On Belief and Teaching Theology

Tony Hunt has posted a review of Mark A. McIntosh’s recent Divine Teaching: An Introduction to Christian Theology that caught my attention. Even though they’re mostly on books I will probably never read, Tony does a nice job of reviewing them with teaching in mind. So what caught my attention about his review of McIntosh’s book was this line:

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.”

Now Tony doesn’t say this, but to my mind this does two things. First, it throws the book’s integrity into question for me. It suggests that there is no way one can argue with theology, since it is “knowledge from God as gift”. And that is related to the second problem, which is that it presupposes a dogmatic version of theology. How does one, then, come to believe if they don’t already do so? Outside of (maybe!) a seminary where would such a text with such a fideistic methodology be helpful for teaching? How do you assess whether or not your students have  an “inner life ready to receive this knowledge”? How do you even come to take a critical view on the very conditions for such a statement?

I teach theology and I would even go so far as to claim that I teach theology from a broadly post-liberal perspective, a perspective that Tony suggests this book would be helpful for. But I don’t think post-liberalism should mean ignoring the reality of the classroom. So, for example, last year when I taught Roman Catholic Theological Thinking at DePaul, a really large Roman Catholic university, only about 25% of the students considered themselves to be practicing Catholics, and more than a few were atheist. To teach a course using this methodology, I think, would be to do an injustice to the mixed composition of such a class. Now, those who know me know that I clearly don’t think highly of the Vatican and especially not very highly of the current Pope. Still, I taught him in that class and I did so, starting out, as convincingly as I could. I encouraged the students to look for what was helpful in his thinking, but also to question it. If we’re locked into a view of theology that can’t be taught unless one “really believes” then we close down theological debate as well. For it then becomes simply a matter of who believes more and who believes more is always the one with the red shoes and the biggest hat. Authority always wins when you obscure theological discourse with the fuzzy modern idea of belief.

21 thoughts on “On Belief and Teaching Theology

  1. This is always the kind of view of theology that I aim to get past in my own teaching — Christian theology is a critical reflection on the Christian tradition that, on the formal level, requires distance from said tradition. Thus I think that the distrust the average believer has for the theologian is actually justified, not an indication that the theologian has somehow failed to be churchly enough. Further, I think that theology is an activity that anyone with a stake in the Christian tradition can and does carry out, at least in some minimal way. You don’t have to “be a believer,” you just have to care about it.

  2. Even if you come out thinking that the Christian tradition (or your preferred instantiation of it) is 100% right, in order to argue that it is (i.e., engage in the critical discourse that theology is), you have to be at least formally open to the possibility that it’s not right. There’s just no way around that minimal, formal alienation. Theologians who claim to operate without any such alienation are in bad faith.

  3. I just finished reading Pannenberg’s Systematic Theology, which was decent. This is his major criticism of modern theology. The majority of theologians (Barth or Bultmann) immunize theology from critique by making faith a presupposition for doing the theological task. Pannenberg actually takes the risk of analyzing theological concepts and being open to the notion that we might have to discard ideas. Not surprisingly, most of Christian orthodoxy was left in place, but at least he entertains the notion that some things need to go. This fideistic approach to theology strikes me as defensive and cowardly. It brings to light just how useless theology has become if it marginalized by being sequestered into seminaries that discourage freedom of thought.

  4. On a further note, I’m endlessly frustrated by the idea that if one denies orthodoxy then one has clearly missed the boat conceptually. Like Adam had talked about in an earlier post, one often hears that a denial of orthodoxy is simply a sign that is one is unable to live in the paradox (read inconsistency). God forbid that orthodoxy might just be unpersuasive and/or incoherent.

  5. I hate the insinuation that denial of orthodoxy is a moral failing (pride, etc.). In my study of patristics, I was able to witness the evolution of that idea. In the earlier periods, the proto-orthodox were arguing against people they were at least comfortable accusing of actual immorality, etc. — whether or not the groups in question were really like that, that was the level the attack was on. In the struggle against Arianism, however, you’re dealing with a group whose practice is essentially identical to orthodoxy, and so the only place that accusation of immorality has to go is to the faith claim itself. “They may look just like us, but the fact that their confession is slightly different shows they’re horrible sinners!”

    In the modern age, of course, the first part of that changes to “they may appear to be morally superior to us, but….” — in the decadent phase we’re experiencing now, orthodoxy becomes not a proxy for morality but an outright substitute for it. “That dangerous supplement…”

  6. Authority always wins because theology is nothing, at base, but an expression of authority, not being about anything else that is real. It is like J.K. Rowling teaching the theology of Potter- it turns out to be anything she wants it to be, or anything her apostolic succession want to make of it.

  7. The moralization piece is unfortunately really common. I also found a piece from Kim over at F&T that really captures the current ideology about heresy

    “Heretics are one-eyed, they lack the “vision thing”: failing to see the bigger picture, they take the part for the whole. That’s why heresy is inevitably rather boring. Heretics have no sense of adventure; they go only so far, they won’t go “all the way.” You could say they are theological prudes, often wearing philosophical chastity belts, who resist being ravished by revelation.”

    I have no idea how one can claim that those who resist orthodoxy lack adventure. One might almost think that those who are ‘ravished’ by orthodoxy are actually scared of deviating from the secure confines or orthodoxy. I love this rhetorical move. The most daring, courageous thing is to support the tradition, otherwise you’re just spineless.

    Also, Burk I’m just assuming you have no idea what you’re talking about. Is that fair?

  8. I’m no theologian, if that is what you mean. I have been introduced to Milbank’s “radical” orthodoxy and related ideas, such as they are, which go down the tired neo-orthodox faux-hip road you speak of.

    I would put myself in the new atheist camp.

  9. No surprise there, but Milbank is worthless.

    Also, I think the shift we see from the patristics to the current blogosphere is from moralizing to the “It’s just not cool to be unorthodox”.

  10. Thanks, Adam .. all the same, this blog seems to require a gadfly. If you know what the real deal is, then why persist in trying to rehabilitate a dead myth and associated system of authority? God’s been dead for oh, what.. a few hundred years? Will “liberal” theology change that? Will quibbling about the intolerance of fellow theologians, and their honesty about putting belief before thought change that?

  11. I realize you guys are more riffing on a theme than discussing the book, but just for clarity’s sake, McIntosh, at least as far as I could tell from this book (being the only one of his I’ve read), doesn’t seem to believe that Christian theology is “above critique.” For instance, in the section on atonement he brings Eastern Orthodox, feminist, and Girardian critiques to bear on Anselm and subsequent “Western” atonement theology.

    And he never rang an “orthodox” vs “heretic” bell. In fact I imagine that since he presented trinitarian theology as an historical process, as process it’s clear that christological articulation requires negotiation, not mere assertion.

    I know that he has a work directly related to this topic (http://tinyurl.com/6fmlcr2), so it might be that he would be able to fill out his own picture more fully for you.

  12. Burk, Let me excerpt our comment policy: “If you wish to advance positions associated with a well-known school of thought that we obviously oppose, you should also assume that we know about that school of thought rather than parachuting in with the answers that we have been ignoring or fearing in our close-mindedness.” You have been in violation of this policy throughout this thread and just expressed your intention to continue violating it. Thus I politely request that you stop commenting here.

  13. Tony,

    Glad you didn’t take offense to this. I do think that it makes sense that he can’t actually present Christian theology as above critique, but that doesn’t really solve the problem for me of making the claim that you can’t understand theology unless you believe it. I would have the same problem if I read this in an Islamic theology text and it goes deeper than a kind of liberalism. It goes down to the background work that the category of “belief” does with regard to politics. I really just don’t think I could ever use this text or one like it in teaching Christian theology. As I said, it doesn’t really respect the mixed composition of classes outside of universities with closed religious cultures. DePaul, a Catholic university, just isn’t that, though maybe Ava Maria is and, weirdly, perhaps Durham is more closed. Actually, at Nottingham I tended to teach a higher proportion of white students alongside of students with a predominately Christian background, though most self-identified as agnostic (I take an anonymous poll in my courses). I don’t really quite know what to do with this information though.

  14. Might there be an Aristotelian virtue aspect that the author is trying to express (and fails)? Adam, would you say that your stance towards Orthodoxy in Politics of Redemption is to first approach it with suspicion and then try to work out some ontological truth that is (rightly or wrongly) being construed in the tradition?

  15. I don’t think I have a stance toward orthodoxy in Politics of Redemption, and that’s because for the most part the texts in the atonement tradition don’t deal with the Christ-event in anything closely resembling the terms of classical orthodoxy. I’m completely indifferent to whether the authors I’m studying are orthodox — I’m just reading them because they’ve been influential. And that makes sense, given that the “religionless interpretation” is an attempt to get around the “drama of the soul and its God” and so many of the conceptual moves of classical orthodoxy were an attempt to square the circle of Christian revelation and classical monotheism.

  16. Given Anthony’s opinion on student surveys above and my own personal experience, there is gonna be a hell of a lot of revoked BAs out there if you have to be a believer (also what does this mean? – surely if theology requires a particular disciplining and openness to this gift and so on, even just believing doesn’t necessary entail having all of this)

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