Home Reading Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 2 of 2)

Postconservatism: Defining the Label, Evaluating the Movement (Pt. 2 of 2)

This post is part of a two-part series.  You may wish to read the first post before proceeding!

A few concluding thoughts about postconservatism in light of Roger Olson‘s book Reformed and Always Reforming:

First, I think Olson is right to want a term to describe those who have become less theologically conservative while still identifying themselves as evangelical.  There are “postevangelicals,” too, which may hold some of the same theological positions (as well as some differing ones), but it’s good for us to recognize both those who stop using the evangelical label and those who retain it.

Secondly, Olson admits that some of the people he identifies as postconservative (e.g. Nancey Murphy, Stanley Grenz, etc.) have not been big fans of the label.  This is interesting to me because I know it was also the case with Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy.  Well, just as we tend to insist on calling Barth neo-orthodox against his will, I do think there’s some usefulness in using postconservative to describe those who fit our own definitions and understandings of what the word means.

But I think it order to become a more cohesive movement we would need to see more people choosing to identify themselves as postconservative.  This may mean less in academic circles since those Olson would call postconservative often interact with each other’s work a great deal, are real-life friends and colleagues, etc.  They will continue these same relationships regardless of what they’re calling themselves.  However, I wonder the lack of agreement on how to self-identify inhibits postconservatism’s ability to become something that lay people can also understand and identify with.

Thirdly, I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which postconservatives have been influenced not only by their fundamentalist and neo-evangelical forebearers but also by movements such as neo-orthodoxy and postliberalism.  Are postconservative evangelicals really doing much new or are they merely the evangelicals willing to learn from others?  Regardless, I think they have unique opportunities to speak to other evangelicals.

Fourthly, I think postconservative is perhaps most useful when used to identify scholars more than theological opinions themselves, despite the fact that Olson’s book is focused on the postconservative style of doing theology.  If you talk about theology, there is the question of why we need to say “postconservative” as opposed to simply identifying theology as more “moderate,” “progressive,” or “liberal.”  (Although, admittedly, liberalism and conservative evangelicalism have both been more modern in approach than postconservatism, so a more postmodern/postfoundationalist scholar might want to avoid this spectrum for this reason alone, I suppose.)

There is also, as Nancey Murphy points out (according to Olson), the issues of conservatism being a relative term to begin with.  Anyone wanting to retain what they are handed from the previous generation of postconservative scholars is, in a sense, conservative—although since we would never label a liberal who wanted to continue the liberal tradition as being “conservative,” I think this argument is of questionable relevance.  Even if “conservative” technically implies conserving traditional views, we use it in everyday speech to create a left-right spectrum.

The sense in which “postconservative” seems to always work well, however, is to describe the paths of individual theologians.  If someone comes from a more conservative background but has moved leftward to a certain degree without completely repudiating their roots, it makes sense to use “postconservative” to describe who they are and where they come from.  Of course, if we were to really see a boom of denominations and organizations influenced by postconservatism, what would those who grew up and then remained in this tradition call themselves?  I guess we can answer that when we get there.

Fifthly, in terms of critiquing the book itself, I have two primary complaints.  I did find myself mildly irked that Olson seemed to see postconservatism as coming out of Arminianism more than the Reformed tradition (especially since neo-orthodoxy has been such an influence on many postconservative scholars).  I’m not certain if this is true in terms of where most scholars are actually coming from, but I don’t think it’s a necessary aspect of the journey which leads one to become postconservative.  The book also seems to mention open theism a whole lot, and while it may be a good example of an issue some postconservatives have been willing to reconsider, I don’t think it’s the defining issue by any means—something Olson admits, too, and yet he still seems to focus on it a disproportionate amount.

Similarly, I thought it was curious that more attention was not given to the issue of inerrancy.  A significant part of my own definition of what it means to be postconservative is an abandonment of the doctrine of inerrancy.  Perhaps this merely flows out of the postfoundationalism which Olson mentions, but I thought it would have been worth mentioning in its own right.

Lastly, I want to express that even if several handfuls of postconservative evangelical scholars exist, it doesn’t mean they are welcome at many evangelical institutions (ex: Wheaton, where one has to be an inerrantist and believe in a historical Adam) or in the Evangelical Theological Society (also inerrantist).  And finding a theological home can be even more frustrating when you’re not a professor.  For that reason, I hope that postconservatism (along with postliberalism) matures into something beyond the reaches of the academy, creating space for thoughtful and faithful theological engagement in our pews, as well.

© Jeremiah and Ashleigh Bailey 2012