Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Anti-intellectualist conceptions of dogmatic theology

I've struggled for some time in trying to formulate my thoughts on the relationship between the work of a theologian and the life of the churches.  At times I've tried to express my views to different people and probably conveyed some wildly different senses of how I understand the purpose and scope of theology.  In previous years I spoke much more readily in terms of "ecclesial theology", of "church dogmatics" and theological work being done as a practice determined by the Church rather than academia.  Over the past few years, I've been much more hesitant about this way of portraying theology, and probably sounded positively elitist, "correlationist", and overly influenced by contemporary academic norms.  I also recall a recent conversation with someone where my thoughts on theology probably practically sounded like, "it doesn't much matter what we theologians do; the people in the pews are handling things just fine and they can get along well enough without us."!!  Such crass populism, if I were to actually affirm it, would soon (and rightly!) invite the question of why we are bothering to invest in academic theology in the first place.  To say that it makes no difference in this way seems to make it no more than a hobby (which is all well and good, but probably not a sufficient reason to pay for and go to the trouble of accrediting theological schools).

In Edouard Le Roy's essay "What is a Dogma?", an anti-intellectualist conception of theology is offered that has helped me in further articulating what it is that a theologian should be in relation to the churches.  Le Roy's anti-intellectualism isn't the sort that is commonly associated with American religious fundamentalisms, but rather a technical term opposing "intellectualism" of the sort that Henri Bergson opposed (although Le Roy's critique of intellectualism in this essay seems less decidedly Bergsonian than in other of Le Roy's works).  "Intellectualism", roughly, seems to be the idea that analytical knowledge of things is a prerequisite to proper orientation towards them.  It is roughly the same as the sort of propositionalism in both Roman Catholic and scholastic Protestant thought on revelation that Bonhoeffer critiques in Act and Being.  If I were to draw out a distinction, though, I would say that Bonhoeffer is more concerned about the implications of the idea that we have a grasp of revealed truth... that God cannot truly act because of a theoretical priority of being.  Le Roy, on the other hand, is concerned that intellectualism prevents us humans from going about as we normally do because of an over-theorized veil that is set up between us and reality.

Le Roy presents dilemmas for contemporary theology for consideration-- if dogmatic truth is rationally established, then what becomes of the liberty of faith (here the Bergsonian influence is also obvious)?  And how can dogma avoid metaphysical and speculative obscurantism?  The argument of the essay is that while an intellectualist conception of dogma falters on these sorts of difficulties, a conception oriented towards "action" avoids them.  The "positive significance" of dogma is that "it states for all a prescription of a practical kind."

At times Le Roy's points don't seem entirely convincing... he argues, for instance, that God conceived as a "person" in dogma simply means that we should relate to God as we relate to a person.  While I could see something like this being more extensively articulated in a way that is convincing, I think that as Le Roy presents it, the inability of dogma to offer something more than merely a moralistic, almost reverse-analogical knowledge of God is too quickly assumed.  For what it's worth, popularized conceptions of pragmatist notions of truth can fall into the same sort of over-simplistic ditches (which is one reason why I'd hold out hope for a better version of Le Roy's anti-intellectualism... he was a mathematician rather than a theologian, after all, and shouldn't be expected to offer an entirely adequate conception of theological knowledge).

What I take to be the most valuable concern driving Le Roy's anti-intellectualism, however, is his insistence on the common faith of Christians:
We also see now what the relation is between dogmas and efficient life.  We predict for [dogmas] a possibility of experimental study and of gradual research which has heretofore escaped us.  Finally we understand how they can be common to all, accessible to all, in spite of the inequality between intellects, whereas to conceive them in the intellectualist way one would be inevitably led to make a distinction of an intellectual aristocracy. (78)
Later he writes:

The Catholic is obliged to assent to the dogmas without reservation.  But what is thereby imposed upon him is not in the least a theory, an intellectual representation.  Such a constraint indeed would inevitably lead to undesirable consequences: (1) the dogmas would in that case be reduced to purely verbal formulas, to simple words whose repetition would constitute a sort of unintelligible command; (2) moreover these dogmas could not be common to all times nor to all intelligences. [a footnote at the end of this excerpt reads: "In the two words 'esotericism' and 'Pharisaism' would be the inevitable rock upon which they would split"]  (83)

In contrast to Le Roy, it seems that a more common strategy for attempting to avoid the problem of an "intellectual aristocracy" in the churches is to decentralize theological dogma altogether.  In extreme cases this may amount to a complete lack of concern for what Christians believe concerning the central tenets of the faith, but in most situations the emphasis is simply shifted to other centers for which theology is intellectually important, though ancillary.  These other centers may include common prayer, a personal relationship with Christ, or redeeming works of justice in the world.  None of these things require a conscious assent to creedal orthodoxy, and this fact allows the unintelligent parishioner to be ignorant of theological niceties while remaining a faithful Christian.  For the educated theologian, of course, the doctrinal bar may be set a bit higher- not because of any higher absolute standard attained by the theologian, perhaps, but rather simply because the theological vocation requires its own particular standards in order to properly edify the church. 

The problem with this way of understanding dogma is that it brackets the importance of dogmatic truth, which should be a common value.  If Arius is condemned because of a heretical christology while an illiterate peasant or an as-yet-uncatechized new believer are excused for holding to the same heretical belief, then we're in danger of cheapening the importance of a high christology for orthodoxy by making it both too important and not important enough.  If dogmatic truth only makes a difference for those involved in cerebral discussions concerning it, then we're in no better a position than if it is enforced upon all believers based on the standards of the intellectualist position... in both cases an "intellectual aristocracy" of some sort is being formed that introduces the danger of rending the garments of Christ.

Le Roy, in an odd sort of way, preserves the centrality of dogma for all believers without conceiving of dogma in a way that makes it a high priest through which the believer must pass to reach the truth.  Rather, it is from an encounter with the truth of Christ in the faithful life of the believer that dogma receives its positive implications for thought:
Hence one sees positively how the two meanings of a dogma, the practical meaning and the negative meaning, are reunited, the latter being subordinated to the former [and left completely undiscussed in this blog post].  Moreover we see how dogmas are immutable and yet how there is an evolution of dogmas.  What remains constant in dogma is the orientation that it gives to our practical activity, the direction in which it inflects our conduct.  But the explanatory theories, the intellectual representations, change constantly in the course of the ages according to individuals and epochs, freed from all the fluctuations and all the aspects of relativity manifested by the history of the human mind.  The Christians of the first centuries did not profess the same opinions on the nature and personality of Jesus as we, and they did not have the same problems.  The ignorant man to-day does not have at all the same ideas on these lofty and difficult subjects as the philosopher does, nor the same mental preoccupations.  But whether ignorant men or philosophers, men of the first or the twentieth century, every Catholic has always had and always will have the same practical attitude with regard to Jesus. (87)
Le Roy's essay is relatively unspectacular, offers some dubious claims and others that are only true in a rather unoriginal way.  A more extensive consideration of the Dogma controversy that unfolded following the publication of this essay and of Le Roy's more important work on science and philosophy would offer better resources with which to establish an understanding of theological work.  The focus on an anti-intellectualist response to "intellectual aristocracy" within the churches, however, seems to effectively clarify a central impediment to theological method that is usually a blind spot for theologians, who are after all a part of the aristocracy more or less by default.  I think Le Roy also presents a non-intellectualist option that is legitimately distinct from approaches that decentralize dogma, as well as approaches that try to turn dogmatic theology into a kerygmatic or prayerful practice (a move that I think often simply displaces true kerygma and prayer as well true dogma, despite good intentions for the opposite effect).


  1. An Expectant ReaderJuly 8, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    When is the Le Roy article coming out? Sounds interesting.

  2. There are no plans for a Le Roy article at this point, although I wrote a paper on his work for a seminar this past spring. Perhaps down the road a bit.