Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome

It’s amazing to me how many theologians, particularly those within a general evangelical orbit, have ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome: the twin tendency to idealize and fetishize local church life and to denigrate their own role.

The recent financial crisis has given us a great term for this tendency: cognitive regulatory capture. All of the behaviors that Halden points out among theologians are, at best, equally prevelant among church members and especially leaders — I don’t recall any incidents of systematically covered up child molestation among theologians, for instance — and whatever faults they exhibit to a greater degree are probably due to their academic setting rather than personal failings. There are plenty of church members in good standing who faithfully donate the proceeds of underpaying their workers or gouging their customers, for instance, and I don’t think any academic theologians fall into that category.

And to act like theologians are unique in their lack of attention to the poor is appalling, in the face of the massive indifference displayed by the vast majority of church members. For every theologian who fails to visit the soup kitchen often enough, I’ll give you a pastor on a campaign to build a gym where his congregation’s children can play for like three hours a week.

Theologians should be exemplary in two areas. First, they should be exemplary in the degree to which they reflect intellectually on the gospel. I’d say that we’re on pretty firm footing here, on average — there are a lot of intelligent, reflective Christians out there, but few of them are going to reach the level of someone who earns a PhD, teaches, and publishes in the field. It’s elitist to say so, I know, but academic theologians really do consistitute an intellectual elite.

Second, they should be exemplary in their criticism of the church’s preaching and discipline. On this front, the attitude displayed in Halden’s post is amazingly counterproductive. Theologians don’t need to submit their judgment to the people in the pews or to the church authorities. They can’t force either group to do what they want, obviously — the lack of concrete power is the trade-off for taking up a reflective and critical role in the church — but they can and must deliver their criticisms as forcefully and persuasively as possible. Preemptively telling people they should totally dismiss theologians is arguably a rhetorical misstep in this context.

Overall, I think it’s crucial to avoid a kind of “Donatism for theologians” that would amount to little more than an ad hominem argument — by and large, theologians are perfectly capable of carrying out their theological duties while committing adultery or skipping church. (In fact, they may well have real theological reasons for avoiding church services as they currently stand! Is that simply impossible? One sometimes suspects that, for the “strong ecclesiology” crowd, it is.) Perhaps we can think of situations where immoral behavior would reach such a pitch as to undermine the theologian’s standing in both the academy and the community, meaning he or she could no longer effectively carry out that role — but those are extreme and rare cases. In the majority of cases, we should judge theologians simply as theologians, that is, according to the standards inherent to their particular role.

45 thoughts on “Ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome

  1. I am in general agreement with your assessment of the function of theologians and the always potentially critical and sometimes prophetic role they play in the life of the church. However, there is a tendency to construe theology as simply ethico-philosophical reflection on certain religious data, when the data themselves, at least in the case of Christianity, resist this. I’m thinking of the fundamental character of charity with regard to any human action (cf. 1 Corinthians 13). One could, of course, say that Paul was wrong on this score, but one would potentially be in performative contradiction (as a Christian theologian) by doing so. My point, and I tried to raise this earlier, is that there are certain assumed data that exist as preconditions for certain kinds of theology, and that “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” seems to be one of them for Christian theology. This seems to make the claim that there is at least some degree to which how one lives affects what one is able to accomplish theologically, which may be the same as saying that living a certain way may in fact prevent one from doing “good theology,” with standards of goodness of theology always being dependent on certain givens within a specific tradition.

  2. Yeah seriously… the Laruelle notes were sucking my will to live (I still appreciate them, however, and if they wind up in a pdf, it will be downloaded and saved to my “Philosophy Reference” folder, ironic as that may be.)

  3. And furthermore, I’m totally on board with the illegitimacy of the double standard for theologians. I’m just saying that, at least within Christian thought, there isn’t a clear line between intellection on the content of the Gospel and some sort of mystical experience (even if in a very attentuated sense) that explodes outwards into charity.

  4. I thought immediately of Barth and all the weirdness that surrounded the woman he invited into his home while still married to his wife. In retrospect, I don’t care. As long as theologians maintain their focus on reflecting critically on the Bible, then it doesn’t matter to me. Likewise Tillich was quite the womanizer, (side note if you want to read a quasi-homoerotic biography on Tillich check out existential pscyhologist Rollo May’s work Paulus). It’s seems like theologians are less likely to abuse their place of privelege or power, which is usually minimal outside of academica. As long as they don’t become some narcissists demanding people to emulate them (something (youth) pastors often fall prety to) and not Jesus of Nazareth then I would say that their biographies matter very little.

  5. I don’t think that mystical experience has been as big a part of the tradition as you’re making it out to be. The closest Anselm seems to have come to a mystical experience, for instance, is the profound satisfaction of coming up with a unified argument for the existence of God (rather than the “chain of arguments” in the Monologion). And whatever the role of mystical experience in Aquinas’s own spiritual life, I’m pretty sure you could read his entire body of work without knowing it had occurred — and that if we were to judge his body of work as being “better” than a comparable one (such as that of Scotus), I don’t see how anyone would be able to claim that making the mystical element the deciding factor makes sense.

  6. Your point about Aquinas renders the point about Anselm moot. We actually have no idea about either. I don’t necessarily mean mystical in the sense of paranormal, but in the sense of having moved beyond the intellect in one’s perception of the truth of revelation. I don’t necessarily think you have to have visions… just that there is a supraintellectual aspect that manifests itself in the ethics of charity, as participating in God.

  7. Well, if we can’t actually use it as a factor for evaluation in practice, what’s the use in talking about it as though we could? I don’t see what’s wrong with saying that theology is basically a form of philosophy that takes the Christian tradition as its starting point. (I hope you won’t be too distressed to find out that I’ve been using that definition of theology for the purposes of my classes at a secular college.)

  8. I don’t mean to suggest that this redounds in any obvious way on the “quality” of a given body of theology. I’m just saying that in some sense, it appears to be a first principle, not in the sense of an if… then… This raises the question of “efficacy” with regard to theology generally. What is the function of “good” theology, and could “good” theology be at cross purposes with it’s first order content? Equivocation regarding good intended. Paul’s claim seems to be convertible to: “if I’m doing good theology, and have not charity, it’s pointless.” I don’t know what that might mean, but it seems relevant.

  9. I’m having a hard time getting anything concrete out of your argument other than “Christians should practice Christianity.” I still don’t see why there is a special relationship between theology as an intellectual pursuit and this “something else,” moreso than there would be with any other serious pursuit undertaken by a Christian.

  10. That’s not my point. I don’t think there is a difference between theologians and other Christians on this point. I just take Paul to be saying that whatever gifts one might have, they are nothing without charity, which seems to be a rather profound and unusual claim. My point is just that the way one lives one’s life (i.e. with or without charity) according to Paul, affects whether or not one’s gifts are to any effect. I would consider the gifts attendant to doing theology well within the scope of the sorts of things Paul seems to be talking about. There are certainly other things.

  11. I’m using mysticism as a general term for non-intellectual perception of the Divine. Presumably, charity can’t be justified on intellectual grounds, at least within Christian theology, it is it’s own good as participating in God. Therefore some sort of supraintellectual perception is what motivated charity, or renders it compelling.

  12. Not sure if this fits your comment policy (I have yet to read it), but last year I participated in a debate with a theologian at Regent College on the question — “Is Christian Scholarship Accountable to the Poor?” — and have posted my argument here:

    I would be curious to hear what Adam and APS have to say about (or in response to) these things.

  13. Why is everyone so scared of the comment policy? On the whole most comments fit it and I’d say this one does too.

    I’m sympathetic to the notion or conviction that “the poor” are a condition for thought. There are a number of things I would want to guard against though. 1) I’m not sure who “the poor” are or what constitutes who the poor are. I tend to talk about poverty in my own work, not in order to “disembody” the poor, but to raise to translate it into thought beyond pure experience. 2) I also don’t like the often moralistic notion that you have to say things “the poor” will understand or that your work has to somehow fit the interests of the poor. I find this a strange thing as if poor people weren’t interested in the world, but only in the conditions of survival. 3) I would also resist the populist notion that the poor limit the freedom, or a better word, creativity of thought. What I mean by this is often you get the charge that if a poor person would disagree with you then you’re not thinking from the aspect of the poor or whatever.

    I’m speaking here largely from what Asad calls a post-Christian perspective, meaning that I don’t accept that the Christian churches are a privileged site of liberation. I also am not sure if my scholarship is Christian, but I think humanist scholarship in general is accountable to the poor, or in my terminology, humanist scholarship must be thought from the aspect of poverty.

  14. Obviously in Christian theology, certainly catholic theology, charity seems to have mystical aspect. But this is only one element, and a rare one, and I wouldn’t say it was supra-rational – indeed, it is quite clear that it flows from within the rational systematic theological account of what God is, ie Charity.

    From a perspective external to Christianity, I’m not sure that charity is all that mysterious. It seems to me to be the rational reaction to suffering and is the centre of other religious traditions, for example the principle of Dāna in Buddhism.

  15. provocative as always, Adam. thanks.

    That being said, let me offer some thoughts, and then I’m out to a conference.

    1) To the first point, yes, those who have spent time reflecting intellectually on these things should be the ones carrying exemplary thought on Christian matters. But here, I want to offer the notion of scientia and sapentia to this concept of exemplary thought, that one’s intellectual work is a matter of faith to some extent, and as such, is responsible to other practicing them as well, lest our labors be intellectual masturbation. Which leads into your second statement….

    2) One can do criticism rooted on intellectual reflection—and theologians should do this–but apart from the sapiential aspect of knowledge, our blustering is the crazy guy in the back of the room. Theologians in today’s churches are not listened to unless they are first committed to what churches are doing; unless they’re getting green poop on their hands from baby diapers in the nursery or worshipping alongside those who haven’t had the luxury of a PhD, the intellectual witness falls on deaf ears.

    Ultimately, I think it’s an orientation of the intellectual activity (i.e. whether or not theological scientia finds its way into wisdom) which determines how our criticisms, however rightly levied or construed, can find purchase.

  16. Myles,

    I’m with you on sapientia, though I’m going to drop the Latin and go with wisdom even though it loses the science part, but I fail to see how worshiping alongside people is wise. I’m with you on the diaper changing, there is a good Maoist line that goes something like, “If you think you’re so smart, go shovel that pile of pig shit.” Practice and theory must be co-directed to an extent, I’m with you on all of that, but what I don’t get is how you square this wisdom with what is clearly ignorance at the level of common church belief. It seems to me that the crazy guy at the back of the room is going to look crazy when everyone else is convinced the sky is green and he’s saying it is blue.

  17. This discussion has been fascinating to me. I think of how Rosenzweig committed his professional life to the Jewish Lehrhaus and turned down a professorship in philosophy. He would certainly agree that one who does philosophy by taking revelation as his or her starting point (rather than as a possible outcome of a neutral arche) would do well to live within the framework of his or her worshipping community in which revelation is given embodied life, but I don’t think he would insist that this meant declining an academic post. And I know that he would not insist that such a philosopher’s life be above reproach: he carried on an open love affair with his best friend’s wife. A philosopher who begins with revelation is not a living representative of that revelation (as is a rabbi or priest, for example) but a self-reflective part of the revelation, and therefore lives in a sort of constant loss of/regaining of faith. You can be a great poet and a great insurance salesman, but I don’t think you can be a great theologian (philosopher starting with revelation) and a great rabbi/priest/pastor, or a great model of the religious life more generally. It demeans the theologian to have the courage of his or her thought be outweighed by a perhaps pusillanimous personal life. Kierkegaard spent all the courage he possessed in his writing and had nothing left for anything else.

  18. Alex, regaring Barth — I am pretty sure that he believed that God had “called” him to essentially have two wives. So in that sense he can’t count as one of Halden’s examples (though I’m not sure who he has in mind), given that he was actually following rather than contradicting his theology

  19. Long ago I wrote a blog post in which I wondered about the possibility of a kind of “cultic proxy”:

    A point of discussion, I hope, is the the extent to which we have almost completely lost the sense that religious practice has been traditionally limited to minoritarian communities. Monks, of myriad religious stripe, for example. This never meant that an individual culture was without religion. Superstition has, of course, always been rife; we might even say there was enough embedded religious belief that, to the outside observer, the culture itself was religious. But, for the most part, it seems that traditional religious practice consisted of patronage — that is, supporting that smaller community who was seen as actually believing in, and thus practicing, the religious myth. In this way, the greater community reaped the benefit by cultic proxy. There is, perhaps, something to this sense of the true believers believing for you.

    This is a very different context and direction, but I do wonder if there is room for a notion of “believe for me because I can’t,” in the theologian-parishioner relationship.

  20. To build on/off something Rosenstock said, I think one way in which theology differs from philosophy here is that theologians are usually (to some extent) vocational teachers. They are in the business of preparing people for the ministry. And in vocational teaching, there are always worries about “those who can’t do, teach” — that one is not getting the right sort of training from someone who hasn’t been successful in the vocation one is being prepped for. One wouldn’t want to learn the law from a debarred lawyer, or medicine from a doctor who lost his license. So one wants an upstanding Christian to learn Christian theology from. There’s no parallel for philosophy, which is not a vocational degree.

    I don’t think this line of thought justifies the extremes which I suspect Kotsko has in mind (and certainly the average churchgoer is no saint, or any other kind of authority), but I think there’s something to it.

    Also I would like more details/citations for these Barth things. They’re all news to me. Is there some tell-all biography out there?

  21. I see no reason why a theology teacher should be seen as vocational/training people for ministry. The theologian thinks about God, and helps others do so. That’s it.

  22. Dan, if what you say were actually put in to practice, there would likely be far fewer ways for academic theologians to make ends meet. Whether or not it is an ideal situation, a lot of academic theology is done by people working in vocational schools, and it would likely be difficult to justify their salaries if all they did was “help people to think about God.” You could make the case that knowing how to think about God is an important part of churchly vocations, but in doing so, you’d be admitting that teaching theology is in some sense vocational.

    In a different (better) world, theology might be acknowledged as interesting in itself in the majority of university settings, but this is simply not the case.

  23. Sorry-I just suggested something about the conversation being Donatistic over at Halden’s blog, not knowing Adam had already mentioned that here. It is a point worth pondering–how the conversation about this over there has been (possibly) a form of Donatism.

  24. Both, I think. There seems to be an increased emphasis on “enclave” theology these days (which isn’t necessarily bad) but one can see how this can easily veer in to Donatism. This naturally results in an increased incidence of (accurate) accusations of Donatism, which in turn results in inaccurate application of the term becoming more common.

  25. On the one hand the problem here is analogous to the general ‘problem’ of accepting common grace. Initially that was my response – over on that other site.

    Theology includes bits of natural philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, etc. but on the other hand theology isn’t just a case of wandering down to the truth mines and digging (and perhaps the bits that are best thought of as other fields anyway). To the extent that theology is the study of a self revealing God it would seem highly relevant to know to what extent his subject impinged on the theologian. Of course, one has to always account for necessary imperfection in humanity, but that shouldn’t rule the question out of bounds.

    And to some extent the comparison with Donatists is a specious one – being as it was about whether the means used by God undermined the grace/sacraments of God. I don’t think that there is a one to one correspondance between Baptism and the Eucharist or say ‘Church Dogmatics’ (as as an example).

  26. Chris,

    I respectfully disagree, not because the Donatists claimed that preaching was a sacrament which could be undermined by infidelity (which they did not, as you rightly point out), but because the exclusion of the possibility that God could speak through a theologian due to his or her personal un-holiness makes the same mistake, i.e. by making the human the efficient obstacle to the grace of God. Said otherwise, precluding that what a theologian says could be true because of their lifestyle fixates on the wrong agent (the human).

  27. Hi Thomas –

    The position you argue against is not the one that I’m taking.

    I’m not saying that the personal holiness of the theologian excludes the possibility that God speaks through them. I do think that the church is entitled to decide whether or not that theologian has a right to teach it – in the same way that it uses the same markers when choosing leaders.

  28. Chris,

    Thanks for the clarification, and please excuse the misunderstanding of your positive argument (to which I do have a question, which I don’t necessarily expect an answer to: Whose church? Which one?). However, I am arguing against your claim that my reference to Donatism (as well as Adam’s) was invalid.

  29. Thomas –

    Perhaps your question points to the source of the problem, after all the same question “Whose Church? Which One?” also arises with how the guidelines on leaders should be applied to all those independent evangelists and teachers out there. Part of the problem in each case is a detachment of accountability from authority and I remain to be convinced that this post isn’t an attempt to do exactly that.

    On Donatism; Churches have always had the practice of removing leaders from their office for unbecoming conduct, I don’t think even Augustine argued against that. Which isn’t the same as ‘pre-emptively telling people that they should totally dismiss’ them of course.

  30. Chris:

    Thanks for the response; I take your points. This could easily turn into a discussion about the vocation of a theologian, and the definition of a theologian, a topic on which I would (amicably, I hope) disagree with most of my friends here at AUFS. Adam can answer to the purpose of the post in relation to authority if he so desires, but my point is concerned with the validity of what a theologian says, something which was treated in an ad hominem manner over at Halden’s post (not by Halden, but by commentators). I was pointing out the following: “I find it interesting that Halden was actually ascribing (possible) validity to the work of “sinner”-theologians, even if the post has been read to be detracting from the value of their work. Any other position seems to be dangerously close to Donatism.” I said this because in the comment thread people were suggesting that the work of certain people is worthless, based on their personal life. Maybe I am reading into the comments too much, but many of them seemed to me to be close to “pre-emptively totally dismissing” the work of specific people.

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