Guest Post from Tad Delay
I. On Tuesday Bill posted a very conciliatory case for “Why Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm need each other.” Bill and I were both at Subverting the Norm. And to be honest, I do not know much about Missio Alliance. But I’m intrigued and want to think more about this.
II. Tony Jones advised those at StN to “be loyal to this tribe” and “put less words in scare quotes. Just answer the goddamn question.” I’ve been thinking about that. The catch of course is how to determine who is in the tribe. Being part of the vituperative world that academia so often is forces you to get used to the idea that some people are brilliant comrades working toward similar goals and yet can be very difficult people. That’s easy enough to spot and work with. On the other hand, a difference of goals has a tendency to inflame tensions no matter how good our intentions are. That’s easy enough to recognize, but very difficult to work around. So how do we decide who is going toward a similar destination via different route or who has departed for a different course altogether?
III. This far-too-simplified schema is how I tend to think of Christian theologies. Each of these has a difficult time talking with either of the other two:
A) Confessional pastoral and lay theologies
This is the filler of many sermons, coffee house conversations, and Barnes & Noble bestseller lists. It is not sophisticated, but it is theology “on the ground.” You know it when you hear it. And it absolutely has to be engaged, but it is more and more difficult to dialogue with the more you learn theology.
B) Confessional academic theologies
This is the material produced by the seminaries and universities. Along with Biblical studies, academic theology is expansive, engaged with history, systematic, and (hopefully) philosophical. My assumption is that every future pastor and/or theologian makes a decision at some point in their studies about whether or not they will even try to communicate the material they are learning, because more academic theologies can feel very intimidating and threatening to parishioners who are not reading theology/philosophy. It is meant to be theology “for the church” in the roundabout way of developing coherent, esoteric systems of thought. I put Missio Alliance here. Again, I profess my ignorance of Missio Alliance, but my impression from those I’m in dialogue with tells me MA is a very confessionally Christian group.
C) Radical, political, and process theologies
This third category is theology in the aftermath of Altizer, Whitehead, Derrida, Schmitt, Badiou, Žižek, and of course the two living JCs. This group often treats theology as a void that can only be accessed by the various disciplines on the periphery. There are certainly confessional types among them (particularly within post-liberal or process types), but its also not at all uncommon to find entirely atheistic political theologies in this camp. Subverting the Norm asked a broader question about postmodern theology, but since radical theology ended up being such an important theme, I put Subverting the Norm mostly – but not entirely- here.
VI. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals see very different problems as the main point to address. The primary antagonism we select directs our energy. Sometimes disparate theologies can work together on social issues here and there, but on a long enough timeline they are driven apart because the antagonisms they mean to address are mutually incompatible.
Forgive the caricatures, but political conservatives locate a primary antagonism along lines of moral purity or cultural/religious loyalty. Liberals locate the primary antagonisms along some combination of class, race, and gender or whatever else liberals are upset about. Both liberals and conservatives tend to agree on capitalism (with minor skirmishes over neo-classical or Keynesian models), and thus we get the stereotypical similarities between platforms. Radical and/or Marxian perspectives locate the primary antagonism almost exclusively along class lines, which is why we are always complaining about capitalism. And at Subverting the Norm, there was a definite tension between liberals who wanted to talk about how to be more inclusive and radicals who think theology (no matter how inclusive) does not matter if it doesn’t occupy politics.
So can Missio Alliance and Subverting the Norm work together? I definitely hope so. I haven’t even figured out if StN’s mix of radicals and liberals can work together in the long term. But if we can be serious about exactly how confessional (or not) we expect a theology to be, and if we can isolate the antagonism(s) our theologies address, then we are at least on a path toward an answer. And that answer has implications that are much more significant than two conferences.