Home > Carl E. Braaten, Random, Robert W. Jenson > The Braaten-Jenson Duo: From Radical to Conservative?

The Braaten-Jenson Duo: From Radical to Conservative?

Can we talk about what appears to me to be a rather distinct and unfortunate political shift in the Jenson-Braaten duo? Is it just me, or does this totally suck? The two founders of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology and the journal Pro Ecclesia have co-edited something like 15 volumes on various theological topics in the past thirty some years or so. Many are familiar with Braaten primarily through the work of Jenson, who is considered by some to be the best living American theologian. Have you ever read Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson’s early theology? Braaten’s Christ and Counter-Christ is really a wonderful example of a politically radical ‘apocalyptic’ theology. I mean this Braaten loves Karl Marx. Similarly, Jenson’s Story and Promise is ultra critical of Americanism and capitalism. And both speak quite seriously about political revolution.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Braaten and Jenson are now right-wing ideologues–but we have to be honest about a real shift in the political tenor of their theology. I love Jenson’s more recent Systematic Theology, but I found much of the cultural critique in it to be quite disappointing. Some of the volumes that they’ve co-edited have also been quite disappointing and strangely conservative in tone–for instance, Either/Or: The Gospel or Neopaganism.

C’mon, let’s talk about this–what went wrong here? Please, someone, tell me I’m mistaken.

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  1. March 8, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    Nothing’s wrong. They’ve just matured. It is typical of the young scholar to revel in the subversive, but, eventually, constructive concerns develop, which invariably result in attending to the value of existing forms.

  2. March 9, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Kevin. I realize it is a typical move, but that doesn’t mean that it is a good move!

  3. March 9, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Yeah, well, I readily admit that I’ve been influenced by R. C. natural law — in moderate forms (e.g., Gilson, von B) — and certain neo-evangelical appropriations thereto (e.g., Edward John Carnell). By way of background, as an undergrad, I was heavily steeped in Foucault, Sartre, Freud, Marx, Rorty, Dewey, etc. I had a rather strong visceral reaction. I don’t (can’t) read Yoder and Hauerwas the way other people do; I simply don’t find it all that helpful. But, it would take far too long for me to defend that statement.

    It is interesting that Jenson and Braaten themselves — with many others — moderated as they came into continual contact and appreciation of Rome.

  4. March 9, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Kevin, thanks for stopping by and providing some background. I’ve run across your blog in the past. The RC influence is an interesting suggestion, however, I’m not convinced that this is really a “moderating” element in their work.

  5. Adam Ward
    March 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Why does empire engender appreciation over time though? I’m more interested in Kevin’s response than in Braaten. If you’re twenty something and you’re not an idealist you don’t have a heart, if you’re thirty something and not a realist you don’t have a brain. Blahhhhh, this thinking can’t help anyone but it’s so ubiquitous. Stops us from even trying to step out of the illusions. We all know about them but it seems like people have more invested as they spend more and more vacation time in Rome, time share turns to condo. In the end, only the entertaining iconoclasts can make a whole career out of it.

  6. March 10, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Oh geez, “empire”! That’s a quick way to end all constructive discussion.

    R. O. Flyer,

    Okay, it’s Rome and Hegel that moderates. :) Seriously though, I think it’s hard to discount the influence of, at least, Fr. Neuhaus, the community and culture of the First Things journal, the witness of John Paul II, and a number of other R. C. influences.

  7. March 10, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Yeah, I’m not a fan of First Things.

  8. Lee
    March 10, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    My impression is that, like a lot of people their age, Braaten and Jenson agreed with many of the goals and emphases of the “old” Left (economic justice, anti-war, etc.), but got off the bus when it came to the sexual revolution. The same thing happened with Richard John Neuhaus, who was an anti-Vietnam activist and marched with MLK in the 60s. The difference is that Jenson and Braaten, haven’t really abandoned their older views, while Neuhaus became a full-fledged conservative. (Braaten is still on “the left” economically, opposed the war in Iraq, etc.). However, they seem to have decided that the real enemy isn’t capitalism or imperialism, but “liberal Protestantism” and its approval of homosexuality, abortion, etc. This–and the greater appreciation of Catholic ecclesiology and theology mentioned by the other commenters–may help explain their united front with the FT crowd. (Though, if he stands by what he wrote in his book on justification, I don’t really understand why Braaten pines for an RC-style magisterium.)

  9. March 10, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Lee, great points. I’m sure both Jenson and Braaten still agree to some extent with the emphases of the old Left, and you’re right to say that sexuality and abortion have been the major issues in all of this. Neuhaus, of course, more than just abandoned his views–it seems to me that he was a regular neo-conservative by the end of his life.

    I just find the whole thing to be disappointing–and I really do wonder if something went wrong theologically, but I would be very wary about blaming it on Catholicism.

  10. Lee
    March 10, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    R.O. – I agree, and I wasn’t intending to blame Catholicism. I do think, though, that there is a connection to be drawn between J/B’s increased appreciation for a “thick” Catholic ecclesiology and their criticisms of what they consider to be dessicated, individualistic liberal Protestantism, incapable of sustaining a commitment to Christian truth in the face of the acids of secular modernity. Braaten has explicitly described his (and my) church, the ELCA, as a body of “culture Protestantism” in Barth’s sense. I’m not sure which direction the influence goes though: was the embrace of (quasi) Catholic ecclesiology in response to disgust with liberal Protestantism, or vice versa? I sometimes think of folks like Braaten as “self-hating Protestants” who constantly disdain their churches by comparison to the riches of Catholicism, but can’t quite bring themselves to convert. Not a very charitable sentiment, I grant. :)

  11. March 10, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    So what if you’re 50 something, do you not have a brain or a heart or is it possible that the two may get connected then…just in time to be inconsequential..or worse..irrelevant?

    Jut asking…

    50 something

  12. John
    March 11, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Radical means going to the root or irreducible fundamentals of whatever question or topic is being examined, and of existence-being altogether.

    It implies and demands an unflinching honesty in all matters, and a subsequent willingness to change every aspect of ones life on what one thus discovers.

    I would suggest that neither of these two authors come any where near such
    a disposition.

    The beginning of such radical honesty begins with the question: what do we REALLY know (as distinct what what we believe or presume to know) about any and every thing?

  13. Nathaniel Drake Carlson
    March 13, 2009 at 12:50 am

    John seems to be enamored of the ontology of radicality and revolution. But to privilege it is to proceed purely from those particular established assumptions of ultimate worth. And to do this seems ill advised as it unduly presumes that to be radical or revolutionary is to automatically be profound or have worthwhile insight. That is not necessarily the case. Besides, can’t radical effects take place within an established discipline of thinking? What constitutes the radical? What constitutes the “irreducible fundamentals” we must return to and start from?

    As far as I’m concerned what John is describing above sounds exactly like what B/J do. I wouldn’t necessarily call that “radical” though as such investigations often produce conclusions that affirm established sets of beliefs but deepen and enrich them. In fact, they almost always do that in some sense and to not accept those conclusions unless they are diametrically in opposition to the principles one has going in just seems specious. Does this mean the investigation itself is any less serious, because it does not obviously and explicitly demonstrate a “willingness to change every aspect of ones life on what one thus discovers.”?

    I’m not entirely sure who, given that definition, could really be said to evidence this disposition anyway. I have my doubts that many if any ever really shift that radically away from the inherent epistemological assumptions of their initial inquiry. And I don’t think it’s necessarily crucial that they do so. If the premises are worth anything to start then maybe just an expansive and continually deeper engagement with their sources is more important than the obsessive pursuit of radical, life changing-ness. Shifting out of one set of assumptions to support authentic inquiry generally just means shifting into another. Real radicalism would never end and would rarely result in anything constructive or acceptable then as legitimate. Everything would constantly be regarded as open to not just scrutiny but the need to be overturned, eternally caught in the web of ultimate illegitimacy. How can that kind of perception ever be invested in? To what extent could it be and what would allow for that? It’s essentially non-constructive skepticism. There are possible definitions of a more constructive sort:

    In an essay on Sir William Hamilton, Jose Ortega Y Gasset says this, “The skeptic is the man with the fullest, richest, and most complete life. Some foolish idea leads us to suppose that the skeptic does not believe in anything. Quite the contrary! The skeptic differs from the dogmatic in that the latter believes in only one thing and the former in many, in almost everything. And this multitude of beliefs, acting as mutual restraints, make the mind flexible and prolific.” So then the value seems to be more upon irony than the search for radical-ness for its own sake as some self-satisfied end. Frankly, though, I’m not convinced that thinkers such as J/B necessarily need to foreground that irony. What I love about Jenson and value, for instance, is his complete immersion in the depths of ontological possibility within, say, the sacraments. This is “dogmatic” but positive because it does not rest on simple principles but investigates the extent of their implication.

    On a similar note did anyone here ever read Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil? It’s essentially a novel length internal meditation as Virgil lay dying which explicitly confronts and treats the foundations of his assumed knowledge. What makes it relevant to this discussion I think is the fact that it’s one of the very few books I’ve read in which (and this is what makes it such a challenging read) entire elaborate edifices of comprehension and understanding are built up and then, when seen as flawed or not comprehensive enough, demolished completely and the cognitive effort is started all over. We are far more familiar with the evolution of ideas, the glacial building up through the rejection of only some of what has been accepted as adequately true enough before. So, yes, this is about as “radical” a demonstration of constructive thought as I have seen. Modern science, for instance, constantly claims to be non-dogmatic and open to inquiry that would overthrow established, accepted beliefs through Revolution; but the problem is that only certain veiled forms of “evidence” are acceptable as adequate to revolutionize. The forms of presumed authentic knowledge remain. Radical speculative inquiry can be of great value but is is ultimately diffuse and impoverished as an end unto itself. To go back to the beginning, John’s assumptions make it necessary to be forever suspicious and dissatisfied with the viability of any insight; to live in a perpetual state of unrest. If that’s what he sees as valuable then so be it. I would argue that it isn’t necessary. Radical revolution can abide in place alongside that which refuses to change, which constantly needs to be checked and in that way disrupted.

    So the question remains. How to determine when and in what way the entire edifice needs to be re-defined, remade.

  14. March 14, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Well, thanks for commenting John and Nathaniel, but I can’t say I have much to say in response. My main point in the post was not to bring up the question of the meaning and value of “radicalism” as such, but to simply point out what appears to me to be a political shift in the thought of Jenson and Braaten. I was basically curious if others had noticed this and if anyone had any insight into this. I think both Kevin Davis and Lee are correct in observing their relationship with First Things and their conservatism on sex-related issues.

  15. Eric Stenshoel
    August 29, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    I realize that this is a very cold thread by now, but I happened to Google it and found it interesting to see how others view my uncle, Robert Jenson. I think he has always had an inability to accept the relativity of meaning. When I was in high school, he rejected the statement “Hubert Humphrey is a good politician.” All of us were all opposed to the war and in favor of Eugene McCarthy but he could not associate “good” with Humphrey, even when we pointed out that a good poison is one that kills efficiently. Now, notwithstanding arguments from evolutionary biology, he cannot accept the idea that sexual diversity could be part of God’s intention for creation. He simply cannot abandon the certainty of natural law.

  16. Chris Green
    February 10, 2010 at 1:23 am


    I don’t mean to be an irritant, but I don’t think you’ve read your uncle’s work, at least not seriously. Not that you need to read him. However, if you want to dismiss his opinions so nonchalantly, I think you owe it to him, yourself, and everyone concerned with these questions. I certainly would want that from my family. In fact, from everyone.

  17. Carl E. Braaten
    January 28, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I just happened to run across this blog and the various comments. If some of you would read a bit more, you would understand a bit more. For one thing, Braaten and Jenson have collaborated on many projects, but they have two minds, not one that they share. For a second, since I wrote my book Christ and Counter-Christ and others like it in my early years, I have not shifted one inch to the right politically. I am not a political conservative or neo-con or anything near that. I am far to the left on political issues, so much so that my friends don’t want to hear about it. I am way to the left of Obama, for example, and some say he is a socialist. I am about as far to the left as Alisdaire McIntyre, who some say is the greatest living philosopher in the world. I am not at all sure about that. What I am sure about is that some of you ought to read more before you express yourselves in public.

    Carl E. Braaten

  18. Peter Stenshoel
    January 2, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I have just found this link. I am Eric’s brother, also a nephew of Robert W. Jenson and I the recipient of marvelous hospitality from Carl Braaten on a visit to Chicago and legally Jenson’s son the year I spent with his family in 1972-3 in Oxford, England. I have profound respect for both gentlemen and I have no doubt of, for example, Braaten’s piety borne of his early experiences as a missionary’s child in Madagascar, I believe it was, and no doubt of my uncle’s brilliance.

    Nevertheless, it is rather absurd to put forth that we may only comment after reading the entire corpus of their work. Jenson was content to dismiss the practice of meditation as a valuable spiritual technique after one conversation with one Hindu practitioner, who confessed to Jens it was “the most lonely experience in the world.” He dismissed Near Death Experience as having no bearing on faith. I could insist that Jenson not make statements about these until he have the experience, or some sort of numinous experience, but it hardly seems fair.

    Now, my life with Jenson was terribly important for my growth as a Christian and a Lutheran. The christological discussions we had alone were essential stepping stones. I cherish and value this, and have told Jens. But I also have been chagrined by the anti-gnostic activity of J/B and wrote about it in an issue of the (now defunct) Gnosis Magazine. The same uncle who enthusiastically showed me the cell where Theresa of Avila levitated in sacred mystical ecstasies rejected mysticism for we Lutherans who have had NDE and numinous experience. I am, Jenson once said, not to be identified with Lutheranism, given my views and my rejection of his confessional normative ideology of Lutheranism.

    Finally, I cannot speak for Braaten, but I am baffled at the right wing stance Jenson has embraced since his friendship with the late Neuhaus.

  1. April 24, 2009 at 12:46 pm

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