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.