The hatred of theology

In the latest issue of The Point, Jon Baskin writes on behalf of the magazine's editors about what he calls "the hatred of literature." By this team he means the attitude—apparently dominant in English departments a couple decades ago and imbibed by graduate students across the land—that the study of literature exists not to appreciate its multifarious goodnesses and beauties, rooted in love for the object of study, but instead to uncover, unmask, and indict the social, moral, and political problems belonging to its conditions of production. The novel or poem is therefore not an object at all, that is to say, an end, but a means to a larger, political end; criticism thus becomes an instrument of political advocacy. The work of literary art plays no role in calling me or my convictions into question. Rather, the critic measures the work by the correctness of its views or its capacity to activate social change (for the better, that is, more or less in line with my priors), and judges its quality accordingly.

Baskin labels this approach the "hatred" of literature for two reasons. On the one hand, it does not treat literature as an end (however proximate) in itself, but only as a sort of weapon to advance or stymie the cause—whatever that may be. On the other hand, and more important, it quite literally does not arise from what usually stands as the origin story for so many students and teachers of literature: love. Love for the thing itself, for its own sake, just because. A love that does not demand agreement or relevance or revolutionary potential or the "right" politics, but only that ephemeral experience that is the root of all art: an encounter with that which outstrips the mundane, calling to the self from beyond the self. That old word "beauty" is one of the ways we try to capture such encounters.

Reading Baskin as an academically trained theologian, it made me wonder: Is there a similar phenomenon in academic theology? Does one find—or, in recent decades, could one find—in the academy "the hatred of theology"?

I think the answer is yes, in at least six ways.

First, there is a style of doing theology formally parallel to the "New Historicism." Namely, theology reduced to its sociopolitical function. What does theologoumenon X or Y accomplish with respect to certain desired political ends? There's plenty of that around, past and present.

Second, there is what some, at least in the U.K. a few decades ago, used to call "doctrinal criticism." This comprised the study of traditional doctrines from church history and the subjection of them to "critique" under the conditions and presuppositions of modernity. In other words: What is "modern man" permitted to believe, and what of the Christian dogmatic heritage must be revised, and in what ways, in order to fall in line with the Enlightenment and its heirs?

Third, in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, there was a kind of obsessive-compulsive anxiety about methodology that, as the old saw goes, never got around to actually talking about God, but only talked about talking about God. This, too, served as an avoidance strategy for academic theology.

Fourth, there is a mode of theology similar to the first example above that is nonetheless subtly different. It isn't so much about theology being merely a means to a foreordained end. But its utility as a source of or exercise in knowledge is indexed to its practical relevance. So that, e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity must have direct and obvious consequences for human social life—or else, why are we talking about it in the first place?

Fifth, a similarly practice-oriented theology is less interested in the potentially transformative implications of otherwise esoteric doctrines like the Trinity for human life. Instead, it works the other way: such doctrines are ruled out of court in advance. Only certain doctrines and topics are intrinsically practical; it is those that theology ought to attend to. Often this approach is coordinated to, or a function of, a laser-like focus on the church's life and the conduct of its ordinary members. Of what benefit is this doctrine to the average Christian? is the pressing question that filters the worthy from the unworthy loci.

Sixth and last, much theology simply proceeds with little to no reference to God as such. It is identifiable as a kind of Christian discourse (it speaks, as it were, Christianese), but the subject matter, by any reasonable account, is not the God of Christian confession. Something else is thereby sought to "make" the discourse "theological," whether or not that effort succeeds.

I should say that this is a quick and dirty list, with considerable overlap between the different items and almost certainly other examples left off. And I should clarify the quirkiness of theology compared to literature, since the analogy is imperfect at key points.

First, the subject matter of literature is literary artifacts written by human beings. Whereas the subject matter for Christian theology God: alive, on the one hand, yet inaccessible to empirical investigation, on the other. Knowledge of God is mediated by that which is not God. Furthermore, the "love" of which Baskin writes is disanalogous in the extreme compared to the "love" that grounds and sustains theology. For this latter love is personal love, directed (ideally) in complete and utter devotion to that than which nothing greater can be conceived: the author and perfecter of our very souls. Nothing similar can be said of literature (or when it is, it is sad to see).

But this only highlights the oddity, even the tragedy, of loveless theology. To speak and write about God as if he is not the all-consuming fire of one's life—as if, indeed, his existence and attributes are a matter of polite speculation—is to repudiate theology itself. Why bother? One can at least understand the literary critic who "hates" literature in Baskin's sense. In the case of the theologian who "hates" theology, and by implication theology's Sache, it is wholly unintelligible.

Second, theology has a natural home, and it is not the university or even the seminary. It is the church. So there is a community that both houses and is the beneficiary of theology's labor. In that sense theologians and believers are right to expect theology to service the church, which does at some level mean a practical effect. (That is why there is a tradition in the church that understands theology to be a practical science and not a theoretical one; compare, for example, the Franciscans to the Thomists.)

Third, theology concerns not just any God but the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who calls all people, including theologians, to follow him. This entails, in summary form, loving God with one's whole self and loving one's neighbor as oneself. The upshot: theology touches on all of life, for it considers all things in relation to God; therefore theology would be incomplete without speaking to moral, social, and political matters. Even by implication, to speak of God is inevitably to speak of issues of great human import, since that same God, who created humanity, became human in Christ and lived an exemplary life to which all are called to conform. To do theology abstracting from these facts would be a failure of serious magnitude.

The trick, then, is to balance the theoretical and practical tasks of theology without denying one in favor of the other or rendering either synonymous to the other. Above all, though, theology must never be embarrassed to be itself. And to be itself, theology must speak of God, boldly and with unbreakable faith. So to speak of God, however, means one must love God, which is the beginning and end of theology. The theologian, it turns out, is one who loves God and thus, in a manner of speaking, loves theology too.


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