Friday, 27 June 2008

Tastes in theology

There has been some interesting discussion in response to Halden’s proposal to summarise his basic theological outlook. One interlocutor offers the playful suggestion that a personal theological system could be re-framed as “things I think are cool.”

As a matter of fact, I think this raises a very interesting point about the way theological commitments are formed. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has spoken of the irreducibility of “taste” in philosophy: a thinker adopts certain concepts not for any “reasonable reasons” – not on the basis of rational foundations – but for reasons of taste, reasons which are finally unaccountable. Similarly, the Yale theologian David Kelsey once observed that a theological position tends to look less like a system derived from any fixed “starting point,” and more like an imaginative vision. There’s something irreducible about this: one simply glimpses things in a particular way or one doesn’t; one has a certain taste, an instinct, which makes some theological positions attractive and others impossible.

You can witness this all the time in theological discussions. I might, for instance, get into a dispute with a fundamentalist. He may have impressive reasons and arguments to support his position, but at the end of the day I’m simply unmoved by his whole point of view. I have no taste for it, I couldn’t accept it even if I wanted to (or to be more precise: I couldn’t want to accept it, since I have no taste for it). On the other hand, there might be all kinds of unresolved conceptual problems in my own theological position, but I still remain grasped by this particular theological vision, this way of seeing and imagining things.

Along similar lines, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “decision.” And I’m inclined to think that the formation of theological positions involves basic decisions which are irreducible to rational foundations. I’ve tried to tease this out a little in a forthcoming essay on Rowan Williams – here’s an excerpt:

“Theology is always a risk and a venture; there is no legitimate way to ensure its safety in advance. The practice of theology involves the irreducibility of decision – a decision which is not the necessary outcome of any rational process, and so cannot be rendered safe and assured. In its newness and its non-necessity, the decision refuses all guarantees – which is simply to say that theology is a venture of faith, and thus always ‘dangerous thought’, thought balanced on the edge of a knife.”


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