Friday, April 16, 2010

This I Believe... (Part I: Welcome & Introduction)

Part I: Welcome & Introduction

I want to begin my lecture this evening by thanking Chad, a member of this church. Last summer, before I left for my sabbatical, Chad met with me for coffee on a warm, August afternoon. During our conversation Chad issued me a challenge: to make a declaration of faith. To state, clearly and forthrightly, what it is that I do believe. If I remember our conversation correctly, Chad observed that I tend to be a little bit evasive when it comes to stating my own beliefs. Other members of the church have made similar comments to this effect.

If I do evade, or elide, or maneuver, there are several reasons why. First of all, I strongly believe that ministry is not about me. It is about you: your struggles, your questions, your process of meaning making and making meaning. And, yes, ministry is relational. And, yes, perhaps there is something to be said about not only attempting to model a kind of life that is authentic and sincere and good (well, hopefully good); perhaps there is also something to be said for making public the way I do my own theology privately.

But, my aim in ministry is not - not before tonight and not after tonight - to get you to agree with me. My goal is not to have you believe what I believe. My goal is not to replicate my own belief system so I try to tread carefully.

I think when Chad asked me to do this he had in mind a sermon. I demurred for two reasons. For one thing, twenty minutes is too short. For another thing, a sermon has to have something in it other than, “Come hear Thom talk about himself.” Unfortunately, our hour plus that we have tonight is also too short of a time. Tonight I am not going to present you with a systematic theology.

The short stack of books that you see on the right side of the table in front of you is one example of what a systematic theology looks like. This is Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology in three volumes, nearly 1,000 pages of dense, theological writing. A systematic theology contains things like a theology of God, a theology of the Trinity, a Christology (which means an explanation of Jesus), and a pneumatology (a theology of the Holy Spirit.) It contains a cosmogony (an accounting of beginnings), an eschatology (an accounting of endings), a soteriology (an accounting of salvation), and a theodicy (an explanation of the existence of evil.) A systematic theology might also include a theology of scripture, a theological anthropology by which I mean an accounting of human nature, and an ecclesiology, which is to say a doctrine of the church.

And, in order just to make these theological inquiries, you need also to provide a philosophy of time and of history, as well as an ontology, a philosophy of what it means to be, to exist. And, most importantly, you need to provide a working epistemology, an accounting for how it is possible to know what you know.

But, allow me to complicate matters further. For those of us doing theology in the last 100 years there is also the question of hermeneutics. At the turn of the 20th century, a German philosopher named Wilhelm Dilthey, revisiting and expanding upon previous work by Friedrich Schleiermacher, coined the term Weltanschauung. The English translation of that word is worldview. Dilthey was the guy who invented the word worldview! From that point on, and thanks to the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer who built on the work of Dilthey, theories of interpretation have dominated not only Biblical studies, but also the social sciences, psychology, and the study of media. This is significant because it forced theologians (not to mention practitioners in other scholarly fields) to admit and account for the fact that their work is influenced by their own biases and identity.

And, I am going to argue that theology is a hermeneutical exercise. What does that mean? The field of hermeneutics is named after Hermes, the Greek messenger God. Hermeneutics has to do with the interplay—a two way, back and forth communication— between a text and its interpreter. In his magnum opus Truth and Method, Gadamer rejected an approach to the social sciences modeled on the scientific method as we apply it to the natural sciences. Gadamer also rejected a hermeneutical approach that attempted solely to arrive at original intent, to recapture the original meaning of a text in its time and place. Gadamer called his method of inquiry a “fusion of horizons.” He said, “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and our doing.”

Follow the link to continue to the next section, Part II: My Intellectual Autobiography

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