May 2, 2007

When you attend the class we want you to know the kind of place we are trying to create. What follows are some descriptions of our class culture.

The Theologia Class Culture

The Egalitarianism of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The two pillars of Christianity are notions of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”). Generally, orthodoxy has tended to trump orthopraxy. That is, being Christian has been largely defined by what you believed rather than how you behaved. But, interestingly, Jesus tended to see orthopraxy as the test of orthodoxy, and of faith generally (“By their fruits you shall know them,” “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of my Father.”) In this class, we will place orthodoxy and orthopraxy on equal footing. Class agreement will be based on practicing the Way of Jesus and less concerned with conceptual unanimity and intellectual agreement. Simply stated, we might not always agree but we are committed to being good people, conforming to the Imago Christi ("the image of Christ"). And that commitment unites us in Christ.

A High View of Doubt
There are more lament songs than praise songs in the book of Psalms. Thus, we are committed to allowing lament, complaint, and doubt to be legitimate ways with God. Walter Brueggemann may have said it best: “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity” (The Message of the Psalms, 1984, pp. 51-52).

God as an essentially contested concept
An essentially contested concept, first described by philosopher W.B. Gallie, is a concept/notion that all parties accept but where there is endless disagreement, argument, and conversation as to the proper understanding, realization, or application of the concept/notion. In this class, God will be our essentially contested concept. We start the conversation with the notion of God, but what do we mean exactly? Who is God? What is God doing?

But some people are frustrated by theological debate and conversation. It can seem pointless and is often frustrating. But we must argue about God because if the conversation about God is ever allowed to end we would have created an idol (a human product—linguistic in this case—meant to represent God). Only endless conversation about God protects us from idolatry and gives the prophets among us—those experts at idol smashing—the room to operate.

Xenia is the Greek word for hospitality and love of strangers. We want Theologia to be a friendly and hospitable place, both interpersonally and intellectually. More specifically, we want to be hospitable to people who believe things that are different from us. In addition, the conversations in Theologia will get pretty “deep” and jargon will be deployed joyously. But jargon can be inhospitable, marking “insiders” and “outsiders.” Thus, to commit to xenia, all our class members will work hard to translate and communicate so that everyone can get “inside” the conversation and vigorously participate.

Epistemic Virtue
Epistemic means “pertaining to knowing.” Thus, epistemic virtues are the good mental habits of the very best learners and conversation partners. Epistemic virtues are the mental attributes that create a great atmosphere for learning and thinking. Obviously, being a mean-spirited, close-minded, know-it-all are symptoms of epistemic vice (i.e., you really shouldn’t be this way and you might want to find another class). But being a warm-hearted, open-minded, curious person marks you as epistemically virtuous! Epistemic virtue is a requirement for the class. And, we should add, for all good conversation.

Costly Fideism
Fideism is the notion that human reason is dumbfounded by the transcendence of God. This makes some of us fall silent, but others of us grow chatty. In Theologia, we’ll be chatty.

This does not mean we deny the mystery of God. All of us know that human reason will, at some point along the faith journey, fail us. The final step, whenever that comes, will be taken with “fear and trembling.” But too often people deploy the word “mystery” as a way of shutting down the conversation. This often happens just when the conversation gets difficult or is making demands of us. “Mystery” in these cases is simply an excuse to stop talking or to avoid agreeing with someone (which is not epistemically virtuous). We’ll call this cheap fideism, or perhaps fearful fideism is a better term.

In Theologia, because we have a high view of doubt, we do recognize the limits of reason and we do believe in mystery. But we believe that mystery is not an intellectual escape hatch or a way to avoid the difficult question. Mystery must be costly, and the product of theological fatigue. Mystery is what you say when you are very tired, when you have pushed reason courageously to its very limit. We are fideists, but we are costly fideists. Mystery comes with an intellectual and spiritual pricetag.


Bob Booth said...

This post, and our struggle to wrestle God to a point of a comprehension, keeps reminding me of a Brian McLaren quote that has been helpful to me:
“We are especially prone to this idolatry of ideology and idolatry of words, and I think there is a certain sense that our atheism is a desire to disbelieve the words we keep saying about God because we know God has to be better than those words."
Its a good struggle to have. I am moving in the next couple of weeks to Lubbock to start medical school, so I am especially thankful for the blog so I can keep up with the class.

Richard Beck said...

Hi Bob,
That quote is right up the ally of our new June study How (Not) to Speak of God. It's a great book. I'd highly recommend you getting a copy as you follow along with the study.


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