Nancy Howell's Response to Critical and Confessional Responsibility in Theology

Response to Andrew P. Porter,
"Critical and Confessional Responsibility in Theology"

Nancy Howell, Pacific Lutheran University
Pacific Coast Theological Society, 1996 November 1-2

1. General Description and Assessment

I extend my appreciation for Porter's paper on a number of counts. The analysis is thoughtful and critical, with a thesis and well-organized argument. The scholarly work in the paper is humanized by autobiographical and confessional statements that place the analysis in context and that add texture and meaning to the content. The, at times, dense critical analysis is punctuated by witticisms and provocative, if not provoking, polemic.

I am especially grateful to Porter for sending me the paper well in advance of the meeting so that there was time for careful reading and reflection. At another conference, an author handed me a paper at 10:00 p.m. the evening before I was to respond to it at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. My appreciation for Porter's work is multiplied by respect for an author who writing a controversial paper was not reluctant to give his respondent adequate time to consider his argument and claims.

2. Presuppositions and Theological Groundwork

I would like to begin with clarifications about the definitions, presuppositions, and theological groundwork that set up the argument.

On page two (paragraph 4), revelation is defined as "events in history that provide light to make sense of the rest of history and human life in it" and as "the human activity in which people turn to history for light in their lives" and as "responsible activity, for having turned to history, they [humans] have to abide by its light." The definition makes sense in light of the argument since the paper emphasizes the value of critical history for theology. However, I was struck by the centrality of human history and activity alongside the neglect of the role of God and Christ in revelation. Is there a theological claim behind the definition of revelation? Since the paper will not grant reducing revelation to nature, I was surprised that revelation seems to be limited to nature. Must the theologian choose either nature or history as the locus of revelation or can the locus of revelation be placed at the intersection of history, nature, and divinity? A further clarification is raised by the focus on Exodus as an historical revelatory event for historical-covenantal Christianity. How is the covenantal revelation in Exodus continued or remythologized in the Gospels? Does the Exodus covenantal canon stand alone as the paradigm for Christian theology? Entering into the spirit of the project, I would suggest that there are fruitful ways to develop and support the argument that depend upon how these questions are answered.

A related question refers to the use of sources in the theological analysis, Exodus and the "Common Documents" feature prominently in the discussion with passing reference to Romans 8 (on page 6 paragraph 19). Why so little attention to the New Testament and no reference to the Gospels, which shape Christian history and theology so significantly?

A less complicated question is about the definition of "theological responsibility" (page 1-2). Does theological responsibility refer to ethics and ethical activity or to conceptual integrity? Given the twofold aspects of revelation, I will ask further, Is theological responsibility something like praxis the integration of action and reflection?

On page three, the paper introduces Westphal's religious categories, from which Christianity is identified as historical-covenantal and affirming of life in history. Also in paragraph 9, the paper reports that religions tend to be mixtures of Westphal's three types. Since Christian tradition and church history provide ample examples of affirmation of life as nature (mimetic religion), affirmation of life as history (historical-covenantal religion), and affirmation of the good in human life located outside this life (exilic religion), Christianity appears without a doubt to be a mixture. Are there ways to support your primary argument by attention to religion as a mixed-type religion affirming nature, history, and the exilic transcendant?

A brief question occurs to me after reading how Westphal's categories influence your paper. Is the focus of the paper intended to be religion as such, theology, or religious practice? We often distinguish religion, theology, and religious practice, but the paper may have in mind some particular correspondences or relationships among the three.

Page three paragraph 10, indicates that Westphal's definition of covenant influences the paper. The paper describes Westphal's sense of covenant: "As Westphal has it, the covenanter sees his community and God in covenant together living through history." (This part of the definition may address partially my earlier question about revelation and divinity.) Returning to the description: "Human life is made sense of then in terms of history, and the conduct of the covenant is advanced by telling how it has gone up until now, with a defensible program for continuing it in the unique situation of the present." The community is in covenant with God, but how does the covenant affect human relationships within the community?

In a number of places, the paper appeals to analogy (for example, page 12 paragraph 34 and page 17-19 paragraphs 57-61). On page twelve, the paper observes that analogy is fashionable in theology lately, but is "usually taken as a species of univocation, not equivocation." Do you have particular theologians in mind? As a specialist in contemporary theology, I'm not sure I could illustrate that particular claim, but we may be reading different schools of theology. On page eighteen, I began to suspect that I need clarification about the meaning of univocation in analogies. Paragraphs 58 and 59 refer to Troeltsch and cite his understanding that analogy stands upon a common core of similarity, not identity. The Troeltsch quotation prefaces the assertion that he is "susceptible to a reading on which it (analogy) has a univocal core." I usually understand univocation to refer to identity, which is denied by Troeltsch in the quotation, and I would associate similarity more often with equivocation, if forced to a choice.

In addition to my need for instruction about how to understand analogy conceptually, I also need a little more tutoring in the application of analogy to history and covenant. I see that analogy fits as a treasure from critical history, but how would you interpret the ethics of life and death (contraception, abortion, euthanasia) in light of analogy? How does analogy function with respect to concrete, historical ethical problems? Clarification of this point (actually a remedy for my intelluctual lapse, I suspect) would tie together one methodological loose end for me.

3. Social Context aond the Substance of the Evidence

In the section on Social Context: (1) Evading History, the paper calls theology back to history and provides examples to demonstrate that Christianity and theology have betrayed affirmation of life as history. The section calls for a radicalized concept of analogy to remedy historical evasion. The paper claims that analogy, as linguistic and ontological, also is a process of responsibility "in which human relationships and their languaging are challenged and adjudicated in a community of moral obligation" (page 18 paragraph 61). I begin to understand better how analogy functions in the paper in light of the claim that all covenantal concepts and practices are analogical (page 19 paragraph 61).

The section concludes on page 18 with paragraph 62 with a point that I embrace and find very helpful both in articulating the standpoint of the paper and in voicing a fruitful concept of responsibility.

The dialectic of responsibility is one in which others are allowed to dissent and go their own way, but if they intend to participate in responsibility, they are obliged to show how their different proposed way to conduct a covenant might satisfy--for example--the seven canons which I have seen coming out of the Exodus in my comments above, under "Confessional obligations to the Traditions." If they cannot discharge this obligation, then eventually, they forfeit their claim to be doing covenant at all.
As the paper indicates earlier (page 3, paragraph 11), there is plurality with regard to covenant because covenanters cannot agree on how to conduct and advance covenant. My understanding is that the analogical character of covenant opens the way for similarity, but not identity, in relationship to the covenant and the community of moral obligation. The above quotation, then, suggests how to adjudicate differences and how to discern acceptable differences within a diverse covenant community. The quotation also suggests some questions. Are the seven canons against which a dissenter must defend an alternative mode of responsibility analogous rather than literal; that is, is the interpretation of covenantal canons subject to the historical critical approach? If the hermeneutical process yields analogical concepts, then aren't the canons subject to the historicity of interpretation and inculturation? If yes, then covenantal standard for responsibility is a moving target. If the canons are more literal, then what are the criteria for guaranteeing their authenticity?

The section on Social Context (2): Subverting Covenant shifts context. While much of the discussion focuses on historical-covenantal religion and particularly Christianity, the discussion expands to wider North American culture in order to demonstrate how Christian theology and responsibility have betrayed covenant in life and death matters of moral obligation, namely contraception, abortion, and euthanasia.

Based on my recent writing on religion, philosophy, abortion, forced sterilization, and genetic technology, I am in sympathy with a number of points in the analysis. I agree that both liberal pro-choice and fundamentalist pro-life platforms are seriously flawed. I appreciate significantly that contraception and abortion serve male-patterned sexual and reproductive irresponsibility (page 20 paragraph 66, page 23 paragraph 73). (In fact, during the dace of the seventies and through the mid-eighties, the extreme liberal argument for abortion-on-demand was more favored by men, especially upper-middle-class men, than women.) Like Porter, my concerns about contraception, abortion, and euthanasia extend beyond effects upon women to risks of eugenics, medical racism, coerced abortion and sterilization, and inadequate health care for the poor. History mitigates against reducing these concerns to a slippery slope fallacy. Frankly and unfortunately, history also records the risks within moral community where contraception, abortion, and euthanasia are unavailable.

With respect for the points that the paper raises about life and death issues, I would like to raise questions to extend the analysis. My first question concerns the relationship of historical-covenantal Christianity and North American culture, inclusive of sociopolitical structures. In spite of any historical connection between Christian covenant, early U.S. constitutional history, and lingering Christian moral principles in the legal system, can we hold a religiously plural and diverse culture accountable by law to ethical responsibilities attendant to Christian covenant and moral obligation? A "covenantal" critique of court decisions may conflate inappropriately legal and covenant obligations since law-making andt law-interpreting sturctures in the U.S. are not covenantal (at least, not by the definitions included in this paper).

The paper indicates that the moral damage of contraception is limited when a moral framework, such as that of Protestant Evangelicals, assures mutual respect in marriage and prohibits sex outside marriage (page 22 paragraph 72). Since the United States is religiously plural and not Christian, can we ask how Christianity and theology, not just Protestant Evangelicals, have within an historical and covenantal context attached different values to contraception than culture at large? So-called establishment, prestige theologians have contributed significantly to a theology of mutual respect in marriage; I think, for example, of James Nelson's theology. The consequences for Christian marriage among Protestants who practice contraception have been positive change in intimate relationships and positive valuation of women in their marriages and children in their families.

The paper ends with a crossroads where there is dispute about how to continue covenant responsibly. Tension at the crossroads appears to be the responsibility of prestige theology. The paper makes the strong charge that "establishment or prestige theology is to some degree in collaboration with anti-covenantal trends . . ., beginning with the subversion of history and covenant, especially in the practices of contraceptives, abortion, and euthanasia, and it is to a degree complicit even in the underlying theological changes" (page 26 paragraph 82). I agree that this charge is arguable, but contend that the charge is made too soon. The historical evidence is not complete. The charges against the establishment, prestige theology are made on the basis of a selective slice of history, which I will call "prestige or privileged history." The historical scenario, the sexual revolution, described in this paper is limited to privileged persons in North America who can afford contraception and abortion, who have access to medical care and information, who are single, and who are not necessarily Christian. I am interested that contraception (and even abortion) within marriages is not discussed at all, for example, in those cases where two parents must work full-time in order to support a family. The historical record of poor and minority women, for whom work force labor is not optional and pregnancy is not an option, is not entertained. The argument would be stronger if the historical evidence were less restricted.

4. Thesis and Proof

The thesis of the paper (page 1 paragraph 1) is that "academic theology today has treasures which could both enliven the covenantal traditions as we have them from history, and also meet the critical challenges as they come today." My observation is that what the paper proves is that theology has failed. Are there examples of academic theological positions that actualize the treasures of covenant and critical history?

5. Postscript on the Postscript

The postscript addresses the problem of generic language and inclusive language. I sympathize with Porter's concern about responseability and academic speech codes. Even among feminists, there is dispute about whether coerced language codes actually have efficacy to change attitudes and behaviors. For many reasons, including honesty of expression, I am uncomfortable with forced use of inclusive language. I long for a covenant and a community of moral obligation between men and women that fosters genuine mutual respect. Where breaches of mutuality occur in the academic context, I am doubtful that speech codes are effective and wonder whether policies on gender and racial discrimination, which are also flawed, might provide another framework for addressing attitudes and behaviors, which are masked by inclusive language.

While I share the paper's concern, I do not share its argument and I use the paper's analysis of self-deception to explain why. On page 27, paragraph 87, where prestige theologians are criticized for complicity with lifestyles generated by contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, the paper describes the anatomy of self-deception as the failure to spell out what is really going on in order to avoid the pain of spelling out. Something important is left out and disguised by a cover-story. Is the claim that generic language is truly inclusive a self-deception? What is not spelled out about generic language? Is calling upon general conventions of language for describing divided sets by the name of one subset a cover-story?

I write this response as a Christian ecofeminist theologian, and by all accounts in the paper, my comments are not useful at best and are damaging at their worst. Surprisingly, points of agreement with the paper live alongside the obvious differences couched in my questions. My final appreciation is for the criticism of environmentalism, feminism, and theology contained in the paper. As the manager for the New Christie Minstrels always says, "if you're inclined to believe the good reviews, you have to believe the bad."