Friday, May 21, 2010

Making oneself at home in the tradition

Right now I'm waiting on the proofs for my most recent article, to be published in the journal History of Political Thought.  In the article I look at Melchizedek as an exemplar for kingship in some twelfth century political treatises, and discuss difficulties that arise for the idea of non-hereditary kingship over the question of whether Melchizedek was "without genealogy" as the Christian interpretation had it, or was identified with Shem, the son of Noah (and so possessive of a genealogy).

The paper sounds like useless antiquarianism.  No need for others to be polite about it... I'm happy to admit it.  Few people are looking for biblical arguments in support of monarchy these days, and fewer still would take the political discussions of eight or nine centuries ago to be all that applicable for a political theology of these matters today.  Insofar as my research succeeds as a filler for historical lacunae, it of course serves a real (if small) purpose.  But I'm a student of theology, not of history.  It's worth my asking what exactly the point of such a project might be.

I have a scholarly interest in the history of exegesis, so this explains some of my attention to these questions.  But beyond research focuses and antiquarian gap-filling (both commendable but pretty limited justifications), I tend to find the explorations of theological dead-ends and  irrelevancies important on a more indirect level to my theological work.

As an aspiring theologian, I do not simply stand on the crest of advancing research and provide critical input for current expert reflection upon matters of faith.  Nor, on the other hand, am I a high priest of some archive.  The Good Lord gave us an inerrant scriptural canon, the Spirit leads us through rather more errant traditions of orthodoxy, but beyond basic strictures of these sorts there is little for the theologian to protect in some high-strung conservationist sense.  The preservation of a past church or the creation of a present one does not stand or fall on theological legwork.  We do an important job of making sense of the tradition and advancing meaningful structures of thought for the sake of its health, but we're also very much along for the ride.  We are creatures of the subject of our study rather than simply curators of it.

Because of this, I like to think of my historical pursuits as a sort of making myself at home in the tradition.  I am a part of the tradition, and I will throughout my life make my own contribution to its development.  The more I explore the landscape, however, and the more I provide tools for others to explore the landscape, the better my vantage point will be from which to do constructive work.  Not because I have examined all of the essential aspects of the history for understanding the Current Important Problem, but rather because I have taken in a lot of inessential details that provide a more textured and aesthetically robust backdrop against which to see clearly the speculative and intellectual concerns that most theologians find important.

John Milbank's sense of Christianity as a "counter-narrative" may be helpful here.  I agree with the general reasons why he uses this approach (although I don't follow his lead in pitting this counter-narrative so decidedly against something like "modernity" or "nihilism").  The point of a narrative isn't primarily polemical, however.  Narratives are things that you live into and out of- they provide conventions for thought.  They are the huge mass under the tip of the iceberg.  There is no urgency to exposing the details of a narrative; no apologetic goals are going to be directly achieved by it.  But the formative effect of forgettable events and unimportant details is what colors our perception of the world with which we engage, and in this sense the useless antiquarianisms are essential to the "real work" of constructive discourse.

We've been at this a long time, and we'll be at it a long time yet.  I don't see the point in rushing toward the utopia of a comprehensive account of the stuff of theology.  Taking the time to make one's home seems much more conducive to good thinking on these matters, and that's why I find it helpful to resist the seduction of focusing exclusively on various constructive priorities in theological work.  It would be wrong of me to neglect such priorities (or rather, it would be wrong of me to do so and continue to call myself a theologian), but I don't think that's what I'm doing by turning away from them periodically in order to entertain other questions.


  1. This is interesting Evan - an aplogia for historical-theological minutia of sorts.

    When you say that "There is no urgency to exposing the details of a narrative; no apologetic goals are going to be directly achieved by it."; I just get the urge to say - well, it depends doesn't it? I guess depends on how forgettable the events are.

    One thing that comes to mind is the historical narrative of "rights talk". The details of the narrative itself seems to have significant consequences for current constructive (even apologetic) work. I suppose it might be we don't know beforehand how significantly the details 'color our perception of the world' and so perhaps historical-theological work in some ways is attempting to 'get at that'.

    Anyway I like what you say, being "home in the tradition" is always more than system building.

  2. Hey Mike, thanks for the comments. I think you're right that it does depend, and that certain events are more central to answering current questions. Perhaps I was thinking more of the "forgettable" events when I wrote this, which I imagine are a much larger portion of any narrative than the few that really happen to change one's mind.

    There is also the question to consider of how exactly we reach decisions about our beliefs. I take it that our commitments are a complex web of experiences, memories, and loyalties to various stances. For any shift or "conversion" to occur, the entire system must be somehow effected. It is probably difficult to pinpoint any particular reason why one's views on something (rights talk, for instance) has changed... what has more likely occurred is a combination of multiple changes that have made previous views untenable. I think that's primarily what I'm trying to get at here... that narratives are what will remain and be preserved, that they are not merely reasons for assent, but rather that stable substructure upon which all assent rests... until it becomes unstable, and restless, and a new narrative takes its place in order to re-place one's beliefs.

  3. Evan,

    Thank you for penning and sharing your self-reflection. You've expressed (better than I could have hoped to) a gut-instinct as to the value of exploring and understanding (from the inside) some of the tradition's exegetical and systematic "dead ends."

    I had a history prof. in my master's program who spoke about studying history in order to love her neighbors, suggesting that there were a good number of neighbors she could only love by laboring to recover and tell their stories. I'm inclined to say that, at least in the present form of disciplinary boundaries/allergies, there are ways in which historical theologians can love neighbors (by exploring their convictions with all due seriousness) that are foreclosed for "historians proper."

    Further, I find that a strong historical grounding can help clear the ground for constructive moves. Being confronted with the strange convictions of our forebears in the tradition (what have come to be "dead ends") can sometimes leverage us out of the notion that our own theological starting points are natural/neutral, and thus open up rhetorical space for a constructive argument that might otherwise seem too counterintuitive to be plausible. I'm not sure what that would look like in the case of Melchizedek, but maybe he'll find a place within some political theology in the next few years. :)

    At any rate, I mostly wanted to express gratitude for your capacious vision of the tradition and the calling of the theologian as including a measure of wide-eyed exploration (in addition to attending to rightfully pressing practical concerns).

  4. I'm working through notes revising a paper and came across a bit from von Balthasar that I wanted to leave here. He's talking about the value and perils of a ressourcement project:

    "What ought [the theologian] to do? [Our] first move will be to return once more to the past. This return will be beneficial, but only on one condition: that [we] understand well that history, far from dispensing us from creative effort, imposes it on us."

    In other words, exploring the tradition both opens up directions for thought that we might not have been able to see within our own conceptual horizons; but it also (and more significantly for von Balthasar) imposes the pressing need to work creatively---both to "narrate" the tradition in the present and to work at resolving some of the tensions and pathologies that are part of our inheritance.

    The quote is from Presence and Thought on Gregory of Nyssa.