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An Avoided Challenge from the 19th Century

Posted on: May 06, 2018

Category: Theology

An Avoided Challenge from the 19th Century

Quest Thoughts: An Avoided Challenge from the 19th Century

I attended a seminary for a mainline Protestant denomination. Though I have since matured in thought, the thing I remember most was having five forms of biblical criticism drilled into my head: form criticism, redaction criticism, textual criticism, source criticism, and literary criticism. Form criticism goes back into the earlier forms of a saying; redaction criticism goes forward into the way a writer uses the earlier material; textual criticism addresses the history and variation of copied manuscripts; source criticism identifies previously written material used by a later author; and literary criticism examines the structure of a text, its heroes, villains, modes of rhetoric, and the author's apparent intention or meaning. All of these put together are supposed to create a minister or pastor who holds exegetical competence and who can lead a community in theological study, reflection, and services of worship.

Apparently, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The musical of that name is a farce set in ancient Rome where a slave tries to win his freedom. When we transpose the idea of this play to theology, we might re-imagine it not as a farce but a tragedy. It becomes a play where good information and critical skills get translated on the way to church into something irrelevant and irreligious. Those few leaders who take their education seriously and attempt to share their critical insight are often regarded as dangerous, untrustworthy, and subject to censure. How is it possible that on the one hand the church teaches critical thinking skills to its ministers but on the other hand seeks to silence those ministers if they use those skills in public? It is a situation slightly comical in appearance but genuinely tragic at heart.

If we look back to the 19th Century, there might be some wisdom and inspiration to retrieve. It was in the 19th Century that modern critical skills were born and applied with vigour to the study of religion. Biblical scholars like Wilhelm Martin Leberecht De Wette and David Friedrich Strauss argued for the mythical view of the Bible, which means that the Bible is not a reliable historical record but a presentation of rhetorical imagings. Today, we still assume this view when we say things like the Bible is "performance" or "fiction" or "theology" or "literature" (anything but history). When this new biblical insight was taken up in theology, 19th Century theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher and Ludwig Feuerbach knew that religion was about culture and social issues, not about absolute truth claims. If anything, in Schleiermacher's case, religion should remind us that we do not know the truth at all. When we throw Charles Darwin into the mix, the understanding of human history was transformed and the poetic nature of theology was born. The church at this point had a chance to be relevant, to embrace the revolution, and to confront on a serious level the question of its future. It was certainly quite a challenge, and facing a challenge is better than hiding from it. Regrettably, the church, overall at this point in its history, hesitated in front of the challenge and then withdrew from it. The legacy of the waning of Christianity is the result.

Robert Funk used to say that the church's withdrawal from critical theology happened when the 19th Century spirit of liberal education lost its convictions. The consequence was that through the 20th Century two cultures emerged. One was the hidden world of academic study, and the second was the popular world of individualism that became suspicious of academic study. The church chose the popular world where its mysterious sacred rites could still appeal to the basic wants of individualism. That's the polite way of putting it. Under these comments, though, is the frank admission that the church got good at selling snake oil.

I always admired Funk but felt that these comments were not as accurate as they could be. I don't think that any individual clergyperson or trained church leader deliberately seeks to confuse or mislead followers. It is simply the case that human beings find it difficult to admit that no one is in charge of history. Perhaps it is human nature, but we seem largely terrified of the idea that no one has his (sometimes her) hands on the cosmic controls. The question for humanity at large is why do we hold this fear? The 19th Century thinkers believed they were offering liberation to the world when they proposed that religion is a human creation in need of serious reconsideration, but a retreat to dogmas and doctrines blocked the call to reform. Then, the reformers were recast as threats to social and ecclesiastical order. Fear ruled the day.

My feeling is that human beings need myths. This is why we often have trouble dealing with reality. Myths are stories, and we are all good at telling stories, whether they are true or not, about ourselves, our families, and our cultures. We need stories to feel that our lives are placed in a meaningful context and that there is a reason to get up in the morning, to work at things, and to teach our children. Without a story, it is hard to have any bearings in life. Like it or not, we need "religion" in some form.

The trouble is that we have a hard time accepting how we write the story at large - the social story of humanity and the political story of our history. Admitting that we, rather than a god, are the authors of our story places complete responsibility upon us. This admission also requires us to cooperate on a macro level. The problem we have with critical knowledge, in my view, is that for the most part, we do not like the responsibility it places upon us. Ironically, our religious traditions, which seem to suggest a god is in charge, actually call human beings to responsibility. The prophetic voice in the Bible, for example, is all about human responsibility for society. It is hard to avoid the question of reform when we encounter the prophets.

This suggests to me that the religious question is really about what actions are best suited for our future together. The religious question is not about what should we believe or what should be protected from change. Somehow, when passing from the 19th to 20th Century, the point of religion got inverted. It became all about protecting dogma. It is up to those today, in the 21st Century, who still believe that religion holds a value for humanity to see that it faces the current challenges by reclaiming its 19th Century nerve.

By David Galston

Listen to a David Galston "talk" on this topic on this website.


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