In the current issue of Christian Century Robert W. Jenson has a piece called Reversals (found on pgs 30-33, but not available online). It is part of a series that CC is running in which theologians are asked "to reflect on their own struggles, disappointments, questions and hopes as people of faith and to consider how their work and life have been intertwined." Dr. Jenson taught at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg during most of the 70s and 80s, and at St Olaf College during much of the 90s. In 1991 he formed the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology with Carl Braaten.
Reversals is a somewhat wandering piece in which Jenson touches on the changes that have taken place in his approach to ecumenical relations and Jewish-Christian discourse, the nature of the church, and his relationship with institutional Lutheranism. He articulately states his desire to see Christian churches recognize each other's sacraments as authentic and open to other Christians. He writes with concern about the growth of antinomianism within the church and a reduction of the Gospel, which he describes as "a narrative that makes a promise, the story of Jesus in Israel." And he expresses hope for authentic Jewish-Christian relationship. There is not much disagreement here.
But a throw-away phrase reveals his disregard for contemporary society and the contemporary church. In describing how he met his wife, he tells about their first date. "Our first date – one had such things then – devolved into an argument about the World Council of Churches." One had such things then? These words reveal an idealization of the past and an understanding of contemporary society that is simplistically critical. Does he think that people don't go on dates any longer? This is the kind of condescension that folks like me – who had a first date that included theological debate, thank you very much – don't need.
But more. I'm pretty certain that the West isn't "slouch[ing] toward nihilism" any more today than it was 50 or 100 years ago. His reference to a "late-modern sexual chaos" assumes that sexual ethics were much more ordered in a time gone by – when homosexuals were forced to remain in the closet and unable to pursue intimate, loving relationships; when the power-dynamic within married relationships allowed for and encouraged the economic, sexual, emotional, and physical dominance – if not abuse – by the husband; and when women who were emotionally or physically battered had few opportunities for release from their captivity.
Apart from his mischaracterization of contemporary society, I do have other substantial disagreements with Dr. Jenson. On
ecumenism, for example, I have little desire to see the church unified
under the Bishop of Rome. If a unity of structure and oversight is to
be achieved, a broad, conciliar model would be preferable. And in terms of
human sexuality, I am part of a generation that has reconciled Biblical
teaching and the traditions of the church with the God-given authenticity
of homosexual identity and love. On these matters he and I differ.
But substantial differences are matters that can be discussed and debated in a spirit of collegiality, particularly when there are many areas of common concern (see second paragraph, above). Yet I don't sense that spirit with him. What I hear from him is a disdain and a dismissive attitude that prevent me – and I doubt I'm alone on this score – from hearing the wisdom and insight he surely has to share.