Tuesday 18 August 2015

Reading history rashly

Theology. I’m mostly in this business because of the books. And I love them all: the great solid tomes, thicker than American steak; the slim pamphlets, as fine as the wings of a butterfly, and just as enchanting. 

I spend my days surrounded by books. Teaching theology, for me, feels a bit like being a kid left in charge of the sweets shop. We all know that I’m going to renounce my responsibilities at some point to partake of the goods, and I can’t guarantee that the affair will be dignified when it does occur.

I’ll admit that I don’t bring much refinement to the act of reading. I’m always a tumble of pages, elbows, slouches, and scribbles. More than a few of my books bear coffee-coloured scars of war. Reading, for me, is enjoyable only when it is reckless and undisciplined. This is why I find it wonderfully hilarious that I have been scheduled to teach a class on historical theology this coming semester. 

Historical theology, you see, is all about reading. Or, rather, readings, of which there are good and bad, disciplined and undisciplined. Good readings, we expect, will respect the autonomy of the text and its foreign world. Bad readings, on the other hand, will presume a greater continuity between our world and the ancient world than the evidence can possibly allow.

This last error is quite prevalent. We sometimes permit ourselves to fancy that our ideas finish a trajectory established in the early church—as though Origen invented the trumpet, but it took modern scholarship to discover jazz—or that the early Christians more or less said the same thing as us. Such readings would be fine were it not for the fact that the early Christians were clever and impetuous enough to have their own ideas.

It is learning about these foreign ideas—living in their strange land of the past—that is so particularly difficult. We are constantly at risk of rendering a heartlessly clinical account of Christian antiquity—one that is perfectly historical but not very theological. Frances Young sees the problem: “We have to do more than reconstruct a story of the past. A history of doctrine is not enough. But a systematic theology based on patristic proof-texts is not enough either.” 

It seems to me that the problem of historical theology is not so much that we struggle to bring the correct conceptual tools to the text, but that we—professional scholars—are perhaps the wrong kind of people to be reading ancient Christian texts. According to Morwenna Ludlow, Gregory of Nyssa expected to be read by “prayerful Christians, not by textual scholars.” Teaching historical theology might just be as much about asking if we are rash enough to pray as it is asking whether we are disciplined enough to read. No amount of historical reconstruction can hope to match the great bridge of prayer that reaches across the centuries. In prayer, we are contemporaries.

The disciplined reading of historical theology blossoms when married with a reckless spirituality.  Which is why I am thrilled to teach historical theology. I can think of nothing less respectable than mixing spirituality and scholarship. Perhaps historical theology, rightly undertaken, will not meddle with the past, but will be quite open to the possibility of the past meddling with us. 


Zachary Guiliano said...

Steve: as a historian and theologian, let me just register my appreciation for this piece (all of it!). Keep it up.

Terry Wright said...

I thought Origen invented the crumhorn . . . ?

Anonymous said...

I found this post inspiring, especially your remark about prayer bridging the gulf between the ancient texts we read and our own studies. I will be teaching historical theology again this next semester and can say an amen to this whole post. thank you.

I posted a not dis-similar piece just today at www.teachingtheology.org


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