Editor’s Note: Many people may not think that the way that religion is viewed by the academic elite in the United States has much bearing on its place in society. It is clear, however, that the opposite is true. The way theology is approached in the halls of higher learning defines how it is seen in the public square.
Here are twelve things to know about “the new Yale theology” as an academic trend.
Background: This theology is currently taught academically at our most illustrious universities by doctoral students of the late Hans Frei, who is known to many Mormon scholars for his seminal book on narrative theology, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Yale: 1974. I too was a doctoral student at Yale with Professor Frei.
Tucked away within Professor Frei’s work is the new theory that not only biblical scholars can read the Scriptures, which has intimidated the ordinary person in the pew from reading their Scriptures with intellectual confidence. This nugget of gold, which functions within Frei’s theology as a presupposition about the perspicacity of Scripture, is culturally relevant, and accords with Elder Hales’ Easter Sunday General Conference address on taking back our rights of religious liberty. The present conflict between Faith and Anti-Faith in American cultural conflict may even have a peaceful outcome.
What is the new Yale theology?
Here are a “baker’s dozen” of things of interest for busy Latter-day Saints to know.
- First off, the new Yale theology pushes back against the dominant forces of secularity within universities by the mere fact of being openly taught as part of programs in religious studies at prestigious American universities in the Ivy Leagues, at the University of Chicago, Princeton Theological Seminary, Notre Dame, Duke, Emory and Stanford (as examples of universities where Professor Frei’s doctoral students now teach as Departmental Chairs and endowed professorships).
- Each of these top schools has a Department of Religious Studies where Professor Frei’s ideas on theology and interpretation is taught in “plain view,” and without the need for a plain brown wrapper, on the undergraduate curriculum, and also often taught without apology or “bracketing”—bracketing is the suspension of inquiry into truth which is subordinated to method. (I return to this below at Point 7 as the idea for a Department of Religious Studies at BYU has brought “bracketing” into more and more discussions.)
- Given the important cultural power of Professor Frei’s ideas, our culture’s belief in Christ—without any “special pleading” for those beliefs—has re-entered the Curriculum. No one has really noticed this fact, it’s operating at a pre-suppositional level, and now ideas of real spiritual potency are out of the gate, set loose upon the academic world.
- This all means to me that, even as you read this, there is a potential cultural shift occurring in the “realpolitik” for the cause of religious liberty, which brings us to the next point.
- Miroslav Wolf, a theologian at Yale, has noted a fact which many Latter-day Saints can readily agree: that it is in local Churches and especially the family where formation of one’s character, including a tolerance for diversity (and which religious tolerance includes tolerance for religious diversity, which in turn incorporates authentic personal readings of Holy Writ). This basic character formation –or in the German word, bildung, a word which is gradually sneaking into English to freshly express an ancient belief of character– is the real motor for social change. It is now clear to third parties what the Church has taught since the Prophet Joseph founded it. That those hands that “rock the cradle” rule a nation’s acceptance or aversion to God; “our parents never doubted.”
- The point just mentioned has an important intellectual sub-text to notice. When we say that we believe –that we know– the family shapes religious character and not, say, Universities, we are also saying that social change is a matter of “particularity” and particular narratives trumping the “universality” of the until now cultural presupposition of “radical doubt” as broken-off and lodged in American culture from the Enlightenment. While this point requires more space to fully unpack, suffice it to say that one of the morals of our particular stories is the importance of one’s relationship to a loving God. Put more simply, to become fulfilled, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.
One’s Ward, for example, like one’s families, is also an example of this recognized power of the “particular.” We, through Church activity (which is Ward activity) can be the beneficiaries of a Christian nurture we share with each other, moving us closer towards a more abundant life.
On the other hand, for too long society has delegated the formation of personal stories, which are our destinies, to universal norms –supposedly grounded in reason—too weak to move our souls for enduring good.
The balance between secular triumphs over religion in public places could, as a result, be shifting. Such is the power of Professor Frei (and now I’m back to the theme of the “new Yale theology”), who was a quietly working dedicated Christian theologian of genius and scholar of solid worth.
For example, while we all will confess that learning about Enlightenment theories of morality (like Kant’s universal moral norms of practical reason), it is personally self-perfecting, these ideas are delivered much too late in life. They are ideas best delivered within the Sacred Groves of the Academy long after one’s basic religious dispositions have patterned out.
Philosophers like Descartes and Kant are good examples of a bad ” universal.” Bad because of their neglect of maintaining social entities like the family or religion. The social maintenance of these “particular” spheres of development and nurture were left unattended, and therefore under-emphasized in our culture. Both families and our religions suffered terrible ravages as a result.
So the news suggested here today is that the “particular” and the historically unique are coming into their own again. There is a reassertion of will power currently tolerated because of the “logical space” for theology. In practical terms, it is again logical for any good and decent person to read the Scriptures and interpret them. Formerly too many felt intimidated by biblical scholars (as helpful those scholars can be).
By allowing Scripture to again be “logical” within the culture, it is once again intelligible, especially to secularists who wrongly felt potentially repressed, of just how important the Scriptures are for life.
- These changes are not monolithic. And “bracketing” or abstaining from the truth of theology in religious studies is still present, to be sure. The joke that Departments of Religion had to be invented to give atheists a place to teach still is true. (For example, at Columbia’s Department of Religion, where I pursued graduate work before joining Professor Frei at Yale, “bracketing” is “the” method of studying religions (although these methods often include the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, important thinkers of the “grand theory” type of thinking, important for better comprehending religious realities).
Bracketing, for example, would seek perhaps to understand prayer or revelation as a phenomenon within all world religions or within different churches. The Truth must be “bracketed” to permit scholarly comparison. But to critics of bracketing, leaving the truth behind only falsifies inquiry. These critics harshly insist that the requirements from this type of “bracketing” truth are a misstep, because then truth lies beyond the scope of study.
The late University of Chicago Professor Mircea Eliade is perhaps the most well-known “anti-bracketeer.” In turn, Eliade has been critiqued by secularists as unfairly promoting religious belief and being “uncritical” towards religion. (So one must judge this issue for one’s self. It may help, FYI, to read Eliade’s popular and accessible book, The Sacred and the Profane; I confess that I have always liked the book, as have many of my Latter-day Saint students.)
- The academic institutions listed above in the first point each have tenured Professors, all of whom were trained at Yale by two individuals, each a theology professor: the late Hans Frei (1922-88) or George Lindbeck (b. 1923). Frei and Lindbeck are increasingly attributed with being the “fathers” of a new school of theological thought denominated or called the “new Yale theology.” (The new Yale theology, as opposed to another Yale theological school of thought two hundred years “older.”) The new Yale theology is now a defined term. See, for example, the entry in another “best” theological book for Latter-day Saint curious about Christian thought, The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, by Donald McKim.
- Frei and Lindbeck both taught me when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, and I, like most of their students, inclined towards one or the other professor. I found them dramatically unique in of their thinking. Such giant redwoods as these two men block out one’s view of the forest for the trees. Viewed close-up, the new Yale theology goes undetected by scholars even as it is colonizing our culture.
Once their students began ascending within the Academy, especially Professor Frei’s students who have remained loyal to his best insights, ascending as distinguished Professors and the authors of the most important theological books, it then became clear there was a pattern emerging at these prestigious institutions. And as a result an increasingly common parlance emerged about the social significance of the “New Yale Theology” (among other titles).
Nowadays, the New Yale Theology is become itself an object of study and investigation. This is as true of George Hunsinger’s 2015 book, Conversational Theology. Hunsinger, a close friend as a student of Hans Frei, also doubts the existence of any such school of theology. But then 20 years ago, George Placher, another Frei student, published a book where he too doubted the existence of a “new Yale theology.” (Presumably, in another twenty years another scholar will step forth to doubt again, all the while ignoring that all these voices of doubt only serve to hide the forest for the trees and hide what is happening within our larger cultural context.)
- “The New Yale Theology” is relevant to current culture skirmishes between Disbelief and Faith for basically the following reason (and here I draw from the “Frei side” of this theology). Professor Frei’s thought was characterized by an effort to ‘bring back’ into common culture the Scriptures, to “restore” the care and feeding of the soul by rechristening a free and full access to Scripture. It is in this way that Frei has provided a shared common ground.
Just as, for example, the ideas of Nietzsche –fairly or unfairly—fueled Hitler’s appeal, now Professor Frei’s ideas, and those of his students’, fuel the notion that Scripture is appealing.
[And so one might ask, so what happened to me, as a faithful Mormon student of Frei? While Yale was a joy, life after Yale sometimes has been an affliction. Why? I cannot be certain, but I suspect that I managed to paint myself into a corner.
On one hand, Religious Studies folks felt I was, as a Mormon, too big a risk.
On the other hand, BYU folks have felt, because I was a Yale religious studies and theological student, I was too big a risk, even with apostolic recommendation.
I had perfectly “marginalized” myself to the “north 40” of each of my native lands, both within each of the LDS Church as well as within Christian academic theology.]
- In sum, Frei has launched a new theological school because of the underlying reason that academic theological discourse, despite its merits, had importantly erred when it restricted reading of Scripture just to licensed scholars. Religion in our culture resultantly becomes a confusion. Why was there such confusion? Who can say with certainty, yet I think that because the Bible had been ripped out of the hands of “the person in the pew,” the Bible had mistakenly become marginalized.
The person in the pew felt simply unqualified to read, thereby discouraging the reading of the Scriptures.
One needed a “theory” at the level of ideas to reform our culture. It was Professor Frei’s genius to perceive and express in “high culture” and Yale-legitimated intellectualized thought, that biblical languages and a hermeneutic (a five dollar word meaning something like a “theory of the interpretation of texts, especially religious texts) were not even able to justify any ban on a believer’s picking up the Scriptures and feeling one’s power to read and understand them.
That this motivated his work was a personal aside he shared with me, as he must have with others of his students.
A change back to an open Bible indirectly but profoundly can affect American culture’s balance of power as between the opposing forces of faith and secularity.
What Frei and his students have fixed in the public forum is this constitutional thought: that the conscientious but non-expert reader who just could never be sure they were reading the Word of God the “right” way, can now ‘pick up and read’ the Scriptures. Within our nation’s Christianities, especially within Protestant Christianities, Frei’s thought may be a lifesaver.
For where the learned doctors of divinity dwell, in divinity schools, schools where the learned doctors were once so free to prostitute their learning by discriminating against the Christian fidelity of we Mormons -–and no one is glad about this development—must now scramble in many divinity schools to stay solvent. Staying solvent, it is reported to me by a former Professor at Yale, is being aided and abetted by an annual increasing Mormon population among those same learned doctors’ own students.
No one foresaw that coming!
In short, the effect of putting the Scriptures out of reach, Frei thought, was a (largely unintended) social disaster. Professor Frei once told me, as I mentioned above but repeat here for emphasis, that he wrote the book, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, to reposition strategically the Bible “back into the particular hands” of the simple Christian reader.
And before God, really, who among us is ever more than just this: a simple Christian reader of the Scriptures?
- As a result of Professor Frei’s success in leading an academic rediscovery of the Bible, books on the theology of Scripture now appear seemingly on a monthly basis. (Here are is an example of this trend by a title Latter-day Saints might profit from: The Return to Scripture in Judaism and Christianity; Christian Theologies of Scripture (which dedicates a chapter to Hans Frei and has a fascinating chapter on Origen by a Yale Ph.D. of Frei’s and especially George Lindbeck’s, R.R. (“Rusty”) Reno, who today does the Lord’s work as the Editor of the influential monthly, “First Things”).
Kierkegaard was speaking for himself when he metaphorically said, ‘let’s kill all the commentators.’ Nor is there any need to. For it is the case that such historical criticisms which enjoy a broad academic acceptance of received understandings may come very close to something like “zero,” as Yale professor and colleague of Frei’s, Brevard Childs, has shown.
While the Bible had gone “MIA,” or Missing in Action, the can be no shock that the dimension of human spiritual experience had itself has also gone missing from the academic exposition of theology, as scholars increasingly have started admitting.
These are all difficult topics, and a pigeon-holed approach eventually fails. (I know that!) Still, scholars now continue to converse openly in print and in class about the centrality of spiritual experience for theology. One basic reason for the scholarly turn to Scripture is the important recognition now dawning that spiritual experience informs language. To over-generalize, without the Spirit, without the Scriptures, theological language itself disconnects one from lived reality, signifying nothing but high-powered “finger painting.”
Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian and Frei’s own source of theology, it is now becoming accepted, was a bona fide genius who was perhaps even on a personal religious mission, perhaps like Abraham Lincoln, from the Lord he so devotedly worshipped with piety and without superstition.. His central work, Volume I: 1 of which was published beginning in 1927, the Church Dogmatics, is a single (but unfinished) work in 12 heavy volumes on four doctrinal topics that engaged Barth’s attention all his life. It is obviously a work hard to finish, and also has the quirk of seeming to take both sides of a theological issue at different places. For example Scripture’s anthropomorphism or doctrine of the basic humanity of God—so first-time readers spotting Barth’s mistakes must also wait to take account of the probability of a subsequent reversal in view point (hence Barth’s thought is “dialectical,” considering all sides to an issue).
Barth has been recognized even by the Pope as the greatest theologian of the last century, despite Barth’s calling the Catholic Church “anti-Christ.” Barth is esteemed to some extent within Protestantism, anyway, as on a level with Thomas Aquinas.
But how ironic these developments are, perhaps even providential. Because ironically, neither Barth nor Frei, in dealing their increasingly incrementally mighty blows of faithful Christian scriptural witness by individual Christians in their particular lives, against the nattering nabobs of nihilistic secularism, ever intended to accomplish that result per se, I believe.
Shall one dare to again speak of their restoring power to Scripture as Providence; doctrine secularism has helped us all for get? One must judge for one’s self, but as for me, see Genesis 50:20—that is this column’s proof text; it is a Scripture about Providence.
We can become so accustomed to decrying our culture’s decadence that we sometimes forget: the Lord is still in charge.