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Theological Notebook: Students, Truth, and Pannenberg

The students in the Modern Christian Thought class kept me on my toes this week. Predictably, they found some of the hermeneutical philosophy background thick going (Gadamer, Ricœur) and found it easier to discuss the theologians we read something about (Wolfhart Pannenberg and David Tracy receiving more attention of this sort). Thursday's discussion of primary source texts focused on Pannenberg, where we looked at an old Christian Century popular article highlighting his overall theological approach, set in a semi-autobiographical sketch ("God's Presence in History"), as well as excerpts on the nature of systematic theology and the doctrine of God from his An Introduction to Systematic Theology.

This was especially interesting for me in that Pannenberg has long appealed to me as a thinker. I discovered him toward the end of my state university undergraduate, as his magnum opus Systematic Theology began to come out in English translation, which I found on the New Books shelves at Founders Library, and which made me almost melt in relief to find a contemporary theologian who took the category of history as seriously as he did, having found far too much of 20th century theology to be a weak dodge of such questions, myself. I missed my chance to hear or talk with him at the University of Chicago some years ago, only hearing about his presence after the fact, much to my irritation. (Out of the major theologians we've read about in the course, most of whom were dead, of course, by the time I woke up, I think I've only met Gustavo Gutiérrez, who is now at Notre Dame, and John Macquarrie, who I escorted for an afternoon at ND, without having the sense to write up the occasion in my journal: I have vague memories in my head of walking around outside the Law Library with him, talking about Existentialism....)

As I suspected, the students really centered in on Pannenberg's emphasis on truth as the central quest or criterion for systematic theology. I expected the relativist/post-modern aspects of the students' backgrounds to come to the fore in discussing this material, and, if that was indeed the roots of their thinking, I was not disappointed in their arguing over precisely that question. There was some conversation over his willingness to use multiple points of entry to his investigation, a very late-modern or post-modern "web" approach to knowledge or hermeneutics that surprised some students, given the extent to which they had gotten used to some sort of foundationalism in the approach to knowledge in what they have generally heard or in some of the Moderns we have read. Anticipating our final course session next week, where we look at recent Christian theologies of world religions (as the sheer fact of the world's religions has only relatively recently become a major or foreground "problem" of Christian theology), the students were particularly interested or occasionally uncomfortable with the question of truth as particularly applied to the existence of a multiplicity of religions. Whether there was the late liberal distaste for saying that anyone might be incorrect about anything, or whether even asking the question was an automatically-biased, Western construction – these questions bubbled up with interest and energy from the crowd. The analogy of scientific investigation (Pannenberg being particularly interested in the coexistence of the physical sciences and theology) to theological investigation came up, and students debated the merits or the strength of that analogy.

It posed an interesting teaching moment for me, since it was pretty easy for me to suspect that I was seeing a typical – even stereotypical – popular postmodern relativism at work in the students, leading to fairly predictable reservations at Pannenberg's description of the work of theology. But I had to check myself at some level on that point, asking myself during the discussion whether there might also be present here some sort of generational shift in insight or perception that could show me a blind spot in my own thinking. As usual, our 75 minutes together went by all too quickly, and I couldn't come to any final sorts of conclusions as to the significance of the student reaction to this particular material. I'd like to follow that discussion up, though, with at least some of the students, and have toyed with the idea of seeing if any of them are around campus, available,and interested in more conversation on the topic this weekend (although I suspect that a lot of this conversation will continue on Tuesday as we look at the Christian theologies of world religions of the last fifty years), despite the attractions of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, which is in full swing this weekend. Along with the actual jazz, The Beach Boys, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are all performing this weekend, so that's some pretty huge competition.

There was also some interesting discussion of the co-extensive nature of religious experience and theological reflection, given both Pannenberg's discussion of how these two interact in systematic theology (or ought to) and Pannenberg's own brief autobiographical account in the Christian Century article linked above. Questions flowed from students as to which was chronologically or logically prior, and of the relative weights to be extended to both, particularly with regard to the stated goal of seeking truth. Again, Pannenberg's willingness to start from, or to integrate, multiple starting points was something to consider here, and, as usual, it was entirely exciting for me to see students taking over the discussion and kicking these ideas around in a serious way.
Tags: books, class-modern christian thought, mysticism/spirituality, notre dame, pannenberg, philosophical, students, systematic theology, teaching, theological methodology, theological notebook

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