by Dana R. Wright
How might we speculate about the potential legacy of James E. Loder for practical theology? We probably shouldn’t speculate too much, given that his work as a whole remains largely unknown or at least under-studied by practical theologians, and that legacies cannot be predicted, for who knows with certainty either the Spirit’s surprising interventions or how the unfolding of history might change the way we understand the past. But still, an attempt is worthwhile because I believe Loder’s profound grasp of the field of practical theology bears enormous promise for elucidating a prophetic practical theology that especially illuminates the kinetic relation of Christ to culture.
Books by James E. Loder
Religion in the Public Schools (New York: Association Press) 1965
Religious Pathology and Christian Faith (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) 1966
The Transforming Moment: Understanding Convictional Experiences (San Francisco: Harper and Row) 1982
The Holy Spirit and Human Transformation (in Korean) (Seoul, Korea: Yonsei Univer-sity) 1983
The Transforming Moment, revised second edition, including two additional chapters and glossary (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard) 1990
The Knight’s Move: The Relational Logic of the Spirit in Theology and Science
(with W.J. Neidhardt) (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard) 1992
The Logic of the Spirit: Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers) 1998
Educational Ministry in the Logic of the Spirit (forthcoming in 2002)
In the first chapter of his recent book Remembered Voices: Reclaiming the Legacy of “Neo-Orthodoxy,” Lutheran theologian Douglas John Hall paid tribute to the theological perspicacity of Karl Barth, citing an accolade given to the composer Ludwig Beethoven (not Mozart!) by one of his patrons as also appropriate for Barth. The accolade read:
[Beethoven] impressed me as being a man with a rich, aggressive intellect, an unlimited, never-resting imagination. I saw him as one who, had he been cast on a desert isle when no more than a growing, capable boy, would have taken all he had lived and learned, all that had stuck to him in the way of knowledge, and there have meditated and brooded over his material until his fragments had become a whole, his imaginings turned to convictions which he would have shouted out into the world in all security and confidence. (Hall,
It strikes me that this accolade, describing what we normally call “genius” and applied to a prophet of neoorthodoxy, applies equally well to James Edwin Loder. Regarding genius, who would argue against it? “A rich, aggressive intellect”? No doubt! “An unlimited, never-resting imagination”? Undeniably so! A holistic thinker? Astonishingly so! “Meditative” and “brooding,” and convinced? “Secure” and “confident”? Absolutely! No doubt what Hall describes as genius fits Loder’s profile exactly. And yet when we recall what convictions this genius “shouted out into the world in all security and confidence,” the designation “genius” fails to do him justice. As with Barth, the prophetic neoorthodox label emerges for Loder as the dominant one. But a problem arises, because for many if not most practical theologians, “neoorthodoxy” functions as something of an ideological millstone hung around the necks of theorists out of touch with the pluralist demands of the times. A neoorthodox mind, especially a genius mind, is for many practical theologians merely a terrible thing to waste.
However, for Hall, a relevant contemporary theologian of no small stature, neo-orthodoxy, in spite of its pejorative connotations and its diversity of expression, developed several common or signature traits that remain essential to the theological task today. He discusses five: (1) a privileging of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, meaning a “working Christocentrism” that is determinative for both theology and Christian anthropology; (2) an emphasis on the Bible as a principle bearer of the kerygma; (3) a recognition that all theology is historically conditioned; (4) faithfulness to the magisterial Reformers, especially Luther and his nontriumphalist
theologia crucis; and (5) an ecumenical sensibility that manifests energetic commitment to and responsibility for the whole church. (Hall,
Voices, “Conclusion” pp. 125–145)
All of these characteristics of neoorthodoxy describe the personal faith commitments and the practical theological content of James Loder, and reveal the deep sources of his generative imagination. And if Hall is correct in his assessment of the relevance of such faith for our contemporary time, we can safely conclude that Loder did not waste his genius mind.
But Loder’s relevance for practical theology needs further elaboration for us to anticipate his legacy.
The uniqueness of his neoorthodox genius, and therefore of his potential contribution to the field of practical theology, is bound up with how he grasped the interrelation of all the disciplines that inform practical theology
as personal knowledge or testimony. In Loder, homo sapien (the thinker),
homo poeta (the meaning-maker), and homo loquens (the speaker) became
homo testans (the witness). Through Loder’s life of suffering divine things through the power of the Holy Spirit, his genius (for thinking, meaning-making, and speaking) was martyred and resurrected in the service of grasping and articulating the inner meaning of the gospel’s relationship to a scientific culture. The self-involvement intrinsic to all scientific knowing, what Polanyi called “personal knowledge,” now redeemed in Christ, became in and through Loder a testimony of the Spirit of Christ that bore witness with his spirit, enabling him to know the field of practical theology according to its proper relationality, from the whole to the parts, in a way that reflects the relation of Christ to scientific culture.
PTS faculty members (from left) Max Stackhouse, J.J.M. Roberts, Nancy Duff, James Charlesworth, and James Loder at a recent Seminary Commencement
While homo testans describes the quality of redeemed consciousness in children, youth, and adults, genius or not, who awaken to the presence of Christ and bear testimony in the Spirit, the significance of Loder’s witness is that he so thoroughly extended the concepts implicit in
homo testans into the realm of scientific discourse. He identified “the relational logic of theology and the sciences” as a generative structure for understanding the kinetic interrelation of divine and human action for practical theological science according to the nature of Jesus Christ. And in so doing, he showed how theologians, sociologists, psychologists, physicists, cultural critics, etc. might bring their disciplines into mutually modifying relationships with one other at the level of spirit, where they each bear implicit witness to the crucified and resurrected life-giving Spirit of Christ at the center of all intelligibility. In
The Knight’s Move, Loder comments on the generic model of spirit that he developed with physicist Jim Neidhardt to discern and articulate the epistemological ground of theology and the human and natural sciences, and then argues, in the tradition of Barth, that the generative potential of his generic model of spirit finds its true meaning and power in Jesus Christ.
…relationality is revealed to us definitively in the inner nature of Jesus Christ. In Christ’s nature as fully God and fully human, we have the definition of relationship through which all other expressions of personal, social, and cultural relatedness are to be viewed. This applies as well to the model we are using in the methodology of this study; the inner nature of Jesus Christ ultimately defines the scope and limits of the relational model; not the reverse. Our use of the model is intended to reveal the illuminative and explanatory significance of viewing all creation through the eyes of faith in Jesus Christ.
(The Knight’s Move, p.13)
And so, it seems, for Loder, Jesus Christ defines the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the human spirit, and this relationship then defines and orients practical theology to its task. This task is to know reality according to the mind of Christ, as testimony—or, we might say, to know reality in some sense as Jesus Christ, the True Witness, knows it. Loder’s vision suggests how Christ and culture belong together in our thinking when, through the work of the creative, crucifying, and redeeming Spirit, we are restored in the spirit of our minds as
homo testans to do practical theology in the Spirit. He attempted to conceptualize how the inner nature of Jesus Christ connects through the analogy of the Spirit to the inner dynamism of human action—personal, social, cultural—so as to “catch the Spirit of Christ in the act” of redeeming human life. His work suggests how we might conceive practical theology Christocentrically in a way that communicates the relevance of Jesus Christ to a scientific culture. Making Jesus Christ relevant to a scientific culture is certainly a major part of what Loder shouted about. That was his testimony among us. It may also be his legacy.
Dana Wright met James Loder in 1988 in Seattle at a continuing education event. He became Loder’s student in 1991 and finished his doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the possibility of developing a neo-Barthian approach to practical theology (that is, a critical, confessional practical theology), under Loder’s advisorship in 1999. For the past two years he and his mentor were colleagues in the Practical Theology Department of Princeton’s faculty.