Thursday 24 September 2009

On theology as research

Ross has posted these comments by Geoff Thompson on theology as academic research:

Theologians engaging in research commit themselves to certain protocols of argument which are often absent from the populist theological debates which occur in the church. Involvement in research is, at the very least, a commitment to the academy’s culture of debate where protocols such as the following would (hopefully) apply: the sifting and weighing up of evidence, a humility to see the weaknesses in one's own position and to be corrected by one's critics, care in the construction of arguments, a willingness to employ persuasion rather than dogmatism, and (therefore) a refusal to be dominated by the immediate....

Sometimes theological discussion in the churches is illuminating and inspiring. Generally, however, the culture of theological discussion in the churches has little patience with the kinds of protocols noted above. It is frequently reactive, often trapped in denominational and geographical parochialism, and seldom well-informed. It is often driven by the pragmatic and the contingent, and is thereby distanced from any patient quest for the truth which intentionally draws on a larger horizon of theological wisdom. All of this is intensified by the underlying theological and biblical illiteracy which characterises so much contemporary Christianity.

Of course, for an alternative model to be recognised and appreciated, it would be necessary to break through the prevailing culture. The work and witness of the research-oriented theologian might not of itself be sufficient to effect that break through. Nevertheless, a research-strong faculty might become something of a benchmark within the life of the church for more patient and theologically-richer discussions within the church at large.
I think these questions deserve much more attention than they usually receive. What does it mean to say that theology can be practised as university research? One of the most interesting things I've read on this is an article by Hans Ulrich, which I summarised in an earlier post. And I also really appreciated Bruce McCormack's brief article on the justification of a theology faculty.


Chris said...

Interesting post Ben. After studying a significant amount of 'academic theology' in my undergrad and spare time since graduating, I often have similar feelings when confronted with the pop-theology that occurs in the actual church settings I find myself in.

Yet at the same time I'm reminded of Karl Barth's feelings that all of his academic theological education was useless to him and that he did not really begin to understand the Gospel until he became a pastor. Granted that might have had more to do with his education than the nature of academic theology itself. Nevertheless it is a fascinating turn that one of the greatest 'academic theologians' of the 20th century found his roots in the local church.

Shane said...

May his tribe increase.

Dave W. said...

Hi Ben. Thanks for the post.
- there has long been a suspicion between the [theological] academy and the church. Geoff's post seems to reinforce the suspicion from one end, and his solution is 'invasive' ('would need to break through the prevailing culture'). I like Barth's comment (via Chris) that he really began to understand the gospel when his work was more directly 'within' the church.
- it would be interesting to hear whether Geoff could defend his academic protocol as something that was 'native' to theology. Is the academy's agenda (right as it is) actually suited to the task of theology? John Webster's book (Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch) in the fourth chapter ("Scripture, Theology and the Theological School") identifies what he describes as the "deep divide between [earlier reformation] asssumptions about the nature and task of theology and those with which we are familiar in much modern academic work in the discipline."
- Most notably, 'the sifting and weighing of evidence' is not always immediately reconcilable with a humble 'reading' of the scriptures (which Webster commends, drawing on Bonhoeffer). One adopts the stance of the master, and the other adopts the stance of child.
His whole book, but especially chapters 3&4 are an excellent engagement with these issues.

Unknown said...

Geoff seems to be using an ideal of academic argument vs. a pragmatic reality of Church argument. It is not that rigor is absent from the concerns of Churches (which is one of the author's implications), but that certain forms of rigor are not of the highest concern. The Academy is not a perfect, interest-free arena either. Rigor and humility are often ideals there just as they are in Churches.

Evan said...

Thanks for putting this up. Much as the fact makes me uncomfortable at times, I have become increasingly troubled by Barth's understanding of theology as a churchly discipline- an idea that is also present in some of his talk of the relationship between praying and doing theology. It's not that I disagree about the fact that there's a quite basic connection between the work of the theologian and the work of the pastor- there is. And I realize that Barth was reacting against a particular failure in the theology of his time and place, so I'm not rejecting the position he takes. But I've come more to think lately that the critical nature of academic theology has purpose and justification outside of a purely doxological context, and that affirming as much is important for the health of both the worship life of the church and the work life of the academic.

I don't think that this means academic theology is subject to any particular secular, pluralist, or ideological constraints of discourse as an alternative to specifically congregational or pastoral restraints. On the contrary, a theology faculty will very likely be just as sharply set against the prevailing modes of academic discourse as it is against popular ecclesial discourse. But an academic theologian pursues research as a direct engagement with the academy as well as,and at times even instead of, the church. We would say the same thing about an evangelist engaging with the unchurched, or a prophet engaging with the nations. It's not that any of these roles stand outside of the life of the church; they are simply a part of a discourse outside of the normal doxological and cultic aspects of it.

I appreciate Geoff's willingness to consider the theological faculty as having a usefulness before and for the church rather than simply in submission to it or as circumscribed by it. I don't, however, know how far one should go in expecting academic theology to renew discourse within the church. I'm not sure that this is the only or primary focus of a faculty, nor am I sure that the congregation needs to replicate the expertise of the theology faculty in its own voice. The idea that congregational life will always be somewhat theologically incompetent, and that academic life will always be somewhat profane, does not inherently dismiss the congregation's didactic relevance any more than it dismisses the faculty's legitimacy before the altar.

Ben Myers said...

Evan, that's a great comment. Many thanks.

dan said...

My own questions about academic theology aren't about its relationship with the church but are about the socioeconomic and political contexts in which it tends to takes place (and by which, IMO, it tends to be perverted).

Shane said...

The best thing I've read on this is Ingolf Dalferth's "Theology and Philosophy." As I recall it, Dalferth divides things this way:

Philosophy is the rational self-reflection of human beings upon the world and what is knowable about it, etc. Faith is the gift of God by which we believe that God exists. Faith doesn't require or presuppose philosophy. Neither does it deny or reject it. Theology, however, as a process of rational reflection upon the content of the faith does require philosophy. It requires the tools of analysis the philosopher has developed and it must engage critically with what is going on in philosophy. None of this means theology isn't done for the Church, but it does mean that being a theologian is a very different thing than merely having faith. So theology and philosophy are intimately intertwined.

I think that's not too far from Thomas Aquinas's view of the matter too, incidentally.

Adam Kotsko said...

I also appreciated Evan's comment. I would add that, for all its faults, I have found the academic theological community to be a much more hospitable place than any ecclesiastical community. Maybe the institutional church has something to learn from these rogue academics aside from just the content of their research.

Samuel said...

I sympathize with Evan's comment. But I wonder: who in the academy reads theology?

Even at a Christian school as an undergraduate, hardly any of my non-theological professors read academic theology; now, at a major private research school, that is even more the case. So, theologians scramble to integrate insights from sociology, philosophy, etc. but for whom? Does anyone think anyone but theologians reads someone like Webster (even many theologians don't!)?

This fact tempers my enthusiasm for academic theology. It is also tempered by the fact that most of the great theologians wrote theology out of direct ministry experience (to cite only two examples: Augustine and Calvin). Christians deeply involved in and experiencing the life of a local church ask different questions than people whose questions are dictated by their academic context, and given that people in the academy don't ready theology anyway . . . why bother? For whom are we writing if we're in the academy? Often it seems a deeply masturbatory process, especially given what we know about how many people and what kind of people read academic theology (i.e., very few and mostly academic theologians).

Adam Kotsko said...

Often local church life itself could be characterized as a deeply masturbatory process. One could also characterize monastic movements in a similar way.

Anonymous said...

Whatmakes a theology, any theology, to be "academic"? Surely it is not instituional location alone. John Webster, who is upheld in the preceding discussion, as an example of a "church theologian", teaches in a modern research university. So location alone does not yet tell us much. Is it, then, the attempt to speak to a particular audience, to let us say, colleagues in other disciplines, so that the way to earn their trust and confidence and uphold one's own academic integrity, is to use their methods? to become, in other words, a social scientist or a philosopher? No, it can't be that either. What makes any discipline "academic" is that it has a definite subject-matter and a method appropriate to it. Whether others in the academy read Webster or not is almost irrelevant for decding whether what he does is, in fact, "academic." His audience is the church; he writes for the churches and for those in the churches who are capable of following a carefully constructed argument.

On the other hand, a lot of theology that is done in the church is, as Evan pointed out, pretty thin stuff - and much more inclined to consist in an act of genuflection before the idols of political correctness or to be brzen acts of self-promotion (through the promotion of one's pet cause) than are those theologies produced in places like the University of Chicago School of Divinity.

The quotation from Dalferth offered to us by Shane hits the right note, it seems to me.

One last thought: anyone who teaches at a Seminary (as I do) knows that the problems faced by a working pastor are present to him/her in the form of his/her students and colleagues. Virtually every issue of life is experienced, directly or indirectly, in the course of a teaching career. Whether a person comes from a pastorate or not, the real issue is: do they have a heart grounded in a profound Christian faith and do they have a love for those to whom the minister? Teaching can be ministry; teaching should be ministry. My experience has been, in talking to friends who teach in Div Schools and in universities, that these conditions are often met there too.

All of this is to say: this discussion is missing the central point. Christian faith is in crisis in the West becaue it has become increasingly "nnti-intellectual." The seminaries, in my judgment, bear more responsibility for this sad state of affairs than do the Div Schools in America and those British universities where "divinity" has been incorporated into a faculty of human sciences.

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