22 January 2006

why i do what i do

In an email exchange awhile ago, I was asked about my interests in theology, sacraments, and ecumenism, given that I am, by profession, a philosopher. I thought it would useful to that conversation to give some sense of where I'm coming from in terms of wider context, interests, and motivations.

Since I'm not up to blogging anything more substantive at the moment, I thought I'd pass along the gist of that email as providing some context for what I do here.

[1] My primary areas of professional expertise include "philosophical theology," which is something like systematic theology with a philosophy emphasis.

As I write elsewhere:

My primary academic interest is philosophical theology in service to the church.

Philosophical theology - at least as I do it - is a kind of combination of systematic theology, historical theology, and biblical theology, bringing the tools and perspectives of philosophy to bear upon issues of faith, particularly in terms of meta-issues of how our assumptions (in terms of ontology, epistemology, and so on) affect and shape theology and where they fit in the unfolding history of theological thought.

Moreover, I see this interest as one that is best nurtured in the context of a liturgical piety rooted in the word and sacraments, in conversation with the wider traditions of the Christian church of all ages.

Other interests include postmodernism, moral theology/philosophy, and epistemology.
More specifically, I've found sacramental theology a fascinating and helpful lens on a range of philosophical and theological issues such as [a] the relation between nature and grace, [b] the ontology of divine causation in the world, [c] the epistemological implications of how the sacraments function as assuring seals, [d] the nature of "signs" and performative acts in a social context, and so on.

[2] I also do a lot of work and teaching in medieval and early modern intellectual history, particularly some of the transformations and shifts that were introduced in the wake of later medieval philosophy (post-Scotus), the effects of philosophical nominalism, and the rise of "the modern" - particularly as we look back upon that from the standpoint of "postmodernism."

In part, my interests lie in how we can deploy a more pre-modern catholicity (as that was transmitted, retrieved, and adapted by the Protestant Reformers) in order to respond effectively to the postmodern condition. Part of that requires an appreciation of the nature of signs and actions as effective means by which identity and community are formed, sustained, and reproduced.

[3] My own personal history and experience leaves me with a strong ecumenical impulse. I can go into that in more detail if anyone would like. Suffice it to say that I've been forced to face the history of sad divisions within the church and to work closely together in ministry with Christians from various traditions.

A number of major figures in the Reformed tradition, not least Calvin himself, maintained a deep and abiding interest in pan-Protestant unity and, thereby, formulating Reformed doctrine in a way that would leave the door open to greater rapprochement between themselves, Lutherans, Anglicans, etc. A number of Reformed divines saw such doctrinal and institutional unity among Protestants as an important step in their continuing witness to what they saw as errors in the Roman church and, they hoped, an eventual move towards the reunification of western Christendom.

Such an ecumenically orthodox Protestant perspective is particularly important today, I think, as various forces (e.g., secularism, versions of postmodernism, open theism, some aspects of emergent and post-conservative thought, etc.) tend to water down more comprehensive confessional expressions of the faith. Moreover, as denominational identities are held more loosely than ever, greater unity among classical Protestants can have an important missional role, especially on the local level.

I'm not sure if this makes for a particularly interesting blog post, but perhaps it helps illuminate some of my interests and concerns.