- Dean Replies to Zbaraschuk
Michael Zbaraschuk’s recent article, “Not Radical Enough: William Dean’s Problems with God and History,”1 deserves a published response, because it applies not only to my work but to that of many other philosophical theologians, some of whom read this journal.
Before discussing the larger issues, I must attend to an item of scholarly housekeeping. Although Zbaraschuk draws narrowly, i.e., from only two of my books—History Making History (1988) and The Religious Critic in American Culture (1994)—he applies his arguments indiscriminately to my work as a totality, omitting most crucially the score of articles and the book written between 1994 and the present. Of course, there is nothing wrong with an analysis of a narrow range of someone’s writings—unless, as Zbaraschuk’s does, it presents itself as an analysis of the full range of those writings. This problem is compounded by the fact that, during the years Zbaraschuk ignores, especially the later years, I was publishing some of the same arguments and revisions he faults me for never having made.
Zbaraschuk does insert one piece of additional evidence, a paper I delivered in 1999 at the American Academy of Religion. Stunningly, he calls this my “latest effort” and opines that only “time will tell if this is a minor hiccup or the beginnings of a new direction in [my] work” (37, 50), never bothering to investigate the later publications that would have answered his question. Furthermore, he has selected for detailed analysis a never published paper—never published because I myself regarded it as unpublishable, exploratory, and speculative.
Despite the above, Zbaraschuk deserves credit for challenging one aspect of my work—and, by implication, that of other philosophical theologians, especially during the period when some of us sailed under deconstructionist, neopragmatist, historicist, and other postmodern flags. I failed, he charges, to speak in a distinctively theological voice, one that moves beyond metaphysics and morality; or, in his terms, I failed to demonstrate how my theological ideas “provide a religiously satisfying doctrine” (34). Although this is a protest [End Page 259] raised specifically about books I wrote sixteen and more years ago, it is one that applies too well to too much written by me and others since then, even in this post-postmodern era. Zbaraschuk should be credited for raising this fundamental protest.
Zbaraschuk reminds us that a theologian’s task is to offer ideas that are sui generis, ideas that secular thinkers, as secular thinkers, will never and can never arrive at. It is theologians’ provision of such distinctly theological ideas that makes them more than derivative secular thinkers. Further, Zbaraschuk fairly questions whether the two scrutinized books steer clear of the same secular ditch at the bottom of which I find so many neopragmatist and deconstructionist “theologies” (34–35).
Finally, however, though appreciating Zbaraschuk’s insistence that theological ideas ought to help produce “religiously satisfying doctrines,” I must ask, Which religious doctrines? Here I come to the heart of my objection to Zbaraschuk’s article. He repeatedly begs the question, first quietly inserting a premise about what God is, then counting as “religiously satisfying” only those doctrines that speak of his premised God. His argument “works” because it smuggles in a premise that is his, not mine, and then faults my ideas for failing to promote doctrines that follow from his premise, not mine. He might better have challenged the God I presuppose. He acknowledges the theological importance of historical context, but never, to my knowledge, explains why the God I presuppose is wrong for our common historical context.
Specifically, Zbaraschuk presupposes, first, that God is a more or less fixed objective entity, simply located in historical space and time but not composed of historical interactions, and, second, that God is purely good. For Zbaraschuk, theological ideas that promote doctrines about such a God will be religiously satisfactory and, therefore, good theological ideas. I presuppose a historicist God that is not a fixed, locatable entity but is a historical force, composed in and of historical interaction, and, second, a God that, given this context, cannot be unambiguously good. Such a God, I argue...