by Douglas F. Ottati
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Mich. 384 pages.
The tag “liberal” in conventional debates seems to suggest a movement engaged in critical thinking that breaks with received traditions and dominant institutions. Conservative critics in the churches commonly worry that liberals eventually lose their moorings. They are afloat in the traditionless, vulnerable to the winds and tides of the moment.
So perceived, a theology for liberal Protestants seems an oxymoron. Liberal leaders in the mainline churches have grounds for resisting the caricature. But in the privacy of their study, they can feel adrift in their sense of calling. Sometimes it shows up as a kind of midlife crisis. They dread the tasks of mounting next week’s sermon, or drafting the article that might secure them tenure, or leading community campaigns that no longer issue from deep religious conviction.
Douglas Ottati has just published the first of two very substantial volumes in systematic theology that should help renew the energy and bearings of Protestant liberal leaders adrift. Ottati’s work draws imaginatively on the Augustinian, Protestant (Reformed) and liberal traditions. (Please note: liberalism, as Ottati mines it, is a tradition. He sums it up as giving “sustained attention to critical argument and scientific inquiries, a developed historical consciousness, and a commitment to social criticism and reform.”) In proposing a theistic humanism for our time, Ottati draws on the earlier Augustinian tradition with its powerful vision of God as Creator, Judge, and Redeemer, and explores this tradition as it bears on our understanding of the human condition and prospect. He also engages with the Protestant (Reformed) tradition, as it carries forward those themes in the setting of a chastened and still-to-be chastened church and humankind. He ponders the full force of the questions modern culture poses for the faith and the faith traditions pose to the culture.
At first glance, it would seem impossible to pull together these three distinct traditions. Each tends to give shape and character to a distinct identity with hard and fast borders, within which theologians operate deductively and repetitively. Tellingly, however, Ottati refers to the three traditions on which he draws as “sensibilities.” The word “sensibility” honors the intellectual and the passional aliveness of the traditions, as the theologian actively struggles with them. Theology is a wrestling match in the middle of the night. So Scripture described Jacob’s grappling with the angel. And so the theologian experiences the task of Christian reflection; whether the preacher preparing a sermon (or counseling at the bedside) or this particular academic at work on a systematic theology in his study across the decades.
Is Ottati’s “theistic humanism” a great work in systematic theology? It is too early to weigh in with such a judgment on this very important work. I always admired the modesty of Paul Ramsey, my own teacher in theological ethics (who was eventually buried in the vicinity of, but a respectful distance from, Jonathan Edwards in the Princeton cemetery). Ramsey saw it as his job as a Christian moralist to keep the conversation alive.
On its own, Ottati’s excellent first volume offers us a double gift: its intrinsic merit and its additional service of keeping the great traditions alive.
WILLIAM F. MAY is a PC(USA) teaching elder and a leading scholar of medical ethics.