Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Theology and belief

Anthony has responded critically to the idea that one must be a believer in order to understand theology, and a related criticism follows in the comments on the relationship between belief/orthodoxy and the vocation of the theologian.  I'm inclined to agree with Anthony and Adam here... on a bare empirical level, lots of theology seems to get done and understood by non-believers.  More substantively, the contributions of theology to the understanding of the faith do not seem obviously to require a right relationship with God.  Why would they, exactly?  And what concern is it of ours if a theologian is not of the fold?  Christ says of the exorcist who is not a disciple that whoever is not against Him is for Him. If the theologian isn't charged with casting out demons, on what basis would we hold them to a higher standard than those who did such things in the scriptures?

Adam also makes a good point in the comments about theology as a critical reflection requiring distance from belief... what we do as theologians puts the possibility of childlike faith in serious jeopardy, and we would do well to take great care in recognizing the risks of our critical work if it is to remain edifying for the churches. We do not (I say this as a believing theologian, at least) pursue critical inquiry in order to criticize the faith.  We use criticism to engage with theories about the faith (those made explicit as well as those left without explication), in order to gain better understanding.*

With regard to our own souls, I think that the theologian is something like the rich man trying to get to heaven; a great amount of knowledge carries with it an increased difficulty in recognizing that "where there is knowledge, it will pass away."  Anyone who pursues a path of theology should regularly pray for the safety of their own soul, because while the work of theology is often joyful and inspires faith, it can also do quite the opposite.  Theology is not in itself a pious profession... at base it is a theorizing task, and it only serves piety when piety uses theology as a tool for understanding.

I would also add that while I don't think one needs to be a believer to be a theologian, and further that theology is even tied in important ways to the possibility of unbelief, I do think it's fair enough to say that the believing theologian should at least be the normative model for theological work and that unbelieving theologians will probably always be an exception to the norm.  This is not merely a statement of institutional exclusivity or a prioritizing of orthodoxy.  Theological work requires an entertainment of the truth of the faith in a more basic sense than it requires a suspension of belief for the purposes of critically reflecting upon the coherence of beliefs.  What distinguishes constructive theological work from other critical engagements with religion is its assessment of the value and meaning of the faith itself.  A preliminary recognition of coherence seems to be required in order to meaningfully do something with the faith, and so it seems understandable that believers look on unbelieving theologians with some wariness... not even because they will corrupt orthodoxy (believing theologians do that well enough on their own!), but simply because there are no strong reasons for constructive aims concerning a faith that does not carry any meaning or value.  And while the meaning or value of the faith may be identified elsewhere than the truth of its teaching (a non-believing theologian may legitimately find the faith valuable for philosophical, ethical, societal, political, etc. reasons apart from the theological truth of its Gospel...  as Adam says, you just need to "care" about it), the Church's teaching does recognize a space of orthodoxy as its own norm, and adherence to this norm in life and thought is the most obvious basis upon which one would do theoretical work with Christian teaching.  To say this is a far cry from saying that theological knowledge is a divine gift predicated upon a reception in faith that excludes non-believers from practicing or understanding theology, but I do want to recognize that theologians working from a dogmatic framework with an assumption of faith have good reason for doing so, and that non-believing theologians working within the Christian tradition should expect various traditions of orthodox and heterodox Christian teachings to set the tone for what is recognized as typical theological work. 

*Here I'd want to offer some qualification to Adam's comment about arguing for the truth of the faith requiring critical distance.  I agree with what he says, but it should also be said that not all theology argues for the truth or falsity of any tenets of faith.  If theology is being done simply to better understand the meaning of a confession of faith, or to entertain various speculative options, or to mediate differing understandings, tasks like this don't seem to require being "open to the possibility that [the Christian tradition is] not right" if by this he means raising the possibility of an abandonment of a broad adherence to the faith.  Such openness to abandoning belief seems to only be a necessity for apologetic tasks in theology, where one presumes to stand as judge over the truth of certain assertions.


  1. It does seem sensible to expect that the norm is for theology to be done by believers -- but taking my scheme as a "unified theory," couldn't one account for this by noting that believers tend to be the ones who care most about Christian theology?

  2. Yeah, I think that'd be fine. That's basically what I was getting at when I said that orthodoxy, the self-prescribed norm for the Church's teaching, is the most obvious basis upon which one would pursue theological work... it seems to be the indigenous form of caring about theology, that is.

  3. "I would also add that while I don't think one needs to be a believer to be a theologian, and further that theology is even tied in important ways to the possibility of unbelief, I do think it's fair enough to say that the believing theologian should at least be the normative model for theological work and that unbelieving theologians will probably always be an exception to the norm."

    Let me push on this a bit.

    Would it be the "normative model" for a historian of slavery in the Southern United States to be black? This very question came up in a seminar I had on the slavery in the Old South and those who defended such an idea never posited any really convincing answers.

    Similarly, would it be normative for a sociologist who is studying the homeless to have been or be homeless?

    I'd argue that theology is the systematic study of religion, full stop. Thus I'm not quite sure why the study of Buddhist theology has some normative expectation that one be a Buddhist, and the same can be said for Muslim theology, or whatever.

  4. Within the field of religious studies, this isn't how theology is understood... fields like history of religions, sociology of religion, philosophy of religion, etc. cover the sort of inquiry that you're intending to highlight here. Theology is generally understood as a constructive inquiry that is itself religious thought; the product of theology is usually more religious thought, that is, rather than an account of religion identifiable by other methodologies and likely not recognized as itself part of the religious patrimony.

    One could study theology in the way that one studies intellectual history more generally, and in this sense there is perhaps less expectation that one actually be a Christian (or whatever). But even here, I'd wager that apart from philosophers or others whose own tradition of thought is highly influenced by various traditions of theology, there is probably a much less significant amount of interest in theological systems than amongst believers.

    One must also add, of course, that in practice sociological, historical, or other sorts of inquiry are always going to get mixed up within any systematic theological project. The separation of disciplines or methodologies here is inevitably artificial.

  5. "...the product of theology is usually more religious thought..."

    Well, the product of history is more historical thought. Not quite sure why you can't be a raging atheist, a theologian and create more religious thought, even religious thought related to a belief one doesn't share.

    It is however likely the case that religious types are drawn to theology; that's not surprising. But I wouldn't call it normative.

    Anyway, theology could reap a lot of benefit from having more atheists in the club so to speak; I analogize it to military history - some of the best military historians I know of are women who never served a minute in the armed forces of any country and some of the worst are colonels and generals take up the subject matter they were involved in. Full disclosure: I'm something of a military history nut.

  6. I haven't disagreed with the idea that a non-believer could do theology.

    I would call the propensity of theologians toward belief "normative" in theology because, as I said in the post above,

    1) Constructive engagement with theological theories requires a suspension of disbelief in order to recognize the theological material as workable in the first place; this entertainment of belief is more basic than the suspension of belief required in the apologetic pursuit of verification of the truth of various theological tenets.

    2) The traditions of theological material with which theologians deal have made their own claims to orthodoxy; a critical and non-believing theologian may question these claims, but they are claims that exist as defining structures of theological traditions themselves. As such, these claims to orthodox norms are going to order any theological work that is done, either by a believer or an unbeliever.

    (1) explains the reason why a believing posture is normative (if not necessary) for theology in terms of a methodological requirement. (2) says much the same thing in terms of the content of various theological traditions, which as church teaching (rather than mere ideas, or works of art, or data sets) make claims to orthodoxy, i.e., normativity.

  7. A non-believing theologian isn't simply like a physicist working on string theory when they aren't actually personally convinced by it. This sort of situation would be better compared to an Orthodox theologian working on the filioque or a theologian holding to a memorialist conception of the Eucharist working on a doctrine of transubstantiation. Odd fits, to be sure, but constructive work on rival theories is conceivable in the interests of gaining a better understanding or forming sharper criticisms.

    To be an unbeliever and a theologian, however, is to hold a starkly different stance concerning the value and meaningfulness of the content being put to constructive use. It is not simply working outside of one's own theoretical commitments -- it is a working outside of one's own understanding of the status of what is being theorized in the first place. An unbelieving theologian, then, is more like a physicist who believes that all reality is consciousness to the exclusion of matter, or like a military scientist who is a pacifist. One could certainly imagine a physicist or a military scientist with such commitments, but the tensions presented by the unbelieving theologian, the idealist physicist, or the pacifist military scientist go beyond a lack of alignment in any specific theoretical commitments. Rather, the whole basis for the coherence of the inquiry is left in a state of uncertainty.

    This is different than saying such people don't have eyes to see. Non-believers, idealists, and pacifists can certainly act like their counterparts and proceed through their respective fields on the basis of the content of those fields. I'm not saying that an unbelieving theologian is analogous to an illiterate literary theorist, that is. What I am saying is that beliefs functioning as value commitments can do more than simply contradict the truth of particular theories within a field of study; they can question what it would mean to inquire about a particular field in the first place. I'm not prepared to argue that such radical differences in basic value assumptions would rule out the idea of a non-believing theologian. But I would insist that there are many things odd, exceptional, and fundamentally inapt about pursuing theological work from a position of disbelief (understood as broad disbelief, e.g., a theologian working in the Christian tradition who would not self-identify as a Christian).