Stuff I Can’t Dream of Reading During the Semester

Year one (of six) at Yale Divinity School is over.
I’m finally getting time to breathe and rest and detox (down to one cup of tea–no coffee).
And characteristically I decided to make myself a reading plan for the 17 weeks of vacation I have from school.  Rather than go back to my syllabi and catch up or read the recommended reading — which I’m sure would help further my understanding and would be prudent in its own way, I’ve decided to reread a book which I read in 2011, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor.
In addition, I’m making my way through James Wm. McClendon Jr.’s three-volume Systematic Theology.  I found McClendon in my search for Baptist theologians this Fall.  I had become friends with fellow students who were Episcopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, some traditional, some progressive.  So all of our discussions would focus on what a Lutheran should think regarding x, y, or z.  Or what an Episcopalian view of a,b, and c is.
I was raised in a biblicist tradition which didn’t much care what Calvin or Luther had to say — if it isn’t in the [plain-reading] of the biblical text then it doesn’t hold any water.  But I’ve since come to think, through my study of philosophy, that either there is no such thing as a “plain reading” of the text or that the “plain reading” dangerously calls an objective rendering what is really laden with subjective baggage — e.g. assumptions about the self (phenomenology), the fundamental realities of the world (ontology), and how we know, how we interpret, how we determine truth (epistemology).  So discussions about what was true or not just took a lot for granted and mainly focused on proof-text arguments which in reality raise more questions than they answer.
I became fascinated with Radical Orthodoxy six years ago after reading Nietzsche and MacIntyre and and became captivated by a radically Christian ontology (Milbank’s ontology of peace), a radically Christian way of knowing, etc. — but Radical Orthodoxy was through and through Catholic and while I loved it for its encounter with postmodern ideas, I hated it for its (what I later became able to call) Constantinian elements.  I was attending an Anglican church at the time and I could never get used to the hierarchical way of thinking.  I was too thoroughly free-church evangelical.
So when I found myself called to become pastor of the United Church of Acworth (ABC/UCC) I had mixed feelings intellectually.  On the one hand I felt like it was coming home (it literally is my home church — but I’m thinking more in terms of theological/ecclesiological).  On the other hand I felt like there were really good reasons to be suspicious of the kind of language of autonomy presupposed in free-church ecclesiology and soteriology.
So I have obviously come to terms with this tension and rather than try to solve it by become radically one thing or the other, I’ve let it drive me on to learn, to seek to understand why I can be a person who lives in the world of biblicism while admiring to the point of envy the philosophical-theological worlds of Lutherans and Anglo-Catholics.
Which is the reason I found McClendon.  I wanted to find someone who was a baptist and who had encountered the theological other (and read MacIntyre and was friends with Hauerwas) yet was able to still talk about (an obviously theologically nuanced version of) plain reading of the biblical text.  McClendon has so far opened up my eyes to the fact that one of the main reasons baptists have suffered in theological debates and often simply poorly parroted Calvinism/Arminianism, etc. is that baptists have never been established in the way that these other (again Constantinian) theologies have.  So I’m looking forward to understanding my baptist self and the congregation in which I serve through reading McClendon and others who have followed a similar road as him (like Barry Harvey and Beth Newman).
So discovering McClendon in the shelves of the Divinity library helped me to regain confidence that there is a tradition of understanding in the baptist world which I can go to help better understanding the “baptist vision” as McClendon calls it.  And since I’ve begun reading McClendon, I’ve been able to helpfully give a dissenting viewpoint to my established church friends — particularly on the notes of Constantinianism that seem to pervade more theological issues than I previously imagined.
And I think Taylor and McClendon with a little Wendell Berry and Karl Barth here and there will make for a good summer reading.  Stuff I can’t dream of reading during the semesters.


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