I know that this experience has had a profound effect upon my thinking. I re-entered the church as a man in his early-20s after reading Thomas J. J. Altizer (whom I am happy to say I have since come to know personally), whose seminal book “The Gospel of Christian Atheism” (Westminster Press,1966) earned him the unfortunate sobriquet “the death of God priest.” Though I have come to find myself in deep disagreement with a number of Altizer’s positions, his principal anti-foundational arguments have been a starting point for me in a long process of study, discernment and writing.
In my 20’s though I was married, and not a Roman Catholic, I spent two years at the Jesuit theological program at Loyola University in Chicago. I found life as an Episcopalian there very difficult. I was always either the prized example of ecumenism or that unfortunate schismatic relegated to silence in the back corner chair. With certain of the older faculty that corner chair was waiting for me from the moment they opened the class list and saw the abbreviation “Prot.” to the right of my name, breaking the otherwise unremarkable column of “RC’s.” For others, it became available when I transgressed some invisible line in an essay, or broke an unspoken regulation of what constituted an acceptable question.
After two years, with the help and advice of a bright, compassionate lay instructor, herself new to Loyola, and a supportive, if besieged departmental chair, I transferred to Haverford College. Historically a Quaker institution, its Religion Department was then dominated by Lutheran and Roman Catholic scholars. My principle work was divided between philosophy and New Testament. My thesis was a structuralist analysis of kinship in St. Mark’s Gospel. While there, I remember participating in a semester long seminar critiquing various literary approaches to the Pauline corpus. Haverford is a fine school, I was very lucky to attend: The seminars were always small, between six and 10 students, and the faculty, world-class.
This seminar was particularly intense. All the students involved were departmental majors, and the class had several prerequisites. The range of religious affiliations among the students was wide, I was a few years past being received in the Episcopal Church. My principal interlocutor was a woman named Joanna. She belonged to a “non-denominational” evangelical congregation, and was very active in Campus Crusade. At one point in our discussions, which while often challenging, and even intense, were marked by civility, I made comment on a family regulation laid down by Paul. Doubtless, my comment was light and likely deprecating. I’ve been in near continuous argument with Paul since I began to read the Bible. Joanna turned to me, her words to me rang that same bell – she said “Only a heretic could ever say that.”
Several years later, not long after I was ordained, the Diocese of Pennsylvania was convulsing with dissension. A small group of parishes had decided to leave the church. They disagreed with the revisions of our service book, the Book of Common Prayer, and changes to diocesan canons mandating that parishes could no longer refuse to accept clergy solely on the basis of gender. The dissenters were a small minority, but both wealthy and vocal, a very dangerous combination.
In an attempt to embarrass the “liberal” majority within the diocese, one of the dissenting parishes put forward a resolution to our annual convention, knowing full well that for canonical reasons, it would fail. The resolution read “The Diocese of Pennsylvania does affirm that Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation.” Along with a large number of clergy and lay delegates, I rose to speak against that resolution. I spoke for reasons of order within the polity. Within the Episcopal Church system of governance, creedal issues are not subject to the authority of individual dioceses. This is the case in all churches that maintain the historic ordering of the Church (Laos, bishop, presbyter and deacon) in apostolic succession and retain the historic creeds. As I returned to my seat after speaking, a woman from one of the dissenting congregations took my arm – not gently — and shouted at me “That’s heresy, just heresy, you damned heretic.” She clearly followed the Marine Corps. drill sergeant’s three-fold etiquette for communication: Tell them what your going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them again, as in “Run, I said run! Run, you goldbricks…” I believe the official minutes of the convention referred to “lively debate.”
I could go on telling these anecdotes. l suppose that all of this biography is little more than a partial explanation of why I choose to begin with metaphysics rather than revelation, and indeed find most modern attempts to articulate a theology of revelation as, to be honest, self-indulgent.
From my readings of such theologies, beginning with Karl Barth and moving through any number of contemporary evangelicals, I find a deep flaw: that contemporary “conservative” theologies of revelation, are not actually theologies but elaborations of doctrines, and not in the form of simple explications or affirmation, but rather in the form of elaborate apologetics. Barth was forthcoming concerning this. Today, in conversation and reading with scholars and non-scholar alike, I find little recognition that these revelational theologies are apologetical in nature, especially given the present tendency to cloth such statement in rococo fabrics of propositional logic nearly Thomistic in scope. Nor do I find any general awareness of the consequences of conflating the tasks of an apologetic with those of theology or philosophy.
This distinction is vital, in that theology, properly understood, should not delimit its investigations, but by the very nature of its endeavour must always be open to thought other than its own. I would frame the manner of philosophical discourse in precisely the same manner. Doctrine, on the other hand, begins with propositions, that while to external observers seem purely presumptive, must be acknowledged and may only be explicated, not investigated. An apologetic discourse is, in form and use, a type, and perhaps in Western discourse, the archetype of a polemic. While even here I would suggest that there is a relationship between doctrine and apologetics that is too often overlooked, it is apologetics in particular, and the apologetical nature of revelational theology that I will concentrate.
French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote:
Early Christian apologists, borrowing from a prevailing literary model, established for Christian apologetics in the future a pattern or habit of elision. Certain ideas, concepts, notions were made, in spite of ostensible prominence, to disappear as legitimate subjects of discussion or argument. “This idea” or “that concept” is not subject to reason. They are in effect externalised to reason, and indeed, from the perspective of the apologist, precede reason. From this position such ideas or concepts function so as to define as “unreasonable” any critical examination of their content. Turning again to Foucault, he argues:
Following Foucault, it is evident that a theological polemic is fundamentally what we might otherwise call a rhetorical form of scorn. It establishes a boundary between the proper and the improper, the legitimate and the illegitimate. In eliding the actual content of an assertion, it denies the legitimate subjectivity of the interlocutor. This is precisely the nature of scorn. Intersubjectivity is dissolved and one’s interlocutor instead is objectified: heretic, heathen, schismatic, faithless, ungodly, the apologist’s vocabulary is amply supplied with objectifying terms.
In the world of early christianity this form was well known. In writing and oration the tactic of the polemic, the undermining of an opponent through a rejection of his or her legitimacy, was a common tactic. It remains so today, especially in political oratory, though in ordinary usage it is generally considered both inappropriate and often as evidentially indicative of fallacy.
Popular awareness of Imperial era graffiti may be one of the few elements of value to be found in HBO Television’s series “Rome.” The opening credits were accompanied by animated graffiti, some religious, some political and some simply salacious, emerging from street facing walls throughout the show’s sets of the ancient city. As dazzling as the animation was, it brought to life the idea of a city covered with images, politics, religion, sex, and trade competing for space on the plastered walls of a city, when, as today in much of the Middle East, private homes and not a few businesses faced inward to courtyards. Our image of columned porticos in reality applied to temples and other public buildings, leaving many streets with near continuous walls on either side, broken only by strongly built doors. A paradise of sorts for graffiti, and the source of the oldest extant depiction we have of the crucifixion of Jesus.
The “Alexamenos graffito” dates back to perhaps 200 C.E. Through its graphic simplicity, it gives witness to the very mechanism of scorn that I'm arguing is at the root of Christian apologetics. Though clearly its barely literate creator was a fierce critic of Christians, it nevertheless indicates precisely the manner in which Christian apologetics have come to function.
The “Alexamenos graffito” does not need HBO’s wizards of animation to bring its crude humour and obscene gesture’s to life. Discovered during excavations at the end of the 19th Century, it consists of a crude drawing inscribed in a plastered wall. The central figure is a crucified man with the head of an ass. His body is placed facing the cross, away from the viewer, his shirt length tunic exposing his bare buttocks. Drawn below the cross and to the side is another figure of a man with one hand raised toward the crucified figure. Immediately below the cross, in coarse Greek is written “Αλεξαμενος ϲεβετε θεον. ϲεβετε” which we might translate as “Alexamenos worships his God.” Poor Alex is a Christian. Triply inscribed, the message is clear. His crudely drawn hand is raised in salute to the ass of a crucified ass.
When christian apologists define a series of constraints on thought, saying these propositions must be accepted as foundational, and are beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry, they may have persuaded themselves that their intent is persuasion, but in actuality, they have drawn the figure upon the wall, a cartoon of reason whose only real function is an expression of scorn. The elaborate and precarious constructs of supposed logic which surround such projects function not as invitations to discourse, but in the same way as the coarse Greek scribbled on the wall, as a further delineation of the object of the apologist’s scorn. It does not invite discourse. It does not welcome the investigations of reason. It does not invite intersubjectivity. It simply further defines the boundary between the object of scorn and the “orthodox” or “properly believing” Christian.
Following the logic of Martin Marty in the seminal lecture given in 1988 introducing the Fundamentalism Project, there is a second purpose to apologetics as practised by believers in "conservative" revelational of theology, and that of course concerns the other side of the boundary, the wall which an apologetic draws his circular in shape. Those within the wall that the apologist builds, the "orthodox" believers in "conservative" revelation, need constant assurance that their battle is worthwhile, that their struggle against modernity, against the forces that would dilute their faith is of such importance to make worthwhile the deprivations that their struggles impose.
I have little doubt that since the time of Justin Martyr that few have been less interested in the writings of Christian apologists than those to whom these works are addressed. The primary audience has been, since the earliest days of the Church, the believer. The elaborate pretensions of logic and history are justifications of more interest to the believer than to anyone outside the wall. Indeed. these pretensions are brick and plaster, and barbed wire building the line of separation taller and more impenetrable from either side.
Over the course of a lifetime, a few will manage to move out from inside of the wall, but only a very few. Discourse, I suggest, is not the solution to fundamentalism. Prevention is the answer. We who believe in the Enlightenment: the values of reason, the innate dignity of all human life, and above all, that hope can exist on this earth, not just apart from it, need to find a new, convincing language for those who waver, those who are uncertain, those who are afraid. Once they have been brought captive within the walls of unreason, within the rhetoric of the apologist, the fundamentalist, whether Christian or Muslim, have, I think, been lost. The language, the discourse we must accomplish is one that will overcome naive uncertainty and fear, and show the shining light of a hope that can exist within life, not merely in its ending.