Tuesday, 22 May 2007

What is theology?

Our friend Michael Westmoreland-White tries to answer this question in an excellent post. Theology, he says, is:

  1. pluralistic (as a struggle for truth rooted in the conflict between different contexts and traditions)
  2. narrative-based (using scripture to construe the community’s lived experience)
  3. rational (as an intellectual practice rooted in communal practices)
  4. self-involving (as a practice that takes place within the convictional community)
What do you think?

24 Comments:

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Thanks, Ben. Just to give credit where credit is due, most of that comes from the late James Wm. McClendon, Jr. (1924-2000) with only slight changes in wording from me.

Chris TerryNelson said...

Thanks Michael. I think these definitions are secondary descriptions of what constitutes theology, and a bit too vague if left on their own. They also lean a bit too much on communal practices (whatever those are) as the definitive context for theology, but it remains silent about the definitive content of theology. What theology does is dependent on what theology is.

jbh said...

Where is God, the Son, or the Spirit?

Weekend Fisher said...

I like the description that "truth is symphonic". The love of God works on so many levels. Likewise each major theme in the Bible.

Matt Jenson said...

Theology is...responsive.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

JBH & Terry, as I say in more detail on my blog, McClendon's definition is meant to be very broad--to include theologies as practiced by other religions or by philosophical substitutes like Marxism, etc. This goes beyond the etymological roots of the word as "logos about Theos."

Now, once one specifies Christian theology, then the convictional community in question is the Church as Body of Christ (or one tradition within that Body). The convictions in question, then, include convictions about the Triune God. See further my blog, Levellers. I am going to working to spell out over several weeks what this kind of functional approach would mean for the practice of theology, specifically Christian theology.

Andre Muller said...

Michael... What's at stake in beginning or not beginning with the kind of broad description of theology that McClendon gives? I ask not because I necessrily disagree with McClendon, but because I'm just not sure why we need to begin by defining the word theology in general terms, i.e., ones that might claim to transcend or to ground particular theological traditions.

jbh said...

Michael - That's helpful, thanks.

Also, "Symphonic theology" comes from a book by Vern Poythress by that title. There may have been, however, an antecedent to that.

michael jensen said...

What do I think? I think you just hijacked the discussion of MWW's interesting post from his blog! He doesn't seem to mind I guess...

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Michael J., Ben's "hi-jacking" will actually bring far more attention to my post than it would get on just my blog. I do hope many go there, however, because my larger discussion will be there. I am glad that Michael J. thinks I have said something interesting.

JBH, I have seen but not read the Poythress book.

Andre, I think McClendon was concerned that definitions of theology not "fudge" from the beginning so as to rule out everything but "my kind of theology." He specifically reacted against Karl Rahner's somewhat neo-Platonic claim that all true theology was a near-perfect reflection of "God's theology"--especially when Rahner went on to spell out elements of Magisterium which meant that no Believers' Church or 'baptist' could "REALLY" be doing theology.

Theology's pluralistic and contextual nature means we will always have to go on to specify further which convictions of which convictional communities we are dealing with.

michael jensen said...

['interesting' is Aussie understatement by the way...and it is completely unsurprising that you would say interesting things MW-W!]

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Michael Jensen, thanks again. I see you are at Oxford. I spent a year there as external study during my Ph.D. (Regents' Park College) and have always been looking for a way to get back. I don't know about the Aussie experience in the UK, but this U.S. Southerner had to get used to being "one of the Yanks" during my time at Oxfordshire. (Since being a "Yank" or Yankee is an insult to a Southerner, I had to keep reminding myself (a)that I am a pacifist and (b) that they "knew not what they were saying." :-) )

But this is all off-topic.

kim fabricius said...

Staying off-topic - the Aussie experience in Oxford? Not dissimilar to the American experience (I knew some Aussies at Oxford), for, like Americans, and unlike the English, Aussies (I'm just repeating the stereotypes) are loud and brash, can-do and optimistic - and they think that the Mother Country is impossibly "ye olde" (royalty, for heaven's sake!) and quite inferior (the Aussies certainly beat the hell out of the Poms in almost every game they jointly play, apart from the "beautiful" game, at which the English are yet invincible also-rans on the European and world stage). Moreover, the weather is filthy, the sheilas dowdy, and the beer warm. Alas both Aussies and Brits both insist on driving on the wrong side of the road. On the other hand, though they've both got diabolical Prime Ministers, they are paragons of virtue compared to George Bush.

There - I trust I've managed to insult just about all concerned!

Cheers!
Kim

PS: Oh, as for theology - or at least theologians - Maragaret Thatcher speaks for most of us: "As God once said - and I think rightly ..."

Apolonio said...

what about...contemplative? I think Balthasar's contribution on sanctity and theology is a must for everyone.

kim fabricius said...

Great point, Apolonio, bringing together theology and spirituality (or the "mystical"). Cf. Augustine: God is known by sapientia, not by scientia. Or again: true theologians experience what they are writing about. Thus von Balthasar laments "the disappearance of ... the theologian who is also a saint."

Andre Muler said...

I’m sorry to push this further (and I’m sorry its so long, but I don’t have a blog site)... I can appreciate McClendon’s reaction to strategies that would, as you say, seem to rule out ‘everything but “my kind of theology”’. But I’m not sure that the desire to avoid a kind of epistemological hubris means that we ought to start with attempts to specify a broad definition of theology that would (claim to) encompass “the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc.” I guess part of my worry is that this move seems to imply that there is a single grammar that underpins all human discourse – i.e., at some level – the most basic level – we all use the word “theology” in the same way; or all (or most) of our uses of this word overlap. This, it seems to me, is an ideological move. If it is claimed that McClendon’s broad definition of theology encompasses say, the discourse of socio-biology, it’s worth asking whether socio-biologists feel like they can sign up to that definition of theology. My hunch is that they might be reluctant to call what they are doing theology. They may be wrong, of course, but we would have to say that our broad definition of theology requires us to say that socio-biologists are doing what we do, even though protest this claim.
To me, it might be better to think along the lines sketched out by Peter Hylton (following Stanley Cavell) in regard to philosophy. “There is,” Hylton claims, “no distinction between substantive questions and questions of method because there is no agreed framework within which problems can be addressed while leaving method to one side.” So, too, I think for theology. What this means is that a particular theology is always a staking not just of a particular methodology, but of a particular definition of what theology is (i.e., what activities count as theology and what don’t; what it means to be doing theology and what it means not to be doing theology). So, the debate between Harnack and Barth wasn’t simply a debate about theological methodology. It was a debate between two competing conceptions of theology. And, interestingly, it’s a debate that comes to a standstill precisely because there isn’t a common framework; there can’t be, because the debate is between competing frameworks. And I see no reason why this way of seeing things entails the oppression of certain theological frameworks (in fact, quite the opposite).

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I like the points about sanctity and contemplation.

Andre, I understand your fears of false universal perspectives, but I must disagree with your conclusion. It's not that this kind of functional definition sees one single discourse, but whether or not we can communicate and see similar discourses. We should have no objections, for instance, if Marxists call our theologies "Christian theoretics."

The self-involving nature of theology means that we must spell out our convictions and our convictional community rather quickly. One person's convictions might be that Christ is Lord, God is Love, the Rule of God has drawn near, etc. Another's might be convictions about "Girls, Guns, and Gold" to use a stereotypical (and sexist) example. Convictional differences may be ultimate differences.

Debates like that between Harnack and Barth will continue. But it doesn't mean that Harnack wasn't doing theology: He was doing bad Christian theology.

I will post more on this soon. I had to take time off on my blog to rail at U.S. politicians. :-)

Andre said...

Thanks for that, Michael. I'll think some more, and get back to you (although maybe on your blogsite). Keeping railing against the politicians ... wish I could ring up your congressman too, but I'm a NZer, and the US doesn't listen to us.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Alas, Andre, it seems even Kiwis' near neighbors, the Aussies, don't listen to them. John Howard would rather be Bush's "sheriff in the Pacific" it appears. I thank God that Canada and NZ had the courage to break with the U.S., UK, and Australia over Iraq. Time has proven ya'll right--although some of us knew that from the beginning.

I have continued to the theology discussion on my blog, Levellers: http://levellers.wordpress.com

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I like the points about sanctity and contemplation.

Andre, I understand your fears of false universal perspectives, but I must disagree with your conclusion. It's not that this kind of functional definition sees one single discourse, but whether or not we can communicate and see similar discourses. We should have no objections, for instance, if Marxists call our theologies "Christian theoretics."

The self-involving nature of theology means that we must spell out our convictions and our convictional community rather quickly. One person's convictions might be that Christ is Lord, God is Love, the Rule of God has drawn near, etc. Another's might be convictions about "Girls, Guns, and Gold" to use a stereotypical (and sexist) example. Convictional differences may be ultimate differences.

Debates like that between Harnack and Barth will continue. But it doesn't mean that Harnack wasn't doing theology: He was doing bad Christian theology.

I will post more on this soon. I had to take time off on my blog to rail at U.S. politicians. :-)

Andre Muler said...

I’m sorry to push this further (and I’m sorry its so long, but I don’t have a blog site)... I can appreciate McClendon’s reaction to strategies that would, as you say, seem to rule out ‘everything but “my kind of theology”’. But I’m not sure that the desire to avoid a kind of epistemological hubris means that we ought to start with attempts to specify a broad definition of theology that would (claim to) encompass “the theologies of other world religions and of philosophical substitutes for religion, such as Marxism, socio-biology, etc.” I guess part of my worry is that this move seems to imply that there is a single grammar that underpins all human discourse – i.e., at some level – the most basic level – we all use the word “theology” in the same way; or all (or most) of our uses of this word overlap. This, it seems to me, is an ideological move. If it is claimed that McClendon’s broad definition of theology encompasses say, the discourse of socio-biology, it’s worth asking whether socio-biologists feel like they can sign up to that definition of theology. My hunch is that they might be reluctant to call what they are doing theology. They may be wrong, of course, but we would have to say that our broad definition of theology requires us to say that socio-biologists are doing what we do, even though protest this claim.
To me, it might be better to think along the lines sketched out by Peter Hylton (following Stanley Cavell) in regard to philosophy. “There is,” Hylton claims, “no distinction between substantive questions and questions of method because there is no agreed framework within which problems can be addressed while leaving method to one side.” So, too, I think for theology. What this means is that a particular theology is always a staking not just of a particular methodology, but of a particular definition of what theology is (i.e., what activities count as theology and what don’t; what it means to be doing theology and what it means not to be doing theology). So, the debate between Harnack and Barth wasn’t simply a debate about theological methodology. It was a debate between two competing conceptions of theology. And, interestingly, it’s a debate that comes to a standstill precisely because there isn’t a common framework; there can’t be, because the debate is between competing frameworks. And I see no reason why this way of seeing things entails the oppression of certain theological frameworks (in fact, quite the opposite).

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Alas, Andre, it seems even Kiwis' near neighbors, the Aussies, don't listen to them. John Howard would rather be Bush's "sheriff in the Pacific" it appears. I thank God that Canada and NZ had the courage to break with the U.S., UK, and Australia over Iraq. Time has proven ya'll right--although some of us knew that from the beginning.

I have continued to the theology discussion on my blog, Levellers: http://levellers.wordpress.com

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Michael J., Ben's "hi-jacking" will actually bring far more attention to my post than it would get on just my blog. I do hope many go there, however, because my larger discussion will be there. I am glad that Michael J. thinks I have said something interesting.

JBH, I have seen but not read the Poythress book.

Andre, I think McClendon was concerned that definitions of theology not "fudge" from the beginning so as to rule out everything but "my kind of theology." He specifically reacted against Karl Rahner's somewhat neo-Platonic claim that all true theology was a near-perfect reflection of "God's theology"--especially when Rahner went on to spell out elements of Magisterium which meant that no Believers' Church or 'baptist' could "REALLY" be doing theology.

Theology's pluralistic and contextual nature means we will always have to go on to specify further which convictions of which convictional communities we are dealing with.

kim fabricius said...

Staying off-topic - the Aussie experience in Oxford? Not dissimilar to the American experience (I knew some Aussies at Oxford), for, like Americans, and unlike the English, Aussies (I'm just repeating the stereotypes) are loud and brash, can-do and optimistic - and they think that the Mother Country is impossibly "ye olde" (royalty, for heaven's sake!) and quite inferior (the Aussies certainly beat the hell out of the Poms in almost every game they jointly play, apart from the "beautiful" game, at which the English are yet invincible also-rans on the European and world stage). Moreover, the weather is filthy, the sheilas dowdy, and the beer warm. Alas both Aussies and Brits both insist on driving on the wrong side of the road. On the other hand, though they've both got diabolical Prime Ministers, they are paragons of virtue compared to George Bush.

There - I trust I've managed to insult just about all concerned!

Cheers!
Kim

PS: Oh, as for theology - or at least theologians - Maragaret Thatcher speaks for most of us: "As God once said - and I think rightly ..."

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