- Narrative Theology and the Hermeneutical Virtues: Humility, Patience, Prudence by Jacob L. Goodson
The distance in conceptual space between the philosophical pragmatism of William James and the narrative theologies of Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas would appear at first glance to be significant. Hauerwas himself has measured that distance in public, when his extended critique of James supplied a good portion of the agenda for his Gifford Lectures, delivered in 2001 at St. Andrews and subsequently published as With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology. In this book, Jacob Goodson dramatically closes the distance, appealing consistently to James's pragmatism as a resource not only for understanding the thought of contemporary narrative theologians but also for productively developing their project and ideas. Under the guiding influence of his mentor, Peter Ochs, Goodson also leans, albeit to a lesser extent, on the philosophy of Charles Peirce. The upshot is a thoughtful and important book, one that should be of interest both to scholars of pragmatism and to philosophical theologians invested in the use of pragmatic methods and principles.
The agenda for Goodson's first book-length publication is a remarkably ambitious one. A key item on that agenda is to provide an overview for readers [End Page 67] of the nature and significance of "narrative theology," Goodson's preferred designation for a contemporary intellectual movement that is often identified elsewhere as "postliberal theology" (1). This preference is instructive. Good-son is more interested in delineating the salient features of such a theological perspective than he is in contrasting "postliberalism" with other theological options or defending it from its critics. (Toward this end, the "ten maxims" presented in the book's introduction represent a useful starting point.) The discussion here is organized around the thought of Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, but Peter Ochs also receives some consideration, while George Lindbeck, Kathryn Tanner, and Eugene Rogers are tapped a bit less frequently for their important insights. The book has two additional agenda items: first, to mine philosophical pragmatism, especially the thought of William James, for the purpose of strengthening and extending the hermeneutical roots of narrative theology; and second, to identify the key virtues that anyone engaged in such a hermeneutical project would need to cultivate and exercise.
On Goodson's account, the narrative theologies of Frei and Hauerwas stand in a certain tension with one another, but he invests considerable effort here in showing that this tension is a creative one; there is a "division of labor" among the theologians associated with this movement, so that Frei and Hauerwas can best be understood as focusing on different but nevertheless complementary intellectual tasks (17, 109). Goodson explains that Frei's attention is directed to the scriptural texts themselves, their "intratextual" relation with one another in the canon, and the "plain sense" that they reveal to appropriately skillful readers. The meaning of scripture, from this perspective, is fixed neither by authorial intention nor ostensive reference; instead of being concerned about what the authors of specific biblical texts meant to convey or which external realities beyond the text are accurately represented by it, readers should attend to the texts themselves, most especially (quoting Thomas Aquinas), to "the way the words run" (18).
In contrast to Frei, Hauerwas highlights the particular religious communities that regard the Bible as scripture, emphasizing the role that they play in fixing the plain sense of the texts that scripture contains. Borrowing insights from the reader-response literary theory of Stanley Fish (151), Hauerwas does not locate the plain sense by first discerning patterns within the texts themselves; rather, it is the disciplined interpretive activity of faithful readers working together within the community that establishes what scripture means, a meaning that will then serve in a normative fashion to shape their own lives and practices.
Goodson does a fine job of portraying the position of each theologian; it is a bigger challenge to resolve the tension between them. The author's advice [End Page 68] that we should...