Monday, May 11, 2009

An Interview with Kevin Vanhoozer

Kevin Vanhoozer--who served as research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School from 1998-2009--will become Blanchard Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and Graduate School this Fall.

In the interview below I ask him about what excites him about Wheaton's PhD program, what encourages and worries him most about evangelicals and the academy, advice on how to navigate the ship between cultural withdrawal and cultural accommodation, his next writing projects, how we can develop sanctified imaginations, and the place of reading in the Christian life.

What excites you about the PhD program in biblical and theology studies at Wheaton?

I'm looking forward to making good on the promise implicit in the program rubric "biblically rooted, theologically formed." The integrative nature of the program and the mid-Atlantic blend (fewer courses, more intensive personal direction) is a good recipe for making theological chamber music. I'm also delighted to be returning to a context in which theology is able to converse with the liberal arts (and sciences).

When you are asked to comment about encouraging trends and worrying aspects of evangelicals and the academy today, what are the first things that come to mind?

It's encouraging that evangelicals have not abandoned the academy, though a Christian presence is more palpable in some disciplines (e.g., philosophy) rather than others (e.g., English lit.).

It's encouraging that evangelicals have engaged culture, though culture too often seems to come out on top.

It's encouraging that evangelicals have not abandoned the church, though too often our churches are islands unto themselves, cut off from confessional continents and susceptible to being carried along by the prevailing cultural currents.

One of my main concerns about evangelicals in the academy today pertains to the interpretation of the Bible. Is the Bible a document of the university or the church's Scripture? What is the status of the canon? It is tempting to read the Bible like all the other respectable scholars--historians, literary critics, scientists--so that we will be accepted as intellectually respectable, but at what cost?

I have a pet theory: every significant intellectual and cultural trend eventually shows up in the way people read the Bible. Is there an alternative to imposing theoretical frameworks onto the Bible? Do all interpretive frameworks do an equally good job at preserving the integrity of the gospel, and hence the significance of Jesus Christ?

A related issue concerns the conversation between exegetes and systematic theologians about biblical interpretation. We have a long way to go fully to heal the Enlightenment split between biblical studies and dogmatics. No one--neither church nor society nor academy--really benefits from this balkanization of theological studies.

Finally, I'm concerned that the attitude that "no one can really know the truth" has seeped into the evangelical mind. From the (correct, in my opinion) premise that no tradition gives us exclusive access to absolute truth, some infer (incorrectly, in my opinion) that it really doesn't matter which, if any, tradition we inhabit. For my own part, I'd rather reside in a house with a leaky roof or basement than rough it on the street. . . .

You mentioned evangelical engagement with culture. It seems to me like there is an emerging consensus (in broad terms) that we must navigate carefully between the Scylla of cultural withdrawal and the Charybdis of cultural accommodation. Do you have any travel tips to keep the ship and her crew from being eaten alive by these sea monsters?

The book I produced (with a little help from my Cultural Hermeneutics class at Trinity)--Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends--provides one helpful navigational chart. The most important thing is to be aware that culture is always, already there--something in which we live and move and have our historical being--and that it is always actively cultivating, always forming habits of the heart and habits of perception. Of course, it also helps when the first mate--one's pastor theologian--is a competent seahand. "Competence" here means knowing both one's ship (the church) and the sea (the world). The image of the church as maritime vessel is a good one. Throughout Scriptures, water is often a symbol for powers that can engulf us. But the church should not be wholly anti-world either, for the sea, as part of the created order, is in another sense what sustains us. Ultimately it is the wind--the breath of the word-ministering Spirit--that allows the church to be counter-cultural and to set her course against the prevailing intellectual currents. But I must leave off with that as I fear some readers may become seasick. . . .

Can you tell us a bit about your next books, what you hope to accomplish with them, and when they will be published?

I have two books coming out next year. The first, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, will be published by Cambridge University Press in their Studies in Christian Doctrine series. It is a sustained reflection on the claim that God speaks to us and that we speak to God. I develop a communicative or dialogical theism that develops its understanding of the God-world relationship largely out of the biblical depictions of human-divine conversation. I then bring this communicative focus to bear on the twin vexed issues of divine action and divine suffering through a critical engagement with the “new orthodoxy,” namely, versions of open theism and panentheism that insist on seeing God's suffering as entailed by God's love. The result is what I am calling a post-Barthian Thomism. It's a “retooling” of classical theism that makes interpersonal dialogue rather than impersonal causality the keystone of the God-world relation. It also revisits several long-standing controversies such as the relations of God’s sovereignty to human freedom, time to eternity, and suffering to love.

The second, Pictures at a Biblical Exhibition: Theological Scenes of the Church's Worship, Witness, and Wisdom, will be published by InterVarsity Press. It's a collection of essays that attempts to make what I've been working on over the past few years a bit more accessible--hence "scenes" rather than the big picture. I argue that we need to recover a biblically rooted, theologically formed imagination for the sake of the church's worship, witness, and wisdom. If a picture has indeed held the evangelical church captive, then this book could be seen as an exercise in liberation theology!

What are some of the things you have found most helpful in your own walk with the Lord in terms of developing a sanctified imagination?

Before I answer that, let me say something about the very idea (for which I am grateful) of a "sanctified imagination."

First, I find that the imagination is a vital ingredient in my sanctification. I need to keep the big biblical picture (creation-fall-redemption-consummation)
in mind as I attempt to live day by day, minute by minute, as a follower of Jesus Christ who desires above all to have one's thought and life correspond to the gospel. To do that, I have to keep the gospel story (together with its presuppositions and implications) in mind, and I have to connect my story to that of Jesus. That requires imagination.

Second, the imagination is "sanctified" because it is "set apart" for the purpose of making just these kinds of connections.

There are vain imaginings, of course. These tend to be the ones that encourage us to see our lives as part of some other picture where God is either absent or other than the Father of Jesus Christ.

As for practical helps for cultivating a sanctified imagination, let me mention two.

First, reading. Reading is the way we learn to inhabit the world. Not the natural world, but the cultural world: the world of meaning. Martha Nussbaum has some wonderful essays in her book Love's Knowledge on how the novels of Henry James train us to attend to the moral significance of the details of human life. If we can learn moral sensitivity from Henry James, how much more can Christians learn, say, about speech ethics from the epistle of James, not to mention all the
Old Testament narratives, Jesus' parables, and the Gospels themselves.

My concern is that many Evangelicals are suffering from malnourished imaginations. This impedes their ability to live coherently in the world--that is, according to a meaningful metanarrative. We want to believe the Bible, but we are unable to see our world in biblical
terms (this is a major theme of my Pictures at a Biblical Exhibition that I mentioned above). That leads to a fatal disconnect between our belief-system and our behavior, our faith and our life. If faith's influence is waning, as two-thirds of Americans now think, I believe that it is largely because of a failure of the evangelical imagination.

Reading, then, is a kind of strength-training that flexes the muscles of our imagination. Those who read widely are often those who are able to employ metaphors that connect ordinary life to the wonderful real world of the Bible.

The second way I exercise my biblically rooted, theologically formed imagination is by viewing myself as part of the ongoing action that the Bible recounts. My task as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to continue the theodramatic action--the plot of salvation history--in a manner that is consistent with what the Father, Son, and Spirit have already done and are still doing. To some extent, the theologian is a worker in dramatic fittingness whose task is to help us understand the drama of redemption, both theoretically and practically. We need practical understanding of the gospel so that we can speak and act faithful and orthodox lines in new cultural scenes. It is by seeking to live by the word in the power of the Spirit that our imaginations become sanctified. I need a sanctified imagination as I seek each day to improvise my life to the glory of God.

This August Zondervan Academic will publish the 10th anniversary edition of your landmark volume, Is There a Meaning in This Text? [Note to readers: it contains a new introduction by Craig Blomberg and a new, 3500-word preface by Professor Vanhoozer.] What are some of the main changes in the landscape over the last decade of discussion about these issues?

My new Preface goes into some of these, but perhaps the biggest change is the appearance of a new player on the academic scene: the theological interpreter of Scripture. It's still not clear to what species this creature belongs: is it a kind of exegete? historical theologian? systematic theologian? a mixture of all three? Be that as it may, the issues that my book is about--the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of meaning--continue to demand our attention.

The subtitle of your book is "The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge." In what way is hermeneutics a subset of ethics?

Let me begin by saying that my subtitle alludes to Van Harvey's important work, The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief. Harvey argues that it is immoral--always, everywhere, and by everyone--to believe something except on the basis of sufficient evidence. This makes criticism more "moral" than faith. So much for the modern morality of knowledge. What I wanted to call attention to was that some postmoderns move in the opposite direction, succumbing not to intellectual pride but sloth by maintaining that it is immoral (they say "violent") to make claims about a text's determinate meaning.

Hermeneutics is a subset of ethics because interpretation aims at a certain kind of good, namely, understanding. In my book I argue for the importance of what I call the interpretative virtues: habits of mind that are more conducive than not to getting understanding. In particular, humility is a key interpretive virtue without which readers cannot do justice to authors as "others." Other interpretive virtues include honesty, openness, and attentiveness. Ultimately, the interpretive virtues are not merely intellectual, nor even moral, but spiritual and theological. For truly to be honest, humble, self-critical, and open is to be a person with certain dispositions,
many of which are related to the fruit of the Spirit.