Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A failure of theology?

Ben Myers has recently started a series of Theology FAIL posts where egregious specimens of Christian oddity or incompetence are highlighted for readers. The first post, on an essay arguing that Christians should feel free to enjoy killing under circumstances of warmaking, was well received, and so two more posts have gone up... one on Richard Swinburne's philosophical theology, and one on imprecatory prayer against President Obama.

My only question concerning this series is one of genre. Forgive me if I'm nitpicking, but this thought crosses my mind often enough, and I thought I'd mention it. I can understand the critique of Swinburne as being a "theology" fail. The critique of the "Onward Christian Soldiers" piece seems less a theological fail, although as an essay I suppose it is a piece of popular-level theological work about the ethics of war. The imprecatory prayers of a handful of uneducated pastors doesn't strike me as at all a matter of theology, however. In a very vague sense it involves the exegeting of Scripture, but if we're going to call every usage of Scripture "biblical studies", I think we lose more than we gain in determining exactly what a particularly scholarly instance of such usage entails. Should we call Oprah's book club literary criticism? Should we then consider it a failure when it fails to act like the literary criticism that goes on in university language departments?

Is something that is liable to theological critique- something upon which theology might comment- itself "theology"? Or is anything that happens to come up in the life of faith a matter of theology?

My concern is that in attempting to becoming everything, "theology" (or any other discipline) becomes nothing. And I'm not trying to assert that certain things are devalued because they don't qualify as theology. Quite the opposite, I'm trying to push against the professionalization and specialization that tends to view all things through an academic lens. I think that a blurring of the lines is often done with good intentions- with a concern for egalitarianism or a democratization of knowledge and of discourse. But knowledge and discourse don't self-evidently gain anything by being subsumed into a university discipline, nor do the disciplines necessarily gain anything by trying to become "political" or "ecclesial" or "practical" or "applied".

I remember a class discussion from last year when the text under scrutiny was something by Nietzsche, and a classmate (an MDiv student, I believe) asked something like, "Well, okay, but how can I apply this in my sermon on Sunday?" My (unvoiced!) response to this was, "Good Lord! Are people really taking home from these courses the idea that we should be preaching with Hegel, or Kant, or Nietzsche simply because we should be thinking with them?" I can sympathize with the impulse to identify theology as something that matters for the Christian life, but that doesn't mean that something that is thought-provoking or edifying in theology will necessarily be similarly important for the context of public worship. The same applies, I think, to sermons that read like a critical commentary. It's not that the academic field of biblical studies isn't important for teaching the Scriptures to a congregation... it is. But there needs to be a recognition of genre distinction and an acknowledgment that the biblical studies guild is its own community with its own raison d'être. The same goes for philosophy, or theology. Ben's previous post on theology as research also gets into some of these problems, and I responded in the comment section with some thoughts that are similar to what I've offered here.

These are just some musings on the purpose and scope of theological work, of which I think people often try to make both too much and too little. Don't take the above thoughts as any sort of blanket critique of what Ben is doing with his FAIL series... this just happened to be what suggested the issue to me. I'm not questioning whether these things deserve the "FAIL" stamp, but whether they all deserve the "Theology" stamp.


  1. Theology is the church's critical analysis of its worship, proclamation, thought, and any other form of its public and private witness. As such, what a handful of pastors have to say about prayer and Obama falls under theology's purview as far as this critical / normative function is concerned. But, this does not mean (and I would agree with you here) that such comments about prayer and Obama itself constitutes theology. In fact, it is just a bunch of misguided, pious drivel.

  2. I'd agree with you that things like this fall under the purview of theology... given that, my question is, "Is something that is liable to theological critique- something upon which theology might comment- itself "theology"?"

  3. I'd say "No," even though they may have theological implications, because they are not self-consciously engaging in the task of theology.

  4. I take well your question, and especially your analogy to the Oprah book club and litterary criticism. Many a good sermon or Bible study is ruined when some grad student with more learning than wisdom tries to impose the standards of academic discourse where they don't belong. And I'm also getting a bit sick of "theology" that has little or no connection to Christian beliefs. But I think that with the posts on F&T, the problem might be that there are a number of things "theology" might mean, ranging from what we do at Swift to any religious reasoning done by anyone. Assuming something like the latter definition, the Psalm 108 people are perpretrating a theology fail because their reasoning is really, really bad. Odd though, that a blog that normally seems to use the word to mean academic theology, it is suddenly being used in the wider sense.

    As for the M.Div's question (I think you're referring to a class I was in, but I don't remember the event), it occurs to me that, while the student likely meant the question in the way you interpreted it, there is another possibility. If it's a question of "how do I preach a sermon on Twilight of the Idols," there's not much hope. But "how will I preach differently now that I have read Twilight of the Idols" might be worth asking.

  5. It's interesting you bring this up, Evan. Abbott has a wonderful section in Chaos of the Disciplines dealing with just this area - unfortunately I recently returned the library coy I had.

    The context was his discussion of how disciplines are inhernetly expansive, seeking to dominate other fields by absorbing their discourse. He gives the example of English departments moving from the traditional idea that their area was a body of literature and the study of it (commentaries, criticism, etc.) to the idea that all texts are their special domain, subject to their expertise, and then expanding "text" to include all cultural artifacts, hence "cultural studies" and the common case of English professors writing about torture, history, culture, politics, and everything but English literature.

    I think a similar dynamic is involved in Ben's Theology Fail series (and in much contemporary theology in general - but that's another discussion); it's a way both of selling theology's relevance and hipness and also exercising the libido dominandi that characerizes disciplines on Abbott's analysis (not that such is a conscious intention, of course). As I indicated on my blog, this is most clear with a guy like Ben treating a philosopher of Swinburne's stature as he did.

    Also, although I do not wish to be a pedant, you cannot coherently maintain the position that what Ben is criticizing is not theology but that it's still a "Fail" (in the sense he intends) because what it is supposed to be a failure of is theology.

    If it is not theology, and it's still a failure of some kind, I have no idea what kind of failure you would class it under, since you are resisting classing it under "theology." In fact, I think this is precisely the point; it would be more difficult, and far more improbable, were Ben to title his Swinburne analysis "Philosophy fail." People would then rightly question who Ben was to offer such judgments on Swinburne's work in his own field. But, if you absorb Swinburne's work into theology without remainder, then it becomes much more plausible to speak of his work as a failure, especially given the theological sensibilities of Ben and much of his readership.

  6. "you cannot coherently maintain the position that what Ben is criticizing is not theology but that it's still a "Fail" (in the sense he intends) because what it is supposed to be a failure of is theology"

    If you're referring to the qualification I make at the end of my post, then I'd agree with you. My point in saying that wasn't to say that I'm maintaining any of these things are failures in the original sense that Ben intended, but that I'm "not questioning whether these things deserve the FAIL stamp." My point was simply to say that I'm interested in whether or not these things are theology, and nothing else.

    On Swinburne, since I did say that this work could most plausibly be considered theology, I would obviously think that I'm more able to maintain a stance as to its failure or success as theology, if I wished to do so. I also think it's possible to consider certain cases as potentially "theology" and "philosophy"... or "theology" and "prayer"... or "theology" and "ethics". While I agree with your summary of Abbott's thoughts about the expansion of disciplines and I certainly think it's troublesome in many cases, I also think that 1) these things don't happen for purely imperialistic reasons... there is very often a logic behind a particular discipline's tendency to subsume other questions, and 2) it isn't all bad... a lot of benefits can result from the messiness of the disciplines. In general I think I'm of similar opinion as you are about this, but I'd also want to recognize that disciplines are constructs that have changed before and will likely change again, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

  7. ...on the "failure" thing again:

    My point in making that qualification was, more than anything, to leave room for the fact that I actually agree with Ben (roughly, more or less, though with some differences) about the fact that the three examples given thus far in his series make certain mistakes that are worth highlighting. What I wanted to do was clarify that I could make my critique while still sharing some sympathy with his, but also that any agreement with myself and Ben about these three examples (setting disciplinary standards aside... just my agreement about whether they handled things rightly) were not my present concern.

  8. Thanks for the clarifications, Evan.

    I don't think all disciplinary changes and borrowings are bad or imperialistic, etc, but they often (in in our context, do) indicate a movement towards incoherence and reconfiguration of the disciplines. Sociologists need not be concerned with the question of whether these reconfigurations are good or bad (although Abbott clearly wants to see a change in the current research system towards one that shifts rewards away from publication) although I am assuming those within the disciplines should.

    Also, I don't see a "logic" in the movements as a good or bad thing (I'm not saying you do); there is an obvious and rigorous logic to a discipline that has been largely evacuated of its original content cannibalizing other disciplines, but I take this logic to be compatible with a negative or positive evaluation and, more importantly, compatible with if not simply an expression of the imperialistic tendency of the discipline.

    Finally, with respect to the failure of whomever in Ben's examples, I think the whole notion of failure in this context is unjustified because failure implies the existence and potential availability of criteria for success, which I have not seen produced by anyone thus far. It amounts to appealing to the "gut" of a like-minded readership and affirming that X is doing theology we disagree with and find laughable.

    That's all fine and well, but it amounts to theological emotivism, which I think should be acknowledged, if not avoided.

  9. Evan - some of what you are drawing distinctions around, I think is exactly the problem of the modern church (at least in the US). We defined theology as something practiced near exclusively by the academy - to the exlcusion of parish pastors. In that outsourcing, those congregations lost what they had to say. In a certain way you can say they lost the Word. Everything became emotionalism in the churches That God talk that takes place in the churches (or that isn't taking place being replaced by emoting) is the core of theology. We might step back to reflect on what we are saying (the purpose of the FAIL posts), but if the prayers of a parish pastor for the congregation collectively is not theology, then our churches have lost the ability to speak.

  10. I sympathize with your concern for the Church's voice, Mark, but let me try to respond in some defense of my point here.

    It may be that in the modern (or U.S.) churches there is a problem with defining theology as exclusively academic. I don't know how uniquely modern or American this problem is, however. One might identify these trends as early as 13th century Paris. I would also venture to say that (at least in the distinction I'm trying to make here), as theology is sequestered to the academy, its meaning is also tightened to be more specific than it once was. This may be a problem of compartmentalization in its own right, I'm perfectly willing to admit. But the point is that it's not as if the churches have no voice, or fail to proclaim the confession of the Gospel. Such proclamation and prayer can still go on in its own setting, and indeed the boundaries between academy and church remain rather porous... nothing is restricting pastors from attending academic institutions or publishing or speaking to theological concerns in an academic mode. Nor is anything restricting professors from taking part in the ministry of the Gospel in their churches.

    At most, I think, I may be guilty of a compartmentalization between one type of ecclesial voice (academic theology) and another (the proclamation of the Gospel in ministry). It's certainly true that one loses a good bit by making this distinction, but I think it's also important to consider why such distinctions were made in the first place, and what we might conceivably gain from them. I don't think this is simply some modern anti-ecclesial regression from a Golden Age. I think there are reasons why these developments have occurred. Not all good reasons, of course, but I don't know if a narrative of decline exhausts our understanding of what has happened.

    In short, I see no reason why "if the prayers of a parish pastor for the congregation collectively is not theology, then our churches have lost the ability to speak". Surely one's speech isn't justified simply by being recognized as "theology" in a certain sense of the word, is it? Surely the Church isn't confined by the conventions of certain academic modes of dialogue? This, I think, is the professionalization that I speak of in the post, which sees a certain sort of discourse (academic) as the gold standard.

  11. I wouldn't call it a narrative of decline so much as a misplacement of value. Pastors going through 8 - 10 years of education where the professor was the only person who practiced theology led to a very high view of secondary theology. The primary theology of proclamation of Jesus Christ for you became devalued or looked down upon as common.

    Proclamation means looking stupid (the foolishness of preaching) - the one thing that kills an academic career. The quickest way to not get through that M.Div was to be dogmatic in too simplistic a way.

    Arguably the 1960's when an academic theology could land on the cover of Time may look like a highwater, but the churches now are figuring out where the primary value is at. It took going through a bunch of anti-intellectual stuff to correct it (to point out an idol in the pastorate), but we are now making those primary and secondary theology distinctions with good values placed on each.

  12. Let me get this straight. You're objection to Myers' FAILs is not that they are mean-spirited and condescending, but that they aren't mean-spirited and condescending enough? Wow.

    Personally, I think Myers is just entertaining us. I don't think he's "dignifying" Swinburne by applying "Theology" to the epithet "FAIL."

    But okay.

  13. On the other hand, Tom, one might argue that denying someone the title of "theologian", or some work the name "theology"-- far from being condescending or mean-spirited-- is actually a compliment! It's a dirty job, and somebody's got to be a theologian... but that doesn't mean we need to get all sentimental about the vocation or wish it on our neighbor! ;)