Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Some Reflections on Christian Faith and Understanding/Teaching Theology

In a thoughtful post over at AUFS, Anthony Paul Smith argues, over against some Christian theologians' claims, that one need not be a believer in order to understand, engage, or teach theology. His perspective is a helpful one, because it serves to challenge potentially closed-off or even fideistic stances within both the church and what we might call the believers' contingent in the academy. Moreover, it prompts increased clarity on the part of Christians who at once seek to practice critical theological thinking, believe that theology is open to nonbelievers (especially with regard to critique), and remain committed to there being something worthwhile, even defensible to the notion that faith and theology are in some way united.

For organization's sake, here are my brief reflections:

1) It seems to me that the first task is definitions. How is "theology" defined in this discussion? A succinct reply might be: "Critical reflection on Christian faith and practice." (I am assuming we are talking about theology in the Christian tradition; anyway, that is what I am talking about.) Per this definition, it seems rather obvious that anyone is free and able to understand, to dialogue, to critique, and/or to teach theology. Nor is it clear to me on what grounds anyone, Christian or otherwise, would dispute this claim.

2) Matters become more complicated if we expand or extend this basic definition. David Kelsey's differentiation between "primary theology" and "secondary theology" seems particularly germane in this case (though in what follows I am extending his categories for my own purposes, not in rigorous faithfulness to his own).

For Kelsey, primary theology names those largely ad hoc and immediate instances of ordinary thought, conversation, and reflection "on the ground" in the life of concrete ecclesial communities regarding matters of pragmatic and pressing commitments, convictions, beliefs, and praxis: Do we or do we not take Eucharist weekly? Do we or do we not recite the creed? Do we or do we not partner with this particular political organization? baptize infants? pray with members of other religious traditions? build a new sanctuary? refer to God with the masculine pronoun in the liturgy? Etc., etc.

Secondary theology, on the other hand, names the conceptually sophisticated, analytically complex, intentionally systematic (in the sense of seeing the whole, not of forming a system) practice -- "at a distance," we might say -- of conceiving, seeking to understand, working through, reformulating, criticizing, rejecting, processing, sifting, and otherwise testing for coherence the historic, contemporary, and normative claims, beliefs, and practices of Christian faith.

Per this schema, it seems to me that the latter definition carves out an inclusive place for both believers and nonbelievers to come to the table as equals, prepared to discuss and hash out why this or that conviction or command or idea is or is not coherent, moral, true, etc. The former definition, however, seems both to assume and to demand a self-involving commitment to a local community of Christian faith, such that it would be meaningless to say that a nonbeliever can or would engage in primary theology ("primary" construed not as naming order of importance but rather as closer-to-operations, that is, in-the-moment and unplanned, neither technically critical nor at a distance). I would be interested to know, but my guess is that persons like Anthony who are interested in theology yet who are not professed believers would not claim to practice (or to be seeking to practice) theology defined in this way and bound to this sphere.

3) A different but quite similar set of conceptual distinctions are those of Joe Jones, who speaks of "the grammar of Christian faith" as sub-categorized into three areas of focus: syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Without needlessly going into precise definitions, the distinctions are similar: the first two are as spheres of knowledge and discourse open to all, while the third concerns questions of private and public practice on the part of believers to such a self-involving extent that it would nonsensical to say a nonbeliever could engage in it.

Thus, anyone can ask after the historical process leading up to the Nicene Creed, can conceptualize and understand it, can seek to discern its internal logic and meaning, can even say it out loud alone or in a group; but actually to confess it with others, to suggest that "we" say "and from the Son" (or not), to suggest that creeds are hermeneutically helpful but not equal to Scripture in terms of the truth of the faith, and so on, is something that, logically, is available only to believers.

Again, I take this distinction to be somewhat self-evident, and not what someone like Anthony is intending when he talks about understanding and/or teaching theology.

4) The problem, as I see it, is that Christian theologians (and Christians in general) are not always clear on what they mean when they speak of (or seek to engage in) "theology." So, as for Tony Hunt's review of Mark McIntosh's position (and at this point I am, via two blogs, quoting something technically third-hand, and so only as an illustration and not with regard to whatever the original point in the book is):
Can one understand theology and not be a believer?, he asks. His answer is, surprisingly, no, not really. One can come to acquire knowledge of a tradition and this can be taught, but McIntosh says to be truly taught by God, one’s own inner life must be made ready to receive this knowledge as a gift.
It seems that, whether McIntosh distinguishes between different forms of theology in the book, in this quote there seem to be multiple definitions fused into one. What we should ask back in challenge, therefore, is this: Isn't one proper (and not incomplete) form of theological practice "to acquire knowledge of [the] tradition" and to teach it, and so, presumably, to engage in robust critical dialogue with those who either agree or disagree with various pieces of the tradition (including the whole)?

It is not that what comes next in the sentence -- "to be truly taught by God," to have "one's own inner life . . . made ready to receive this knowledge [of God] as a gift" -- is not theology, only that it seems to be making claim to be the whole of it, or perhaps an essential component to the only form of it. As a Christian, I want to affirm the possibility and the actuality -- not to mention the draw and goal -- of this latter knowledge, but need this be the entire explication, or an absolutely essential component, of "understand[ing] theology"? I think not.

5) Two other items seem pertinent to this discussion. The first is the traditional Anselmian definition of theology as "faith seeking understanding," appropriated and extended by Barth in the last century. It is likely that, in the backs of the minds of "professional" theologians and "lay" theologians alike, this is the functional definition of theology. And if theology is faith seeking understanding, then to say that one without faith can do/understand/teach theology is a misnomer: the key piece, the properly orienting starting place, is absent from the get go. Thus, nonbelievers are free to go about seeking to understand "from the outside" what it is that "the Christian thing" is all about, but ultimately they are either doomed to come up short or are not, in fact, engaging in "theology" (whatever it is they are, in fact, doing).

Though I value and appreciate this historic definition of theology, the solution to this problematic is quite simple: to acknowledge that the Anselmian/Barthian definition is, first of all, only one definition among others (not "the" normative one), and, second, to place it squarely in the "primary/pragmatic" camp (per Kelsey's and Jones' labels) rather than at the top of an all-encompassing umbrella of every form of theological practice. It is fine for Christians to conceive of their own task as the self-involving one of faith seeking understanding; we ought merely to recognize that theology is not reducible to this definition alone.

6) Finally, I want to say something more about the notion of knowledge of God and the gift from God of theological understanding.

Much in this discussion seems to split on two related issues: whether or not Christian faith is actually true, and (thus) whether or not the One believers claim to know in prayer, worship, discipleship, and so on is in fact a living subject with whom human beings can have something like a relationship, and so One whom they can, in a real sense and in myriad ways, actually come to know.

It is these two interwoven questions -- the truth of the faith and the living personal knowableness of God, the object of faith -- that, on the one hand, can work in the direction of alienating nonbelievers in the practice of theology, and, on the other hand, can lead believers to want to protect, set aside, guard, or even secure some aspect of spiritual/theological knowledge that is not available to nonbelievers.

As I see it, believers should be able to affirm all that I have affirmed above about the openness of theology as a discipline and practice of critical reflection without sacrificing the core conviction that the God of Jesus Christ is true and living and therefore One with whom we can commune, come to know (and thus "know about"), and receive knowledge from. At root this is a pneumatological question: Is the Spirit real, does the Spirit truly reside within the church and believers, and is the presence and gift of the Spirit an epistemological encounter/event/process/relationship?

If the answers to these questions are Yes, then Christians must be able to say, in order to be consistent and coherent within their own convictions, that there is some kind of knowledge, some epistemological experience, that is unique to the life of the church's faith. And nonbelievers, especially those with rich theological knowledge -- often, no doubt, greater than the bulk of ordinary believers -- should also be able to affirm that, if the gospel is true, this epistemological difference (or whatever we choose to call it) is a real possibility and therefore unique to Christians in their personal knowledge of the (potentially) living and true God.

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In reviewing what I've written, it seems to me mostly unoriginal and uncontroversial, but as I am seeking to balance charity and openness to nonbelievers-in-theology as well as specifying just what kind of epistemological uniqueness is proper to believers (in-and-out-of-theology), I am aware that I am bound to have gaps and mishaps in the argument. I look forward to hearing from others on this; thanks to Anthony for beginning the discussion, and to others (like Evan) who've already extended it in meaningful directions.

1 comment:

  1. Two thoughts:

    1) Can we organize the different definitions of theology into a comprehensive definition of a single overall practice with different sub-practices or modes? I don't take Kelsey's primary/secondary distinction to describe two fundamentally different practices (they tend not to be distinct in my own life nor in my tradition).

    My instinct is to affirm, with a (now) fourth-hand McIntosh, that God's gift of knowledge is essential to doing and understanding theology in any sort of full or comprehensive sense; still, there are components of theological practice (e.g. logical deductions, historical scholarship) that are more public. The non-believer may be able to teach and critique what theologians have said; I don't know that he can ever be a theologian.

    2) I think this in part because of the generalized worry of contextual theologies, that claims to truth are rooted in particular experience. To take one example, there is a limit to the degree that you can understand the apophasis-kataphasis relation if you have not yourself prayed, if you have never struggled with God. The subtleties of something like that relation have, in part, not been formulated clearly enough by those who have struggled with God to be communicated and, in some other part, are by their nature incommunicable.