James McClendon

Convictions, Principles, Opinions and the proper task of Christian theology

Bruegel - The Fight Between Carnival and LentSaturday morning is always about coffee. Not only about coffee, to be sure, but never anything apart from coffee. In fact, my vision of hell is being locked in a house devoid of beans for an eternal Saturday morning. Sometimes, Saturday morning is also about reading. But if that’s going to happen, then Saturday-morning reading really needs to be something decent. Well, James McClendon’s Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology is a worthy contender for the much-coveted Saturday morning slot. Here he is on the distinction between convictions, principles and opinions:

Convictions may be distinguished from principles, in that the latter are the product of reflective thinking, have often a rather academic flavor, and are perhaps more often weapons for attacking others than guides for ourselves (most of us have at some time served on committees with ‘men of principle’); while convictions are very often particular and immediate in form, and may not be consciously formulated by their holders at all, yet when we do find our convictions, we find the best clue to ourselves. Convictions may be distinguished from opinions: people stake money on opinions, whether of lawyers or of handicappers, but they have been known to stake their lives on their convictions; opinions are argued, but convictions are the hidden agenda in every argument, the unseen weight on even the most honest set of moral scales. Now it must be that an ethics of character will be concerned with convictions, for to have convictions is to have at least that much character; moreover, convictions, unlike traits of character such as justice or mercy, may, if known, be expressed in propositional form, so they may evince the particularity of character as the more general ‘traits’ cannot … For as men or women are convinced so will they live. And similarly with convinced communities. What is noteworthy, however, is that the realm of convictions is just the realm with which theology, too, is concerned. The best way to understand theology is to see it, not as the study about God (for there are godless theologies as well as godly ones), but as the investigation of the convictions of a convictional community, discovering its convictions, interpreting them, criticizing them in the light of all that we know, and creatively transforming them into better ones if possible … Theologians, then, are concerned with convictions, not merely in themselves, but in relation to the persons and communities that embrace these convictions, and they are interested in what those convictions are about. The Christian theologian cares not only to know that there is a belief in God, not only to know that that belief is the conviction of the Christian community, but also to know whether there be such a God and what difference God’s being (as well as the belief in it) makes to the women and men who believe or disbelieve. – James Wm. McClendon Jr., Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 19–21.

McClendon proceeds to name the relationship between ‘adequate ethic’ and what he calls theology’s ‘proper work’:

Ethics may have to acknowledge that the only truly universal ethical judgments are purely formal, providing little guidance for the formation of moral character, and may have to learn to attend afresh to the way of life of particular communities and individuals, though without sacrificing its yearning for universalizability. Theology may have to acknowledge that a theology of revelation or of reason, or a theology of secularity or of religiosity, if it does not enter into the actual shape of the lives of the people in its community of concern, is after all irrelevant to these lives. (p. 21)

The reconciliation of this relationship, he argues, is found is biography where the tension between ‘what is and what ought to be believed and lived by all’ is enfleshed, and that in community. To engage in such reflection, he argues, is ‘the proper task of Christian theology’.

By recognizing that Christian beliefs are not so many ‘propositions’ to be catalogued or juggled like truth-functions in a computer, but are living convictions which give shape to actual lives and actual communities, we open ourselves to the possibility that the only relevant critical examination of Christian beliefs may be one that begins by attending to lived lives. Theology must be at least biography. If by attending to those lives, we find ways of reforming our own theologies, making them more true, more faithful to our ancient vision, more adequate to the age now being born, then we will be justified in that arduous inquiry. Biography at its best will be theology. (p. 22)

This relates to another important thesis of McClendon’s essay; namely, that the locale for the formation of one’s character is community. As Edmund Pincoffs reminds, ‘Aristotle did not give open lectures; St. Paul did not write open letters. When they used the word “we”, they spoke from within a community of expectations and ideals: a community within which character was cultivated’. This, of course, is one of the weaknesses of so-called ‘situation ethics’, or what James McClendon refers to as ‘decisionism’. McClendon argues that decisionism is ‘ill equipped to understand and shed light upon those dark struggles of our selves in which, confronted with imponderables, we do flounder about, sometimes conscientiously, sometimes self-deceived, sometimes locked in the struggle that classical Christian theology calls temptation’. He contrasts this with what he calls the ‘classic view’, the notion that a person’s life is ‘a journey, a pilgrimage, in which one’s self is not mere datum, nor an electronic calculator reading “decisions” off new “situations”, but a soul in the making, a self which can become itself only as the weight of sin is fully recognized and the self recognizes a center of meaning and source of power beyond itself, forgiving and remaking that self’ (p. 9). Such recognition, I concur, requires being-in-community. There is no stand-alone ‘I’. The journey inwards cannot be made apart from the journey outwards. Learning, maturation and character are perichoretically-determined activities.

Anyway, time to grind …