Tuesday, August 29, 2006

K.J.V. Only (Well, not ONLY . . .)

As I strolled into my office this morning, flicking on the light and slapping my bag onto the desk in one rehearsed, fluid motion, I suddenly stopped and realized – I’ve got three books by the same author lying there and they happen to be three of my favorite books. The oldest is called Is There a Meaning in This Text?, the second a newer acquisition, The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible and the third, The Drama of Doctrine – all by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Maybe more remarkable than the fact that they were all written (or edited, in the case of the dictionary) by the same man are the range of topics involved in each book. Is There a Meaning engages postmodern interpretation in the field of hermeneutics. DTIB blends biblical, systematic and historical theology with hermeneutics to create the quirkiest interdisciplinary resource in my library. My newest addition is The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, which (again) blends my two favorite subjects, theology and hermeneutics, into what promises to be another tasty read.

Though I’ve mentioned my appreciation for him before, I didn’t really realize that I was a Vanhoozer fanboy until today, so I haven’t given much thought as to why that is – but here’s a Rorschach-shaped reactionary first guess:

  1. He’s a both a scholar AND self-consciously Christian: In every book and lecture it’s abundantly clear that Vanhoozer’s interests aren’t just academic – he sees theology as fundamentally a task for the Church to be done by the Church. While many claim to be interested in a theology which refuses to divorce knowledge from practice Vanhoozer actually makes the Church’s practice a fundamental factor in theorizing about doctrine. But beyond this, all of his scholarship begins with rigorous Christian foundations, making use of Christian resources to answer hermeneutical and theological problems. For all of his kind and critical engagement, he never pretends that Christianity is a peer among equals in the marketplace of ideas. Scripture has always taken an unapologetically central role in his work (a fact not easily recognized if all you’re doing is looking for references in an index). Moreover, his scholarship is actually an astonishing testimony of the Spirit’s work, as it intentionally aims at love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control and humility – a rare commodity in this level of scholarship (and an even rarer commodity in the robustly Reformed circles Vanhoozer resides).

  2. He engages postmodernism both critically AND thoughtfully: Though Vanhoozer has, in his words, “cooled to speech-act theory” as a solution for every problem presented by postmodern criticism, his book Is There a Meaning in This Text? is near universally acclaimed as one of the most impressive and even-handed criticisms of postmodernism by someone arguing for authorial intention. His most recent offering in DoD does for postliberal theology what Is There a Meaning? did for postmodern literary theory, harvesting the wheat and leaving the chaff. His disposition of “disputation” (for an explanation, see another wonderful contribution of Vanhoozer’s in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views) in regard to contemporary offerings is able to mine the gems without collecting rocks.

  3. He’s thought-provoking AND funny: Much like N.T. Wright, there’s a subtle wit about Vanhoozer’s presentation that is fun to read and even more fun to hear. Puns, double-entendre, and other wry humor is littered through every article, book and lecture in a way my brother finds annoying, but I rather enjoy. Glance through his response to Paul Helm at Reformation 21 and the corner of your mouth is bound to curl a few times.

  4. He’s theologically creative AND traditional: One of the most encouraging things about Vanhoozer’s work is that it pushes in new directions without being detached from the various anchors of faithfully Biblical scholarship. Beyond affirming all of the vanilla creeds, Vanhoozer’s commitment to Scripture’s perfection, authority and necessary guidance for the Church stands out from other scholars of his caliber. Like so few constructive theologians, Vanhoozer is able to employ new metaphors, develop new frameworks and offer critical evaluation of older models without pulling at the fundamental roots of Christian belief and practice - and maybe more significantly, without ever losing his distinctively evangelical commitment. Even when I find myself in something less than enthusiastic agreement with him (which, of course, I sometimes do – I’m a fanboy, not a cult member), his proposals never raise my hackles as pushing the limits too far.

  5. He’s profound AND prolific: The challenging and thought-provoking material isn’t only daunting in its quality, but in its quantity. As with N.T. Wright, there’s never fear that you’ll be left wanting more – there’s too much already. There are at least five books he’s edited or written which I’d still like to read, given enough time - including his Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: A Study in Hermeneutics and Theology and The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays on Culture and Religion.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

After Virtue, pt. 2

In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre documents the monumental failure of morality that has characterized modern ethics in the Enlightement tradition. The historiography comes to a head in a chapter called "Nietzsche or Aristotle?" wherein the author makes the astonishing claim that the the way forward in ethical theory lies in just this sharp disjunction. Having rejected Aristotle in the 15th-17th C. (embedded in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions which appropriated it), the successive attempts to ground morality ultimately disintegrated into Nietzsche's realization that there is no rational justification for morality, and all such attempts simply conceal the irrational will rather than reveal moral truths. As he goes on to develop the case for virtue ethics, then, MacIntyre isn't just suggesting one of several ways forward - he's presenting it as the only available option! The choice to be made, though, isn't a strict exposition of Aristotle's ethics exactly as he concieved it, but a critical and constructive appropriation of the Aristotlean tradition - the pursuit of "the good life" in relationship to man's ultimate end.

Speaking of virtue, he says:
The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practices, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter, and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good. The catalogue of the virtues will therefore include the virtues required to sustain the kind of households and the kind of political communities in which men and women can seek for the good together and the virtues necessary for philosophical enquiry about the character of the good. We have then arrived at a provisional conclusion about the good life for man: the good life for man is the life spent in seeking for the good life for man, and the virtues necessary for the seeking are those which will enable us to understand what more and what else the good life for man is.
Any account of ethics, then, that seeks to avoid descending into Nietzsche's nihilism must provide both an account of a unified human telos (which provides aribration for our actions and avoids seeing life as a series of unrelated moral dilemmas) and the appropriate social context in which human virtue can be exemplified (analagous to the polis). This suggestion is made over against modernism's unscucessful attempts to ground morality without a defensible telos, and that in a context of act-centered (rather than agent-centered) liberal individualism. The question, for me at least, is how MacIntyre's project may prove helpful for a distinctively Christian ethics.

I'm not a philosopher - and though reasonably intelligent, I'm not very well-informed on topics such as these. At best, I'm a curious fellow with too much time on his hands, so any criticism has to be taken with a grain of salt and without the expectation that Alasdair MacIntyre will fall upon his pen upon reading my critique - but I do have at least one major misgiving with his conception of ethics, as I've understood it (or, more likely, as I've failed to understand it). What seems to be lacking is the role that Truth (capital 'T') might play in moral discourse. I can't see how what MacIntyre is doing in this book isn't just a kind of pragmatism which, at best, can provide intelligibility for ethics, but is ulimately very little help in actual moral discourse. The lack of some kind of standard or rule by which both community and telos can be measured makes appropriating this sort of thing kind of difficult.

I'm interested to see how the subject of ethics comes up in Vanhoozer's The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. Where postliberals have inserted the role of community and culture in formulating the doctrine which gives sense to ethics, postconservatives like Vanhoozer have replaced it with the canon of Scripture. Similarly, Vanhoozer seems to Vanhoozer seems to give the place narrative plays in MacIntyre and Hauerwas to a much larger framework (drama), of which narrative is only one component. As interesting as I've found After Virtue, I'm looking forward to the more self-consciously Christian conception in DoD.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Pomo Showdown

UPDATE: I've just read Macht and Joel Hunter's comments on Wilson's review, which both state that Wilson has dodged, missed or otherwise entirely avoided Smith's point - that's what I get for talking about a book I've never actually read. In any case the one thing that Wilson does bring up, which I'd like to hear someone address, is the question I raised in this post: How are people to ajudicate between rival interpretations without falling prey to stock postmodern criticisms? If everyone ultimately can only evaluate other interpretations from the standpoint of their own, what's the way out of that particular cul-de-sac? C'mon, Joel, I said HELP!!!

Doug Wilson just posted a tantalizing review of J.K.A. Smith's book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? I've been wanting to pick this one up since it was commended to me by Sir Bryan Lee, my good friend and Captain of the Intelligently Postmodern Brigade. I have to say, at first glance, I have a feeling I'd probably be more sympathetic to Wilson's take.

I'll be posting a bit more about Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue shortly, but Wilson's comments give voice to nagging concerns even as I've enjoyed the book thus far - namely the fear that once MacIntyre has destroyed the blighted secularism which has given birth to the current moral crises of our day, his sociological analysis will be powerless to commend a truly Christian alternative. The questions raised by Wilson are all the same ones I've come up against in reading Lindbeck and Hauerwas - they are so robustly and self-confidently Christian it's positively exhilerating - until the issue of engagement comes to the fore. For all the pitfalls of "cognitive-propositional" models of doctrine, and all the benefits of a narrative approach, how does a particular person's narrative climb out of the spongy morass of pluralism to assert itself without falling prey to the same criticisms as Enlightenment positivism? How can the Gospel be proclaimed without the Sitz im Leben of one hors'dourve being offered from a tray of several equally tasty choices?

I think Reformed resources provide the the only theologically viable raw material for a Biblically sustainable alternative - Plantinga's modest foundationalism, Vanhoozer's chastised version of intentionality, and Wright's critical realism are a good start (yeah, I said N.T. Wright: there's a lot more Reformed people should appreciate about the guy, Piper's latest sermon notwithstanding). The more I listen to someone like Tim Keller, the more I'm convinced of Reformed theology's potential value in navigating the postmodern world.

However necessary and beautiful the call to community formation, these authors inevitably blunt the imperial force of the Gospel, which is wrapped up in Jesus' lordship - or do they? Joel Hunter, the resident postmodern poster-boy at the Boar's Head Tavern, if you're reading this - help!