The ‘Theoblogian’ Cometh…finding theology’s true home

We are currently considering some new textbooks for an Intro to Christian Theology course at the University I teach at. The process entails reviewing ‘desk copies’ (free books sent by publishers hoping and praying that you adopt their ‘complete’ and ‘exhaustive’ tome and require students to buy it – believe me, it is a symbiotic relationship) and then choosing a text or texts to build a course around.

In decades past, this seemed so easy – there was a central core of texts to draw from (what theologian David Tracy in his book “The Analogical Imagination” has called ‘Christian Classics’) and these would be almost uniform throughout Theology programs. Now, things are different and diffused. Given the shift away from a uniform understanding of what we mean by ‘theology’ – the ‘texts’ we appeal to (outside of creeds and the Scriptures) go the gambit from writings in fundemental doctrinal history to playing Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Lightness’ in class. It amy not come as a big suprize that I celebrate this shift away from an essentialist understanding of what ‘wells’ we draw from (John 4) in regard to helping us to think about God (the task of theology). As with the women at the well Jesus dialogues with in John 4, I think theologians are being challenged to where is one to be true in faith – is it on the Mountain (Mount Gerizim was considered a holy mountain to the Samaritan people – some idealised place far removed, as Thomas Hardy would say, “from the maddening crowd“akin to high and lifted up places like Colorado Springs or 121 Geroge Street in Edinburgh) or is it in the City (in this case Jerusalem which was the center of faith for the Jewish nation which serves as a typology for the gritty, material realism celebrated by the masters of suspicion Marx, Freud, and our beloved Nietszche)? The question of the place of worship is a theologically astute question. The women, like many of our students, are noodling on the question of sources. The sense of place where to draw our reflections about the nature of God has split the people of God into factions, each group claiming solidarity with a certain “sacred place” and creating exclusive collectives around these locales that people “not of the place” would have difficulty getting to without “being in the “in crowd” as it were.

All this to say – I am beginning to hate textbooks and love the Bible again. I just completed teaching a Hermenutics course and was struck with how strange, how wild, how unpredictable, and how illiminating the ‘Book’ really is. I have grown weary of the safe publishing machines in Grand Rapids and Downers Grove, but still appreciate what they are trying to do. In the same vein, I am tried of the over-priced, hypocritical, whining, cynical attempts at so-called revolution pouring out of the ‘elite’ publishers such as those found in the Cultural Memory in the Present series of SUP.

I think we really need new ‘wells’ that dig deeper than safety and more fulfilling than a cynical pinch on the cheek (that’s about all you get after 35 – 70 pgs. in the Cultural Memory books – little tweeks of insight that fades like a bruise from an Indian burn…)…

Any suggestions from the collective mind always appreciated here – how should we be teaching theology and what should our resources be?


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  1. You talk about how much you like the Book these days Jeff; having heard two of N.T. Wright’s lectures these past two days I was struck, having read your post between the two, that his talks were very narrative in their approach to Scripture, that he was very current with regard to culture and politics, Wright cited or referred to philosophers and philosophies but not once did he quote…..a theologian.

    It felt very much like he was living out that famous Barthian quote about living life with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Now this guy writes theological books but dare I say his was much more akin a very practical biblical and contextual biblical theology than systematic or otherwise.

    He had a great citation which has nothing to do with this blog but I’m going to include it anyway, “After two decades of Jacques Derrida we end up with…George Bush.”

  2. i do find it interesting that ‘theologians’ are (more and more) being left out of the loop – bible scholars going to philosophers and cultural theorists for hermeneutic tools yet dismissing those who hold some sense of tradition of interpretation WITHIN the church.

    I am noodling here – what consistutes a ‘theologian’ anyway? Most disciplines center themselves on a canon of texts/source material that they are most ‘qualified’ to dig into. If Theology has increased its bandwidth to the horizon… does an openness to everything as theology make nothing theology?

  3. I’m not a huge fan of Wright’s stuff … but I’m pretty jazzed that he said that re: Derrida / Bush. On many levels, it is so true.

    Good question, re: what constitutes a ‘theologian’? Been struggling with that one for a few years now, particularly in regard to whether I’m one of them! I honestly don’t know. I’m certainly not in league with biblical theology; and yet, neither do I devalue what it is they do. I used to, admittedly. But time, and perhaps a bit of education, has told me that I’m just doing something different. What that is, necessarily — or even who it is I think I’m addressing — is a completely different matter. A question worth asking. Though, we would do well to insure that we don’t limit the ‘bandwidth’ too much. ‘Sociologist’, for instance, is pretty damn broad, too; as is ‘philosopher’ and ‘historian’. I’m not entirely sure any of them, even before the birth of ‘Cultural Studies’, have completely figured out a strict definition of their field either — its reaches and its confines. (Although, they have determined a criteria for what counts as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in a way that theology has never been able to do all that well.)

    Could be ‘theology’ is just Sunday School on viagra.

  4. I should probably try to give some context to the Derrida/Bush quote. Of course he was being ironic but the irony came from the fact that it would seem that deconstructionists and postmoderns have ruled the day in academic circles and then the leader of an empire can stand up and call other nations “evil”. Makes you question who has really won the day and who hasn’t.

    This was also said in the larger context of why there is such anymosity between the French and the US. Wright views it as going back to the 18th C when both thought they would lead the way to the Promised Land through Liberal Democracy – it doesn’t seem as though France did it and as Wright said, “now they seem rather cross”.

    Hey Brad, I’m no sociologist but I’ve been under the impression the social sciences have no idea what the difference is between good and bad in any ethical sense. Or are you refering to what is good or bad sociological scholarship or something else?

    I remember Plantinga writing that “Hegel, in a rare fit of lucidity wrote that philosophy is “simply thinking things over'”. Sometimes I think we need to get rather simple at times with our definitions. Maybe theology is simply thinking God over.

    Perhaps theology isn’t Sunday school on viagra but Sunday school with a strong cup of coffee; our eyes being opened, our wits attuned and hearts softened.

    Jeff, I didn’t get the idea that Wright was in any excluding theologians but they were in the background his present task was to bring scripture and culture to the foreground, and in this environment at this time certain philosophers required reference in order to be acquainted with the cultural terrain around us.

    OOOOOPPPS! He did refer did Hauerwaus(sp?) as an example of a thoughtful and respected pacifist. Wright isn’t a pacifist.

  5. And to cut to the chase about Wright’s political utterings…

    Americas embrace of empire-building puts us perilously close to Rome and Victorian England which the postmodernists and the Gospels have a lot to say about about; none of it good and much of it consistent with one another. Basically, who killed Jesus and who’s making the rules and who gets to define evil. When the most powerful government in the world gets to define evil – evil multiplies.

  6. Going back to Brad’s thoughts on the issue of ‘what is theology’? – I agree that other disciplines within the academy seem to have sorted out what constitutes discipline specific thought (what makes something the domain of ‘sociological research’? etc) Maybe the question has not to do with a softening of boundaries (interdiscipline engagement is something everyone does to some degree)but the locus of a center or core – what is the core concern of theology? At its etymological core, it seems the ‘thinking/reasoning/imagining about God, etc.) – is this enough to work with or is it something more than this?

  7. Yo Matt and Jeff and Jim Fox and whoever else: C. Fox is IN DA HOUSE.

    The question of how one constructs an operational definition of theology is beyond my expertise. As you’ll see, I’m no theologian. But there is one discussion that I often return to that I’ll try to paraphrase here. Walter Jaeschke, in the Introduction to ‘Reason in Religion: the Foundations of Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion,” has a really nice overview of the rise and fall of natural theology, and what took its place: namely, philosophy of religion. The probelm for Kant and everyone after is that the speculative proofs for God (Aquinas, Leibniz, etc) failed. So Kant tried to construct a series of ethico-logical moral proofs, which Hegel, Schelling, and Fichte relentlessly criticized. Hegel, in turn, tried to return to the tradition of speculative theology; no one until Plantinga did anything close to what Hegel did to resurrect the ontological proof. And yet it, too, failed.

    So if speculative theology can no longer, in a sense, be done as it was, philosophy of religion has limited options. If it tries to go anthropological / comparative, it rejects speculative theology, and thus deprives itself of the object that would render it meaningful. If it wants to continue to be theology, it can no longer be on the grounds of natural theology, and must become subjectivistic and merely experiential.

    I realize that what Jaeschke says of philosophy of religion doesn’t simply apply, mutatis mutandis, to the question of ‘what makes a theologian.’ But your conversation seemed to be headed in that direction.

    Finally, Al Plantinga talking smack on my man Hegel, eh? ‘A rare fit of lucidity?’ Please. Like ‘intelligent design’ is lucid. When I heard that Plantinga is going to bat for ID, I decided that he no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt. My Catholic students thought his idea of ‘properly basic’ beliefs was indefensibly relativistic; I tend to agree.

    While it is certainly obvious that philosophy ‘thinks things over,’ (the whole ‘when philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old’), it seems to me that the truly philosophical standpoint recognizes that any such ‘thinking things over’ is already retrospective. This complicates things considerably more than AP would like. Or could deal with. Take the transcendental turn, Al; drink the Kool-Aid, eat the apple.

  8. Hi Mr. Chris,

    I haven’t cracked Plantinga in about 18 years; I guess I’m a lapsed philosophy student. But wasn’t Plantinga’s enterprise a matter of rejecting any beleif as self-evident and then starting where you start and simply being honest about. Then proceeding cogently. What did he assert as proper criteria for someone to begin their work?

    And don’t go too hard on Alvin…in his time he was doing really important work. It seems the world may have passed him by.

    And what’s so bad about IM? Or at least holding open the possibility?

  9. My Man CF! I was wondering if you would log on – finally… a real philosopher in a realm of those who only play at Hegel…welcome to the “Dojo of L-U-V” that is Theology Kung Fu!

    Now… does your synopsis vis a vis Walter Jaeschke’s take on philosophy of religion relate (mutatis mutandis) to the question of ‘what makes a theologian’? Absolutely…

    This is the quandary that drives my original post – theology qua theology is ultimately a dead discipline when it is isolated from the other human sciences. As I mentioned in another comments string, theology is inherently symbiotic – it is more accurate to speak of (as Carl Rastche does) of ‘theological thinking’ rather than ‘thinking theologically’ – theology as a way of thinking about God needs some essential ground upon which to speculate or (ala Aquinas) to make analogy in regard to. The neo-Cartesian turn has been a way to avert the abyss of both speculative ontological proofs and the ethico-logical moral proofs as seen in Hegel (bless his name), Schelling, and Fichte (btw – I would have added Goethe to the mix here).

    Showing my cards amidst the wasteland that is the academic discipline called ‘theology’ is more Barthian than I thought myself capable… I think ‘theology’ needs to be done grafted to the church. Granted, this is rather ‘old skool’ – but ‘theology’ just doesnt work without faith. The attempts to do ‘secular theology’ are petty attempts (at best) to do ‘philosophy of religion’.

  10. The attempts to do ‘secular theology’ are petty attempts (at best) to do ‘philosophy of religion’.

    I’ll buy that.

  11. Although … having said that, I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to relegate theology to the realm of the strictly confessional.

  12. In regard to ‘relegating to the confessional’ – Neither would I, Brad. However, the intentional push back against the church as a real conversation partner (as opposed to ‘straw man’counterpoint)only makes ‘theology’ as a serious discipline within the academy look foolish. Education would never think of excluding schools from the conversation, Medicine would never think of cutting hospitals out of the fray, etc. Sure, going to art exhibits is fine, but if we are doing ‘theology’ then we are implicating a tradition and a experience of belief – that’s all I am saying

  13. Oh … absolutely. Didn’t mean to imply you were about confining theology to the confessionals. You articulate well here what I should’ve elaborated and said earlier this morning, too.

  14. Herr Keuss, Matt, and Brad

    Glad I wasn’t totally off the mark. And having established my credibility, I will mention the obvious slander that I earlier did not:

    theology is a discipline in search of an object.

    Frankly, it sounds as if you agree. But this isn’t necessarily a weakness, since it permits access to the object domains of various other disciplines. Of course, there are problems with being itinerant in this way. But unless you’re prepared to assert, counterfactually, I think, the object domain of natural theology, you haven’t much choice.

    As for what is to be found in religion, I think Hent De Vries, in “Religion and Violence,” gets it pretty right. In the introduction (confession: I never read books, only introductions) he makes the point that religion is of interest as a semantic and conceptual resource. However, in the usual way, he interprets it away from its own express, soteriological content, toward the latent, conceputal content. Thinker of religion, but not a religious thinker.

    As for Plantinga, well, I’m probably being unfair. But I won’t let that stop me! Granted, I’ve only read part of “God and Other Minds,” but I understood him to be very broad about what beliefs could count as ‘properly basic.’ And moreover, these needn’t be justified to anyone else who doesn’t hold them. I’m proceeding on the basis of memory, but it just didn’t seem to me that he had any way to answer the objection that someone’s beliefs might be totally, factually inaccurate, but unchallengable because of their status as properly basic.

    When you wrote ‘IM’ did you mean ‘ID,’ as in ‘intelligent design?’ I’ll assume you did.

    What’s wrong with intelligent design is that it is disingenuous and unscientific. All it does is take up Paley’s watchmaker argument, and add some mumbo-jumbo about ‘irreducible complexity.’ Which, by the way, as a principle, is anthropomorphic in the EXTREME. Hume demolished the argument from design a long time ago, and frankly, it’s pathetic to see Plantinga lending his name to such a bankrupt and dishonest enterprise. I haven’t a clue why he’s in bed with these charlatans.

    It’s ‘soft’ creationism masquerading as scientific. They’re very clever, those guys at the Discovery Institute. They’ve honed the soft sell rather than the hard sell, and style themselves as ‘reasonable’ and ‘moderate.’ They’re also intellectually unscrupulous. And affliated with Sun Yung Moon (I realize that’s an ad hominem, but if they can vilify naturalism, I can vilify Moon’s scary, pseudo-messianism).

    I’m in Wichita, Kansas, so I just had to suffer through two weeks of their dishonesty and posturing before the State Board of Education, which is staffed with a bunch of reactionaries who want to change the standards for teaching evolution.

    This whole, phony line of argument that science should be ‘open-minded,’ and that scientists who refuse to debate are ‘afraid of the truth’ is quite ingenious. But it’s all bullshit. Who, in their right mind, would attend a show trial with a stacked jury? The members of the board, and the ID proponents, admitted they hadn’t read the existing standards they’re looking to overturn.

    Intelligent Design is about politics, not science. They show their hand with their critique of naturalism, when they say that supernatural explanations should be admitted into science. If they are, it ceases to be science. End of story. So it’s a fraud, a canard, and a deception. Intellectually honest people shouldn’t stoop to these tactics, least of all ones who call themselves Christians.

    On this point, I’m very Kantian: I believe that something like intelligent design manifests itself in nature, but I absolutely deny that this is demonstrable in any way that conforms to scientific method.

    Whew. Sorry, Matt. You can tell it’s been a long couple of years I’ve taught in Kansas. Just so you can see it, I’ve enclosed a link to a political cartoon about the hearings. Can you say, ‘circus?’

  15. “I believe that something like intelligent design manifests itself in nature, but I absolutely deny that this is demonstrable in any way that conforms to scientific method.”

    Chris – I love it when you speak in ‘creeds’… warms my presbyterian heart to the core. As a neo-Kantian myself, I am with you. Given that ID is big and getting only bigger here in the Pacific Northwest with the Discovery Institute pouring untold amounts of cash into this ‘project’ – I can say that Kansas is certainly only the beginning of this circus and not the end.

  16. Oh yeah. Sun Yung Moon counts his money in the nine-zero range. The Discovery Institute is living proof that any schmuck with a website can get himself taken seriously. Instant, shiny credibility.

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