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.


kim fabricius said...

With one or two exceptions and adjectival alterations, the same goes for playing baseball. Especially getting laid.

Keep up the writing, Ben, and in the Miltonic words of Ted Williams: "Don't let anyone mess with your swing."

michael jensen said...

Isn't this (ie, good scholarship/writing is its own justification) a kind of Platonism? Doesn't it forget that we are embodied?

Can a plainly and unrepentantly immoral person write good theology?

Not to be reductionist about it, but. I think it IS worth asking who this writing is designed to serve, surely...

JKnott said...


I think a couple of points, somewhat echoing Michael above, are worth making:

1. Surely it's legitimate to ask someone...a writer included, but also, say, a politician.."Where does this take us in the long or intermediate run?" What is the horizon, as it were, in which you do your work? Otherwise, something key to what is going on will be missed, IMHO.

2. Are you really ready to be consistent in this? I wonder. To put it another way: is it, in your view, always wrong to question the underlying motivations or currents in anothers' work? What would that mean for contextual theology?

Anonymous said...

What would be your take on Tillich? He was clearly immoral and unrepentant, right? Is it good theology?

Unknown said...

As I mentioned in a comment on my post I hope no one is looking for 'pure' motivations. I agree that talking about the motivation of someone else lends itself to undo judgment however a piece of work never stands alone and so cultural / institutional motives are relevant as well. This is not something to be resolved only an existential irritant to keep us from losing perspective.

J said...

if Freud is to be believed

he's not, thanx to Osiris

michael jensen said...

@Anon - yes, I think knowing Tillich's personal story will always taint my view of his contribution. And you know: it is interesting and clever theology, but (IMHO) certainly not good.

That passage in Philippians 1 where Paul says (in sum) 'I don't care whether people preach Christ out of envy, so long as Christ is preached!' is interesting in this regard.

Rob L said...

When reading Ben's list of "I might.."s, I at first read the 'I' in the register of the personal 'I' rather than the everyman 'I' (where 'I might' is read as 'one might'). But then I got to the part where he said he might write to get laid, and I had the momentary pause of re-interpretation, where I thought "oops, I should be reading this as the everyman 'I'". But then, as I continued, further items on the list of mights confirmed my earlier, personal 'I', interpretation - the most clear example being - "of course, as a theologian, I'm...". If it is right to read them all as personal 'I's, then I wonder why Ben might need to write to get laid. Does his wife require that he dash off an eloquent and inspiring essay or short story before she lets him cuddle close in bed? This would be an odd relationship indeed, but perhaps not unheard of in literary circles.

Ben Myers said...

Rob, I hope I won't be giving too much away if I admit that one of the best posts I've ever written for this blog was in fact written for my wife...

Rob L said...

She's a librarian?? (I jest).

Adam Kotsko said...

This hand-wringing about Tillich depresses me, particularly with regard to the odds of general acceptance of gays in the church -- obviously there's a significant number of people who aren't even comfortable with heterosexuality yet.

michael jensen said...

Sorry to depress you, Adam. And no need to play the 'my, aren't we repressed' card.

We were searching for an example to test the case of the relationship between motives and academic writing.

Try Margaret Mead perhaps? An assessment of her anthropology, vis a vis sexual liberation, would surely have to conclude that she projected her own particular proclivities onto the South Pacific cultures she was studying.

Anonymous said...

Tillich was a sexual predator abusing his power relations with many of his students. He also took advantage of many prostitutes but was, reportedly, almost entirely incapable of sexual activities based on equality and love (and this is all from Rollo May's book about his friend. mentor and hero). I'm sure there are many reasons for his predatorial behaviour but it would be very trite to conflate critique of Tillich's sexually abusive practices with a "prudishness" about sex and sexuality.

Anonymous said...


At least I'm consistent, then, being against heterosexuality as well. Though my wife might be surprised to hear it.

Unknown said...

Just out of curiosity are Yoder's personal indiscretions fairly public knowledge in academic theology (it is still primarily whispered about in Mennonite circles)? Again, I am not advocating for sainthood (hey they were no saints either!) as the only standard for legitimacy but it seems that with someone who writes on such a rigorous morality of non-violence (with very little room for the falleness of humanity, in my limited reading) and was found to have abusive tendencies in his private life should perhaps give some pause for consideration.
I am not suggesting he should have made his personal life bare in his writings (as I was looking for in my letter) but only that there is something to the notion congruency in these issues. Off the top of my head Doestoevsky comes off as someone who might considered congruent or Fernando Pessoa whose Book of Disquiet addresses a struggle for irrelevance and was only published after being discovered locked away in a trunk after his death.

Unknown said...

Sorry Pessoa's manuscript was discovered locked away not Pessoa!

Unknown said...

Came across an interesting Marion passage to add a little fodder.

Anonymous said...

"...what we are in our personal lives and relationships is inextricably linked to what we are in our public lives and leadership roles. It is a fallacy to imagine that it doesn't matter what we do or are in private provided our ministry is unaffected." Michael Sadgrove.

Theology is prayer, doxology, proclamation, meditation, confession, for the honour and glory of God, to love others, in the service of the Kingdom.

Mike E

Evan said...

"Theology is prayer, doxology, proclamation, meditation, confession, for the honour and glory of God, to love others, in the service of the Kingdom."

This all sounds great. But the next question would be... why bother talking about "theology" in the first place? Should we really take the term to be so utterly redundant as you make it appear? Is there really nothing to distinguish theology from Christian practice more generally?

I know that when I "do theology", there's a lot to distinguish this work from the work I do at prayer or in confession. That's not to say that these different sorts of work are unrelated or insignificant for one another, but I'd hardly draw a relationship of bare identity.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Evan. I don't understand why this is the definition for theology. Wouldn't "Christian life" be a better substitute for theology in that sentence?

Christian theology is about the Godhead, first and foremost. If theology has any place in the academy, then it must wrestle with the Christian theological tradition in a critical and reflective manner.

Anonymous said...

Dear Evan,

Thanks for the reply.

Isn't the very act of 'doing theology' (as even the very phrase 'doing theology' itself suggests!) a kind of approach to prayer (prayer itself!)? When we sit with Augustine or Luther or Barth, and with Scripture, and faithfully wrestle, faithfully engage with the deep questions of who God is and what a difference Jesus Christ makes to the world, aren't we praying, 'O God I know you a little and would like to know you more, I love you a little and would like to love you more.'?? Aren't we also praying, 'May I be of service to others through this engagement'? In the same way, isn't it also a note of praise, of proclamation?

You are also defining 'confession' far more narrowly than I intend it. To quote the north American theologian Douglas John Hall in relation to the intent of the Barmen theologians, "The theologians who inspired Barmen were not trying to get 'back' to anything. They were trying to get into their world, to engage it with a 'Word' which could judge and at the same time save it." That is what I mean by 'confession' in relation to theology. To be sure, the academy is one context of address for theology, but it is not the only one.

Dear jridenour,

Nothing you have said is not presupposed in my statement.

Happy hunting my friends!!

Mike E

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with you. I think my problem is that, in my opinion, your definition of theology is just one way to approach doing theology. It is by no means the only way, and I don't think theology has to always be done in the context of the church or the Christian community (which it sounds like you're presupposing). Theology is the study of God. The rest of the stuff you add on sounds nice and pious, but I don't see it as being necessary for proper theologizing.

Evan said...

Confessing as done in a situation such as Barmen is an interesting way of approaching the problem... I wonder, however, whether such proclamation/witnessing/confession, while certainly theological in some sense, is really the sort of critical inquiry that needs to be present to speak of "theology" in a very full sense. It's not that they weren't articulating knowledge of God and God's creation in the Declaration... in that sense it was certainly theological and in that sense all theology is confessional (or prayerful, although I think perhaps in a more restricted sense). But Barmen wasn't an actual practice of sustained inquiry. A helpful analogy might be the difference between "doing political theory" and "writing a constitution"... the former should certainly be understood as expressed in activities like the latter, but the latter doesn't exhaustively explain what the former is.

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