on May 12, 2003
Dr. Kathryn Tanner has provided theologians and students with an excellent introduction to the postmodern study of culture as it intersects with the task of theology.
She begins her work with an overview of recent trends in cultural theory tracing the history of the modern, and then the postmodern, concept of "culture". After tracing the paths by which the French, German, British conceptions of "culture" and "the cultured" evolved into the modern (i.e. Enlightenment) anthropological notion of culture as a "group-differentiating, holistic, nonevaluative, and context-relative notion" (p.24),
Tanner argues to the contrary that cultures do not exist as internally consistent wholes, rooted in the consensus of their constituencies. Neither can culture become a principle for the ordering of a society if beliefs and values are part and parcel of what is at stake in disagreements over social order. According to her, cultures are not stable in any sense, but operate according to quite fluid conventions, with varying interpretations of loosely connected and logically incompatible elements and no sharply-bounded or self-contained units. For Tanner, it seems that one never steps into the same cultural river even once.
Having justly chastened modernist cultural studies, Tanner attempts their postmodern reconstruction in a project that privileges complexity over order and engagement over agreement. Tanner's postmodern presentation of cultural study consummates the modernist critique of ethnocentricism by demonstrating that the anthropologist's own complex and diverse culture is subject to the same deconstruction as the culture under investigation.
Turning to the prospects of this new approach to cultural anthropology for theological studies, Tanner argues that theology must be viewed as a part of culture, as a form of cultural activity. She then makes great effort to point out how the current theological approaches suffer from their inattention to postmodern cultural anthropology and particularly to the manner in which they recapitulate modernist mistakes.
A postmodern cultural theory admits that Christian culture cannot be defined by its relationship to other cultures or by the internal structures that pretend to give it coherence (shared conceptions of tradition, dogmatic rules, or style). Instead, Christian culture achieves its coherence through its being a "culture of argument" centered around a shared concern for the meaning of true discipleship. Tanner writes, "This is what I have been arguing all Christian arguments are like: they are agreements about how to have an argument, an argument that can, at any particular point, turn back against what was initially agreed upon, in an effort to rework it." (p 174)
Tanner's project makes several important contributions to the contemporary conversations regarding the relationship of theology to culture. The first (and perhaps most important) is her careful attention to the most recent trends within cultural anthropology and postmodern theory. The interdisciplinary currency of this project is especially welcome in a time when many theologies trade on ideas that are regarded as passé by specialists in the non-theological fields. Also to be appreciated is Tanner's concern for the humility of the theologian's task in light of the enormous complexity of our own cultural orientation. The temptation to reify a heavily acculturated expression of our faith (a theological confession or a particular liturgical expression, for example) is a particularly dangerous job hazard for theologians.
Regarding some of the more problematic features of Tanner's project, I will simply raise some humble questions. As attractive as her notion of what it means to be culturally Christian is (a culture of argument, the primacy of process, etc.), I would raise the issue of where this "process" is taking us. What is its proposed telos?" Is there centrifugal momentum leading us to an ever greater diversity regarding even the most basic Christian truth claims, or a centripetal momentum which leads us to a greater fidelity to the God who reveals himself objectively in Christ? Put differently, Tanner seems to have little room in her program for eschatology (a theology of ends).
Secondly, I find it problematic that Christian praxis is always determinative for what it means to be Christian. I found myself asking whether some supposedly "Christian" practices are not objectively unfaithful or deficient in their witness to the Christ? Tanner's proposed remedy is that, "Christians should be content in their search for consensus with the most that progress in Christian argument would seem to accomplish on that front: negatively, the ruling out of bounds of certain judgments about the meaning of Christian discipleship whose erroneous character has become a matter of uncontroversial recognition, while positively, simply setting the direction for further controversy to move in (p.173)." In response, I would ask whether one could ever be justifiably excommunicated in that scenario? This is an especially pressing concern in light of Tanner's seeming denial that an uncontroversial consensus ever appears in historical fact (p. 124).
We do well to avoid an overly narrow conception of what it means to be Christian. The opposite error, however, would be to withhold from human beings the normative grace of the church's regulative authority. It is because the church is the "universal sacrament of salvation," and not because there is a universal and uncontroversial consensus, that we may affirm the inexorable link between the meaning of the word "Christian" and the church wherein this word is taught and rules are established for its proper use.
One may still ask, "What happens when the church gets it wrong?" Here we do well to remember that the Spirit's work is properly understood in terms of centuries and millennia, not in hours and days. We live in the hope that, while presently a mixed body, Christian culture is making progress by the Word and Spirit into all truth.