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Doing Theology Against Ourselves

In relation to the last post, lets probe a bit further. Assuming — as seems eminently reasonable — that most theologians’ actual shape of living tends to depart sharply from the theological projects they promote, how shall we evaluate this? One’s immediate reaction is usually one of indignation: “How could so and so write all this books about the nature of fidelity in the Old Testament and then abandon his wife to run off with his secretary as soon as he retired?”

Now, of course that’s an utterly fair question to pose to such a person, but that doesn’t tell us how we should subsequently view that person’s theological writings. In fact, if we insisted that the only theological writings we gave serious weight to were ones whose authors clearly conformed to in their lives, we’d have precious little to read (including some fairly sizeable parts of the Bible I daresay).

I would suggest that the frequent discord between theology and theologians isn’t actually such a bad thing, at least in one sense. If theologians could only writing in accordance with their moral achievements no one could ever write in a way that called herself into question. Theology would merely be an exercise in self-congratulation if we only recommended our own achievements. That our attempts to talk about God often end up condemning us is, you might say, far better than the alternative. If our God-talk simply validated us, clearly we’d be doing something far worse. Though, of course this happens all the time, too.


  1. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    I have trouble believing that adultery is at such epidemic levels among theologians.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    They just wish it was. I’ll be here all night.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm | Permalink
  3. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    If anything, being a theologian has actually decreased my sexual opportunities. (At least that’s what I tell myself.)

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  4. That’s because women are intimidated by your intellectual prowess. :)

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Adam Kotsko wrote:

    If only!

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  6. Marvin wrote:

    Do these AUFS v. Inhab.Dei cage matches happen all the time? Are they regularly scheduled? I must admit to a kind of “can’t help but slow down and watch the car wreck” feeling right now.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    Send me $5 and a self-address stamped envelope and you can be a member of the fan club.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    I put the “fist” in “pacifist”.

    Thursday, October 8, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink
  9. And I put the “cock” in “That guy is a real cock!” Wait…

    Friday, October 9, 2009 at 4:20 am | Permalink
  10. myles wrote:

    It’s like Fight Club without the split personality!

    Friday, October 9, 2009 at 6:02 am | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I “lol”ed after reading this.

    Friday, October 9, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  12. Rob wrote:

    (Sorry this is so bloody long)

    Let me suggest a thought experiment that I enjoyed thinking about. Let us imagine a hypothetical person. This person is eminently, ideally qualified; after attending law school she was a successful litigator against, say, evil insurance companies, and then perhaps spent many years as a community organizer and justice advocate, then was a corporate consultant on organisational change, all whilst reading psychology in her spare time – in other words she has immense insight into human behaviour, at the individual, social, and organisational level. Let us imagine one day she set herself to do something about the untapped resources within the Christian churches. Let us say that she was not raised as a Christian, but was obviously familiar with the good work of the Church and thought that more could be done. She studies intensely the biblical materials, all the Fathers, everything up to the present day. Let us call her, say, Murgen Joltmann, and imagine that on Sundays she does not attend church, will not confess the creed, but sits in the chair on her porch smoking weed and thinking about ecclesiology, while the random man she brought home on Saturday night goes to fetch the Sunday paper and brew coffee. Combining her previous experience with her recently developed understanding of ecclesiology, she writes a three-volume work of ecclesiology called “Doing Church Better.” (Here, ‘better’ does not necessarily mean ‘more efficient’. Let it stand for whichever criterion of Church better-ness you desire; faithfulness, truthfulness, activism, authenticity, orthopathos, whichever). Let us say that she expertly describes how to finally have the church that we all dream about on Sunday at 1.33pm when we get home from the morning service and start bitching. And let us say that there is universal agreement amongst academics that she has produced an unparalleled work that is peerless and magisterial, and that it will change the world if followed (this is hypothetical after all).

    Let us also imagine that in the course of her extensive theological education her former belief in the mistakenness of Christian doctrine was confirmed. She is now more certain than ever that all the Jewish stories of YHWH’s help are myths, that Jesus did not say half of what he is meant to have said, that he was not raised from the dead, that he certainly is not ‘homoousios’ with the Father, and that even if he was, Trinitarian doctrine is an incoherent mess. (This is starting to sound autobiographical).

    It seems that something like this scenario is what bothers many, but we’re not quite sure why. It’s not just a superficial dislike with her that she doesn’t ‘practice what she preaches’. It has been suggested that there’s something problematic about a theologian whose life is incongruent with their theological project. So, we’re not talking here about a theologian who happens to cuss, or womanize, or whatever. We’re talking about a theologian who has a specific, detailed, and compelling theological project and yet does not practice what they encourage others to practice.

    This is the situation with Murgen. Her book’s argument is basically this: if you believe x,y,z about Jesus, God, politics, human nature etc, then this is how you should be doing church. And let’s say the argument is faultless and really does achieve the miracle of the perfect descriptive and proscriptive ecclesiology. Since she herself does not believe x,y,z she doesn’t practice her own suggested activities, but for those who do believe x,y,z they find her compelling.

    So what is the anxiety we have about this scenario? Is it perhaps an epistemological worry, where we might want to say, ‘No it’s impossible for her to have a perfect ecclesiology because that would require insights that can only be gained from spiritual practice’. This would a de jure objection, and one might say this if one wishes to create some epistemological island that can only be accessed through spiritual practice, such that Christianity retains some necessity, as a way into knowledge of some sort. I on the other hand find it very possible that someone who does not believe may very well have penetrating insight into Christian thought and practice, insight which practicing Christians should pay attention to.

    Why are churches reluctant to listen to such people? Here’s my suggestion, which claim is neither exhaustive or original. I think that accepting her ecclesiological proscriptions involves in some sense accepting her intellectual authority. Let’s say I am a local pastor; I don’t have her knowledge of organisational behaviour, I don’t have her knowledge of biblical materials, the expansion of Christianity, the sacramental options, institutional power dynamics, etc etc. and further more, since she is ideally brilliant, I don’t have her powers of analysis and insight. Therefore if I accept her learning, I in some way accept her intellectual authority, i.e. “I believe this about the church not because I’ve figured it out for myself, but because you seem very smart and tell me this is what I should believe about the church” (and academics concur).

    Now I have the problem that I accept her intellectual authority and powers of analysis, and yet by that same intellectual power she has concluded that she does not believe x,y,z – should I also follow her conclusions on that? I can’t – that would entail giving up Christianity and church altogether. It is this quandary that leads us to desire our theological experts to be believers also. To those whom we look to for authority in the complex details, we also look to for authority in the fundamental/basic beliefs which are the sine qua non of Christianity. When there is a dissonance between the two, our beef is not really with them, that they aren’t “practicing what they preach”. Our beef is an expression of the anxiety of the quandary, of the desire but inability to accept their intellectual authority on one thing that would entail other, unacceptable, conclusions.

    Friday, October 9, 2009 at 7:04 pm | Permalink
  13. Insofar as theology, like preaching, is an act of communication, it is easily self-transcendent in a bad way, in that it runs immediately to the question: “What do these folks need to hear?” That’s why I love Bonhoeffer’s challenge to always hear God’s Word to us personally before we ask what is necessary for me to say to the community, and Barth’s reminder to only speak of liberation if you truly have experienced liberation (cf. CD IV/3.2, “The Liberation of the Christian”). If our message is so necessary for others, why wouldn’t we hear it for ourselves?

    Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  14. bruce hamill wrote:

    Interesting story… as a comment on human psychology I think you are right, we do tend to worship and cling to those we regard as having ‘intellectual authority’ somewhat indiscriminately… and I guess there is some basis for this in that intellectual skill cannot be divorced from certain virtues. I’m cynic enough to think that the most virtuous can be right about some things and wrong about others and this vision of the intellectual as a kind of technician of ideas is decidedly odd.

    Sunday, October 11, 2009 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  15. Danny wrote:

    Yeah, the biggest problem with many churches is their tendency to follow those intellectuals who agree with what they already believe as laymen. Josh McDowell, for instance, in his “Evidence Demands a Verdict” is obviously ignoring some basic intellectual tenets that those in the same field would say he should hold to, yet many church members hold up his work as a kind of “bible on proving the Bible.” And yet we will regard other theologians like Marcus Borg or J.D. Crossan when they say infinitely more profound things (IMO), and yet are too liberal for most of mainstream Christianity.

    Monday, October 12, 2009 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  16. Chris E wrote:

    It’s true that perhaps this particular way of framing the quandary makes it a lot more immediate – in some senses. However, is this really any greater a problem than the general problem with accepting common grace ?

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 3:37 am | Permalink

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