Friday, May 18, 2012

Dan Migliore on Fideism

One charge that is often leveled against folks of a more Barthian persuasion is that of fideism. Barthians are fideistic, so the argument goes, because they do not accept the existence of generally accessible knowledge of the Christian God. This refusal, one is told, results in an intellectual ghettoization, since it is clear that one can only benefit from intellectual engagement with other traditions of thought if one is willing to grant them a common starting point. In other words, Barthians are told that natural theology is necessary if they want to avoid intellectual autoeroticism.

As you can well imagine, gentle readers, this argument has never satisfied me. I know that is a surprise to you, but it is true. Really, it is. So I was happy to find the following passage where Migliore helpfully distinguishes between fideism on the one hand and faith-seeking-understanding on the other. After all, what we Barthians want is a thorough version of the latter.

Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 3.
Christian faith is at bottom trust in and obedience to the free and gracious God made known in Jesus Christ. Christian theology is this same faith in the mode of asking questions and struggling to find at least provisional answers to these questions. Authentic faith is no sedative for world-weary souls, no satchel full of ready answers to the deepest questions of life. Instead, faith in God revealed in Jesus Christ sets an inquiry in motion, fights the inclination to accept things as there are, and continually calls in question unexamined assumptions about God, our world, and ourselves. Consequently, Christian faith has nothing in common with indifference to the search for truth, or fear of it, or the arrogant claim to possess it fully. True faith must be distinguished from fideism. Fideism says there comes a point where we must stop asking questions and must simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking.
As always, the emphasis is mine.

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10 comments:

Bobby Grow said...

Nice, Travis! And amen. I grow weary of this charge myself! The entry point into knowledge of God is the faith of Jesus himself pro nobis. And if Jesus is the telos of creation, then it seems futile to try and know God through an abstracted creation that is somehow annexed from its true point, Jesus! 'Faith seeking understanding' is the only worthy prolegomena available.

david driedger said...

When I read this post and quote it strikes me as proving the point you are trying to shed, namely that your theological project is not intellectually auto-erotic. This post and quote will convince neither the 'fideist' whoever he or she may be. Nor will it be of much interest to those who level the charge of fideism against barthians. So it becomes, as Bobby demonstrates, a rallying cry for internal support. Which is fine, but perhaps a little auto-erotic.
I am not a systematic theologian so I don't throw terms like fideism around much but I have been frustrated in conversation with "folks of a more Barthian persuasion". I have not found that my 'faith-seeking-understanding' needs to create a clear epistemological hierarchy of priority (i.e. I have been open to the accusation of natural theology). Then when I try to engage barthian theologians about the value of other such resources (most primarily one's actual experience, perception, and engagement in the world) I tend to simply get shouted down with some sort of theological maxim that is not unpacked in any articulate or intelligible manner (accept according the parameters they have already accepted . . . which I have not).
All this to say that if people create a particular epistemological hierarchy, that is fine, just be more up front about it (as some have been).
So in this way the quote does smack of auto-eroticism in that I can only see it as buoying up the 'faithful'. Again, not a bad thing, I just don't see it fitting with what you are trying accomplish here.

W. Travis McMaken said...

David,

I suspect that you have been talking to representatives of a group that I like to call "un-reconstructed Barthians," which is to say that they are Barthian in only a very limited sense. That is, they hold doctrinal positions similar to Barth's but without understanding the deep impulses of Barth's theology. One finds these folks especially in Anglophone theology, and it results from Anglophone theology's general failure to grasp the point of Barth's earlier dialectical theology period. Those (of us?) who have done so are not nearly so skittish in talking about "one's actual experience, perception, and engagement in the world," albeit we do so from a particular angle of attack.

In any case, thanks for the comment!

Bobby Grow said...

So Travis,

In what way does your Barthian angle inform your engagement of the world?

I see what David is talking about (as far as public and private theology and respectability), but I don't think, dogmatically speaking, we can ultimately speak from any other angle other than the angle that Jesus has commandeered and redeemed all of creation. Such that even when the 'world' speaks pace certain 'secular' norms that these then only become parables that have already been taken up and reified in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. In other words, I don't think it's possible to speak as if creation isn't always already Christ-conditioned ... which is quite dialectic.

W. Travis McMaken said...

All that I'm prepared to say on the blog as of yet is that I think Reformation theology compels us to be practical atheists / functional secularists. Engaging thusly with the world means that one takes it much more seriously, in a certain respect.

How's that for cryptic? ;-)

Bobby Grow said...

I'll just call you the "Crypt keeper" ;-).

Mike said...

"Fideism says there comes a point where we must stop asking questions and must simply believe; faith keeps on seeking and asking."

I agree with this intellectually, but I do wonder how one distinguishes this definition of fideism from a day-to-day living with unanswered questions. How do we live, work, pray faithfully if we don't have all the answers? We "must simply believe" at some point, to some extent, right?

I hope you'll say more at some point about your (to me, rather surprising) contention that Reformed theology "compels us to be practical atheists/functional secularists." If you mean the Reformed tradition compels us to be active and engaged in the world, where folks who don't share our commitments are also active, then, yes, that makes sense. But I wouldn't accept that we are to do so without any witness to Christ. I am sure I don't understand how you're using the terms "practical atheism" and "functional secularism," so I look forward to hearing more.

I very much appreciated Dr. Migliore's book and lectures when I was at PTS, and still do. Thanks for this post.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Mike,

All too briefly...

I don't think there is a conflict between simply believing and continuing to ask questions. Faith seeking understanding does not ask questions so much in the sense of doubting, but in the sense of always seeking further clarity. You can only do faith seeking understanding in a certain sense if you already simply believe.

I will say more at some point, but this is tied up with an offline research trajectory. Suffice it to say for now that neither of your proffered descriptions is entirely accurate. ;-)

Alexander said...

Hi Travis,
so you're writing that Reformation theology compels us to be practical atheists / functional secularists. Well, since you're being provocative let me give my two Euro-cents to it ;)
Doesn't your comment raise the question whether theology actually explains anything at all - or, to put it differently (and here Migliore's quote is ambiguous), does the quaerere intellectum not do more than just raise one question after another? Are we just "Living the questions?" On the other hand, you say you're trying to reach "further clarity." So no, we're not just living the questions, but even a few partial answers. Doesn't that call into question your position above? To push the case through, we'd fool ourselves if those partial answers that require further clarification always only made sense to Christians. Certainly secularists can't affirm all of them, as they're rejecting other parts of our picture. But at the same time Christians are not living in a separate world for themselves. That's the corner into which a knee-jerk reaction against natural theology has painted itself. This area is really quite messy. Speaking of messy, who wrote the following quote? (Make of it what you will - I just tried to spell out what's going on there, but the post got too long, and now I'm cutting it short :) )
"Here, in the church, a conjecturing is taking place in fact, a surmising with regard to God's essence, by means of human experience of the world - in such a way as it does in fact not take place outside of the church. Here one actually deduces the highest good, 'ascending' from relative, finite goods - keeping in mind the inadequacy of the insights and statements that can be attained."
It's Barth, Fides quaerens intellectum (Zurich: TVZ, 1981), p. 120 (translation mine). No, Barth is not castigating the errors of liberals and Catholics, he is setting forth his own constructive suggestion as to how theology should proceed...

W. Travis McMaken said...

Hi Alexander,

Responding off the cuff...

I would tend to think that theology ought to explain everything and nothing: everything insofar as it deals with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and nothing insofar as the veracity this explanation is not in any way generally accessible. Sure, those from outside the posture of faith might be able to appreciate it and recognize some of its force, etc, but I would recoil from a suggestion that the Christian picture is verifiable outside the fiduciary circle.

As far as Barth, you undoubtedly know (or would at least suspect) that I think Barth continued to develop a bit past that point. He still seems a bit too neo-Kantian in this sort of transcendental move (he does similar things in CD 1.1); while I would say this is generally his formal position, it is (as presented here) still too materially abstract.