Thursday, 6 May 2010

On motives for writing

A few days ago, our friend IndieFaith posted an open letter to the guys at AUFS. He's intrigued by the fact that they are contributing to Christian scholarship without professing any attachment to the church – so he invites them "to speak about your motivation and your hopes, the end to which your overall striving is aimed".

I think it's always good to ask ourselves what theological scholarship is really for – what are we trying to do with all this scholarship? That should be a question-mark that stands outside the whole discourse of academic theology. But we can be self-critical in this way without trying to judge the work of other scholars according to their personal motives.

All of us have complex (often inscrutable) motivations for writing. Whenever I publish something, there are numerous motivations at play – just to take a few examples:

  • I'm trying to acquire intellectual capital for my own future use in teaching and scholarship – i.e., I'm writing to educate myself;
  • I'm also literally trying to acquire capital, since my institution rewards my publications with money for more research (Dr Johnson: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money");
  • I usually have some polemical motivation, a desire to attack particular persons or intellectual positions;
  • I'm always hoping to have some small influence on my own specialised domain of discourse – perhaps my main ambition is to leave some small imprint on discourse, so that other scholars will speak and write differently as a result of my work;
  • this previous motivation can easily mask my secret longings for a writerly immortality, the desire to write something which (as Milton put it) the world "should not willingly let die"; I'm sure this is as characteristic of theologians as it is of other writers, even though it is a form of idolatry and a denial of the resurrection;
  • if I'm lonely (and how many writers are not profoundly lonely?), I might also write to win admiration and friendship, maybe even to get laid (presumably Tillich's books helped him to get laid – and he was clearly aware of this problematic relationship between his scholarship and his sexuality);
  • there might also be quite practical motivations, for instance where writing is a way to escape from the difficulties of my domestic affairs (take it from me, it's easier to write a few paragraphs than it is to get the kids ready for bed at the end of a long day; and it's more than a coincidence that so many writers cultivate a persona of bumbling domestic incompetence);
  • if Freud is to be believed, I'm probably also trying to placate an internalised father-figure who drives me to go on writing;
  • of course, as a theologian, I'm always aspiring to exert some influence on the thinking and practice of the church;
  • and I might also see writing as a kind of spiritual discipline, a self-forming practice, an attempt to make myself better (even if this motivation exists in an uneasy tension with all the other ones I've listed).
But however fascinating this writhing snake pit of motives might be, I don't think any of this should become a standard by which another person's writing is judged. A piece of scholarship is judged according to how good or how bad it is. (The fourth motivation above is something of an exception here, since part of the "goodness" or "badness" of a particular text is the imprint that it leaves on wider discourse – in other words, whether a particular writing has become "important".) Good writing has a self-validating quality; it is its own justification. That is one of the most (if not the most) distinctive characteristics of the phenomenon of writing.

So I think we should always be ready to engage in a penitent scrutiny of our own motivations for writing; but it's impossible and undesirable to assess another person's writing in this way. Where the value of writing is concerned, we should be as quick to acquit others as we are to condemn ourselves – not vice versa.

Besides, if we really wanted all writing to pass through the fire of purity-of-motives, I doubt that anything – not even the world's great literature, much less our own meagre scribblings – would survive the conflagration.

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