Margaret W. Harmon Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary; associate editor, Theology Today
By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford, 1997)
When I told various scholars that I would be visiting Ellen Charry at Princeton Seminary, they invariably brightened: "Oh, you'll like Ellen." Charry possesses a passionate intellect and an incandescent personality. She is a pert wom-an whose words seem to come out of her mouth entangled with her whole life. You can't listen to Charry for long without noticing that she is very smart, but not showoff smart. She seems to care about everything and everybody—especially about how God helps people.
Her past has something to do with this. She was already the mother of two children when she embarked on theology as a second career. Well, no, that is not quite right: Charry never planned a second career. She discovered it while searching for God.
Charry came to Christ as an adult and with no Christian upbringing. She was a social worker in New York and Philadelphia who became dissatisfied with the purely practical nature of her work. Searching for a way to "put my feet and my head together," Charry found her way to Temple University's Department of Religion. She must be one of the very few persons in all the modern world won to Christ through the reading of theology.
Charry's lack of Christian background made her read theology as a life option, not as a set of theories. She began with Karl Barth. "Barth just undid me . …Barth said God is at the top and at the center. Barth enabled me to first taste that God is a reality and not an idea. I couldn't argue for that. I may still not be able to argue it, but I tasted it."
From Barth she worked backward in time, to read Calvin and Luther. While studying the Augsburg Confession she made an unexpected discovery: "Justification by grace through faith … justification by grace through faith—what are they talking about? So I decided to try it on. I lifted my arms up and I put it over me like a dress, the doctrine. I tried it on myself. I tried it out. It wasn't just words; I tried it. And I fell off the chair. It was in July, it was very hot; I was on the third floor in my study." Charry laughs at the memory. "I tried it on like a dress, and I just fell over.
"It wasn't, 'Oh, that's how it works. Isn't that terrific.' But that if I trusted enough in God's love and mercy, that I wouldn't worry about things so much. I could just do what I thought I needed to do without being worried so much about the consequences. This seemed to have immediate practical value."
For both Charry and her husband, a psychiatrist, "God" had been a concept so high he could never be pulled down into living. "My husband and I watched the movie The Milagro Beanfield War, and there was a worker in the field who had a Jesus T-shirt on. My husband said, 'That's really demeaning. Why would you put God on your T-shirt?' And I said to him, 'No, you don't understand. God is close to that man. That's why he has a picture of Jesus on him while he is working out in the field. Because God is nearby.' I was struggling to find a way to this utterly transcendent God, and I realized that Christians had God close, in the nitty gritty, on the mudflaps of trucks. That was the most awesome. On the mudflaps of trucks."
A concern for the "immediate practical value" of theology has made Charry an unusual and sometimes controversial scholar. Distinguished professor of systematic theology she may be, but motherhood remains a large part of her identity. At one time in our conversation she rapped on her desk while saying emphatically, "I am interested in the flourishing of people because I am a mother! That's all I have to say."
She is anxious to explain that she is not promulgating a self-help theology. "I wouldn't be controversial if I just said people should feel good." Rather, she says, the experience of motherhood gave her an insight into the character of God: that he wants us to flourish. Therefore theology, which teaches us to know God, must nourish human lives. That is a notion wildly at variance with the world-view of theologians in the last few hundred years. Theology is more usually about getting things right, establishing a system of truth, and protecting against error. Charry is concerned with those matters, too, but she believes the point of the exercise is to help people. And so it was, she contends, for Christian theologians through most of history.
When she continued back in time from Luther and Calvin, reading Aquinas and Augustine and Athanasius, she noted this flavor: they sought to explain doctrine in such a way that it would help Christians be transformed by Christ's life and therefore flourish.
Charry's book, By the Renewing of Your Minds, deliberately takes up the hardest cases—the most abstract and philosophical theological treatises of history—and makes the argument that even they had the spiritual nurture of readers in direct view. Charry wants to rehabilitate theologians who are widely considered irrelevant, because she sees them offering clues to a way out of modern theology's impasse. "Theology is marginal for the church today because it can't offer spiritual nurture to people. If it could reclaim spiritual nurture as one of its tasks, theology might be able to help the church instead of having to be warded off by the church."
The time is ripe, she thinks, because the Enlightenment's narrowed idea of truth has run aground. "There's an open space for theologians that there hasn't been for a very long time."
The modern view of truth, she says, is too narrow to help us. Thus the word wisdom has a special importance to her, for it suggests a bridge between truth and practice. Wisdom isn't just ideas; it involves discipline, experience, self-control, and prudence. Those are matters that theologians up through the Reformation could speak of effortlessly, but that in modern times have been put largely outside, by both conservative and liberal theologians.
Charry says that theology's dilemma can be traced to the seventeenth century, when Francis Bacon was developing a scientific methodology, and Protestant dogmaticians were systematizing theology. In both cases, "system" was crucial. "Bacon makes the clear point that the purpose of having a method is to control the human element. So you get this idea of science that is not influenced by my personality or my prejudices or my experiences or by my social location. That's what theologians tried to do as well.
"Bacon put a method to science in order to combat superstition, alchemy, and magic. The early Protestant dogmaticians were as concerned to combat alchemy, superstition, magic, and the misuse of religion as were the emerging scientists. They incorporated the [scientific] notions of fundamental principle and system, taking biblical principle as the starting point around which everything else was categorized and systematized. These were the very earliest beginnings of modernism. It meant to scientize religion for the new modern university that was going to be born, and to make theology respectable."
In the process, Charry says, "They lost a very central element in the understanding of truth—loving God. By eliminating all notion of love from truth, they truncated the notion of truth."
Charry sums up with a practical observation: "If Protestant dogmatics set out to render theology respectable in the modern world and in the modern academy, it has failed. It has tried to 'make it' in the academy at the expense of its relationship to the church. So it has failed the church and is still not accepted by the academy. The whole notion of a theological vision has fallen on hard times."
The state of theology seems to both depress and excite Charry. On the depressing side, the theologians' guild is almost completely oriented to the university and cannot communicate with ordinary people—even with most pastors. On the hopeful side, "There's beginning to be more openness to looking at the past. As helpful as the postmodern critique of modernity might be, it's not really proposing a constructive alternative. Deconstruction is not the end, but the beginning of something. People are saying, 'We've heard the problems; now tell us what to do.' People turn elsewhere, and some turn to the past.
"Classical theology had a broader and deeper notion of truth and knowledge than we have in the modern world. I think theology can bring an expanded understanding of knowledge that includes wisdom and includes God as a source of knowledge and wisdom, [an understanding] that is beneficial and helpful to us, both philosophically and pastorally. Theology can be a help for modernity, which seems to have run aground on the notion of truth as purely informational or rationalistic or empirical."
"It's not beyond your wildest imagination," I said to Charry, "that Christianity could make a comeback."
"Right," Charry answered. "I don't think I'm the one to make that happen. But if I leave something on the shelf that contributes, maybe someone better could come along and make it happen. That's how I understand the academic enterprise. It's a team effort."
While Charry won't call herself an evangelical, she sees "a young cadre of evangelical theologians, just like some of us in the mainline, who want to find their way back to tradition. They aren't threatened. They are aware of problems, they don't want to mimic others, but they know evangelicals have to partake of intellectual life." Charry is thinking particularly of her doctoral students. She wonders whether their home churches will give them freedom to do the kind of theological exploration that's needed. "Does the evangelical movement," she asks, "have enough trust in its own members to let them go out and do it?"
Charry warned, however, that if evangelicals want to be involved in the academy they need patience and openness to forge a new relationship. "It's definitely time for it to happen. This is a good moment for it. You may get some bruises on your shins along the way, but that's part of what it means to open a conversation that's been closed for a very long time."
Like all the theologians I spoke with, Charry sees herself pointing in two directions (and sometimes squeezed between them)—the church and the academy. She seems particularly passionate about writing theology that is helpful to the church, but she recognizes that the academy requires that one write in ways that are difficult for the nonprofessional to follow. Just to make a living, to get jobs and tenure, a theologian needs to distance herself from ordinary people. At the same time, the church has no space for theology. There is Bible study, but almost no theological study.
The one point of contact is the seminary, which is why Charry has decided to devote her career to scholarly writing. This, she hopes, will influence other scholars, who will in turn teach and influence a new generation of pastors as they pass through seminary. "You can't buck the pastors," she said. "They are the controlling element between the academy and the people, and the way you get to the pastors is through the seminaries."
I told Charry that I hoped this article would do something to alert pastors to worthwhile developments in theology. She said she hoped so too; that was why she had given me a full day of her time. Still, she said, "I would count this article a success if the readers stopped denigrating theology from the pulpit."
I laughed. "That may be a lofty goal," I said.
"I was always taught to aim high," she said.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more