Friday 7 August 2009

Augie March and the problem with systems

So I’ve joined a cool book club that meets in the Kings Cross area of Sydney. This month, our book was Saul Bellow’s playful rambling picaresque romp, The Adventures of Augie March (1953). One of my favourite characters is Einhorn, a guy who (at least early in the story) likes to cook up elaborate plans and schemes. The narrator, Augie, describes him like this:

“He was absolutely outspoken about vital things, and he’d open his mind to me, especially when we were together in his study busy with one of his projects that got more fanciful and muddled the more notions he had about being systematic, so that in the end there’d be a super-monstrous apparatus you couldn’t set in motion either by push or crank” (pp. 74-75).
Could you say the same thing about some theological systems? Is it possible for a theology to become so perfect, so elaborately systematic, that you simply can’t do anything with it?


The Navy Christian said...

I don't know if it's because of how gargantuan our theology has become, or if it's because a lot of very smart people have dissected the scriptures over the last 2,000 years, but as a seminary student and young minister, I find it very difficult to feel like I have any say. I feel like I'm left only to comment on what someone else has said on a matter, not form my own, true opinion.

David said...

Dan, someone said to me recently something that might help, which was that rather than approaching the scriptures with a view to interpreting them, which often amounts to the setting up of our agenda and can act as a defence against them, we should allow the scriptures to interpret us. Practically, what this would mean is a change in our relationship, from one of dominating (or an attempt at) to one of vulnerability before God's word. In this regard there is no pressure to form a true opinion all of one's own, which would merely exacerbate the problem you mention by adding to 2000 years of (albeit good) chatter.
Getting to the point of the original post, I would say that a perfect, elaborately systematic theology is possibly also a kind of defence against the living God. I think this because when Jesus talks about the truth he does not refer to a doctrinal system or a philosophy or any kind of right path to follow; rather, Jesus is himself the truth: that is, the truth is something you have a relationship with, not something discernible only in propositions. That's my two-pennies worth anyway.

Anna Blanch said...

I'm not sure i can add anything intelligent to the theological aspect of this discussion today, so i will humbly say that i will observe and consider (much as i do with the 2000 years worth of theological writings you mention).

Also good to know that this is where the name of the band comes from, my respect for them just went up, alot.

Also, i tagged you in a meme this morning!


Adam Kotsko said...

No, that could never happen.

Anna Blanch said...

Ps: happy to see the header!

Steve Duby said...

I think that doing theology in systematic fashion has its risks but is also necessary and useful. On the one hand, there is the temptation to minimize tensions in Christian teaching, to become overly concerned with tight conceptual coherence, or to enshrine Christian thought in one thinker's system. Colin Gunton's A Rose by Any Other Name? published in his Intellect and Action is a helpful resource on those topics.

On the other hand, I appreciate A. N. Williams' article What Is Systematic Theology? in IJST because he argues that, if theology treats God and all things in relation to God, it cannot avoid being systematic. Because of the connections among the theological loci, systematics is natural. And, I would add, it's profoundly useful for, among other reasons, equipping believers with a framework for wisely interpreting Scripture. But I think we all would say that the best systematic theology will also prod students back into the reading of Scripture in order to keep growing in the knowledge of God and to refine their doctrinal frameworks as well. In other words, a system won't be viewed as an inert final destination if it's employed for the sake of growing in exegetical prowess and can be respectfully refined over time.

Anonymous said...

theological systems are man-made therefore imperfect-God can not be revealed by a theological system-all theological systems have limits-we all pass into unknowing and must follow the teachings of the Bible

Robert said...

What exactly is it to be systematic? Is it just to make sense of something in terms of something else? "Systematic" has connotations of orderliness and cohesion to me, certainly, but above all of a unified point of view. If that is the case, then it strikes me that any God-talk or use of Scripture or ideas about anything "theological" are inevitably systematic because each of us has our own point of view and each of us, by "making sense" of theological ideas, is representing theology systematically to ourselves.

The Bellow quote is very apropos, I think, because that does seem to be how individual attempts to make sense of theology can become inoperable Systems.

"... his projects [...] got more fanciful and muddled the more notions he had about being systematic..."

Is that the trouble, do you think? Representing our own theologizing to ourselves as systematic? Maybe then we tend to locate the systemic quality of such theologizing in some fantasy about its comprehensiveness, cutting what has now become The System off from the "push" and "crank" of both individual aspiration to make sense of the mysteries of faith and of Divine revelation to repeatedly confound those attempts?

Robert said...

This post inspired some related reflections if you care to read them. Thanks for this, it has been in my thoughts all day.

kim fabricius said...

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
and Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

--Tennyson, In Memoriam

I had to get that one in, but on the question Is it possible for a theology to become so perfect, so elaborately systematic, that you simply can’t do anything with it? ...

First, it is well put: a theology you can't do something with may be pretty but it's also pretty pointless. The more perfect a theology is - whatever the hell "perfect" might mean - it certainly shouldn't mean "tidiest" - the more practical it will be.

So, second, the really interesting, if perennial, question is the relation between theology and practice. To purloin Terrence Tilly's The Disciples' Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice (2008): Does theology ground practices, or do practices generate beliefs? Tilley, influenced by liberation theologies, approaches his theme "with a hermeneutical key that construes acts as more fundamental than texts" (p. 7). I'd go for something more dialectical - acts are themselves texts, and vice-versa - but I like the point that discipleship, i.e. following Jesus, is constitutive of theology; if anything, theology is the smoke above the factory.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Have we considered that one of the beautiful and unique features of theology, as discourse about God, is that it can't be used for external purposes? As Augustine said, "God is not to be used but enjoyed." Our discourse about him should reflect this (at least at times) it seems to me.

Tim F.

kim fabricius said...

In view of what Tim has said, I should add that when I say "practical" I do not mean "utilitarian". I mean that good theology has to do with the formation of followers of Jesus.

Anonymous said...


I figured that's what you meant, especially in light of Tilley, who was my professor coincidentally I actuallly helped with the research for the book you mentioned; what a small world!

As pedestrian as it sounds, I always want to be sure that theology is primarily about God and not us and our practices, despite how good some of these practices might be. In other words, if some doctrines don't have obvious or immediate practical import, I don't think that's something Christians should be embarrassed about.

Tim F.

Adam Kotsko said...

One of the few things that I admire about Calvin's method is that he presupposes that God doesn't reveal just for the sake of it or to satisfy our curiosity -- all doctrines must have practical import, even if that import is not obvious or immediate. In other words (that Calvin himself likely wouldn't use), theology as the explication of revelation is emphatically not just about God, it is most importantly about us and our practices. Even the absolute sovereignty of God and his control of everything has practical consequences for us and our practices in Calvin's view!

Robert said...

Hear, hear Adam.

In fact, Calvin would also insist that we are incapable of properly theologizing without "piety." So for him "doctrines" not only have practical import issuing from them, but the ability to understand them at all is an issue of practical import. Another thing to admire in his method.

Anonymous said...

To say that God reveals for our sake is a different claim than to say that what we say about God in theology is about us. God's revelation is for us but not about us; it's about him. I agree that God doesn't reveal arbitrarily, but it doesn't necessarily follow that that requires one to affirm theology is "most importantly about us and our practices."

Now, to be sure, I certainly affirm that theology has its practical moments and teaches us about ourselves (Christology!), but to collapse all knowledge of God into a practical/ethical anthropological sphere smacks too much of Kant for my taste. Perhaps that's not what you're saying, Adam, but that's how I hear it.

Moreover, my concern here isn't with epistemology, of course morality/piety comes into play with that. Instead, my concern is that theology actually is conversing about God (the "object" --those are bold scare quotes--of our conversing and knowledge), not just about who we are and what we do. Again, revelation often does have practical import, but that import is ancillary to the revelation. In short, revelation's practicality doesn't make it true, worthwhile, or valuable. It's all of those simply because God reveals himself, regardless of what we do with it. My point is about the revelation itself and how our own thought and knowledge does or doesn't take that into consideration.


Tim F.

Adam Kotsko said...

Maybe I'm not collapsing at all -- maybe theology was already there. Maybe it's your version that's illegitimately expanding the sphere of theology to include something so transcendent as to be irrelevant.

Anonymous said...

Theology was already there for Kant too. It's the content that's in question.

My version can only allow relevance because of the utter transcendence, but that relevance is contingent upon that transcendence. I take this to be the best version of the analogy of being, though, despite my best efforts, I'm sure I personally don't hold the best version of it. I'm not smart enough for that, but I still try.


Tim F.

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