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The hard labor of theology

The more I read James Alison the more he continues to be rather shockingly profound, perhaps most clearly in the humility and simplicity of his work — which also always seems to embolden and enliven it. Here he is on the nature of doing theology:

Theology is perhaps for those of us who can’t find an obvious sense in what may be very simple perceptions, ones which are understood intuitively by better Christians than ourselves; theology would be for those of us who are obliged to the hard labor of dragging our obstinate intellects through the spines and thistles of our own self-deceit so as to bring each thought, each remnant of intellectual pride, captive before Christ (2 Cor 10:5), ploughing out meaning from arid and sterile soil. (Raising Abel, 15)

Sounds about right to me.


  1. Brilliant. That’s me, for sure. Thank you for this post, Halden.

    Hey…I have a series on my blog called Theology: Does It Matter? I don’t know if you got my invitation or not, but I would love for you to add this to the discussion. If not, I probably will.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Sure, you can cross-post it over there if you want.

    I did get your invite, but haven’t really come up with anything yet and didn’t want to make any promises unless I was sure I could help you out.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  3. mike d wrote:

    This, I like.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink
  4. IndieFaith wrote:

    I don’t know the larger context but the excerpt smacks a little of theologians and professors I have come across who herald how much better other Christians are for not feeling the need to do what they do.
    I don’t know any ‘better’ Christians who have not had their own hard labour.
    Actually, each time I read the quote the more condescending it comes off . . . not sure where that situates me.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  5. dbarber wrote:

    In general — in other words I have in mind any abstract topic, but this includes theology — I find absolutely false the idea that people who do theoretical work are somehow discovering, much less compensating for, things that other people “just get.” People do theoretical work because they want to, and it’s hard to imagine that what is brought about through such work is already possessed “intuitively” by those who haven’t done it.

    For instance, I like to cook, but I don’t think someone who went to a culinary academy and spends multiple hours per day cooking should be expected to say that she/he is just catching up to the “simple perceptions” of my cooking. If such a person would say that to me, I’d respect them less.

    One should be proud in one’s what one can do, and the way to evade hierarchies is for each to do this from her/his own vantage.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  6. In an earlier comment on a post dated Sept 18, 2006, I mentioned my blogs – “Christ in all the Scriptures” and “The Theology of G C Berkouwer”. These blogs have been closed. I now have a new blog – “St Andrew’s, Bellsmyre”.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  7. This quote reminds me slightly of a little piece by Hauerwas in the Huffington Post about his recent book:

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Permalink
  8. erin wrote:

    I kinda agree.

    Monday, June 7, 2010 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I think “better Christians than ourselves” is a loaded phrase that could be interpreted to cut against the grain of your concern here. Also, someone with advanced culinary training might well be prepared to admit that “better chefs than themselves,” yet without the formal training, indeed exist and that they are capable of grasping intuitively what many of those who seek formal culinary training struggle to master.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  10. dbarber wrote:

    Well, that sounds like a very level-headed and balanced reply to my overreactive verbiage…

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Somehow all of this reminded me of that Bobby Flay show where he travels around the country and finds local cooks who are known for regional culinary specialties which he then tries to approximate/best along with his team of experts. More often than not he loses.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Permalink
  12. Aric Clark wrote:

    Alison is awesome. I’ve read his Joy of Being Wrong, and On Being Liked – both of which were really superb.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  13. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I used to think Bobby Flay was a pompous ass until Erin and I watched a bunch of episodes of The Throwdown with Bobby Flay. He seems to enjoy losing as much as winning, and it’s wonderful that he often picks family operations that are famous for some basic dish that we’ve all had a thousand times.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  14. Charlie Collier wrote:

    I only commented because I think James Alison is a very serious theologian. The dude can bring it. But I get what you were worried about and see how his comment could have put you off.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Like the one where he tries to top the buffalo wings at the friggin Anchor Bar. He obviously had no chance. Good stuff.

    Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  16. bruce hamill wrote:

    I’m glad you’re getting into Alison. I also love his work, which is often not as widely discussed as should be. The guy is certain creative in the best sense.

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 3:25 am | Permalink

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