Thursday, July 14, 2011

On the State of Contemporary Theology

A friend who is a grad student in theology recently expressed some frustration with the proliferation of narrow "camps" in contemporary theology--and hence the lack of space for emerging theologians to engage in conversations which aren't just predetermined at the outset. What s/he has found is that most theological claims/discussions are judged beforehand by a kind of guilt-by-association: "Oh, you're working out of Camp X and are sympathetic to Theologian Y. I've already got a line/take/pigeonhole for that 'school,' and so I already know what you're going to say. Ergo, there's really no need for the conversation."

Not exactly productive conditions for common pursuit of truth.

So, my friend asked, is there some place where young theologians can engage in honest, forthright dialogue without all the posturing? Here's what I suggested, off-the-cuff (and slightly redacted):

It's a good question, but I'm afraid I don't have a very good answer. I must confess I despair about the state of "professional" theology today. It just seems to me that we have increasing "balkanization," with everyone carving themselves up into smaller and smaller tribish enclaves, and then proceeding to both rail against straw men and preach to their own little choirs. In some ways, I think this is an effect of the loss of confessional and denominational identity. Instead of training to be Reformed theologians or Roman Catholic theologians or Lutheran theologians we have a generation who are training to become "ecclesiocentric" theologians or "apocalyptic" theologians or "radically orthodox" theologians, etc. Everybody's gotta have an "angle," a project, an agenda, a manifesto, a list of "Theses" that discloses the hitherto hidden truth of the world on the basis of their own ingenuity. Hence the most important words in our theological lexicons become "alone" and "only," as in: "Only [insert theological ideology here] can properly account for [insert favorite political and social issue here]."

All of this does weird things to theological identity and community, which then breeds a narcissism of minor differences. In some ways, this is a strange by-product of "ecumenical" theological education. (I think the blogosphere exacerbates this in important ways, but I would need more data to substantiate such a claim.)

I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call "churchmen" in any strong sense ("churchwomen" included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.

In a lot of ways, this is why I have planted myself in a very particular, "thick" confessional location--not because it is the one, true perspective; or the temple that holds all the secrets; but because it is a good location (and a "good enough" location) which is both catholic and particular, and one to which I feel--if this doesn't sound too quaint--called. So I'm a Reformed thinker, and even more specifically, a Christian Reformed thinker. Far from being a recipe for sectarianism, I think that centering frees me up to engage selectively, critically, and generously (I hope). In a sense, thick confessional/denominational identity eliminates a certain insecurity that I think explains alot of the current fragmentation. So my theological and professional identity is not bound up with any 'school of thought' or sensibility. (Based on my books, people seem to think that I have some investment in being "postmodern" or "RO" or "Hauerwasian" or whathaveyou: but I don't own stock in any of these little cottage industries, though I have interest in all of them. My central investment is in this obscure little denomination where I'm planted.)

So in some sense, I just don't know if the sort of space you're looking for exists, sadly. Then again, maybe it's always been this way!