My editor at IVP Academic recently interviewed me and my coauthor, David Buschart, about our book coming out later this spring, Theology as Retrieval: Receiving the Past, Renewing the Church. For just about any author, “What are you writing about?” is a standard, polite question. But it’s a difficult one to answer. How do you capture the essence of your book without overstaying your welcome? I know the glazed look which signals the end of my polite questioner’s interest!
Reid: How did the idea for this book arise?
Buschart: We share a mutual interest in and commitment to doing theology with and for the church. Individually and then in collaboration, we were struck by the contemporary flourishing of retrieval in both the academy and the church. We found ourselves powerfully drawn into this combination, this convergence. Having observed the trend, we were surprised a book-length study had not been done and eager to explore it together.
Reid: You have selected six areas look at: theological interpretation of Scripture, Trinitarian theology, worship, spirituality, mission and cosmos. Why these?
Buschart: These are not the only areas currently being informed by retrieval. For example, we also observed retrieval with respect to soteriology, race and anthropology. We decided to focus on the six in the book because they appear to be the ones in which the most substantive and robust retrievals are currently taking place. They are also areas that readily manifest connections between theological retrieval and the church.
Reid: I found the chapter on Radical Orthodoxy (RO) very interesting. How did you decide on including it?
Eilers: Radical Orthodoxy is clearly a retrieval project but not one easily pinned down—it is highly diverse and its literature is voluminous. Nonetheless, including it created two unique opportunities for us. First, retrieval negotiates several tensions, and including RO helped us explore one of them: stability and change. Second, RO is bold enough to believe theology should engage just about everything—hence the title of the chapter, “Cosmos.” For evangelicals like ourselves who prize engaging culture with the gospel, studying RO’s retrieval suits our project perfectly.
Reid: You interact with Charles Taylor’s concept of “social imaginary.” Can you briefly explain what you do with that?
Eilers: Retrieval is as much about the future story of the church as her past. And the church’s story is inherently social and embodied. When the social dimensions of retrieval are considered together with its intellectual realities, then a host of important questions arise: Why do resources retrieved from the past sometimes flourish and other times fall flat within the lives of people and their communities? How does one navigate the social and not merely intellectual differences between then and now? What does wise retrieval require related to the communal dimensions in which ideas and practices flourish or flounder? Charles Taylor’s concept of social imaginary offers a conceptual space to address questions like these
Reid: Marilynne Robinson recently commented, “We’re living in a period where people have very little conscious historical memory. . . . There’s a thinness in what you would call contemporary consciousness.’” What do do you think? Might there be a broader cultural hunger for retrieval?
Buschart: Robinson is correct. Ours is a culture that mistakenly assumes that “contemporary” refers to the point in time—namely, a very recent point in time—when an idea or practice originated. This is misguided. Rightly understood, the descriptor “contemporary” indicates that an idea or practice is relevant and meaningful for today. In the book we engage scholars, pastors and other people of the church who demonstrate that those resources “for today” include both those that arose recently and those that arose in a more distant past.
Eilers: Retrieval is motivated by the desire to hear from voices not mired in our intellectual and ideological ruts. Sensing the “thinness” Robinson names, retrieval is an instance of trying to receive and live with our past rather than without it or against it.
Reid: Americans are proficient at adopting elements from various religious traditions and fashioning them into something not really true to the respective traditions. Many of us resist settling down and inhabiting a religious tradition. Is this a risk in theological retrieval?
Buschart: There is, to be sure, a challenge here. However, it is a challenge which is not unique to retrieval. All of thought and life requires discernment, not mere knowledge, and the very need for discernment is itself a manifestation of the fact that we “may get it wrong.” For Christians this discernment will be—or ought to be—robustly theological. With this in mind we include in the book both exploration of the nature of theological discernment and an introduction to the principles and practices of wise, discerning retrieval
Reid: How can we distinguish retrieval from a repristination, which might involve nostalgia or romanticism?
Buschart: There are those who are inclined to associate retrieval with “stuck in the past.” But as our book demonstrates, scholars and pastors who are practicing retrieval today are driven specifically by their interest in and commitment to the present. For example, people associated with new monasticism or with contemporary liturgical renewal are passionately committed to lives of witness and mission in contemporary culture, not least in our cities. But they are humble enough and wise enough to be open to receiving resources from the church’s past as well as from the present.
Eilers: People who engage retrieval wisely are open to being challenged by the past while also appreciating the continuity of Christian life and faith—the timelessness of the deposit of faith. They’re humble enough to work within the deposit of Christian tradition while also remaining ever receptive to the Spirit’s agency to initiate fresh performances. This kind of retrieval seeks to guard the essence of what has been passed on while not avoiding the privileged responsibility of testing the tradition.
Reid: What about those who belong to churches that don’t have much historical consciousness? How can they maintain faithfulness to their identity on Fifth and Main Street while retrieving the best from the past?
Buschart: This is an important question that both of us are personally acquainted with. When contemplating the varied landscape of the Christian past, I find it helpful to think in terms of lessons of dissent and lessons of assent. Any Christian can expect to—indeed, will—find in the broad and diverse history of Christianity ideas and practices that they cannot, and because of their own biblically grounded beliefs, should not accept or affirm. These are what I refer to as lessons of dissent. And by virtue of the catholicity of genuine Christianity—all Christians share one Lord and one faith—any Christian should expect to discover in the broader landscape of Christianity beyond their own tradition ideas and practices that can inform and enrich their own tradition. Reid: How do you see your book fitting into a theological curriculum as a text? Eilers: We think it is well-suited for graduate classes in systematic theology, theological method and ecclesiology, and it is very appropriate for DMin programs. I have even used drafts of several chapters with upper level undergraduate students in theology to good effect.