Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to do liberal theology

I recently read Walter Brueggemann's book Sabbath as Resistance, which is really helpful in many ways and has challenged me to re-think my own position on Sabbath keeping.  However, at heart this book is a work of liberal theology, and I've found it interesting to think through what that means and how it shows itself.

To start with, for those brought up in a conservative evangelical tradition, it may be surprising that liberal theology is very interested in the Bible.  This book is all about engagement with Scripture.  Liberal theology at its best - and much of it is really rather good - is a genuine attempt to be Christian, and that translates into a real desire to hear the voice of Scripture and take it seriously.  If we imagine that liberal theology is not very seriously oriented toward the Bible, we will get it wrong.  If you want to do liberal theology, Scripture is the best place to start.

Moreover, liberal theology can lead to real and valuable insight into the Biblical text.  Sometimes those of us coming from a more conservative position can fail to really grapple with the text as it confronts us.  Sometimes we think we already know what the Bible is about, and that prevents us from asking the important questions.  Other times we look carefully to the text, but do not understand our contemporary world, so that we fail to arrive at an authentic interpretation and application of Scripture for today.  Liberal theology, which often comes from a place less bound by traditional interpretation, less tied to systematic theology, and more grounded in contemporary thought, can often be helpful.

But there is a problem.  Take an example from Brueggemann as illustrative.  In a generally helpful chapter which describes Sabbath as resistance to anxiety, we come across this summary of the activity of Pharaoh:

"...Pharaoh, even though he was absolute in authority and he occupied the pinnacle of power, was an endlessly anxious presence..."

"..Pharaoh, who controlled the Nile, nevertheless had nightmares of anxiety, as he dreamed of famine and as he imagined that the creation would not provide sufficient food (Gen. 41:15-32)."

"...that nightmare of scarcity, which contradicted the wealth and power of read Pharaoh, led to rapacious state policies of monopoly that caused the crown to usurp the money, cattle, the land, and finally the bodies of vulnerable peasasnts..."

See what's happened there?  If you're at all familiar with the book of Genesis, you will remember that Pharaoh is sent dreams from God warning him of famine to come.  The divine origin of these warnings is stressed in the narrative - read through Genesis 41:25-36, and count the mentions of God.  "God has revealed...  God has shown...  the thing is fixed by God and God will shortly bring it about".  Of course, all this is said by Joseph, but the text gives every reason to see this as also the narrator's point of view.  Pharaoh's anxiety in this instance is caused by God, and moreover is well justified!

What about the rapacious state policies?  The reader will recall that it was Joseph, not Pharaoh, who reduced the people of Egypt to serfdom.  But in the text, the stress is not on this but on the fact that the people were saved alive.  The alternative to serfdom was starvation.  Now, if any character in Genesis is portrayed by the narrator as a hero, it is Joseph.  To read this episode as Brueggemann does is to go completely against the grain of the Scriptural text.

And fundamentally, that is how to do liberal theology.  Use the Scriptural narrative and instruction as material, engage with it very seriously and creatively, but do not feel constrained to follow where Scripture points.  Do not feel obliged to let Scripture set the agenda.  In short, make the Bible your servant and not your master.  Then you're well on your way.

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