09 October 2013

The modern homiletical crisis

Among the books and articles I'm reading to prepare for the Advanced Preaching Seminar at NDS this spring is an excellent book by Phil Snider, titled, Preaching After God.

The first two chapters of this book lay out what Snider calls "the modern homiletical crisis." Basically, he argues that the liberal/progressive theology of modernist Christianity has left progressive ministers and preachers with little to say about God.

He charts the development of modernist theology through several philosophical veins, including the usual suspects: Kant, Hegel, Fichte, and, of course, Schleiermacher. 

Despite his embrace of progressive theology, Snider laments the "death of God" in liberal Protestant preaching, noting that preaching in the mainline churches has become little more than politically tinged ethical exhortation. 

In theory and practice, Christian progressives have replaced theology with anthropology.*

He writes, "Activism became the rule of the day in modern preaching largely because God was not longer identified as anything other than a projection of the best intentions and ideals of the human spirit, if anything at all, and religion was reduced to activism. . .When one considers the import of Kant and Hegel on liberal theology, it's no coincidence that sermons that fall prey to the modern homiletical crisis (1) place primary emphasis on a Christianity that is boiled down to ethics. . .and (2) lose sight of the infinite qualitative distinction between God (the wholly other) and human beings. When God is just a manifestation or extension of our best selves on our best days, when there is no infinite qualitative distinction between human beings and the 'wholly other,' then God is, for all practical purposes, dead" (66).

To any Catholic who's been paying attention to parochial preaching in the last 40 yrs. this diagnosis of liberal Protestant preaching should sound eerily familiar. 

Having misinterpreted and misapplied the Second Vatican Council's invitation to engage modern culture in dialogue, ecclesial elites have so domesticated the Divine that it is almost impossible for them now to understand the Church as anything other than a social service agency.  

The task of Catholic homiletics in the 21st century is to explore ways of returning a sense of the "infinite qualitative distinction" btw Creator and creature to our preaching w/o portraying God as inaccessible. Part of this project then will be to re-establish the event of the Incarnation as a central theme of Catholic preaching.

* Snider sees some hope for progressives in deconstructionism. My sense is that this is a dead-end for Catholic preaching as a solution. There may be uses for deconstruction as a heuristic but ultimately Catholic preaching cannot jettison metaphysics. 

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  1. "Part of this project then will be to re-establish the event of the Incarnation as a central theme of Catholic preaching."

    An excellent plan!

    (How dreadful, though, that we're at the point of needing a project to make preaching the Incarnation central.)

    1. Indeed. LibProts/CathProgs tend to deny the transcendent-sacred. Fundies/CathTrads tend to deny the immanent-embodied. We need a homiletics that finds the Catholic balance btw the Transcendent/Immanent, btw the human and the divine.

  2. An interesting book for an extensive and deep look at the philosophical roots of this decline is "From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy" by William McGovern (1941). Fulton Sheen quotes from it in "Philosophies at War" (1943) [internet archives: http://archive.org/details/philosophiesatwa00shee].