A New Systematic Theology in a Phenomenological Mode

By Thomas, Owen C. | Anglican Theological Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

A New Systematic Theology in a Phenomenological Mode


Thomas, Owen C., Anglican Theological Review


Divine Empathy: A Theology of God. By Edward Farley. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996. xvi + 320 pp. $26.00 (paper).

With this volume Edward Farley, recently retired professor of theology at Vanderbilt, completes a massive twenty-five year project which includes three previous volumes and which constitutes a major new systematic theology informed by the insights of social phenomenology. (Although he denies the systematic characterization, it fulfills the definition of his teacher, Paul Tillich. Moreover, it is a third again as long as Tillich's.)

In Ecclesial Man: A Social Phenomenology of Faith and Reality (1975) Farley has treated the epistemological question of faith's relation to reality, and offered what is undoubtedly the best introduction to the phenomenological tradition and its use in Christian theology. In Ecclesial Reflection: An Anatomy of Theological Method (1982) he has dealt with the criteria and procedures of theology and carried out the most thorough analysis and dismantling of what he calls authority theology, which is based on the retrieval of authoritative texts. And in Good and Evil; Interpreting a Human Condition ( 1990), which he describes as the companion volume to the present one, he has elaborated a vision of human evil and good, which is a creative reinterpretation of human reality in its social and biological contexts and of sin and redemption in the spheres of subjectivity, the interhuman, and the social. Each volume stands on its own, but they are integrally related and together constitute a coherent whole. I will note later that this volume is less systematic on some specific points.

The main uniqueness of these four volumes is that they are the only major Protestant attempt to employ the social phenomenology of Scheler, Husserl and Schutz to reinterpret the major topics of Christian faith. I should confess that, although I know the phenomenological tradition primarily in the work of Heidegger and Ricoeur, I have lived and worked in the quite different world of Anglo-American metaphysical and analytical philosophy. So I am not in the best position to interpret and assess Farley's achievement. Therefore my judgment that it is not entirely successful must be taken with some grains of salt.

The present volume is divided into three main parts: "The coming forth of God as God" (knowledge of God), "a symbolics of God" (language about God), and "theology of God and the world" (God's activity in the world). Farley first takes up the question of what evokes the conviction of God's reality. There are two general types of approach to the question of God, objectivist and non-objectivist. These are broken down into an illuminating typology of six ways: tradition retrieval (the most widespread and an unavoidable element), historical-cultural analysis (radical theology and deconstruction), world puzzlement (the philosophical way, rational theology), praxis (liberation theology, experience of the marginalized), fundamental ontology (philosophical anthropology in transcendental, world experience, and intersubjective versions), and the facticity of redemption (privileging the faith and experience of a particular tradition). Farley notes the importance of each of the first five ways but sees them all as dependent on the sixth, which he adopts as central and the basis for a synthesis of all the ways.

Beneath all these approaches to God, however, Farley notes "a much deeper rift," namely, that between the "classical Catholic theology of God" and what he calls "anti-theism" in its various forms: liberation theology, deconstruction, Jewish dialogical philosophy, radical theology, analytical philosophy, and Heidegerrian and process philosophy. The elements of the former include the doctrines of the trinity, creation ex nihilo, negative theology, self-identity or aseity, analogical attributes, sovereign rule, and theodicy. Its ambiguities appear as foundationalism, God as being or a being, God as necessary and perfect as well as active and responsive, and theodicy. …

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