Biographies of theologians

Alan Jacobs suggests that we need more biographies of theologians. By which he means, on the one hand, quality biographies (not chronicles) written with style and insight; and, on the other hand, biographies about contemporary theologians, such as Robert Jenson or John Webster.

I would love nothing more than a biographer on a par with Ray Monk to tell the story of, e.g., Jenson's life and work. And in general I heartily second his recommendation. But it prompted a thought.

What makes a life worthy of a biography? Or put differently, what makes a biography worth reading?

It seems to me the answer is threefold. Either the person is herself interesting (something about her charisma or temperament or virtue or genius); or her life was interesting (she fought back the English after having a supernatural vision, say, or traveled through the Balkans in between the world wars); or her thought, beyond being interesting in itself (that justifies secondary literature), produced interesting and notable effects in the world, whether within institutions like the academy or outside of them, say in politics or art (think the Frankfurt School, or Darwin or Einstein).

The question is: Do theologians today meet any of these criteria? Note well: a memoir is distinct from a biography, in that the former invites us into the inner life of the theologian; hence it is easy to imagine theologians writing memoirs worth reading. But what of biographies about them?

It seems to me that the stature of contemporary theologians has fallen so dramatically in the last three generations that, in general, it would never occur to a Ray Monk to profile a theologian for the simple reason that he would see nothing to profile in the first place. What a biography needs, in one variety or another, is drama. And once the leading lights of public intellectual life stopped reading or even caring about theologians—indeed, from the other side, once theologians stopped having social and political cachet, stopped being invited (like Maritain, like Niebuhr) into the halls of power to shape and inform the decisions and policies enacted therein—the potential for drama in theology vanished. Every actual drama was and is thereby reduced to interpersonal squabbles, institutional gossip, and tempests in teapots.

When I try to imagine how a theologian's biography would read, I simply can't get past the sheer tedium of it. "He read and wrote all day—sometimes teaching small seminars of doctoral students—before returning home to his family; his books, while celebrated among his peers, were ignored by everyone outside the field. Occasionally churches would invite him to deliver a lecture; sparsely attended, the gatherings would pay him a modest honorarium and politely applaud what they otherwise only half understood."

I don't mean to make fun: such a life is my own, or at least my own as I hope it stretches into the future. It's a good life, and a life well worth living. But it isn't the stuff of biography. Which is fine, since almost no life is.

In sum, something extra has to make a theologian's life worth telling: wide, impassioned reception of her work; impact on extra-ecclesial institutions; sheer popularity; intersection with major historical events or figures; or perhaps appointment to a major position in church leadership, such as the papacy or see of Canterbury.*

Or, I should add, sainthood. If and when a theologian is possessed of unvarnished, unimpeachable holiness, we ought to write and read biographies about her. I will not hazard to speculate about the prevalence or paucity of saints in modern theology; no doubt there have been and are some, invisible as saints often are. But I do wonder whether holiness is aimed at in the formation of academic theologians today, or whether holiness is actively opposed and routed in such formation, and therefore whether we would be wise to look elsewhere than the ranks of theologians for the discovery of modern-day saints.

*This is why biographies have been written about, e.g., Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Rowan Williams. And Jenson, mentioned by Jacobs in his original post, is himself something of a throwback; his life (1930–2017) bridged the rapid transformation between the age of Niebuhr, Maritain, Lewis, and Barth (on the one hand) and the age of what I've elsewhere called the public theologian in retreat (on the other). Stanley Hauerwas is here the exception that proves the rule, both because there is no one quite like him on the American academic theological scene in the last four decades and because his memoir, while a lovely read and wonderfully illuminating, would have been a bore had it been written by a biographer.


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