Theological Symbiosis

As I was walking to work this morning, it occurred to me to conjecture that “liberal” theologies err to the extent that they neglect their symbiotic relationship with ordinary, historic, “orthodox” (by which I don’t necessarily mean “what contemporary soi-disant orthodox Anglicans mean, but something more like “broadly-agreed-upon”) theology. I’d say “liberal” theology is parasitic on historic orthodoxy, but there’s no way to do that without giving the impression that I mean it pejoratively, which I don’t.
That is, I conjecture that “liberal” theology flourishes to the extent that it provides an alternative articulation of theological points alongside what non-“liberal” theologies assert. When “liberal” theology begins to elbow aside or suppress non-“liberal” theology — when it asserts a sort of Whiggish triumphalism over the allegedly obsolete, irrelevant formulations of hidebound blah blah blah — it cuts off the vitality of the partner without whose continuing strength, the “liberal” alternative loses its coherence. Thus, if I’m on the right track, it’s positively in the interests of “liberal” theologians to support strong education in the basics of historic theology; that’s the juniper that supports their mistletoe, or the anemone that shelters their clownfish.
On this account, “conservative” theologies likewise depend symbiotically on historic orthodoxy. And by the same token, the more narrowly one defines the “one true and eternal faith” of a “conservative” theology, the less wholesome that theology becomes; dry rot sets in, and (once again) the tree collapses under the weight of its symbiont. The leading difference in these two cases derives from the rationale given for choking off the host: in the case of the “conservative” symbiont, the main trunk has become too tolerant, has deviated fatally from the correct doctrinal formulae.
When I propose this, I do not mean to refer to a particular present case, e.g. sexuality. All the specifics of cases would require argument relative to their specifics, and although I disagree with many “conservative” arguments regarding sexuality, I don’t posit that they err simply by drawing a line and not “tolerating” disagreement on this topic. Rather, the more precise way to conduct the “conservative” argument (according to me, to whom no one is obliged to listen) would be to begin by allowing that breadth and diversity and flexion characterize the church through history, and that theological positions such as that which I advocate nonetheless fall outside the bounds of what the church can permit. Now, some theologians do couch their arguments that way (generally), and I respect the care that reflects. I still disagree, but it’s an argument within which we’re really disagreeing about a real thing. A considerable number of theologians, on the other hand, espouse a perspective on the church’s teaching that unduly throttles the circulation of nourishing theological ideas — let us say, by making one particular doctrine of the atonement an essential hallmark of sound theology — such that the church’s growth and strength suffer. “We only need Vitamin D! All those other vitamins are a snare and a delusion!” One need not adopt an absolutism of one source of nourishment in order to dispel claims that other diets are unbalanced (if indeed they are).
It’s harder to explain to “liberal” theologians that I disagree with them, because often (as in the case of sexuality) we seem to be agreeing. Still, where a modernised church proclaims its triumph over its own past’s ignorance, I politely step out of lockstep and return to converse with less up-to-date colleagues. The fact that the church’s mind changes in various ways over time (how could it not?) doesn’t mean that its former outlook is benighted, foolish, uncritical, anachronistic, or “fundamentalist” (a word that tends to function overwhelmingly as a term of abuse, not as a clearly-defined explanation of a basis for disagreeing). Most “liberals” take some things literally and they ignore or rationalize other things; most “conservatives” likewise take some things literally and soft-pedal or rationalize others. Most “liberals” and “conservatives” both construe certain theological premises as “fundamental.” Almost all of those definitions obscure the possibility that the definer in question might, possibly, be wrong — might indeed need fellowship with, communion with, a broader range of alternatives than she or he is willing for his/her definition to permit. (Again, there will be boundaries — the problem arises not from drawing boundaries, but from refusing to draw boundaries humbly, charitably, and subject to change or correction.)
The strength of good theology draws on more than simply partisan teaching. If any version of “liberal” or “conservative” theology is sound, it will be able to draw strength from the historic breadth and variety and consistent emphases of the church’s teaching. At the very least, the distinct “l”/“c” theology will benefit from its adherents and exponents being able clearly and specifically to explain the pattern of continuities and exclusions that they propose. And new believers will be very much better served by learning sympathetically the church’s historic basics first, before they learn ways that their contemporaries have characterized topics more narrowly.

6 thoughts on “Theological Symbiosis

  1. An excellent post one of my friends in the Boston Emergent cohort turned me on to. Thank you for sharing such a nuanced understanding of diverse theological thinking which must nevertheless continually grapple with, not simplistically silence or dismiss the church’s right history and tradition.

    As a Christian of Celtic flavor, your use of a mistletoe/symbiotic imagery is also one I appreciate. The ancient druids found profound wisdom in that image, and there’s no reason Christian theology shouldn’t either! 🙂

    Indeed… its a powerful argument for what a truly incarnate, broad theological foundation needs to rest upon.

  2. Well said. Your thoughts remind me of a recent conversation I had with a colleague about substitutionary atonement. He argued that this atonement theory positioned God’s justice in such a way that Christ’s death is required for salvation to occur. But as I argued, this isn’t the case of all substitution theories. Many different theologians (e.g., Anselm, Edwards, Barth, von Balthasar, to name but a few) use this idea to different emphases and effects. Even to say that Christ’s substitution ‘satisfies’ can mean wildly different things. I’m not sure that committing oneself to a blanket claim about a doctrine in the abstract, or for the sake of an orthodox or liberal stance, really helps us all that much.

    But I second any call for hermeneutical charity and humility all around. There’s enough complacency to be found in both the orthodox and liberal positions.

  3. This is wonderful, AKMA. Thanks. As I recall, Stephen Sykes made a similar argument in The Integrity of Anglicanism.

    I blogged some Stephen Fowl on interpretive charity today.

  4. I think this all depends on how you define “liberal”. And it seems to me you are presenting at least two different definitions here, one definition is that of a liberal who dismisses and disses ancestors in faith en toto, and another who lovingly, generously, yet critically engages with them. The latter is indeed closer to that of Stephen Sykes or with ones who disagreed with some of his characterizations of a “liberal,” namely F. D. Maurice–John Booty, William Wolf, and Owen Thomas. It is also characteristic of traditioning as a whole. St Augustine is an innovator in light of the Cappodocians, making such things as the throwing about by Anglicans of the maxim of St Prosper or that of St. Vincent in justifying liturgical matters or preventing change in moral teaching all the more ironic.

    And further, your own contextual/personal/social location does matter in those conversations and allows someone like Fr Gunter to characterize you as outside the usual dichotomies and frameworks of the current moment. I have found as a partnered gay man, however, that it doesn’t matter that I draw on Patristics or our Divines, that I turn to Scripture and our liturgies in doing theology. That I am a partnered gay man automatically makes me a liberal theologian of your first type and so easily dismissed in discussing said persons du jour. Such premises go hidden and underground in theological academese, but they exist and often long before reason gives them articulation. And doing so, no observation of well-being or virtue will make one ounce of difference.

    I am afraid that because “liberal” and “conservative” have become strictly defined by one’s stance on same-sex partnerships, the terms reveal very little about anyone’s actual theological approach and are not actually helpful as singular categories for theology. Nor are they helpful because they conflate theology proper and moral theology in such a way that the latter conclusions are made critical to the former, such that there is a tendency to either jettison the former all together (your type 1 liberal) or to disallow learning about creation (your type 1 conservative).

  5. You, like most of us liberals, are entirely too reasonable. Too willing to respect the beliefs of “conservatives” who invariably fail to reciprocate. To suggest that “theological positions such as that which I advocate [i.e., homsexuality, I surmise] nonetheless fall outside the bounds of what the church can permit” represents careful thought deserving of respect is, in my opinion, giving the conservatives far more credit than they deserve. The plain fact is that many of the prescriptions and proscriptions in Leviticus have quietly been jettisoned over the centuries, and clinging to this one — no, really folks, God _meant_ it in this case — has no basis in logic. So what IS their basis for clinging to this particular passage in scripture? As a liberal I’m too reasonable to express my opinion.

  6. Christopher,

    I agree with you. I am continually frustrated that “conservatives” are often unwilling to make a distinction between the work of, say, Eugene Rogers, and that of, say, William Countryman. And I am frustrsted that “liberals” often don’t seem to think the distinction in theological approach matters as long as they like the result. The unwillingness to appreciate the distinction on the one hand and the indifference to it on the other allow both to live in perpetual reaction to the other and results in stalemate.

    So, I always find it refreshing when I see folk, gay or straight, who mess with that stalemate. It’s why I occasionally read your blog and pay attention when I see you pop up elsewhere.

    As a straight male, I can only imagine your personal frustration at being automatically labeled a “type 1 liberal” and dismissed when it is clear from your online writings that you are not.


    Frankly, I do not find “liberals” to be all that much more reasonable than “conservatives”.

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