Monday, June 25, 2012

A Little Tent in the Agora

"Who is wise and understanding among you?" (James 3:13, RSV)
The first set of crossroads I suggested that theologians face is the decision whether theology (and faith) has to do with knowledge that is publically available to the faithful or whether it is a secret wisdom accessible to a select minority of spiritually gifted individuals --  and who, perhaps, might attain this gnosis through certain ascetical or mystical practices.  I made a clear choice for the first option.
But that claim raises a related question:  If the faith content of theology is publically available in the church's proclamation and teaching, why limit this knowledge to the faithful, to the committed, to believers? Shouldn't it be possible, in principle, for a pagan, a Buddhist or an atheist to understand the claims of the faith, even if she should choose to reject them as false?
One might frame the decision like this:  (1) Does Christian theology make any sense, conceptually and existentially, to those outside the Christian fold?  Or (2) must one already have to have Christian faith, in some form, for theological claims to have any real meaning?
This is a tough set of questions, indeed.  Christian thinkers often want to connect their work, somehow, with other arenas of human inquiry.  "Scientific" inquiry (and I'm including the humanities here, not just the natural sciences) purports to conform to public criteria for truth and to advance claims that can be verified or falsified.  And that seems reasonable enough, but the matter turns out to be not so simple.
Do you remember that show on PBS with the British guy who would walk around English fields and graveyards chatting about all these disparate things and how they connect?  He might start out with a patch of clover or dandelions and proceed to discuss Copernicus and then move on to the invention of movable type and, by the end of it, he'd be talking about space stations and how they could create artificial gravity by rotating on their axes.  (Copernicus and the space station idea have always fascinated me, but the part about flora, not so much).  Wouldn't it be cool if theology were something like that?
A number of theologians, and not just "liberals", stress that Christian truth claims should be open to broad public scrutiny; theology, as it were, should obey some sort of metaphysical sunshine law.  Some of these thinkers style themselves as apologists, laying out "evidence that demands a verdict," and some of them are smarter than Josh McDowell.
Others purport to go about this business in a more systematic and academic manner, proffering arguments and conclusions that, in principle, any well informed reader should be able to assess.  Such a commitment is evident, for example, in the way N.T. Wright makes historical claims and  draws theological conclusions from them.  (Thus, Wright reasons: Jesus' resurrection is historically factual, and dead people don't typically come back to life, so the God of Israel must be up to something new and interesting).
Academic theologians, understandably, are often at some pains to set Christian knowledge within the broadest possible context of human inquiry.  Representatives of this effort include, for example, the Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufmann and, to some extent, one of my own former teachers, Prof. David Tracy.  (Tracy's take on this is actually fairly subtle, and you can learn more about it in his books The Analogical Imagination and Plurality and Ambiguity. He argues that theologians have three distinct audiences: the church, the academy and the general public).
At the other end of the spectrum are those who say no to the first question and yes to the second:  In other words, theology is an inside-out deal intellectually.  A living faith is the condition for the possibility for theological thought.  Those who are the most consistent are often called "fideists" -- most typically used as a negative label (just like "tailgater" has become, in our language, a term of opprobrium.  I grew up near Auburn University in Alabama, where tailgating is an honored tradition on Saturday afternoons in the fall.) 
Fideism might be paraphrased: "faith-only-ism."  A quintessential writer associated with this approach was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who argued that faith resides in an intense, inner self awareness and apprehension of the truth rather than in vain and speculative philosophical systems.  The basic claim here is that apprehending Christian truth is a matter of life and death.  This business is intrinsically self involving.  It's impossible for anyone to have a neutral stance toward the faith, to stand apart from its radical claims as a mere observer (like the Greek philosophers in Acts 17 who told Paul, basically, "Resurrection, eh? We'll get back to you on that one after we've finished our Sunday Athens Times crossword puzzle and taken our naps).
The very term "fideism" -- and especially the opprobrium heaped upon "fideists" -- is problematic in my view.  It raises the question whether "objective" and disinterested knowledge is possible in any human sphere.  This gets into a really tired old debate.  I'm not a philosopher and don't have the chops to really engage this question, and I don't plan to waste any more cyberspace on it here.
*   *   *
Better just to start over, I think.  Instead of trying to settle once for all where faith and theology belong on the map of human understanding, maybe we can discuss faith claims in a more modest way.  We can look at theology phenomenologically -- that is to say, trying to clarify how this mode of inquiry presents itself to us in real life.
A simple yet evocative definition of faith with a long historical pedigree is this: "faith seeking understanding."  The basic insight here is generally attributed to Augustine of Hippo (d. 430 AD), who wrote in a sermon, "Believe in order that you may understand" (quoted here:
Still, the phrase itself, in the Latin original, is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109 AD).  (Anselm, incidentally, is one of the few Christian theologians whom contemporary philosophers continue to find interesting.  For more, see
This definition, I would argue, is a considerable improvement over the more abstract "reasoned discourse about God," because it advances a significant normative claim while remaining open to a broad variety of interpretations within specific contexts.  It is a conception of theology that is both rooted in basic Christian confession and also makes room for questioning and exploration.  You can read an excellent contemporary articulation of this tradition posted by our friends at Die Evangelischen Theologen (
The notion of theology as "Faith seeking understanding," though, does introduce two more problems  -- namely, just what do we mean by the terms "faith" and "understanding"?
Well, perhaps a preliminary definition of a "theology of freedom" would include the freedom not to obsess too much about these questions.

Friday, June 22, 2012

From the Crypt: A Literary Interlude

By Sarah Morice Brubaker, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology
Phillips Theological Seminary

Once up...on a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over certain theologians' arguments about just war.
As I read, I thought "Eh, maybe"... when the opening notes of "Baby"
Scraped my eardrums like a scabie, playing from outside my door.
`'Tis some vapid twit,' I muttered, `singing at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember: seminary, in December,
For I wished to be a member of the clergy, hence my chore.
I had an exam tomorrow. Vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for my sin of yore -
For the rare and radiant lectures through which I'd been known to snore -
Lost to me, now, evermore.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But my work here needs no stalling. Still you play that caterwauling -
Awful, awful caterwauling right outside my chamber door.
Cut it out, please. Right this instant! - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
The silence, it was barely broken, while the darkness gave no token.
For the only line there spoken was "How many either ors?"
Not from Kierkegaard, no. but another pop song I deplore...
Just that line, and nothing more.

Back into my room retreating, to my "Christ and Culture" reading,
Soon again I heard a bleating somewhat louder than before.
"Ah, that must be someone's fun time: very loudly playing 'One Time,'"
... Said I to myself. "I've done time as a teenager before.
Let my heart be still a moment 'midst these sounds that I abhor.
Just one song, though. Nothing more."

Open then I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there climbed a dome of hair as in the eighties days of yore;
Underneath a man was tethered to the mound of locks so feathered,
And he sat upon the weathered stack of books upon my floor.
Sat upon the quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore -
Sat, and looked, and nothing more.

With his puffy head beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and somber styling of the countenance it wore
"Say," I said, raising a finger. "You are quite the deadest ringer
For that one pop music singer they were playing here before.
Tell me what his lordly name is while I check the iTunes store."
Quoth the young man, "Nevermore."

Much I marveled this ungainly chap to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Could confuse what I was seeing with the band called Nevermore.
They play rock and heavy metal. No, this moppet here before
Did not play with Nevermore.

But the young man, sitting lonely on my stack of books, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered. Not a feathered hair he fluttered
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "Well, singers have grown before.
Maybe now he plays thrash metal shows with blood and guts and gore."
Then the man said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
I said, "Well, by the same token, maybe music is a bore
To the man of whom I'm thinking. Maybe his career is sinking.
And since he's too young for drinking, that's a burden his heart bore -
All the dirges of his hope his fragile teenage ego bore."
"No," the man said. "Nevermore."

With the moppet still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of man and books and door.
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this taciturn mentor -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous young mentor
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guesses. Ah, no syllable expresses
How his eyes, beneath those tresses, burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er.
How I love that violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er
(Pier One has all that, and more!)

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by demons whose infernal footfalls sounded on the floor.
"Wretch," I cried! "Satanic mystic, with your language atavistic.
Let us both be realistic!" and I reached toward the floor,
Grabbed a book and went to throw it at the man to make him sore.
Quoth the moppet, "Nevermore."

"Ah!" said I, my conscience stricken, knowing how my rage would sicken
Jesus, who my heart did quicken twenty years ago and four.
"Please forgive me, sir!" I pleaded, while my throwing arm receded.
"Seems my conscience went unheeded. Now your mercy I implore.
I will lay this book aside now, lay it here upon the floor."
Quoth the moppet, "Nevermore."

"Um..." said I, "Do you mean never? Never my connection sever?
Must I read this book *forever* and not lay it on the floor?
Can you give so cruel sentence for my soul's prolonged repentance?
Please, sir! Please relent, in sympathy for me, a sinner poor!
Please relent, and let me put this book down here upon the floor."
Quoth the moppet, "Nevermore."

Weeping, for I knew it vital that I heed his strange recital,
I begged, "Let me check the the title of this book I can't ignore."
And before he could respond, I checked. The first word was "Beyond."
Then "Tragedy." Hope dawned upon my weary, weary heart once more.
"Ah, a Niebuhr! Tell me, do you read the Niebuhrs anymore?"
Quoth the moppet, "Nevermore."

"OH!" I said. "I've recollected who it was that I suspected
you, my hairy disaffected friend, resembled. What is more,
I know you're no twin or double. You are Bieber! What's the trouble?
Surely standing in the rubble of my office is a bore?
Surely you've got better things to do that you should not ignore?"
Quoth the Bieber, "Nevermore."

Justin Bieber, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
Though you might think it unfitting, on the books upon my floor;
I left him with all the Niebuhr. Left it there, with Justin Bieber.
Is he genius, nerd, or dweeb? Or does he just have great rapport
With religious thought forged in the wake of worldwide war?
Do I care? Ah, nevermore.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Into the clearing (a bit)

"But wisdom is justified of all her children." -- Luke 7:35 (KJV)

(The following posts will be fairly compressed, as I wish to move on from preliminaries to more interesting matters by next week, if possible.)
Historically, within the Christian tradition, whoever has engaged in the theological task has had to make some basic decisions.  These choices are unavoidable.  After each set of choices below, I'll briefly give my own take on the matter, without too much elaboration.
1.) Does Christian theology relate to knowledge (a) that is available only to a select group of spiritually enlightened individuals within the community or (b) that is publically accessible, through proclamation and catechesis, to all the faithful .
In the early centuries of the church, this decision came to a head in the conflict between the "Gnostics," who affirmed option (a), and the "orthodox" (represented classically by bishop Irenaeus of Lyons) who promoted option (b).  The latter group won the day in mainstream church leadership, but some version of option (a) -- an "esoteric" theology -- has recurred in every generation, most certainly including ours.  (Augustine's critique of the Manicheans in his Confessions is a propos here).
For me, the matter is settled: The content of the faith is public, available to all, in principle.  This means that Christian theologians are accountable to the church in their work.  A friend of mine, who likes to spar with New Agers, printed the word "Exoteric!" (as opposed to "esoteric") on a tee-shirt.  That says it pretty well.
But then doesn't faith itself become a condition for engaging and comprehending the content of theology?  I think answering that is a little bit trickier, and I'll come back to it later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is theology? A little bit Into the thicket

I'm still circling around the attempt to define theology, or at least to do so for the purposes of this blog.  I'm finding this to be a lot harder to do than I realized at first.   
(Please bear with me, and keep in mind that a lot of what follows is written a little bit from the hip.  This is a blog post, not a journal article.  This is not even one of those blog entries that's a rough draft for a published article.  It's more like a personal journal entry with a few incomplete footnotes.)
In the previous post, I suggest the general definition of theology as "reasoned(?) discourse about God."  Now, on the face of it, this would seem to imply that theology is an attempt to bring some coherent expression to some kind of knowledge.  After all, most of the "ologies" in our lives purport to advance some body of knowledge (so anthropology, for example, discusses the development of human culture -- presumably, as it actually unfolded in time and space).
Given that, what I'm about to say seem pretty peculiar, perhaps even shocking to anyone who hasn't read a bit of modern theology:  A number of modern religious thinkers, including some of the most influential ones, have held that the discipline of theology has nothing to do with "knowledge" about God whatsoever -- or, at least, nothing related to any kind of direct knowledge of God.  In fact, in my view, that's more or less the position of the most influential Protestant thinker in modern history, the German Reformed pastor and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834).  (I'm not an expert on Schleiermacher, and his project is way too complex for me to enter into here, but this is the way I read the opening section of The Christian Faith, published in 1830).  According to such thinkers, theology does not involve knowledge of God because God in Godself is unknowable.  There are a number of interesting variations on this view, but what I would say, in general, is that any thinker who works along these lines faces some formidable challenge in defining what theology means at all.  Some fairly creative definitions of theology have resulted from this basic stance.  Creative can be either good or not so good.
Theologians who dispute this view -- that theology does not deal with knowledge of God -- put forward the counter claim that we in fact can know something of God because God has (in some way) revealed Godself and perhaps continues to do so in the present.  Thus the attempt to answer the Schleiermacher type of reproach typically comes in the form of a doctrine of revelation.
The debates that ensue from these two basic approaches to theology have been extremely contentious and have roiled theologians in the church and academy for more than 200 years.  Understandably, a number of Christian thinkers have become exasperated with the burden of this debate and have decided, as a matter of principle, not to take on this issue too directly in their own work.  They would prefer to focus on the content of Christian theology itself -- and especially on the practical significance of this content for the lives of believers and for the world today -- rather than the endless debate over how we can know and say anything about God at all.  (See, for example, the article by my former teacher and advisor Prof. Kathryn Tanner.  You can read it here, but you'll have to pay for it:
Modern debates about theology are pretty intricate.  For my own part, though, I would say (a bit simplistically, no doubt), that the notion of "theology" concerns actual knowledge of God in some form.  It would seem to follow, then, that this discipline also needs to give some sort of account of this knowledge:  What are the sources of this knowledge?  How do we organize and draw conclusions from this material?  By what criteria?  And to what end?  These are the kinds of questions with which theology has to wrestle.
*   *   *
There is a another basic approach to frame the nature of theology that has some resonance today, and it seems to go to the opposite end of the spectrum from the approach I associated with Schleiermacher.  To unpack this, let's go back to my earlier definition and modify it like this:  Theology is (reasoned) discourse about God -- and about all related matters.  Now this parenthetical comment about "all related matters" complicates the picture a bit, for what matter would be unrelated to the question of God's reality if, as Christians and many others presume, God is the Creator of everything that exists, even of the very possibility of existence itself?
In recent years, there has emerged an attempt to reaffirm theology as a field that relates not only to a special type of knowledge but, somehow, to all human knowledge whatsoever.  Sometimes this commitment comes through in a somewhat wistful desire to re-enthrone theology as the "queen of the sciences", meaning that theological claims would have a direct impact on everything else we might say about the world.  So, for example, there would be a specifically Christian approach to the disciplines of history or sociology.  Karl Barth once wrote, “[T]heology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors" (early in his Church Dogmatics, vol. I:1, though I don't have the exact page citation).  The thinkers I'm discussing now would probably take issue with Barth's claim.  This kind of approach is articulated forcefully among thinkers in the "Radical Orthodoxy" movement, whose most famous representative (probably) is the English theologian John Milbank.  In his monumental book Theology and Social Theory, Milbank argues, essentially, that modern social and political science, theory and ethics have been corrupted by underlying secularist presuppositions.  He proposes to radically reframe these disciplines with basic Christian claims about human life and society at the center. The approach is bold and fascinating.
I think Milbank is probably going to far, and I would probably be more in sympathy with Barth's more humble definition of theology.  But I'm not really going to say anything more about Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy here, because this is not really what this blog is going to be about anyway.

Friday, June 15, 2012

What is "Theology"?

So what is a theological blog about, anyway?
If you were to survey several dozen blogs, websites and online journals concerned with "theology," you would be barraged with a dizzying array of material covering a wide swath of disciplines and from disparate confessional and "objective" perspectives.  These would include biblical commentaries, metaphysical speculations, political analyses, sermons, memoirs,  satires, book reviews, historical surveys, screeds, some sketchy stuff about UFOs, some libelous material about televangelists and other public figures, pro and anti GBLT treatises, and attempts to empower particular groups of people or, alternatively, to keep them in "their place."  And, I hope, you would find only a fraction of this stuff remotely interesting, or else you should be prepared to say goodbye to your day job -- unless, that is, you're lucky enough to get one of those jobs in which you get paid to read this stuff all the time.
But this is not to be a theo-blog about theo-blogging per se, despite the inevitable self-referential and intertextual aspects of the enterprise.  No, I would actually want to say something about something.  And that's the tricky part.
(After I graduated from college, before embarking for seminary in Atlanta, I wryly informed my roommate I would soon be off "to study the study of God."  He thought that would be a waste of time:  Instead, I should actually try to learn something about God.  At the time, he was something of a religious skeptic and introduced me to the Tao-te Ching.  He's an entrepreneur and a multi-millionaire now, and I have visual evidence of his numerous sport vehicle purchases on my Facebook feed.  Theo-blogging, by contrast, doesn't tend to be terribly lucrative.  But if I start running Dr. Pepper 10 ads on my sidebar, then who knows?)
Back on topic -- Theology as the "study of God" (or of a god or the gods, depending upon your religious worldview):  Now that has a commonsense ring about it.  That way of framing the matter gets pretty close to the Greek etymological roots of the term.  Theology, roughly, means "talk" or, perhaps better "discourse" about God.  I might be tempted to say "reasoned" discourse about God.  Ancient and medieval philosophers might have approved of that, but in the current postmodern intellectual climate, that would ensnare me in a thicket of additional questions and problems.
Ask me what a microbiologist studies, and I could give you a rough answer, though I couldn't give you too much specific detail about her methods, data and conclusions.  Even for something as ethereal as "parapsychology," I have a pretty good idea (gleaned from cable TV) what that is about, though I'm not sure whether that enterprise meets the rigorous empirical criteria of a "real" science.  (Just hearing the term itself evokes for me this image of Bill Murray, wearing something resembling a Hoover vacuum cleaner on his back, chasing a luminous green blob around the New York Public Library.)
But why is it, then, that when I'm trying to delineate "theology," a field I've ostensibly been tracking for about two decades, I run into such difficulties?  Theology as "reasoned(?) discourse about God" -- What might this possibly mean? If you're new to this question, you might be surprised by the wide range of answers offered to this question throughout the history of religious thought.  And you might be perplexed by the wide-ranging debates and myriad perspectives on offer today.
But if you want to find out more what I think about all this, unfortunately, you'll have to tune in later.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why does this blog exist?

 Hi there.  Thanks for visiting.  I've done relatively little blogging in my day, so I thought I'd take a few moments to introduce this blog and the scope of its inquiry.

The name for the blog comes from a quote from the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth, during his only visit to the United States.  I find it a wonderful and challenging quote and hope to probe it more deeply in posts to come.

So why does this blog exist?  The short answer is that I have a little article coming out in a book soon (I hope).  Several of the contributors are highly accomplished theo-bloggers. (When I get some time, I'm going to post links to their blogs.  And I'll post a link to your blog, too, if you're a friend of mine and/or if your blog is interesting and there are no expletives in the title, for I am a family man with a 3-year-old son.)

I was, thus, concerned that I might be the only contributor without a blog of his own.  My editor, in soliciting bios from us, also requested that we highlight whatever web presence each of us has.  I took this (I'm sure he didn't intend it this way) as a challenge to validate my existence as a theologian (more on this later) by pointing to definite markers of this existence in cyber reality.  I blog, therefore I am.  In other words, I was afraid of being embarrassed if I didn't have my own blog.  Crisis averted.  You might call this effort, then, an act of shame-induced self promotion.

But more seriously -- and I do mean this -- I love studying theology.  I've beeing studying theology, at times fairly seriously, for almost 20 years.  I especially enjoyed graduate school, and I was blessed to be able to sneak into a couple of pretty good ones.  One of the most important things about study, for me, has been the sense of community I share with others who have similar passions and interests -- and student loan debt.
It is very easy to feel isolated, though, once one gets out of graduate school, no matter what comes next.  So, then, a theology blog becomes an act of trying to plug into community (Christians claim to know something about the need for this).  In this case, a community of intellectual inquiry.  This is especially important for me as, in my current life circumstances, I can't really afford to go to a lot of the conferences where I could discuss these ideas and passions over a nice pint of .... soda (there may be some Baptists reading this blog).

Next up (hopefully soon):  What is theology?
P.S.: I wrote this on my lunch break.  I swear it.