Teaching between Theology and the Secular

I attended the recent AAR in Atlanta somewhat unexpectedly because I was lucky enough to be asked to interview for a great position. Interviews are strange things and I’m sure that’s true not just for the one being interviewed, but for those interviewing as well! There is a certain structural awkwardness built into the 15-minute conversation and it seems impossible to leave feeling like you gave your best answers. Even more impossible to prepare for all the possible questions that might be asked. For instance, since this is for a junior level position, I had given a lot of my preparation to thinking about undergraduate courses, but was asked about graduate courses. In the past I have thought about what kind of graduate courses I would like to teach, so I was relatively prepared for such a question, though not to the same level as if they had asked about undergraduate courses. Though, thinking now, I would be able to prepare two of the courses within a week, while the other, which would be the third of a trilogy, would require a little bit more research while the others were going on. But, I digress…

In the course of the interview, which is a position in a religion department but not necessarily for a theologian, I was asked about my relationship to theology. I was glad to be asked this question because it is something I have given a lot of thought to, since it was a real challenge to me when I was deciding if I would do my graduate work in a philosophy or theology/religious studies program. My main areas of research are philosophy of religion, particularly from a Continental philosophy perspective, and environmental/ecological theory. What drew me to work in Nottingham was primarily the work of Philip Goodchild, whose work, as most of our readers know, deals exactly with these areas (as well as economics). I also felt that engaging with confessional theologians was important for an adequate philosophy of religion and that such an engagement, both with theologians and with the “actually-existing” traditions, is one of the strengths of Continental philosophy of religion. So, I answered that I treat theology as one of the main sources of material for my work, but that I am not myself a confessional theologian. After working with Philip more I have come to accept a certain meaning of this word, that is as one concerned with the “highest within thought” or that which gives value to all other thought. That still, though, means that I have to modify the term and so I sometimes call myself a secular theologian, which is in my own view a kind of catholic theologian, or, in Laruelle’s parlance, a non-standard theologian. Perhaps anomalous theologian is nice too.

All of this engagement with theological work means that I feel comfortable to teach various theologies (mostly within the Christian tradition, but I’m expanding that over the course of the next few years). And that is in fact what I’m doing at DePaul right now in a course on Roman Catholic theology and environmental ethics. And I was reminded during a recent class about the power of theology, even in the midst of its “failure”, when I introduced liberation theology. I began the class with something that Adam and I discussed a few weeks back – liberation theology did not fail, it was murdered. That murder was carried out by right-wing death squads and supported by the US government under President Reagan. Exacerbating this repression was the stance that the Vatican, under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith directed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, took towards the liberationists. When Ratzinger suggested in his document “Instructions on certain aspects of the Theology of Liberation” that the liberationists were perhaps just a little too Marxist he really, through either ignorance of the political situation or through a deep and troubling cynicism, emboldened the right-wingers in their repression since this was the exact rhetoric they were using to support their crimes.

While lecturing I was stuck by how important this movement was, how it really provides a model of the engaged intellectual. An intellectual that is working within a movement, that inhabits the university, but inhabits this capitalist space as they inhabit the whole world (which is always the capitalist world). That is, as someone who is both within and without, that does not “speak for the poor”, but is a sign of offense in so far as they give attention to the poor. They give attention to the fact that the poor have always been speaking. It reminded me, again, of why I want to engage with this work, even while I am outside the specific confessional discourse they engage with.

5 thoughts on “Teaching between Theology and the Secular

  1. Re: “secular theologian,” “non-standard theologian,” “anomalous theologian.” Reminds me of Jeffrey Stout’s “alienated theologian.” Or perhaps that term already gives too much ground to the alienating community.

  2. Damn good post; impassioned and hopeful. I think you are spot on re: the troubling place of liberation theology within the academy/confession. Its challenge is not only in the results of its analysis of situations (which many pinko-liberal and conservative theologians readily acknowledge), but even more so in its method, which forces theological production to come clean on its interlocutors and political commitments.

    I can see why Cardinal Smokin Joe Rapsinger, who unfortunately isn’t stupid, overwhelmingly affirmed the first part (“Yes, there is much inequality and poverty, etc”), but ruthlessly attacked the method itself in his Instruction on certain aspects of the Theology of Liberation and Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation

  3. I really liked this post. I don’t know Laurelle but it may be interesting to compare his idea of a non-standard theologian with Andrew Shanks’ idea of trans-confessional theology in his book ‘God and modernity’. From what you’ve said there seem to be similarities. I think this type of thinking is what we should be pursuing.

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