Interview with Thomas Oden

Thomas Oden
Monday, August 13th 2007
Sep/Oct 1995

Dr. Thomas Oden, formerly a liberal theologian, came to classical Christianity by reading the ancient church fathers, particularly the Eastern divines. Now, he is one of the leading theologians of a growing movement for “postmodern orthodoxy.” Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in Madison, NJ, Dr. Oden is the author of such outstanding works as After Modernity…What?, and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements.

MR: After the failed experiments of liberalism, both in theology and in politics, and the obsession with idealism, both on the left and the right, do you get the sense that the people in our generation feel like they’re on a road to nowhere?

ODEN: Well, the road may seem it’s to nowhere, but God’s providence in history is always hedging that road. And even if we may inwardly or subjectively feel that we’re in a tremendously confusing historical period, Christians understand that great opportunities are being given to us to respond to this particular historical situation. It is not to nowhere, although we experience that; we feel it at times.

MR: You are a Yale man, a University of Heidelberg man. You were definitely in the club. Can you tell us what was instrumental in turning you from liberalism to postmodern orthodoxy?

ODEN: I’m really a son of the liberal tradition. I came up through United World Federalists, the Students for Democratic Action, the Civil Rights Revolution. Then I was interested in existential philosophy and psychology, engaged in psychotherapeutic experimentation of various kinds. You mentioned the term “failed experiment.” I think I tried them all, well, almost all of them. And I think my students taught me that what they needed most, and these were students who have emerged out of modern universities, and therefore had the disciplines of modern inquiry into history, modern inquiry into psychological analysis, and so forth, was the Christian testimony without dilution from modern categories. I think I had to learn how to do that. I taught theology for probably 20 years without being a theologian.

MR: What is postmodernism? How do you define that?

ODEN: All that I mean by “postmodernity” is the survival of the devastations of modern consciousness. Many of us are still trying to discover our identity; we’re trying to survive. I do not have in mind, primarily, a literary theory. If you ask people in the university what postmodernism is really about, they would either say it’s a political theory, or a literary theory, or a hermeneutical theory, that is, a theory of interpretation. I’m really concerned about the person who is struggling with the suffering that modernity has caused. I believe that modernity has been the source of enormous human suffering.

MR: What would be the specific sources of modern suffering?

ODEN: The premises of self-assertiveness, of absolute relativism, reducing sex to orgasm, and reducing political life to the exertion of power. Naturalistic reductionism is what I call it, but it’s the tendency to try to reduce any description to a scientific empirical description. We’ve had enough of that. We’ve got a belly-full of that. Now we’re looking for ways of connecting with wisdoms that emerge, not simply out of modernity, but out of the past, the premodern situation.

MR: Do you think, just at this time when everybody’s talking about getting beyond modernity, evangelicals, unfortunately, are chasing after it? For instance, we see the church growth movement following sociology or pop-psychology being preached from the pulpit instead of the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures and of the apostolic witness. Do you think the churches, even in the evangelical tradition, are becoming more captive to modernity at the time when the culture itself is saying “enough” with modernity?

ODEN: There is a great hunger in evangelical circles to connect with the contemporary mind, and that’s as it should be, because the Christian message has a mission to the culture, so I think that’s positive. However, to make that connection by means of accommodation, rather than standing in significant dialogue with the culture, is dangerous. You see, we evangelicals are not ready for dialogue with the culture. We’re so bound up with the assumptions of modernity that it’s very difficult to gain a foothold of historical awareness by which we could become critics of modern consciousness. I believe that’s something Christians are capable of contributing to the crisis of modern consciousness. But I don’t think we’ve learned very well how to do it, because we have lacked historical awareness.

MR: Do we not know enough theology? Is it that we don’t know enough of the truth of Scripture to be able to distinguish when we are being actually formed and shaped by the culture, rather than by Scripture?

ODEN: I think that we have great gaps in our knowledge of scripture. But one of the things I’m particularly interested in is the first thousand years of Christian consciousness, and a consensual mode of interpretation of Scripture that emerged over that period. In other words, it seems to me that every text of Scripture was worked and reworked, and reworked, in different emergent cultural settings in the first thousand years. And there was, in that first millennium, a significant tradition of consensual Scriptural interpretation. That tradition fragmented in the medieval period, in the Reformation period, and by the time we get to the modern period, it is totally atomized. And with our modern individualism, we have made ourselves the focus of interpretation. In other words, here I sit with my Bible in hand, and it’s just me and the text, and mostly my subjective consciousness. Now, what we’ve deprived ourselves of is that great cloud of witnesses for twenty centuries, witnesses who have suffered martyrdom, and have gone through all kinds of historic challenges, and have been confronted by many different cultural situations than simply modern consciousness. We have a lot to learn from those folks.

MR: You think of Luther and Calvin, and their extensive references to the early fathers. They were saying, “wait a second, we are Catholic,” in that larger sense, not in the sense of being Roman Catholic, but in the sense of belonging to the whole history of the Christian church. And don’t we often, these days, set out to create a successful church based on Madison Avenue, rather than on the apostolic witness?

ODEN: Right. And that is a form of accommodation to modern culture. We’re taking over the methods of management, of public relations, of various kinds of sociological, psychological interpretations, and we’re identifying that with the Christian message. In some cases, all we are is reflectors, or mirrors of the culture. And I think we’ve got something much better to give.

MR: You think, for instance, of Newsweek’s cover story some time ago, “The Curse of Self-Esteem.” And a growing chorus of books seem to be talking about the culture getting bored of pop-psychology. And yet, it’s the same time that the church seems to be so enamored with it in sermon after sermon on Jesus, as though he were Saturday Night Live‘s Stuart Smalley.

ODEN: As a matter of fact, the field that we call “pastoral care” is a very good example of this accommodation. I, in fact, did an empirical study of the references in recent works on pastoral care and found (this was about 15 years ago) numerous references to Freud and the post-Freudians, to Jung, and to the Behaviorists, and absolutely no references to Gregory the Great, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, the Greek Christian pastoral writers, or Thomas Aquinas, or Luther, and Calvin. These are sources that have been available to us all the time. They’ve been sitting there in our libraries. Every library has these texts. But we have consistently and systematically deprived ourselves of those texts. So, what pastoral care has tended to become, until very recently, is simply accommodation to modern psychotherapy. That’s all it is.

MR: Are we trying to become so relevant, that we end up really having nothing to offer the culture?

ODEN: Well, that is where relevance becomes irrelevant, and where you have a syndrome of accommodation and toleration that finally ends up incapable of witness because we don’t know who we are.

MR: You make the point that evangelicals, and fundamentalists specifically, share something in common with modernity, and with liberals, in fact. They are much more alike than either would like to admit. In what ways are fundamentalists and liberals alike?

ODEN: I’m making a very simple point, that fundamentalism is an extremely modern notion. It is far less in touch with the early Christian writers, the martyrs, the saints, the writers of the early Christian period, and certainly with the Reformation writers. I would make a distinction between Christian orthodoxy and fundamentalism.

MR: Interesting. Related to that, you write, “Why are these five concerns more fundamental than others, such as divine providence, justification by grace through faith, or the Triune God? What is the ordering principal of selection? Where is the church, the Holy Spirit, sanctification, sin? All of this supports an ironic correlation.” Then you go on to say that “Modern fundamentalism is more akin to liberalism than either one of them would be willing to admit. So it is not surprising that fundamentalism was far less interested in the doctrinal significance of the Resurrection than the fact of the Resurrection. It did not defend the doctrinal meaning, or confessional import of the virgin birth, nearly so vigorously as the fact of the virgin birth.” This is inevitable without roots, isn’t it?

ODEN: Right, I think we’re probably going to be condemned to repeat the past and its failures if we don’t understand something about it. It’s such a rich past; we all have good reason to understand it. Let it speak for itself. Simply take the text of Augustine’s Confessions and read it. Let it speak to us as modern people.

MR: This is my favorite line in After Modernity…What?: “When a theologian forgets the distinction between heterodoxy and orthodoxy, it is roughly equivalent to a physician forgetting the difference between disease and health, or ax and scalpel.”

ODEN: Well, we have forgotten, haven’t we? We don’t know how to make that distinction. We’re afraid to make the distinction. It scares us to death even to talk about it. But it is an essential word in the church’s vocabulary.

MR: You also write, “The leading candidate for ‘Most Ugly Issue In Theology Today’ is unquestionably, heresy. We avoid it like bubonic plague.” Why?

ODEN: Because we are programmed to affable religious permissiveness, and the rhetoric of compliance. It is what has been called the “Protestant smile.”

MR: Do you think that part of the one aspect of modernity to which we’ve capitulated, not only liberals, but evangelicals, is sentimentalism?

ODEN: Right. We really want to be part of the club, and the club is the modern club. That is, we want to be a part of modern power structures. We want to influence the society, and we do pay a very heavy price for that. I think it’s largely a price of amnesia, a loss of identity, a loss of self.

MR: You’re talking about heresy within the context of liberalism, but there’s a way in which evangelicals begin to say, “Well, you know, one person’s truth is another person’s heresy.” What do we say to a person who says this?

ODEN: Well, to place the question in that way is to assume that all ideas are born equal, and to assume that there is no basis for rational discourse about the truth value of any idea. So, if you take the premise of radical tolerationism, if that becomes an absolute value for you, then you’ve already given up the philosophical quest; you’ve given up the quest for truth because there’s no basis for it unless you want to question your own absolute value.

MR: But don’t you sacrifice academic freedom, Dr. Oden, if you expect pastors or Christian scholars to follow a particular confessional line? Aren’t you restricting their freedom and their civil rights?

ODEN: No, their freedom is not restricted, because all confessions of faith are free. If you confess faith, it can never be coerced, can it?

MR: Interestingly enough, TIME magazine ran a special issue on approaching the year 2000, and former ambassador to Austria, and former publisher of TIME, had this to say:

“Secular humanism, a respectable term, even though it became a right wing swear-word, stubbornly insisted that morality need not be based on the supernatural, but it gradually became clear that ethics, without the sanction of some higher authority, simply were not compelling. The ultimate irony, or perhaps tragedy, is that secularism has not led to humanism. We have gradually dissolved, ‘deconstructed,’ the human being into a bundle of reflexes, impulses, neuroses, nerve endings. The great religious heresy used to be making man the measure of all things, but we’ve come close to making man the measure of nothing.”

He goes on to say, “The mainstream churches have tried in various ways to adapt themselves to this secular age, turning from saving souls to saving society. The major Protestant denominations also increasingly emphasize social activism, and try to dilute doctrine to accommodate 20th century rationality and diversity.” This is coming from TIME magazine. He concludes by saying, “Where will all this lead? Just possibly to a real new age of faith.” He says that we are looking at a time where there’s a real possibility for a rebirth of faith, concluding with the comment that “While orthodox religion can be stifling, liberal religion can be empty.” This was the former editor and chief of TIME magazine.

ODEN: It’s just one of many invitations from the secular establishment, disenchanted with modernity’s failed promises to discuss Christian truth. I just hope we’re up to it.

Monday, August 13th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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