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.”


Shane said...

I liked this idea better the first time I heard it; back when it was still called pragmatism. I liked it better because at least the pragmatists purported to offer arguments that their claim was correct. (They were wrong, but that's a different story.)

Normally, I would try to offer arguments to show you that you are wrong. But since you've declared your position immune to rational criticism, why would I even bother?

Here's what I'd ask though. Quit using the word "theology" to describe what you are doing here. I don't want readers to confuse you with other people who are serious about the rational articulation of the Christian faith. Call your thoughts here "Theo-preferences" or "Things I Think Are True Just Because I Want Them To Be" but don't call it theology.

Anonymous said...

And why isn't this just a version of the worst form of popular or fundamentalist Christianity, this sort of faith = an inner (experiential?) conviction rather than a ecclesially received, objective, norming reality? I like the sort of Barthianesque notion of theology ventured in "faith," but I'm afraid it misses Barth's points about the authority of Scripture and the church as norms, as well as true theology's ecclesial location.

Anonymous said...

Of course, our TASTE has something to do with our theological preferences, but that is not and should not be the issue. Shane and James got it right, this amounts to no more than anthropological subjectivism conjured up in the imagination of the heart. While it is indisputably the case that taste accounts for our preferences (theology is in fact a human discipline), it does not account for the fact that theology ought to have something to say about God, which is to say, that God ought to have something to say about God in and through our feeble thoughts to think about God. That is the only thing that makes theology a science and not mere pious, self-justifying chatter.

Anonymous said...

The metaphor of taste is interesting for making theological decisions. I don’t think it is giving up on the idea of truth as much as giving it a different slant. In one of his essays, Jungel quotes Hegel mentioning an old Swabian saying that “something happened so long ago it is hardly true anymore.” This opens up a notion of truth beyond correspondence and immediate verification and related arguments. It points to a notion of truth as generative–the truth is that which generates a transforming effect or awareness in a community or individual. It could be analogous in the field of science to Lakatos’ notion of a research program, where the truth of large-scale scientific claims are considered by the lines of smaller scale, successful research they generate. Along the lines of Ben’s thoughts, the truth is that which creates a taste in us for something. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This kind of truth, I am sure, looks too wishy-washy for firm rationalists, though it doesn’t necessarily rule out norms and ecclesial convictions. But as Ben writes, it is a kind of irreducible risk or venture we are involved in when it comes to faith.

Shane said...


There is no danger or risk if all theology rests upon irrational preferences. There is no danger because there is no possibility of being "wrong", because there is no such thing as "wrong", merely different tastes.

If you want a bold, risky theology, make careful arguments, display your premises and try to show how what you are saying makes sense. That's theology done in faith--because you're probably wrong and it probably won't take someone very long to figure out why, but you have to have faith that God works even through your blunders to get the truth out there.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether Ben's intuitions could be improved if he didn't think about theology as merely "taste" where the theologian is imprisoned to her own subjectivity, whims and, at worst, idolatrous inclinations, but as an *acquired* taste, and therefore something disciplined by God's self-presentation and self-revelation in Jesus Christ as it is mediated through the witnesses of Scripture and the church. Here, a theologian is more of a connoisseur who has learned the rules and disciplined and developed her tastebuds. For example, a whisky anorak must increase her sense of smell by acquainting herself to a variety of scents in order to attune herself to the subtleties of the dram. Here, at least, external sources inform the theologian's taste.

Anonymous said...

Shane, I have no interest in forraying deeply into your criticisms of Ben's post. However, since you are seeking to arbitrate what does and doesn't count as "theology" I assume you will no longer be saying thing like "I'm not a theologian, I'm a philosopher" as you have many a time in different conversations. It seems clear to me that you are a theologian and you are extremely interested in theology being done in the way that seems right to you. As such I don't want to see you ducking theological arguments anymore on the basis of being a philosopher rather than a theologian.

Not trying to be too checky here, but just saying. If you want to arbitrate what counts as theology, you have to be willing to swim in the stream and not jump out under the auspices of "Well, I'm really a philosopher."

Shane said...


When Richard Dawkins tells us that biology has proven God does not exist, I'd like point out to him that he isn't doing science, but theology. Since I'm concerned about the proper limits and scientific nature of biology, am I therefore a biologist? Obviously not.

In theological debates properly speaking (such as debates about the person and work of Christ, for instance) I very seldom venture an opinion because I don't necessarily have an informed opinion about the issues at hand. I take that for a virtue, not a fault.

Rational articulation of the Christian faith--that's what theology is. You are accusing me of trying to straightjacket everybody into using my own idiosyncratic understanding of theology. But "rational articulation of the christian faith" is not idiosyncratic to me. I think what I am saying her is a recapitulation of Anselm--theology is fides quaerens intellectum.

If you think expressing bald preferences without the possibility of rational criticism counts as "theology", you are the one with the idiosyncratic definition of the subject, not me.

philq said...

I don't think Ben is arguing against the "rational articulation of faith." But 'rational articulation' is not sufficient; it presumes an already-existing worldview in which such articulation takes place. Adopting such a worldview cannot be a simple process of rational deduction, but must involve some decision making which lies beyond rationality.

It's scientific. The physicist constructs a framework and then tests it out by seeing if it is an adequate world in which to describe physical phenomena. The mathematician suggests that treating continuity as a crucial property is an adequate way to discuss functions on the real line.

The evolutionary biologist suggests that we are all just piles of dirt, but this worldview is not large enough to describe actual human experience and so it should be discarded. This is not a rational argument. It is simply that any philosophy which cannot distinguish between humans and animals (or piles of dirt) absolutely does not describe the world in which I live.

And obviously the same goes for different positions within Christian theology itself. Can you actually deduce from faith in Christ's resurrection that Barth is right and the fundamentalists are wrong, or vice versa? As Rowan Williams had said, isn't it about finding a space large enough in which to live?

Daniel said...

"Rational articulation of the Christian faith--that's what theology is."

much different than Evagrius' understanding..

Anonymous said...

I think Ben has articulated the thought very well. Almost nothing can be said or written without an opinion or world view behind it. I think theology is impossible to do with out that same opinion. Opinion based on childhood experience, education, society, or whatever other influences you have in your life. They may change over time; hopefully they mature and grow closer to the center of truth. Our opinion or taste can be the decisive issue in dealing with other's theology, not the truth of the topic.
Anyway that's my opinion...

Anonymous said...

"Rational articulation of the Christian faith--that's what theology is. You are accusing me of trying to straightjacket everybody into using my own idiosyncratic understanding of theology. But "rational articulation of the christian faith" is not idiosyncratic to me."

But isn't that the point Shane, that it isn't idiosyncratic to YOU? Many, including Barth, wouldn't agree with your assessment of Anselm's phrase.

You may not be a "biologist" when you are critiquing Dawkins, but to make a claim concerning Dawkin's use of biology presupposes an understanding of the subject matter through which you interpret and assess other's comment. Critique cannot occur in a vacuum.

When you critique others in the realm of theology it is no different. You may not be a "theologian" in the professional sense but you are doing theology on the level that all do. At the moment you stand to critique other's views of the relationship of faith and reason, you are "doing theology." You are making a claim of a theological nature, albeit one of a negative sort (what theology is NOT, what God is NOT like, etc).

I think that you are getting too hung up on the verbage of Halden's comment to see what he is saying. It seems to me that Halden is saying that you can't go critiquing other's claims, then run and duck for cover when the questions get turned around on you. You can't make such a nice and neat split between philosophy and theology. A philsophical critique of other theological positions necessarily carries with it theological assumptions or implications (ex: your definition of what theology is), so when theologians turns their guns on your theological assumptions or implications, it seems disengenuous to then run and hide.

As cliche as it sounds, we are all theologians. So while you have every right to critique other people's theologies, if you want genuine dialogue you have to be willing to let your own theology (implied in your phisophical critiques) be critiqued.

Christopher said...

Reminds me of Plantinga's "proper basicality."

Anonymous said...

Theological Pragmatism? Are you serious? And since when dialogue demand conversion at the end? Never mind that this misconstrues ways of relating to one another in conversation, much less the content of the conversation as well.

Although I think James does hit at an important notion without using the actual word: discipleship. However, even that is governed by a community that has its own wants or desires.

And really, if you're going to critique this, go read David Kelsey as Ben noted. This misconstruing what Ben did say is just absurd. He hit the nail on the head and offered up more than just a critique of rationalism, but kept going.

Anonymous said...

Shane and a few others have set some hares running that it would be quite futile to follow. Or, to switch metaphors, they replace Uncle Ben with an Aunt Sally.

Ben says nothing whatsoever about theology being "immune to rational criticism" - he's not an obscurantist or a fideistic idiot; rather he speaks (not only reasonably but, I think, unarguably) of the irreducibility of faith to rational foundations (the chimera of the full-stop), and of the indispensability of volition and palate, of faith's "Nevertheless!", or, better (less Kierkegaardian, more Barthian), of faith's "Wow!" Or is not faith more like falling in love than reaching a conclusion? And do not even the most empirically objective and mathematically rigorous physicists consider a theory's beauty to be intrinsic to its veracity?

Shane said...

So, I've poured myself a stiff drink and prepared to respond.


Let's leave the word 'worldview' out of this.

"must involve some decision making which lies beyond rationality"

You're confused about something here. All reasoning requires premises which are accepted as being true without argument, or defined to be true. But this does not mean that these are 'irrational' or purely matters of arbitrary decision--that's the mistake you and Myers are making.

The principle of non-contradiction is always a premise because it can't be demonstrated. But that doesn't mean we've just made a choice, "Hey, you know what would be great--if it were impossible for the same thing to both be and not-be in the same respect simultaneously." The law of non-contradiction is indemonstrable, but it is also undeniable--for anyone who wants to deny the law of non-contradiction has to employ it in order to say that it is false, as opposed to true.

Now, obviously, not all of our premises are going to be as rock solid as the good old PNC. But, in a rational debate, the key is to try to argue from premises that we all accept (of which there are very, very many--which is why the language about 'worldviews' is wrongheaded) and to keep subjecting the premises to investigation, trying to analyze them into simpler, and weaker prior claims. I don't know any way to analyze the premise "It is wrong to torture innocent children" into prior, simpler claims, so I couldn't really argue with anyone who disagreed with that premise.

What about theology? Well, theology requires certain claims as premises as well, such as "Jesus is God". There is no way to demonstrate that claim from prior self-evident premises, so we have to take it as basic. Can the religious believer warrantedly assert the claim that Jesus is Lord without proof? Absolutely. Does this mean that the claim is immune to rational criticism? By no means. All that warranted assertability means is that no successful argument has yet defeated a properly basic belief. For a long, thorough argument about this epistemological position, see Al Plantinga's work.

@Maximus Daniel,

My view is seemingly quite a bit like that of Justin Martyr (the converted philosopher who argued that Christianity was the true philosophy), Augustine (credo ut intelligam), and Irenaeus (Christ as the teacher of wisdom) and of course all the medieval doctors.


"Our opinion or taste can be the decisive issue in dealing with other's theology, not the truth of the topic."

I don't know why you imagine I don't recognize the role of a person's history in the formation of his or her beliefs. At any rate, I've already given a sufficient answer to this question above.


I really don't know what your point is. It is obvious that you haven't understood anything that I've said as I've never denied that what I'm saying has theological implications or whatever. I think you have walked into the middle of a conversation and just picked a side at random.

I defy you to give me an example of a time on this blog where I have "ducked for cover" under my profession. Quite to the contrary, I'm the one constantly cajoling, and even pleading for people to try to pretend to care about going through the motions of presenting arguments for their claims instead of baldly asserting them.

If you have an argument to make then by all means lay it out. However, if all you have to say is aspersions against my character based on something you think halden might be right about, then don't bother; I'm not interested.

Shane said...

@d. w. hoerstk

pragmatism--damn skippy.

pragmatism: the claim there is no ultimate "matter of the fact" which resolves the issue in dispute--the world can be cut up in a number of different possible ways and there isn't a rational "right answer" way to adjudicate between them.

That sounds a lot like Myer's position to me, except that the pragmatists have a much better way of reintroducing normativity--the way you cut the world up is by reference to the projects in which you are engaged. For Ben, there isn't normativity, just taste. (Although there was a friendly amendment that struggles valiantly to give Ben a way out of his boondoggle via reintroducing norms placed upon our taste.)

@Kim Fabricius,

How about those Yankees?

Anonymous said...

That definition over simplifies pragmatism. You could drive other sorts of philosophical categorical endeavors into that gaping spacial definition.

Another thing you should know when you play in the theological playground -- theological categories do not automatically line up with philosophical categories. Hence the existence of the term theological pragmatism. Which you apparently need to brush up on. Read some Garry Dorrien, he'll clarify some things.

Shane said...

I've never heard of theological pragmatism and don't have any interest in finding out more about it. You asked me what I meant by the word and I told you. I don't really care what somebody else might mean by the same phrase.

I think Myer's position, as it is articulated in the post above, is pragmatist in just the sense I outlined above. It's a popularized form of pragmatism that you see, for instance, in Stanley Fish.

I take it that Myers is putting forward a view of theology that is incapable of rational criticism in just the same way that Stanley Fish thinks cultures and traditions and such are incapable of rational criticism.

Now, maybe I'm wrong in my read of Myers. If so, I'm open to his telling me so, and either qualifying his earlier position or explaining why he think I've misunderstood him.

Anonymous said...

Dude. Ben is using Deleuze, Kelsey, and Williams. All rather sophisticated. Going to a popularized definition or understanding moves you out of the conversation. In fact, to understand Ben at all, or theology for that matter, the adjective "theological" is of supreme importance.

Last time someone tried to popularize Williams in a profoundly stupid way, people thought Williams was advocating for spousal abuse under sharia law.

You abuse the text and the people behind it when you treat sophisticated theology as if it is definitionally the exact same thing that comes out of the mouth of a five year-old. Do your homework. Now you're just being lazy and stubborn.

Anonymous said...


I hope to respond to you some more in soon. For now, let me apologize if i came across as attacking your character. I was only meaning to critique an aspect of how you interact with other's thoughts. I in no way meant to impugn your entire character. So, sorry if i came across as a total jerk. Hopefully i can better explain myself in the near future.

Ben Myers said...

Holy cow! I've just returned from a nice warm day at the Sunshine Coast, to discover this avalanche of criticisms: "For Ben, there isn't normativity, just taste" — "a version of the worst form of popular or fundamentalist Christianity" — "no more than anthropological subjectivism conjured up in the imagination of the heart" — "there is no such thing as wrong, merely different tastes" — "theological pragmatism" —

Honestly, my post doesn't have anything to do with normativity, subjectivism, pragmatism, or any other tedious -isms. I wasn't talking about whether theology is true, or whether it involves "rational articulation". Just to be clear: I think truth is the one thing with which theology is concerned; and I do think theology involves (among other things) a "rational articulation" of faith's coherence; and I do think there are norms by which the truth or falsity of theological claims can be adjudicated.

All of this has nothing to do with the (much more limited) question of whether certain "tastes" are involved in the formation of theological positions. (Shane's own comments bear ample witness to the way "taste" functions in theological discussions!)

In any case, I wasn't trying to introduce "taste" as a technical term for theology — I just used this as a fun metaphor (and because it gave me an excuse to post a picture of chocolates).

The word that I do think is useful as a technical term is "decision": any theological position is grounded on basic decisions that are not ultimately reducible to any deeper rational foundations. But this is not to say that the decision is a random leap into darkness, or that it is immune to questions of "right and wrong". Instead, the theological decision is (or ought to be) a response to the event by which the Christian community is generated: the disruptive/creative event of Jesus' death and resurrection. And this same event remains the norm by which all theological claims are judged.

Anonymous said...


Great post, and that is exactly the response I had anticipated from you (probably because I agree with you on this point).


Anonymous said...

It is a devilishly low blow, Shane, to taunt me with the Yankees. But if you yourself are a Yankee fan, two things:

(1) We get to the root of why your reading of Ben is so askew (with thanks to Mark Twain): "You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus."

(2) I will pray for your soul.

Shane said...


I root for the Cubbies, which perhaps explains my sadomasochistic love of blogging.


Obviously I think your all-things-considered view above much better. I just wonder what if has to do with the post which preceded it.

I'm glad you believe in normativity--I just don't see it in the original post. Perhaps I'm too hung up on the word "taste".

You are certainly right to say that there are certain basic concepts or beliefs which are not grounded in anything further. But that's been trivially obvious since Aristotle's logic. This isn't what I am denying.

But then you go on to give an example of a disagreement with a fundamentalist and say that even if he has good reasons you couldn't accept his position, because you don't have a taste for it. This is what I am denying, because I can't find any way to read the word "taste" here that doesn't imply immunity to rational criticism.

De gustibus non est disputandum. If you don't have a taste for chocolate, there isn't a damn thing I can do to persuade you that it is the best ice cream flavor.

Imagine the fundamentalist saying to the biologist: "I know that you have some impressive arguments and evidence on your side, but I just don't have a taste for your picture of the world, so I'm not moved by them."

(Maybe you meant this to be a descriptive account?--many people apparently aren't moved by reasons on account of their tastes. But that's precisely to say that these people are acting irrationally, and of course people don't always act irrationally.)

If you really want to defend yourself from the accusations, I've leveled against you, you need to distinguish your position from that of the fundamentalist above.

Contrary to Kim's earlier comment, I know full well that you aren't an idiot or an obscurantist--but I think with this post you've fallen into a pit, albeit a very popular one.

Anonymous said...

A Cubby fan, Shane? How sweet! But the way the Cubs are playing this year, I am keeping an eye out for apocalyptic portents.

One more thing: as I am a Mets fan, you can pray for me!

Chris TerryNelson said...

Sometimes reading your blog and the comments reminds me of The Big Lebowski. :-)

Erin said...

I don't roll on Shabbos!

byron smith said...

Thanks for this post Ben.

I take it that Ben is raising the very important issue of desire and knowledge. This is neither pragmatism nor irrational relativism, but an Augustinian insight with a long tradition: that "we know only as we love. Knowledge, which participates in the eternal Word of God, is consubstantial and coeternal with the Love that is God's eternal Spirit. All knowledge, then, has an affective aspect, just as all love has a cognitive aspect. Our experience of knowing is that of discerning good as welcoming it as good." (Oliver O'Donovan, Common Objects of Love, 11).

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