long on rhetoric but short on theological substance. I’m supposed to put away my heavy volumes of systematics (Barth, Calvin, or whoever) in favor of 170-page compilations of essays from new voices. I definitely feel the new voices need to be heard, but they should not be allowed to displace the voices of the past. Christianity can be corrected, but it really does not need to be reinvented afresh in every new generation and place.
    I likewise place the blame on Schleiermacher, though my Barthian side sees his project as simply an extension of the underlying principles of natural theology. Human experience, like nature, becomes a second locus for revelation, “God’s second book.” Many contextual theologies use this basic idea to justify their approach.

    • rogereolson

      And, of course, as Barth pointed out, the “German Christians” of the 1930s (pro-Nazi Christians in Germany) were simply following Schleiermacher’s emphasis on experience as an authority in theology. Once one abandons objective sources and norms that are true for everyone, one, however inadvertently, opens the door to that. Now, that is not to say all contextualizing of theology is wrong. There are different types of contextualizing. But it is wrong to elevate culture, for example, to the status of source and norm of theological truth alongside or above Scripture.

  • I certainly agree that truth is objective and universal, but our perception of it is limited by our own ability to understand, and is thus affected by our experience.
    Here’s an example. Most modern Westerners don’t really understand the theology of the New Testament because we have never experienced persecution first hand. Yet the New Testament was largely written to a persecuted church, and deals with suffering and hope in God. Then we write books asking why God permits suffering, as if we had never read the New Testament! What we have done to often is to reinterpret the New Testament to fit our modern, middle-class American mentality with its emphasis on freedom, equality, and quality of life.

    • rogereolson

      But that’s exactly my point: ALL our theologies need to be tested and corrected by Scripture, tradition and reason AND people with other experiences than ours can help us find and correct those areas of cultural accommodation in our theologies where we have allowed our cultural experiences to hinder our complete and correct apprehension of original revelation. Otherwise, what would be wrong with an American Christian saying “Well, my American cultural experience tells me that middle class values are Christian values” and refuse to change that belief? What I am arguing is that there must be a standard, a norm, ABOVE particular experiences, whether they be cultural, gender-based, socio-political, etc., that tests ALL our judgments about truth.

  • Stephen S

    Good word. Rock on. If we’re not going to search for truth we’re not going to search for much worthwhile.

    Unrelated: not sure if you’ve ever written a post on here about your views on worship music/church music/sacred music/etc…, but I’d be interested in them as an undergrad student involved in “worship” ministry at one of your former universities of employment. With your understanding of the Great Tradition, would you say there is a proper role of music in church? Can and should that role change with time? What do you think about what is being done today in evangelical circles musically? Perhaps you’re no expert in this field, but I just thought I’d toss that out there if you’d like to respond.

    • rogereolson

      You’re right. I’m no expert in that field, so I’ve kept generally quite about it. I have my preferences about church music, but I regard them as just that–matters of taste (e.g., what inspires me). I believe there are limits to what is permissible in Christian music. I once visited an independent church that looked like a shopping mall (built to look that way) where the “worship” began with an all brass ensemble playing very loud secular music. I struggled with that and I don’t think that struggle was just due to my particular tastes. Another time I visited a church where the “worship” began with the congregation singing the football “fight song” of their favorite university. I could go on. My point is, I think there are limits to what is right but a very broad range of of rightness in Christian music. My own taste preference runs toward Charles Wesley hymns (and hymns like them). I sometimes have my students sing twenty-some verses of a Charles Wesley hymn and then tell them “I’d rather sing twenty verses of a Wesley hymn than sing the same chorus twenty times.” I do think the demise of hymn-singing is a major problem in contemporary church life. “Praise and worship” choruses do not generally communicate great themes of Christian belief and life. In my opinion they are often shallow theologically. I have taught theology for thirty years and I believe one cause of a general decline of Christian students’ knowledge of Christian belief is a result of not growing up singing hymns in church. Especially among baptists hymns were a major means of communicated the cognitive content of Christianity to congregations. The hymn book was our “book of confessions.” Without creeds or written confessions of faith (recited in worship) and without hymns, unfortunately, there are few ways to teach doctrine in churches that do not have catechism classes. But even where those exist, hymns help refresh the memory and stimulate the mind and heart about the great doctrinal themes of the faith.

      • Stephen S

        Thanks for the reply! I grew up with quite a few hymns in an older church that my family attended until I reached about 3rd grade, and I always enjoyed them (at least to a certain extent) growing up. I appreciate your comments based on the theological content, which is noticeable in any given contemporary worship service. I do believe that some songwriters have noticed that and have since made an effort to change that trend (ie. Michael Gungor).

  • Rob

    Augustine was a man of color and so was Athanasius. Although Augustine’s father was Roman, certainly Athanasius would not have been part of the “oppressor” culture except perhaps insofar as he spoke and read Greek.

  • Kim Hampton

    Aren’t you about 1,000 years too late? Didn’t the “Balkanization” of theology start when the Roman Catholics and the Orthdox split?

    And many of the liberation theologies are listened to within most of the disciplines of the humanities, psychology, and sociology.

    • rogereolson

      My point is that at least the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, until Schleiermacher, all shared a common vision that truth is objective (that is, it exists outside of us) and Scripture, tradition and reason are important sources and norms for theological criticism, construction and reconstruction. Inadvertently, I take it, Schleiermacher opened a whole new way of thinking about theology that has led us into a morass of subjectivism and pluralism.

  • Joseph Caiola

    For me it appears as a question of definition. All these experiential so-called Christian “theologies” are really the return of tribal pagan hedonism that Judaic monotheism and the Christian extension of a loving God have perservered against until some point in mid- and western European history when Man became the measure of Man, instead of God. To me, this “Balkanization” of theology is the result of the resurgence of a sly evangelism of primitive pre-monotheistic religious consciousness. In answer to the question of who opened the door I would say that there are too many suspects to pin it on only one malefactor. Considering today is an anniversary of C. S. Lewis’ birthday a rereading of The Screwtape Letters be helpful.

  • Joseph Caiola

    Just an editing follow-up to my comment – “have” should be “had”, and the end should read “may” be helpful. Tried to make change after I posted but c’est la vie in regard to precipitously Sent text. My thanks if you can emend.

  • Joseph Caiola

    I’m sorry Roger but one more thing in regard to my comment – it still was Nov 29 while I posted from California. Thanks again.

  • James Henderson

    Dr. Olson, thanks for the thoughtful reflection. Where I teach undergraduates, we emphasize the “Great Tradition” as a way of grounding our students in the faith, since the tradition is a core for Christian belief that has been recognized by most all Christians for thousands of years. We use your works and find them very helpful. Such a grounding means that they can then listen critically to new ideas and new voices as potentially healthy ways to understand God and themselves, rather than mearly making them more pieces of a chaotic kaleidescope. My students seem to be looking for an authentic, historical, and trans-cultural way to follow Christ. I also recomend the Quadriga to them, but as a hierarchy: Scripture is primary, the Creeds are ignored only to our detriment, we must reflect rationally on these, and we do so in the context of our experience. Our experience is real, but must be interpreted and applied first by Scripture, etc. What would you think of the Quadriga as such a hierarchy?

    • rogereolson

      My sentiments exactly. I think I wrote something like that in Who Needs Theology and The Mosaic of Christian Belief.

  • Roger;

    I’m an admirer of your perseverance in the forum of the monergist vs the synergist confilct. I’ve read a half dozen of your books and still continue to recommend them to friends and family.

    But on the issue of pluralism in general, whether theological, philosophical, or cultural, I’d like to refer you back to a theologian that you have recommended to your readers in the past, Lesslie Newbigin.
    In one of his lectures regarding Public vs Private Truth, he made the following comment “If a group of scientists perform the same experiment, using the same data, the same methods, and the same procedures, come out with contradictory results, they don’t embrace one another and exclaim “What a joy it is to live in a pluralist society!”” (my paraphrase).

    I’m still enjoying his writings as a summary statement of what went wrong with the International Missionary Council and the World Council of Churches. What a great man indeed!

    • rogereolson

      What many people who have commented on my post do not understand is that I am solidly in agreement with Newbigin. Thank you for mentioning him. In other words, it is our task in a postmodern culture to hold our beliefs with confidence (as genuine attempts to grasp universal, objective truth) without totalizing (using our beliefs to dominate and oppress others).

  • Fred Karlson

    Thanks for the post, Roger. I think you are quite fair and open-minded about liberation theologies, both positively and negatively. Personally, I find it very difficult to hold to capitalism as the economic system advocated by the Scriptures. Interestingly, Adam Smith wrote that the bottom line is not the greatest profit but the greatest common good. Too bad more evangelicals are not aware of this.

  • cken

    The author envisions a “universal theology that makes truth claims that are intended to be true for everyone.” The problem being no such theology exists. The diversity of theology withing christian denominations generally ignores any universal theology which may exist and does little more than provide a framework for the aggrandizement of like minded people. We should not therefore be surprised when similarly situated people create their own theological framework.

    We need to face reality. Organized Christian religions have devolved to where they are little more then a networking organization and or support groups having denuded the basic universal spiritual or theological truths. There are two reasons this has happened. The first is the bottom line orientation of organized religions. The second is that universal theological truths can be easily and succinctly stated they are almost impossible to follow. It’s a simple matter of pragmatism which has caused organized christian religions to abandon teaching universal spiritual or theological truths.
    It is possible that many of the nones and new organizations are being formed because they are seeking to once again uncover these truths which have been abdicated by conventional religions.

  • I like how you made a distinction between an alternative theology that harmonizes and one that cacophonizes. I think it’s dangerous to claim that the pursuit of truth is supposed to result in univocity rather than harmony. Now obviously saying that we need to save God or some nonsense like that is completely out of bounds. But I do think it’s valid when people who are writing from the perspective of the oppressed have a completely different understanding of justification than the privileged do. For us white guys, justification turns into an abstract forensic declaration from God that has nothing to do with our reconciliation to other people since we don’t really need for there to be justice in the world. For those who have been victimized by injustice, justification can be vindication in addition to forgiveness. I’m thinking of Elsa Tamez’s The Amnesty of Grace. So I think an observation like that is a harmonic of God’s truth. I think the boundary line is when you decide officially or unofficially to throw out the canon. Here’s some more thoughts on harmony vs. univocity: https://morganguyton.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/blueprints-dont-make-people-worship/

    • rogereolson

      I don’t reject the “in addition to” contributions by oppressed people. It’s the sheer appeal to experience to justify truth claims and the accompanying rejection of critical dialogue to which I object. (And I realize those are not universal among theologies of the oppressed. But one encounters them sometimes in such theologies.)

  • jess

    What about plurality of truth as advocated by John Franke? I have not read his whole book but Luke Timothy Johnson advocates the same thing in his book Living Jesus. Truth is not singular but plural as evidenced by the four gospel accounts of Jesus. Sometimes the plurality of truth in the Bible, in Christianity, and in the world makes it very hard for me to believe in objective truth. How do I gain objective truth from the Bible when so many people have so many different interpretations about it? I guess seeking objective truth from the Bible “as much as possible” is a great ideal but sometimes that just seems like it’s ultimately me deciding what is true. Somebody else will also seek objective truth from the Bible “as much as possible” and come up with a different understanding than me and that seems like them deciding what is true.

    • rogereolson

      We are talking about apples and oranges. I think it is one of the greatest causes of confusion in philosophy and theology (and folk culture and religion)–namely that people confuse “truth” with “knowledge.” There will always be plurality in knowledge but there cannot be plurality in truth. Truth is one, it is what God believes, it is what really is the case. Our knowledge is our best attempt to apprehend truth. My complaint is about people who give up on the search for truth and settle for their own partial “knowledge” (often really just opinion). I seriously doubt that either Franke or Johnson believes truth itself, reality, what God believes, is plural.