Thursday, March 17, 2011

The difficulty of history for theologians

These are thoughts that actually came up after I wrote about theology and philosophy earlier this month, although they could be applied to most any ancillary discipline with which theology often finds itself concerned.  A basic difficulty for doing theology seems to be that it requires a good deal of legwork in other disciplines just to get its own work off the ground, which inevitably means that theologians trying to take adequate account of philosophical, historical, text-critical, or other contributions to human knowledge relevant for the explication of the doctrine of the faith will come across as dilettantes who know just enough of another discipline to hurt themselves.  For the moment I'd like to think about this difficulty as it relates to historical work done by the constructive theologian.

One of the things that I find challenging about theological work is that for the most part, we are never simply offering a theoretical account of some aspect of the doctrine of the faith.  Most theologians, that is, wouldn't write a treatise meant simply to offer a coherent explanation of "revelation".  Rather, any coherent explanation of revelation coming from a theologian would likely consider an historical tradition of thought leading up to the present constructive presentation.  In some cases this reliance upon previous work on doctrinal concepts is more implicit than not, but theology on the whole remains a strongly diachronic conversation- and more so than other disciplines (although any discipline will engage with the previous literature in some way) because of theology's status as a discipline born out of and informing a doctrinal community.  This history of theology isn't simply raw material for analysis; it is something that also holds theology to account through certain orthodoxies or pious expectations for theology's development of the self-understanding of the faith.  (Incidentally, this is why I think that the idea of theology as a re-conceptualization of the faith for the present day is a bit unhelpful.  It leans too much upon a metaphor of succeeding pictures of the faith, and does not adequately convey the extent to which tradition is not a mere correspondence of ideas with where-we-stand-now, but rather a recognition that the faith lives now, and we can engage with it.)

But the work of the theologian as constantly accounting for and being held to account by an extra-theological faith tradition makes the intellectual work much less straightforward than someone simply engaged in history.  A theologian for whom the proliferation of 20th century Augustinianisms is relevant (however much some of these 20th century versions are only really pseudo-augustinian) is never going to be able to match up with an Augustine scholar's ability to offer an historical account of Augustine's thought within its original context.  Too many competing receptions of Augustine remain important for the theologian to incorporate that are simply irrelevant for the historian of Augustine, who only really needs to see these receptions as later history that got Augustine himself either more or less wrong.

To make matters even more gloomy for the theologian, you rarely see a constructive theologian that remains simply Augustinian to the extent that you might see an historian whose published work doesn't venture outside of the third to fifth centuries centuries at all (with half of the work being about Augustine himself).  It's not just the whole of the Augustinian tradition that keeps theologians from acquiring an adequate historical account of Augustine, then, but also a sustained attention to Pauline thought, or a denominational context of Methodism, or an interest in theological bioethics... and would a constructive theologian with all four of these already-incredibly-broad areas of study represented in their CV look at all out of the ordinary or generalist as far as theologians go?  Hardly.  One could easily add to such distractions from a comprehensive historical engagement.

I don't know if there's much to do about this difficulty, and I don't see it as a bad thing.  I think that theologians should be focused on a wide variety of topics if they're going to offer any sort of compelling systematic account of the faith in their career.  Theologians whose expertise is limited in scale to the equivalent of "the Petrine epistles", or "the problem of evil", or "late antiquity" don't really possess the tools to offer a constructive account of the doctrine of the faith, and theologians who do intend to offer a constructive account of the doctrine of the faith don't have the resources to speak to 1 Peter in the way that a biblical scholar might who has spent the last five peer-reviewed articles and a book writing about it. 

I'm something of a generalist, so I take this to be an exciting challenge for the work of theology and not anything limiting.  But discouragement does continue to pop up for me every time I present an occasional sort of paper on a topic that others have devoted entire careers to unpacking.  Anxiety in such instances is, I think, best channeled towards better theological work and not towards an inferiority complex with regard to neighboring disciplines.


  1. Well said, Evan, especially about the generalist bit.

    From Josef Pieper:

    "Certain things can be adequately discussed only if at the same time we speak of the whole of the world and of life. If we are not ready to do that, we give up all claim to saying anything significant."

  2. “Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

    Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild“

    James R. Stoner Jr., Stanley Hauerwas, Paul J. Griffiths, David B. Hart, “Theology as Knowledge,” First Things (May, 2006).
    Ht: Eric Meyer

  3. There had been an opening comment, I don't know how it was lost. The quote is by David Bentley Hart and before it I said that all this is overwhelming to a student like myself, and also that your post reminded me of this quote.

  4. [this is John Penniman's comment, which keeps getting deleted... seeing if I have any better luck posting it for him]

    Great thoughts here, Evan. Thanks for taking the time on this one. The tension between history/theology as overlapping-and-yet-partitioned disciplines has been in the forefront of my mind recently. Mostly, this is due to the fact that I find myself becoming more and more historically oriented. By that I mean: I am, at the moment, less interested in theological argument than historical/literary analysis. Concretely, this has resulted in a hiatus from "theology" classes/readings in order to embed myself more completely in the literature and worlds of antiquity. At the same time, this partition is in no way impregnable and I often find myself in a kind of no-man's-land between the two.

    The biggest question for me on interdisciplinarity - and an attempt to avoid reification of disciplines as cul-de-sacs of expertise - takes the form of a question: "how much is enough?" Here are two examples i can think of.

    1) How much "critical theory" must one read before utilizing it in the analysis of a text. Say, for instance, one is interested in Derrida. How deep into the post-structural rabbit hole must one descend before they have done sufficient leg-work to speak knowledgeably about those texts in an historical analysis?

    2) Likewise, say a theologian is working on eucharistic theology and wants to delve into the patristic material. Perhaps she finds Clement of Alexandria's discussion of "table etiquette" in the Paedagogos fascinating (recognizing the explicit connection to Paul's similar discussion in 1 Corinthians 11). Recognizing that neither Paul nor Clement explicitly delineate how the communal meal and eucharistic rite cohere, how important is it for the theologian to explore ancient thinking on "table etiquette," "food and ritual," and (more generally) "meals" in order to make sense of what Paul and Clement are saying. Can she, alternatively, simply take the text at face value and do with it what she will towards a eucharistic theology? Put another way, how much historical groundedness is enough to engage an ancient text as source for contemporary theological discourse?

    I am not sure I have a good answer to either of these questions. But it seems to me that, in both cases, one could be relegated to an apophatic silence for fear of speaking out of ignorance. This is obviously not a helpful mentality. So far as I can tell, my best response at the moment is that, as scholars whose interests bleed across the partitions, ours ought to be a disposition of intellectual charity. This most practically results in an openness to those who have spent their lives working on just Clement's Paedagogos, or 1 Cor. 11, or dialectical theology, or semiotics, or whatever. If we are going to be people who necessarily bleed across partitions between disciplines, it seems only fair that we allow ourselves to be changed by their discursive tradition to the same extent that we hope to find resources there for our own discursive tradition. This involves no small amount of vulnerability on the part of those who move beyond the confines of their own area of expertise.

    These are just preliminary thoughts...but I think it is really an important question, and one that rarely gets thought through outside of awkward moments at a conference presentation or within interdepartmental dynamics. Moments which usually result in everyone retreating behind the partition to their own respective corners…

  5. Too many competing receptions of Augustine remain important for the theologian to incorporate that are simply irrelevant for the historian of Augustine, who only really needs to see these receptions as later history that got Augustine himself either more or less wrong.

    This represents a false dichotomy. Not only are competing receptions of Augustine not irrelevant for the historian of Augustine, but it is the hard work of historical scholarship to discern which of the most recent receptions of Augustine have the best scholarly credentials, and which are more or less wrong. It is precisely this process of discernment that is tied up with a scholar's vantage point that in turn allows him to offer an account of Augustine's thought within its historical context. History and "constructive" theology are not opposed. There is simply good theology, which is historically attuned through a knowing use of scholarly traditions, and there is bad theology, which is an echo of itself and which refuses to acknowledge the existence and significance of scholarly traditions for reading texts.

  6. For the above comment, I should spell out an assumption: there's no significant difference between "competing receptions of Augustine" and "later history that got Augustine himself either more or less wrong."

  7. Anonymous, I do agree that later receptions of Augustine are relevant for historians. I'm saying, however, that they're only relevant as historical scholarship about Augustine. For theologians they are also relevant as wellsprings of doctrine in their own right.

    I also agree that "history and "constructive" theology are not opposed"... they are simply different.

    The problem, however... and perhaps where I disagree with you... is that while there is good and bad theology, there isn't "simply" good and bad theology. Not to the same extent that one might identify good or bad history, at least. Two projects of constructive theology may both be quite good but engage with different aspects of Christian tradition. They may both be only quasi-Augustinian, using Augustine in a way that an historian of Augustine would find simply inaccurate (relative to the self-understanding of Augustine's project). Because the historian's only concern is Augustinian studies, the evolving tradition of doctrine as well as rational critiques of it along the way is not fodder for scholarly construction in the way that it is for the theologian.

    Or, one more pass at the problem: In response to your spelling out of an assumption, I take it that "reception" of a thinker's thoughts is different than "representation" or "description" of a thinker's thoughts. Historians don't deal with "reception" except as an historical phenomena itself (e.g., when tracing an intellectual history of some sort). Theologians, on the other hand, actually do receive from tradition and make constructive use of it... perhaps repristinating, or critical, or reformed, but some sort of use of the tradition that at the same time stands as an account of the doctrine of the faith in its own right.