Thomas C. Oden’s Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements

Note to self:  do not, I repeat do NOT get Thomas Oden mad.

Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements is Oden’s partially autobiographical story of his movement away from 60’s liberal radicalism (here called “The Feast I Left”), around Roman Catholicism (“The Feast I Missed”), and finally into postmodern Protestant paleo-orthodoxy (“The Feast I Did Not Expect”).

I’ve been intrigued with Tom Oden’s theological programme of paleo-orthodoxy ever since I heard him lecture at Southwestern Seminary while I was a student there, and I’ve read some of his more didactic works on the theological programme in which he must be considered the key player.  I’ve only just read, however, Oden’s fascinating Requiem (1995).

Now, anybody who has read any Oden at all knows that he has a flourish for polemics.  In fact (though I gather that Oden would deny this or not be pleased with it) his writings often seem primarily polemical in their thrust and focus.  Oden, by his own admission, is building an iconoclastic programme in the ruin of modernity, a period of time that he defines as resting roughly between the fall of the Bastille in 1789 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  But this collapsing and collapsed modernity is a sphere in which Oden used to be quite a major and fad-obsessed player.  In fact, I would be tempted to question exactly how Oden could have been involved in all of the movements (he says that he was a movement theologian) that he claims to have been involved in were in not for the fact that he has a lifetime of publishing in these movements.  But the movement is now dead, and Oden drives a rhetorical nail in the coffin of modernity in ways that only a child of the movement could.

Oden identifies the four hallmarks of the collapsed modernity as “autonomous individualism”, “narcissistic hedonic assertiveness”, “reductive naturalism”, and “absolute moral relativism and modern chauvinism” (p.118).  For Oden personally, the last straw in the failed experiment of modernity was a eucharistic service at the chapel of Drew University (where he was a member of the faculty) in which a radical feminist explicitly invoked and called for the worship of the goddess Sophia instead of Jesus Christ.  Oden walked out of that service, the first time he had ever walked out of an observance of Holy Communion.

Oden is now calling the church away from such faddish blasphemies into the rich and fertile ground of a postmodern retrieval of what he sees as the classic consensual tradition of patristic exegesis.  This call is most effectively seen in his Agenda for Theology (later republished as After Modernity…What?) and more recently inThe Rebirth of Orthodoxy.  He’s worked this paleo-orthodox program out in a myriad of impressive and significant works touching on exegesis (the multi-volume IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scirpture), his three-volume systematic theology, his work on pastoral care and ministry, and his patristic readers on issues like justification.

But here, in Requiem, Oden seems primarily concerned with diagnosing a cultural and university/seminary climate where the last vestiges of the dying/dead modernity still hold sway.  Oden bemoans “the McGovernization” of the seminaries, the rise of radical feminism, the maddening proliferation of new fads and movements, and the reduction of theology to just about anything that a professor with a fetish and the freedom to define elective courses might wish for it to be.

In Requiem, Oden levels one of the most blistering attacks on the modern tenure system that you’re likely to ever see in print.  His advice to orthodox students within modernistic seminary settings is fascinating and insightful.  Again and again, Oden shows that he’s no hack with a grudge.  Rather, he’s seen the belly of the beast and lived within its dying walls.

This is what separates proper polemics from irritating screeds:  genuine heartbroken concern.  And, though perhaps Oden occasionally gets lost in his very impressive verbiage, there is no doubt that he is genuinely heartbroken.

For a fascinating former-insider’s look at the machinery of modernity run amuck, and a compelling call for a return to what the late Robert Webber called “ancient future faith,” you’ll want to read Oden.  He is indeed the granddaddy of postmodern paleo-orthodoxy, a proposal that, while not without problems (i.e., Oden’s own idiosyncratic acceptance of certain portions of the paleo-orthodox tradition and rejection of others and the ever-vexing question of just how this classic consensus is to be defined), nonetheless is, in my opinion, the most significant and helpful proposal before the church today.

Here is provocative and edifying theology at its best.  Put on your helmet and give it a read.

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