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The Theologian’s Free Association with the Academy

I was recently perusing the latest edition of JAAR (Journal of the American Academy of  Religion, vol. 86 [2]) and was reminded of why I have been, shall I say, pessimistic about the current practice of so-called academic theology. Still, all is not without hope. And this recent article—a cause for such hope in my estimation— has put me in mind to write my own few lines about the subject of theology and the academy. Or, rather, not so much my own lines, but notes and reflections upon the reflections of another; namely, the late John Webster.1

Webster has helpfully reminded me that pessimism is no Christian outlook. Indeed, my disparaging of so-called academic theology was, I have come to realize, as much due to my own distraction from the true object of theological study and the true delight of its practice as it was to the chaotic and desolate state of the contemporary theological landscape. That is, my pessimism pointed to a disorder within myself. Displeasure and disapproval are perfectly right reactions to things wrong; frustration is a perfectly normal reaction to our very limited ability to address things wrong; but pessimism reveals a disorder: “put your hope in God,” we are instructed in Psalm 42:5, and Jesus bids us to “have faith in God” (Mark 11:22).

Theology and Human Intellect

Before thinking directly about theology and the academy, it may be helpful to make a few, brief points about theology (see here for a longer exposition of these points). What is theology? Following in a long and venerable—in my estimation, at least—tradition, Webster says that theology contemplates God and all things in relation to God; or, as he has it, the object of theology “is twofold: God the Holy Trinity and all other things relative to God” (I.213). This point is of foundational importance. And yet, I can hear the objections now. Doesn’t this make theology an Ivory Tower exercise; or it makes theology too abstract, without any practical, concrete relevance.

I don’t want to get us too far afield of our topic here, but let me simply suggest that these kinds of objections betray, I think, a backwards way of thinking about the matter. Keeping God as the object of theology and, when doing theology, learning to study all created reality as it relates to God is important not simply to protect theology as ‘sacred science’, but also precisely to keep one from thinking that theology is all about the head and not about the heart, that it is all about knowing and not about doing (or, as I prefer, ‘being’), that it is about escaping our turbulent historical reality. No, indeed. To contemplate God is to be caught up—one’s whole person—in the Spirit’s movement of teaching the Son as image of the Father and of conforming us to the image of the Son. Caught up in this movement, the child of God “seeks first the kingdom of God” and prays, “thy kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven.”

Second, God is not only the object of Christian theology, but also its source. God, out of his love, communicates to us from his own perfect self-understanding. It is important to be precise at this point. And precision often means making distinctions. On the one hand, our theology is not really ours, it is a gift from God. This is important because it safeguards us from thinking that theology is simply ‘human thought about God’, or that theology is a project of human construction and manipulation. No, our theology is a gift from God, not of our own making and thus not subject to our own manipulation.

It is also important to recognize, on the other hand, that there is a proper sense in which our theology is ‘our’ theology. That is, it is theology had by humans. This means that our theology is not perfect, as is God’s own self-understanding, and so our theology goes through the process of learning and development in time. As Webster has it: “Divine revelation is not manifestation tout court; it is teaching which intends reception and effects learning” in the human knower (I.217). Humans are creatures whose “created intellect works discursively… acquiring knowledge, coming to understand, reaching judgments, such that ‘created intellect takes time’ in coming to understand God’s communication of himself (II.146); and—we add with Thomas Aquinas—often with error in the process.

This brings us to a third point: humans are not abstract natures, but concrete beings in an historical context. In broad terms, that historical context includes creation, and thus the telos of union and communion with God, and the fall, by which human rebellion marks the whole person, body and mind, and causes a person, among other things, to descend into what the Apostle Paul calls a ‘futility’ of the mind (Eph. 4:17). “What is needed” to remedy this situation, says Webster, “is ‘renewal in the spirit of the mind’ (Eph. 4:23). This no creature can effect; but God can do so, and has done so in the loving missions of the incarnate Son of God and the outpoured Spirit” (II.151). Thus, the historical context of humanity is also marked by redemption.

Finally, the particular context within which this ‘renewal in the spirit of the mind’ is carried out is the church. Of course, each person must be caught up in this movement of the Spirit; but it is not each person, off and alone by herself. Rather, the Spirit’s movement of teaching of and conforming to Christ is done precisely as a building of, a gathering into, the body of Christ. Within the context of the church of God, the community of saints, then the process of coming to understand God’s communication of himself takes place. Through the long and difficult, error laden process “theology becomes theological”—to use Webster’s memorable phrase (I.215)—in those who practice it “in the presence of the divine instructor,” who is present with us in his Word and Spirit, and “by whose instruction intelligence is healed” (II.153-154).

What has all this to do with the academy?

Theology and the Academy

If what we have said about theology is true, then it must be admitted that contemporary  academic theology has in large part lost its way (for further specifics, again see here). How has this happened? The answer is a rather complicated one. But a large part of it will surely include that modern theology has had to deal with a hardship it was not prepared for: not persecution, but marginalization. Webster again, “…a theology which appeals to Jesus Christ does not command ready assent, and may provoke opposition. Theology may not count on a hearing or assume it will be offered a place at the table of public wisdom” (II.50).

This has happened, of course, in the public sphere, but it has also happened in the academy. How has theology responded its marginalization? “Often enough, in the last two centuries, divinity has secured acceptance in the university by compliance, assenting, whether enthusiastically or half-heartedly, to one or other version of a naturalist metaphysics of inquiry, and reinventing itself as the historical and literary science of religious phenomena” (II.173). That is, theology could no longer hold God to be its object and source and remain among the disciplines of the modern university. It could study the Bible, for example, but only as an historical document by which to gain insight into ancient civilizations. It could study Christian doctrines and practices of worship, but only so as to be able to demarcate ‘this socio-religious group’ from ‘that socio-religious group’. It could study the Christian past, but only to ‘resource’ current social projects. Theology thus managed to remain among the disciplines at the academic table, but only at the price of its soul.

For those to whom this development is discouraging, it might be tempting to “retreat into a confessional or ecclesial enclave.” But, says, Webster, there is loss born by doing this as well (II.50; as the modernist/fundamentalist controversy of the early twentieth century bears witness to).

What to do, then? Well, what seems a dilemma (capitulate or retreat) turns out not to be. “If theology is truly authorized by its object [namely, God himself] and so truly a joyful exercise, it will face affliction simply by saying what it has to say…without adopting either a concessive or defensive posture. It will give itself to the task of seeking to hear the gospel and to speak about what it has heard” (II.50). This is a remarkable point, and remarkably easy to forget. If theology really is taught by God, teaches God, and leads to God, then it need not—no, cannot—take its cues from whatever spirit of the age is currently blowing through the academy. Its source, content, and telos are already set. What is needed among theologians is not ingenuity, but faithfulness.

Where does that leave it in relation to the academy? Well, Webster advocates what he calls a ‘free association’ of theology with the academy.

Theology’s ‘free association’ with the Academy

“Having a clear view of its nature and calling in the divine economy, fortified by divine gifts of virtue and by devotion, theological intelligence may venture a free association with the university” (II.170). It is an association in that it does partake of the resources, life, and benefits of the university; but only so far as it can do so without compromise of its nature and calling. Thus, it also remains always free of the academy. This is important not only for theology, but also for the academy both in general and in particular.

In general, although the contemporary academy has become altogether Areopagite in its lust for novelty, if theology is to be of worth to it (and surely it should be), what is required is precisely that it does not succumb to this deadly sin. “The condition for theology making its contribution to the university…is that it remains theology…” (II.172). The reason for this is relatively simple: Once a university—or, more broadly, the academy—refuses to allow the disciplines carried on within it to have their own rules and principles, their own shape, etc., which they then contribute to the whole (i.e. university), and rather forces them to conduct their business in line with some particular rules and principles of some particular cultural ideology, then the university ceases to be such, and has become rather an institute of propaganda. To keep the university a university, then, theology (and the other disciplines as well) must remain true to itself.

What, in particular, we might ask, does ‘theological theology’ contribute to the university? Webster says it gives the gifts of a “metaphysics and morals of human intelligence” (II.171). The order is important. Universities foster the life of the mind, but often without any account of why, beyond the entirely pragmatic. Theology offers the university an understanding of what of human intelligence is (metaphysics) and, therefore, gives to it both a purpose and ethics of human intelligence (morals).

To all would be theologians of the academy, then, Webster calls theologians to their responsibility. If the condition for theology to contribute to the university is that it remain theological, “the condition for theology remaining theology is the existence of sanctified theologians; the condition for the existence of sanctified theologians is the Spirit’s grace.” (II.172).The theologian must, then, remain “intent upon Holy Scripture,…appeal to God’s beneficence in prayer…mortify distraction by right use of the body and set aside ironic detachment from its object.” For if she does not, then “theology will be at best of indifferent value, at worst a strange figure in the kingdom of divine goodness.” (II.224)

Let me conclude with a marvelous passage from Webster. In a way, this says it all:

When is theology theological? Not when it considers itself a polite, if somewhat deferential, contributor to the wider discussions of the academy, bringing its set of ‘values’ to an agenda which it did not generate, and often finding itself reading out a script written by someone else: that is simply the triumph of the philosophical faculty which Kant considered theology’s fate in the age of criticism. Nor, again, when theology tries to give some coherence to its activities by earnest conversations between sub-disciplines: ‘theology and biblical studies’ and the like. Such conversations, pleasant enough and instructive though they are, commonly assume that though the family has broken down and its members have gone their own separate ways, there’s no reason not to have an occasional get-together. Something more comprehensive is asked of us: a recovery of sacra doctrina in its full sense and with its attendant notions of divine instruction, church, holiness and the like. Whether theological institutions possess the willingness or capacity for such a recovery remains unclear. But a properly theological theology has no reason to be locked in lament and every reason for that magnanimity in which we extend ourselves to great matter. ‘If thy law had not been my delight, I should have perished in my affliction’, the psalmist says (Ps. 119.92); but, the Lord’s word is ‘firmly fixed in the heavens’ (Ps. 119.82), and so, theology is possible.” (II.224)

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Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine. He holds a PhD from St. Louis University, a MAHT from Westminster Seminary California. He, his wife, Bethanne, and their three kids live in Southern California.

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