Francis Schüssler Fiorenza (husband of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, author of In Memory of Her, ) describes the current state of theology in an essay about 25 years old. He has insights to offer, no doubt. That said, he is not a good place to start the business of theology; so, I would not recommend him to anyone. Data to follow.
Well, first, let’s follow up on his wife. Her work in In Memory of Her is indeed something that one who is equipped should study – a trained grad student, for instance. Certainly wouldn’t be the first trick I pulled out of my bag for untrained theologians. Let me relate one anecdote from this book. She is trying to “relate” feminist concerns with the traditional piety of Christians. Here’s her analogy: “It is usually assumed that spirituality has something to do with the life of the ‘soul’, prayer life and worship, meditation.” She goes on to describe ascesis, prayer, indwelling of Christ, etc. That’s all traditional. Now she’s going to try to “relate”: “In a similar fashion [buckle up] feminist spirituality can be occupied with meditation and incantations, spells and incense, womb chant and candle gazing….” (p. 344). Gosh darn. I didn’t know that Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament could be put on par with womb chant. Was “spells” a slip of the pen, or is something amiss? Can we baptize Wiccan if they use incense? What the…?
Alright, so much for the association. It is important to know history and its associations. This should not prejudge our reading of Francis F, but it might make us more attentive to the “signs of the times”.
On p. 2 of his essay, Francis S. Fiorenza writes, “In its relation to faith, theology shares the fragility of faith itself. It is much more a hope than a science. It is much more like a raft bobbing upon the waves of the sea than a pyramid based on solid ground,” Chap. 1 of Systematic Theology, ed. Galvin and Fiorenza.
An interesting image. What first comes to mind when I read this is James 1:3f, 6f:
“You know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”
James rebukes the image of the doubter. Fiorenza seems to promote it. Of course, their subjects are not identical. Fiorenza is speaking of theology; James of faith and revelation. Does the contradiction then ease? Somewhat, but not absolutely. In fact, let’s ask what the basis of theology is. What is it? Revelation and faith. The deposit. Question: Is this a solid base, or a flimsy up-for-grabs interpretation? Dogma answers: Solid base, absolutely irrevocable, utterly certain, firm, and wide. So, theology’s base is firm. And on this basis, theologians through the centuries have judged that certain truths can be argued out, that certainty can be achieved. (Not always, of course. There are plenty of “hypotheses” in theology. Plenty of suggested analogies. But not all is uncertain.) Now, when argument intervenes to get you certainty, the certainty is on the order of reason, not on the order of faith. Nor is the conclusion philosophical. It is neither of “natural reason” nor of divine faith. That is, the conclusion is theological, and my certainty in it is not divine but rather human; however, it is grounded in the faith. Does Fiorenza’s image allow this? Unlikely.
Things get worse quickly. Fiorenza acknowledges the Scriptures as a constant in theology, yet he quickly allows interpretation to get the upper hand, effectively: “Yet, the meaning of the Scriptures depends upon their interpretation.” P. 7.
Worse is how he thinks of the Scriptures. He observes that the Scriptures are evidence of rational reflection on the mysteries at hand, e.g., on Jesus. This is true, of course. But he takes that as pretext to downplay the authoritative, inerrant, inspired, and God-authored truth of the Scriptures. How? He notes that “all the writings are theological.” He stresses that the Gospels are written “for their particular pastoral situations.” He notes that the Scriptures “embody specific and differing theological visions” (8-9).
What are we supposed to do with this? First, note the silence on the Scriptures as the revealed Word, inerrant. A deafening silence. Second, note the absence of any recognition that the Scriptures present truth claims to be acknowledged across ages: ontologically dense truth claims, as JPII put it (Fides et ratio). Third, note the absence of any affirmation that all these interpretations are harmonious, not at odds with one another. He didn’t come outright and said that they contradict, as the 2 Sam entry in International Bible Commentary asserts, an assertion so utterly contradictory to Vatican I and Vatican II. On the other hand, Fiorenza doesn’t correct such a reading. That’s too bad. How did the Fathers deal with this kind of difference in Scripture? They showed how the difference was not a contradiction; we might say that was foremost in their mind. Why? Because our religion is not myth. It is not mere subjectivity transcending itself into something higher. It is objective. It has basis. It is true. The Fathers also highlighted how each witness contributes something unique. Not contradictory but unique. In this way, the truth is built up. But if you take the Scriptures as contradictory, then what? Well, you the author of your own decision, make the decision on what is true and false. YOU DECIDE. Sounds like Scriptures are Fox News. How absurd.
What follows in Fiorenza’s essay is a smorgasbord tour of theological “approaches.” This is a typical way of approaching theology, a kind of meta-theology. It is method gone wrong. How so? Once again, it lays out supposed “options” as to how one ought to go about “doing theology.” Reader take your pick and “go to it.”
Well, one of those options – or that of a few of them – is to start with dogma, with the Deposit, and base everything on that and/or work towards that.
Now, that this option is just “one” of the many from which to choose allows the reader to start wherever he wishes and “just go at it.” In short, dogma becomes optional. Oh, it hangs in there very remotely, watered down (and shriveled up), cowering in some corner somewhere. But this sicklied over dogma, ill and wheezing in the corner, wiping its nose of mucous, cannot compete with the legions of weapons brought to bear against it. What weapons? Well, you could start with “liberation” and make your own vision of liberation the determinant. Again, you could start with “modern science” and make its latest consensus your starting point. Again, you could start with a gut feeling as to what must be right and make it your starting point. Then, put the dialogue between your starting point and the dying dogma. Perhaps you learn something from dogma, but not without beating it some more.
The brief hotchpotch tour of theology ends with this summary statement: “The challenge [of theology] is to reconstruct the integrity of the church’s tradition in light of relevant background theories and warrants from contemporary experience” (p. 84). Wow. I didn’t realize the Deposit needed help. Apparently the deposit isn’t enough: “An adequate theological method embraces diverse sources and a plurality of criteria.” Hm. Well, so long as reason does not judge the Dogma of Tradition, this could be right. I mean, we are enlightened also by recta ratio (right reason). Is this what he means? No: “Theological method does not consist simply in correlating contemporary questions with traditional answers or symbols.” Wow. I didn’t think of genuine theology as a collation only. But oh well.
After that straw man is dismissed, we get the real beef: “Instead theological method consists of making judgments about what constitutes the integrity of the tradition and what is paradigmatic about the tradition.” (all ibid). Well, then, I suppose that the old dogma, with the “same sense and the same judgment” (Vatican I; Vatican II; Pope St. John XXIII) is that sick dog in the corner, which I can beat with a broom if I wish. Time to “sweep house”. We are the teachers. The authority is we.
A. MacIntyre points out how awful it is when the Discipline of Tradition is lost. What we get is various attempts to wrest control of the discipline. These “meta-theories” have been the fashion for some time, probably since the 70’s. They don’t really allow one to gaze at the Truth, who sets us free.