James McClendon’s central claim throughout his Biography as Theology is that “The truth of faith is made good in the living of it or not at all; that living is a necessary condition of the justification of Christian faith.” The lives of Christians not only reflect the faith of particular people, they also make present the true faith to which all Christians are commonly called. The particularities of religious experience certainly do not determine Christian doctrine, but it is within the lives of believers that doctrine gains its coherence.
McClendon was a soldier during the 20th century, a time period he suggests was marked by increasing disenfranchisement with the institutional church, especially during the American “conflict” in Vietnam. The religious experience for Christians in America especially was one of moral dyslexia, trying as many Christians did to make sense of supposedly liberating movements such as feminism, free love, and Vatican II. The modern “utilitarian calculus” of states and the “propositional” theologies of the institutional church, which combined to make something like Vietnam possible, were exposed as fraud. A “new” form of theological method of understanding post-modern religious experience must fill its place.
Cautiously avoiding the phrase “narrative theology,” he argues that “propositional theology,” the method of the Barths, the Rahners, and the Tillichs of the world, had lost traction in the post-modern world emerging in the shadow of the wars of the 20th century. Stories, not scholarly debate, would prove of most value. The lives of the Christians he profiles are shaped by a theological vision so that “a key to these biographies is the dominant or controlling images which may be found in the lives of which they speak.”
A name he gives to the necessary replacement to the paradigm of “propositional theologies” he variously refers to as “biographic theology,” an “ethics of character,” and “a theology of life.” Far from being without its own “reasoned truth,” McClendon’s entire work is dedicated to describing how lives are in fact inherently theological.
“The living out of life under the governance of such a vision is the best way to conceive of ‘religious experience’ in so far as the latter can be a datum for theology.” For Hammarskjold, it is Christ as Brother, King followed the liberating Christ, Jordan shared in God’s Movement, and Ives sang of the church’s Rugged Plurality. These images help illumine for us the image (and images) of God and for God. Their lives become for us a window to understand more fully the work of god in our world and help us in the work God calls to us.
After all, “Theology is done not only from a perspective but to and for a community.” In such a community, “there is a continual blurring of the line of application between the teacher and his disciples.” While McClendon does not appear to have virtue ethics in mind, he is very close to virtue theory that suggests that the cultivation of good habits establishes good character by making the virtues second nature. By making a habit of praying, eventually I find that I have become prayerful.
One can easily read McClendon’s account of the apocalyptic parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25in this exact light. Of both the sheep and the goats, he claims “that actions by which their final destiny is judged… are instead ones in which they acted unknowingly, and yet showed themselves for what they truly were.” The sheep are as surprised as the goats; they each ask when it was they did the things for which they are either praised or condemned.
In his closing chapters, he turns to the distinction between objectivism and subjectivism, claiming that it is “has not proved satisfactory in modern theology.” Propositionism is here aligned with objectivism, for it assumes a universal reason accessible to all. More problematically, objectivism assumes an exclusion “from personal participation in the atoning work” of Christ. McClendon seems to associate objectivism primarily with the abstracting work done in theorizing forms of philosophical/”theology proper” for being “more suited to attacking rival theologians than informing the Church of God.” He accuses these forms of theology of “the time-defying strategies of modern intellectual work.”
However, he avoids the easy move of dismissing objectivism and its propositional outgrowths in theoretical and philosophical forms of theology. After all, subjectivism assumes the self as the source of reconciliation. McClendon does not advocate for complete disavowal of objectivism or of propositional theology. Biographical theology instead must insist that these ‘objective’ forms of theology “be in continual and intimate contact with the lived experience which the propositional doctrine by turns collects, orders, and informs.” Doctrinal significance and meaning, in other words, must be “exemplified in contemporary Christian experience.” We must be on guard, McClendon reminds us, against uncritical forms of propositional theology that might deny its contingency upon the biographical form. McClendon suggests that we can tell that propositional theology has “[retreated] to the uncritical form” when/if it abandons any “attempt to confront or be confronted by Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.”
Finally, McClendon closes by turning to the saints to illustrate lives lived that must be brought into contact with purely doctrinal theology. Such lives cannot possibly be described as being composed of experiences of some quantifiable, objective “God” (which assigns “a cognitive priority to the compressed, the non-durational, the abstracted products of actual or durational experience,” ), but experiences with Emmanuel, the God-with-us. We are known not by some radically unknowable god, as Paul encountered at Mars Hill, but the God who both reveals and names himself so that we might (even objectively) know and be known by God. McClendon sums it up by saying, “The compelling aspect of the lives to which we are drawn is often more powerful than the propositional religious goals we are in the position to formulate… the doctrine we may draw from their life stories, if it is compelling, is so just because it had prior embodiment in them and may be embodied again.”