Monday, May 4, 2015

Those Poor Professors of Theology. What Can They Be Thinking?

            I’ve been thinking about professors of Systematic Theology sitting in their seminary offices lately. What do they think they’re doing?

            I’m not trying to be funny. I’m not trying to suggest that whatever they’re doing, it’s silly. I just wonder.

            There are a few obvious candidate answers. Theology professors will teach the History of Theology—as they see it, of course, with lots of judgments thrown in. Just choosing what history you’re going to talk about requires such judgments. I’m not blaming them. I did it too.

            Theology profs will also want to teach from out of his or her own tradition—likely the seminary’s tradition, too. It might be Barthianism or Fundamentalism or Mormonism. The tradition will come with lots of presuppositions, a certain worldview, and perhaps even an ethnic or class culture. Every tradition is a rich resource for the judgments mentioned above. Again, no theology prof can avoid this, though hopefully they always pass on their tradition with a lot of soul searching.

            Theology profs will probably say that they also want to teach their students to think . . . somehow. I’m not sure which word fits best after “think.” Probably something like “rationally.”

John Suk teaching Hermeneutics at
Asian Theological Seminary, c. 2005
Teaching students to think rationally isn’t as critical as it first might seem. Most probably can do so pretty well already, even if they haven’t applied the skill to theology. But rationality gets more complicated if the point of teaching is to pass on a tradition. That’s because unless we’re talking about something that’s truly weird (Jesus was a Hindu mystic) most competing doctrines in different traditions are at least internally coherent. Both Unitarianism and Trinitarianism are rational, for example. “Rational” doesn’t mean, after all, “proven.” To think rationally means that, given certain presuppositions, there is a way to make sense of these doctrines; they are internally coherent.

            In fact, it strikes me that one’s presuppositions, worldview, parents’ expectations, and favorite place to go to church will have a greater impact on both the theology professor and his or her students than the goal of rationality. All these doctrines are rational, after all. Most theology professors then, are probably much more interested in convincing their students (either through careful argument or any of a dozen or so other rhetorical strategies) that the presuppositions the professor holds are absolutely right.

            Except that, if this is the case, are we really doing theology? Or, are we teaching the true presuppositions as somebody or some tradition sees them?

            I remember early on, in seminary, hearing some lectures by one professor on how theology was a “science.” That is, theology was subject to strict methodological rules. It’s object was the examination of scripture (and a tiny bit of creation) in order to theorize about true faith.

            Years later, I read some philosophy of science books. In them I encountered discussions about science’s “craft values.” That is, to be a good scientist, you will theorize in a manner that meets the approval of other scientists. A good scientific theory, for example, needs to be rational (of course), meaning internally and externally consistent. But also simple. Heuristic. It should have unifying power. And it must be falsifiable. Which no theologian truly believes about his or her take on things. If it is a science, rather than a parade of presuppositions, theology is a strange one, for sure.

            I mean, even if the odd theologian claims it, most theology doesn’t go for Occum’s razor. Inerrancy? Very complicated, once you read scriptures, or even just compare the gospels. Trinity? Persons (?) divided, but substances not? Original sin? Honestly, when there isn’t an original Adam and Eve to lean on anymore, this is a doctrine only Rube Goldberg could love.

            No, I don’t think theology is a science. And for most theologians thinking about their next lecture, I’d guess that many are really thinking indoctrination, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. They are thinking about how to pass on a tradition for the sake of maintaining it. To do otherwise, at least in most denominational seminaries, is to face a trial or maybe just be fired.

            In view of this sort of analysis, in the past I’ve suggested that we ought to make theology a playground. Theology ought to be experienced as a holy pastime rather than serious indoctrination. I know that this won’t do much for denominational distinctives, or upholding your sect’s idea of the true facts.

            But upon reflection, I also realize that calling theology a playground isn’t enough. So I’d like to offer some “rules,” for this playground—craft values for having fun with theology rather than doing mere indoctrination.

            So, first, good theology should probably be aesthetically compelling. It should be beautiful. And I don’t mean merely the beauty of something that is internally coherent. I mean it should be good poetry, or art. Theology ought to paint a picture that is worth a thousand “facts.” This quality, in fact, is what makes the work of painters like Van Gogh, or writers such as Marilyn Robinson such good theology.

            Good theology should be creative. If humans—whether in myth or history—were created by God as image bearers, surely human reflections on God should be, in turn,  creative, too. Theology should find new answers to the old questions of the problem of evil, or the nature of Jesus’ presence at the eucharist, or when to get baptized; new answers that break down old barriers and offer new insight or encouragement or joy. Another way of putting this is that every few years or so, good theology should lead to some major paradigm change when it comes to creedal or confessional conundrums.

            Good theology must be meditative. It ought to allow the thinker or the reader or the doer of the theology to step back from the rat race of the parsonage or faculty or student life and engage in seeking God seeking us, instead.

            Good theology should make identifying presuppositions a game, like Finding Waldo. Look, we know they are there in the writing and the teaching. Let’s name them! All! Ironically, it usually takes not only a hard look but also a childlike naivety to identify many presuppositions. Doing so, however, means that they won’t likely get a chance to be as  coercive as an emperor without clothes.

            Good theology should not be primarily thought of as trying to say systematically what the Bible says enigmatically. When it comes to the Trinity, we needed poetry but got a formula based on now-discredited Greek philosophical theories that has about as much connection to the original texts as Derridian deconstruction does.

            Good theology should focus more on ethics rooted in the summary of the law than in hotly debated disagreements about the Bible’s enigmas. If Old Testament Pharisees were too enamoured of the tithe, then the modern Christian academy is too enamoured of propositions.

            A good theologian has a full heart that needs to find expression in the words he or she speaks, rather than in ancient creeds or confessions that must be parsed correctly to be understood today.

            Look, it can’t be easy to be a professor of Systematic Theology. And thinking of theology as a playground rather than an arena is only a partial solution to the theologian’s problems. But theology is fun. Even if that’s just the beginning of the rest of the story.

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