When trying to make good use of writings that stand at a great distance from us–whether because they come from long ago or from across the boundaries of cultures, we need some guidelines, some sense of how we might go about it. We pick up a patristic theologian, say John Chrysostom, and find his style of writing challenging, or his concepts too foreign to make immediate sense. It is far too easy to confuse “critical thinking” with dismissive criticism.
The first task is to get some context, even as minimally as finding out when and where he lived, the kinds of things he wrote, and what his influence has been.
The second is to keep reading long enough to move beyond the first painful encounter with an ancient rhetorical style or cumbersome a Victorian era translation. (I remember well a seminar in which I had students spend two or three weeks on each of several major patristic figures. The first week: Loathing and rejection. Second week: “Hmm, maybe this guy has something to say.” Third week: “I love this–Can’t we spend just a few more weeks on it?” Then the same cycle with the next writer.)
But once we can read such a writer easily or enjoyably, we still need some way to make use of it–an approach that does not lead us to either reject the ideas as foreign and dated, or to elevate the past beyond reason and think that our own context and experience must be wrong.
For this a useful model is found in The Art of Theological Reflection by Patricia O’Connell Killen and John de Beer (New York: Crossroad, 1994). The process they described can sound rather too programmatic. It describes work the authors did over many years in their particular international ministry training contexts. But even if one does not want to take on what they describe as a procedure or program, they offer a needed perspective: some convictions to keep hold of, rather than steps to walk through.
The nugget of this is found in a venn diagram which my computer skills do not allow me to reproduce. I’ll describe it instead. One circle is “experience” meaning the full self of the person engaging in theological reflection. The second circle is labeled “tradition” meaning the content of the Christian faith, and for our purposes it is the faith as found in the writings of the greats of past eras. The place the two circles overlap is what they call “theological reflection.”
Stand in “tradition” without overlapping into experience and you get the dogmatism they call the “standpoint of certitude.” Everything is evaluated in terms of the points of view we held before we started. Faith, or ministry, or theology all get forced into the pre-existing mold like playdough pushed through a “fun factory.” Tradition here can take in a great deal, but in evangelical bumper sticker language that is “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” The risk is that we are so certain that even God cannot shake us into growth and change.
On the other hand, stand entirely in “experience” without the part that overlaps the tradition we evaluate all things by our own little selves. No credence is given to voices outside ourselves, whether they be the voices of Prophets and Apostles, or their lesser servants like Chrysostom. Measuring ideas, including theological teachings, by whether they make sense to us personally is quite popular today, but it should not be confused with theological reflection.
The authors point out that these two problematic stances are so common today as to dominate the conversation. That means we need something else–a way to discuss the Christian faith, its teachings, its teachers, its practices and priorities–that brings the real us into conversation with the real faith and faithfulness of the larger church. Authentic theological reflection “invites us to befriend our Christian heritage, our lived experience, our culture, and our contemporary faith community as conversation partners on the journey of faith.” (p. 3)
The authors suggest we take a third stance, within the overlap of experience and tradition. They call it “exploration.” It will require genuine self-knowledge, to allow us to stand somewhere as we look at tradition. It will require there to be a tradition, with a respected voice, to question or affirm our personal experience. But if we live in that place where tradition and experience are in active conversation, we can profit enormously.
There is much more to the process, and much of what follows in the book is intended to help one be more acutely and accurately aware of the experience part of the venn diagram described above. If experience is to be a part of the conversation (not an authority to weigh alongside Scripture or to define truth, but a genuine part of the conversation) then we need to spark or nurture awareness of several aspects of experience–the things that happen, the feelings within us, the stories and metaphors we use to describe our experience, the actions we take. We come to know what our experience is, including where we stand, the culture we stand within.
The task here is to find ways to take the other circle with equal seriousness. It takes some discernment in a Protestant context where the default position on “tradition” is to raise up the Reformation slogan of “Scripture alone”. But even reforming theologians like John Calvin weighed voices of the tradition very heavily. Calvin was in constant dialogue with Chrysostom, lauding his exegesis and regretting points of his theology. Even more frequently he was engaged with Augustine, lauding his theology and regretting his exegesis.
Perhaps it is too simplistic to say, but the task today starts by reading the tradition. We bring ourselves as honestly as we can, and we invite the great figures of the past with as much understanding as we can find. Then we live in the place of overlap, ready to seek wisdom for now and the future as servants of Christ.