What Am I Reading? Thomas Oden, “A Change of Heart”

I’ve always been a sucker for biographies. So when IVP published an autobiography by Thomas C. Oden, I was interested. To be clear, I had a very limited idea of Oden’s identity and significance. From my Wheaton days, I remember seeing his systematics on shelves, and I knew his name in association with the Ancient Christian Commentary series (also published by IVP). My subconscious had associated the term “paleo-orthodoxy” with all this as well. So with these associations in mind, and in view of some hints that the work revealed interesting aspects of mid-20th century North American academic culture, I seized the opportunity to learn more.*

Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).

There are a number of interesting parts of this book, and I don’t intend to short-change it. I’ll be posting another time or two to give you glimpses of some of those parts. But I feel compelled to say at the outset that I developed a rather complicated relationship with this book (and with Oden, by extension) as I read it. The basic plot structure is that Oden grows up in a very socially engaged and progressive form of mid-20th century Methodism, academically pursuing the intersection of Bultmannian theology and psychoanalysis, before turning his back on all of that—having realized its bankruptcy—and working for a reclamation of patristic “consensual Christianity” (passim).** Consequently, the book paints his earlier radicalism (both theological and political) in a very negative light, and functions as something of an apology for his later conservatism (again, both theological and political). As someone who is deeply sympathetic with Oden’s early progressive theology and politics,*** I cannot but lament the (what I see as) polemical mischaracterizations of these positions offered throughout the work. This made the book a rather uncomfortable read at times.

That said, I’m deeply sympathetic to Oden because he and I (and by no means do I intend to suggest that I am as historically significant as he) have moved on opposite trajectories: he from a political and theological radicalism to a political and theological conservatism, and I from a political and theological conservatism to a political and theological radicalism. So when Oden laments that the problem with his radicalism was that it was unmoored from the Christian intellectual tradition, and that he finally realized that he needed to plumb that tradition, the polemics fail to sting me precisely because whatever radicalism I possess is a direct consequence and outgrowth of my immersion in the tradition. And what Oden’s own biography prevents him from seeing in sufficient clarity, I submit, is that there are forms of the early theology and politics that he renounced—although not the ones with which he was himself engaged, perhaps—that belong within the Christian tradition rather than without. It made this writer wish that Oden had been better grounded in the tradition in the first place, thereby allowing him to approach these issues with (what would, in my humble opinion, be) greater balance.

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* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

** It is highly significant that Oden takes the Apostles’ Creed as the quintessential articulation of this consensual position: “Those who can recite the Apostles’ Creed with full integrity of conviction and live out Christian moral norms, as well as worship in Spirit and truth, are all part of a classic consensual family of faith” (299). Why not the Nicene Creed? The reason that presents itself to my mind is that the Apostles’ explicitly claims bodily resurrection where the Nicene does not. “Consensual Christianity” for Oden seems to equal acceptance of pre-modern interpretations of things like resurrection and incarnation, as well as a rejection of abortion, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc. As a close friend of mine has argued, Oden decided that he wanted to intellectually inhabit the ancient Mediterranean culture (or, I would add, an idealized reconstruction of that culture) rather than modern North American culture. (Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing [PTS Library dissertation version], 280ff)

*** One of the most interesting aspects of this work is how, in the first 100 pages or so, one is treated to an overview of theology and church politics in the mid-20th century, including the not insignificance place of socialism in that context. It would seem that our society as a whole, like Oden himself, has engaged in a retrograde movement for the past half-century or so.

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