Abstract Rhetoric: Schism between Academic Theology & Biblical Wisdom
Third, there is even a sense in which abstract pious rhetoric that suppresses relational wisdom has come to pervade academic theology. In particular, as Thiselton reminds us, the influence of Kant and neo-Kantianism has reduced the status of biblical language to mere ‘human projection’ for some. Since the status of biblical language is undermined, it is sidelined as a source of wisdom that can shape our discourse and lives.
In fact, however, philosophical tools can be used to highlight dimensions to biblical wisdom that have often been marginalised in this way. For example, the philosopher Gadamer used Hegel’s insight into something called ‘historical dialectic’ to ground his investigation into the process of relational understanding. When this was developed, it began to look like the biblical doctrine of love. This meant that ‘love’ could be unpacked as including ‘respect for the particular horizons of the given and giving ‘other’’.
This meant that proper ‘affection’ included releasing the other from one’s own need-generated strategizing, and promoting them as who they were created to be, within the boundaries that they determine, to the extent that one is able, given the priorities and responsibilities pertaining to one’s own call. This is the opposite of labelling, stigmatisation, and ‘politeness’ disguising structures of exclusion. Relational wisdom is being suppressed beneath the Kantian call to develop the Christian tradition away from Scripture rather than towards it.
Hermeneutics’, is the philosophy of interpretation and of the self. It involves trying to understand obscure and difficult texts. And yet I have heard things said by pastoral theologians that fox me still. I used to think that theirs was an exalted wisdom – so wise that it was still beyond me, even after years of study.
Now, however, I have realised that much of it is a mere post-Kantian abstraction – nothing to do with wise relating, but everything to do with attempts to develop a ‘relational wisdom’ apart from biblical theology.
Paul Ricoeur’s book, Oneself as Another, is supposedly the best book on the human self ever written in the eyes of some scholars. It embraces philosophical insights consistent with biblical theology. And yet some strands of pastoral theology seem content to ignore it. Yes – I’ve just checked – it is absent from the bibliography of The Blackwell Reader in Pastoral and Practical Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). So, in an environment that suppresses the Bible as a source of relational wisdom – whether that environment is traditional church or academic theology – it is possible to imagine a situation developing in which a relationally wise biblical perspective on the church and any complex issue such as homosexuality, would be lost.