Mentors #7: Dan R. Stiver
It’s been awhile since I last added to this series on Theological Mentors. As usual, Danny cannot be held responsible for my theological errors–since that’s doubtless due to my being a poor student.
Dan R. Stiver currently occupies the Cook-Derrick Chair of Theology at Logsdon School of Theology, Hardin-Simmons University, in Abilene, TX. Logsdon and HSU are related to the Baptist General Convention of Texas and is a partner institution with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. When I knew Danny, he was Professor of Christian Philosophy at my alma mater, The (old) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY (before the fundamentalist takeover of the early ’90s).
Dan is a product of Midwestern American upbringing (Springfield, MO) and of the old “moderate” or non-fundamentalist stream of Southern Baptist life. He was educated at William Jewell College in Missouri, an institution with both Southern Baptist and American Baptist ties. He then earned his Master of Divinity at Midwestern BTS in Kansas City, MO. He earned his Ph.D. in theology at SBTS where he was the last doctoral student of the late Southern Baptist giant, Dale Moody. He has held pastorates in Missouri and Indiana. A theologian with a philosophical bent (not all that common for the Baptist tradition), Danny taught Christian philosophy at SBTS for 14 years, from 1984 to 1998. (I arrived in his classroom in 1986–he’d had enough teaching experience to be confident and still enough passion and experimentation to excite students who were often unsure why they, as student ministers, had to study anything philosophical! In the last year of college, I had discovered Karl Barth and so came to seminary with a decidedly anti-philosophical bent!)
I was worred that theologies which rely over much on philosophy, whether the Platonic metaphysics that influenced the Church Fathers (didn’t know there were Church Mothers then), the Aristotelian thought behind Thomism, liberal process theology, Kantianism, etc. were always diluting the gospel and distorting it–either in conservative or liberal or some other direction. I found that Danny was far from naive about these problems, but that he believed that all theology must interact with various philosophical currents (ancient, contemporary)–even if they are wary of substituting a philosophical “foundation.” or starting place for the Church’s One foundation, Jesus Christ the Lord. Theology is interacts with philosophy as part of its missionary nature.
It was Dan’s genius to mentor students who took VERY DIFFERENT approaches to theology and were attracted to different philosophical currents: From evangelical rationalists who were disciples of Carl Henry, to process theologians (either in the form of the evolutionary theology proposed by Dan’s own teacher, British Baptist Eric Charles Rust, or in the more dominant Whitehead-Hartshorne school), to Marxist-inclined liberation theologians, to “post-structualist” Deconstructionists. After freeing myself from an inordinate fear of philosophy (while remaining alert for the subversion of the gospel by alien thought forms), I found that my own philosophical interests were quite eclectic: My deep respect for Martin Luther King, Jr. led me to read the Boston Personalists and my fascination with Dorothy Day led to the very different Catholic Personalists, especially Jacques Maritain. My attraction to liberation theology kept me critically engaged with Marx (and heterodox Marxists like Gramsci, Bloch, and Enrique Dussel) and my interest in Jewish thought led to Buber and Heschel. Dan encouraged all of this and more.
It took awhile, then, to grap Danny’s own philosophical interests, except to think he’d read everything and everyone twice over! (He hadn’t, but it sure felt that way!) Dan has strong interests in philosophy of language, especially religious language and has been a major dialogue partner in the modern/post-modern divide, without being wholly in the “camp” of either the Deconstructionists and Post-Structuralists (Foucault, Levinas, Lyotard, etc.) or that of the “Anglo-American” post-modernists (influenced by J.L. Austin and the later Wittgenstein). His first book, The Philosophy of Religious Language: Sign, Symbol, and Story (1996) mapped the lay of the land and staked out some of his own ground. It is clear that the Catholics Hans Kueng and David Tracy, as well as the Reformed Juergan Moltmann and the Baptist Langdon Gilkey, as well as Dan’s own teacher, Dale Moody, were large influences.
It was also clear that Dan was attracted to narrative theology (an interest I shared), but more from the perspective of Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) than to Hans Frei or Hans Gadamer. I had stumbled onto Ricoeur myself both because of my strong attraction to narrative theology (Ricoeur helps one weave together narrative and liberationist strains in a way that I think Frei does not) and my commitment to pacifism–Ricoeur himself was a Christian pacifist–although still drafted into the French army in WWII. (Ricoeur was quickly captured and spent the war in a German concentration camp, teaching philosophy!) But Ricoeur’s work is so large and so wide-ranging that I never knew what I thought of the project as a whole. Dan was a tremendous help with his second book, Theology After Ricoeur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (2001).
Dan eventually came to be part of my doctoral dissertation committee and, although mine was a work on theological ethics, he kept me seeing how my project fit into larger conversations in philosophical theology. I THINK it was Danny who once told me that there was a large difference between Christian philosophers who were trained first as theologians and those who, however theologically well informed, only had philosophy degrees. (Surprisingly, the latter are often more conservative than the former, as a survey of the Society of Christian Philosophy will show!) That’s been Dan’s main influence: introducing me to conversations and dialogue partners rather than teaching me HIS views on everything.
In fact, I still don’t know Dan”s views on a great number of things. I’d love to see him write his own systematic theology! I don’t know if he shares my Christian commitment to pacifism, although I do know that he is deeply committed to Christian peacemaking and human rights and is a member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America. (We have to get Danny to one of our summer conferences, peace camps, sometime.) I know little about his politics except that he is a registered Democrat and, like all true Baptists, a STRONG advocate for church-state separation and for religious liberty for EVERYONE.
If I am a provocateur, Dan is more of a mediator. He likes to get people of very diverse opinions engaged in real dialogue and see if new insights emerge. There is something DEEPLY, profoundly Christian about that and I hope I learn more of it from my friend and teacher.
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