Thursday, March 31, 2011

Buying Quest for the Living God...

WIT has done a great service in bringing the current situation with Sr. Elizabeth Johnson and the USCCB to the attention of theology bloggers (here, etc.).  The one thing I lament is that they link to of all places to buy for The Quest for the Living God!

Regular readers know that I harbor strong criticisms of the Amazon.coms/WalMarts of the book industry, and I realize that the "buy indie" message can get a little preachy and tiring when you just want to buy stuff cheap.  But here is a perfect opportunity for anyone interested in Johnson's work to also opt out of needlessly supporting the damaging effects of on folks who are just trying to break even publishing the books that are so important for our theological vocations.  And do remember, you will also want these publishers/booksellers to be vibrant, healthy, and affordable when your first/next book comes out!

Amazon (which I will not link from here) is currently selling the paperback of The Quest at $19.95.  Note, however, that this is the same price that Continuum has on the paperback edition, and it's also the same price that independent bookstores are charging for it (check your zipcode to be sure, but everything near me lists $19.95).

I'm reading up on Johnson's work (and the USCCB criticism) with some interest, as I don't have much previous familiarity with her.  You can find information at her webpage.  Go to WIT for updates as this progresses.


As I said, I don't have much familiarity with Johnson's work and so can't comment too much myself, but one thing that I thought was interesting about the USCCB critique and Johnson's response was the mention of imprimatur/discussion.  The USCCB news release states:
"“The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is first and foremost concerned about the spiritual welfare of those students using this book who may be led to assume that its content is authentic Catholic teaching,” he said. “Although an imprimatur is not required for all books that treat Sacred Scripture and theology, it is still a recommended practice (see c. 827 §3).  By seeking an imprimatur, the author has the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the bishop concerning the Catholic teaching expressed in the book. Thus, clarifications concerning the text can be made prior to its publication. It would have been helpful if Sister Elizabeth Johnson had taken advantage of this opportunity.”
He added that “The Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine is always open to dialogue with theologians and would welcome an opportunity to discuss Sister Elizabeth’s writings with her.”"
 Johnson's response states:
"I would have been glad to enter into conversation to clarify critical points, but was never invited to do so. This book was discussed and finally assessed by the Committee before I knew any discussion had taken place."

Both parties claim that the other should have approached dialogue first in the instance of any possible concern of doctrinal errors, but it strikes me that 1) given imprimatur is not required of all books, and 2) given that Johnson's vocation as a theologian presumably includes peer review (i.e., expert scrutiny of her theological work before and after publication), it's difficult to understand how Sr. Johnson was avoiding engagement with the gatekeepers of theological work so as to be less than "helpful".  While I am actually in strong support of the ecclesiastical hierarchy taking part in theological matters and the ongoing conversation about contours of orthodox belief (and Johnson expresses thankfulness of their involvement as well), it strikes me that a lot of this stems from a severe misunderstanding (or perhaps less presumptive: a severe disagreement) about the critical nature of theological work and the exchange that leads to the development of Christian doctrine.  These sorts of power struggles are nothing new and have existed as long as the Church... and not just the Protestant churches!... has used the university as a laboratory of theological reflection (which I suppose can count as solace or an added frustration depending on how much of an optimist one is).  I do hope that as this matter proceeds Sr. Johnson will get a fair hearing with the bishops and everyone will benefit from the exchange.

Until then, don't be a gluttonous dupe of reckless capitalism and let this happen.  Buy the book from here or here instead.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A few items...

  • I mentioned a little while back that I was looking for a copy of Kurt Koch's plenary address to the 50th anniversary of the PCPCU this past autumn.  I was able to secure a pdf of the speech, but I just ran across a more official publication of it today.  I've ILL'd it and will hopefully get to see it before too long.  Cardinal Koch has recently succeeded Walter Kasper as the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and he is quite a significant change of pace from his predecessor.  He will be worth watching over the next few years for those concerned with ecumenical matters.
  • The latest issue of the Anglican Theological Review considers same-sex relationships and the nature of marriage.  Co-authored essays from what they call "traditionalist" and "liberal" perspectives are offered, with responses from both groups as well as outside responses from others. 
  • The latest issue of Inquiry considers the secular and the sacred.  While I don't think this is another theme issue on The Secular Age, Taylor does have an essay in the issue and it looks like a few of the articles deal with his book in a significant way.
  • Tim Larsen published an article in IHE last month on "Why We Said No"... an honest look at what hiring committees may be thinking when you get rejected from an academic position.  Not a fun or uplifting read, perhaps, but it may offer some useful information for those currently on the market.  I imagine some of it applies a bit to applicants for graduate programs as well.  Also note some responses in the comment section making requests for more specific advertisements of job positions.  I imagine this is tough for committees to a certain extent because, as Larsen mentions, they don't always have a clear idea of what exactly a department needs until they hash it out amongst each other with applications in hand.  But worth noting, and perhaps considering if you are on faculty somewhere. 
  • The 2011 Colin Gunton Memorial Essay Prize theme was recently announced by IJST, "the theology of providence".  Also, congratulations to Ashley Cocksworth for his article, "Attending to the Sabbath: an alternative direction in Karl Barth’s theology of prayer", which won the 2010 prize.
  • Villanova's Patristics, Medieval, and Renaissance Conference has opened its 2011 call for papers on the theme of "Natura: the splendor of these created things".  Submissions are due June 15th. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

The difficulty of Google for historical theologians

My apologies to anyone who has had difficulty commenting on my last post, The difficulty of history for theologians.  One comment had a whole paragraph cut off from it in the process of posting, and another one keeps getting deleted despite repeated attempts to post it.  If there are any other comments that haven't gone through of which I'm not aware, sorry about that... Google seems to be acting up.  I rarely ever have problems with this sort of thing or with spam on the blog, so I suppose it could be worse.

It's a particular shame that this happened for the post in question.  Whenever I bring up the topic of theology as it relates to historical work, a lot of interest from readers seems to surface.  In this post I've also had some fruitful email correspondence in addition to the comment section.  I have a sense that (at least for certain corners of the theological world), broad problems of "historical theology" are of great significance these days, especially for graduate students rising into the profession... at least people seem to be asking an inordinate amount of questions about how theological and historical projects can work together.  This may warrant more extensive discussion of theology/history issues.  I wonder what further directions people would be interested in taking such a conversation.  Are there particular problems that you've encountered in your own work?  Areas of study in theology/history that should be highlighted?  Methodological insight from other disciplines that have been going unnoticed by theologians?  I have also heard talk from various graduate students of forming a more long-term colloquium of sorts on these kinds of questions.  I'd be happy to entertain these sorts of ideas as well.

This can be an open thread on theology/history... you may also want to post comments for the last post here as a potentially less technologically-hostile comment section.

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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two comments on academic theology...

Chicago is on a quarter system, so we're in exam week at the moment- hence the lack of posts around here.  Below are two quotes from two different theologians to dissuade all of you academic folk from thinking that your work really matters all that much to Jesus.

"I fancied myself a Christian when I picked profound and beautiful sayings out of Jeremiah's writing, for a disputation, lecture, or sermon, or for other speeches and writings, and I thought that this ought to please God extremely well.  But when I began to think and reflect properly, I discovered that I had neither come to know God nor to love the highest good as a good.  I saw that the created letter was what I had come to know and love; in that I rested; it had become my God and I did not notice that God said through Jeremiah, Those who kept my commandments, knew me not and did not ask for me."
                       --Andreas Carlstadt, "The Meaning of the Term Gelassen and Where in Holy Scripture it is Found", The Essential Carlstadt, (Herald) p. 140.

"Christ did not write a book, nor did He bid the disciples or apostles to write one, yet He gave many precepts concerning the Church; hence when about to send apostles out to plant the Church, He did not say, Go write, but Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature."
--John Eck, Enchiridion of Commonplaces, (Baker), p. 12

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A few items...

  •  Dale at Trinities (a blog concerned with trinitarian doctrine from an analytic philosophical perspective) recently drew attention to a post that was highly critical of theologians who "ignore" analytic theology.  The post is worth wandering over to read.  I have a lot of difficulties with these sorts of gripes from folks who work in the analytic tradition.  I don't doubt that negligent theologies are out there (and even prominent), and surely we could do a better job of drawing from a wider critical conversation.  But this strikes me as a relatively uninteresting point to make, and almost certainly not attributable to the reasons that Dale suggests.  The explanation that tends to bother me the most is his second suggested reason for theology's negligence, that "philosophy is hard".  I've written about this in the past.  With the proliferation of good conceptual, analytical, and critical work being done in multiple disciplines, it's as if those wanting to emphasize "philosophy" as a distinct, delimitable discipline have found nothing better upon which to capitalize than the fact that good philosophical work is rigorous.  The appeal to difficulty is awkward enough as a nondescript description of philosophical work.  It becomes downright ugly when it's used as an attempted psychoanalysis of "why nobody pays attention to me."  And do note: the problem isn't that Dale  is incorrect about philosophy being difficult or theologians ignoring it for this reason.  Lots of theologians do ignore analytic philosophy because they're lazy and it's too difficult.  But the same could be said for any number of other disciplines that tend to be ignored or do the ignoring.  A more reasonable (and useful) explanation for theological ignorance of analytic work would focus on why theologians don't find this work relevant (either because of its methods, its assumptions, its own ignorance of theological concerns, etc.), or don't find current parallel conversations in theology or philosophy inadequate enough to necessitate bringing in analytic thinkers.
  • The latest issue of The Journal of Religion is a theme issue on Augustine, publishing papers from the recent conference here at the Divinity School. 
  •  I mentioned a while back that after five years, the journal Contributions to the History of Concepts was no longer being published by Brill, and that there was no indication that it was being published any more at all.  I'm therefore quite pleased to find that Contributions has resurfaced and will now be published by Berghahn.  The journal, as before, is a publication of the History of Political and Social Concepts Group, and is now also hosted by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.