In March 2019, I began organizing a multi-stage project meant to explore the state of theology as a discipline. The goal of the project was to identify some of the most important work currently being done in the field, to reflect on what it means to produce significant theological work, to consider the contexts in which theological work is produced, and to anticipate the challenges and opportunities that the discipline can expect to face in the future. It was important to me to do all this in a way that could be made public in a relatively short span of time. The project is incomplete and open-ended by design.
So far, the project has proceeded in two phases. In the first phase, I consulted with a small but diverse, ecumenical, globally representative group of theologians, who were grounded in their own specialty, capable of speaking more broadly about the field, and connected in some way to Syndicate. Each participant filled out a detailed survey, which asked them to define theology, identify recent, dynamic work, and envision the future of field. This phase culminated in the report (below), which reflects my analysis and interpretation of the survey responses. For the second phase, I invited a diverse group of theologians to respond to different aspects of the report. Those responses will be posted each Monday and Thursday in the coming weeks. At the conclusion, I will reflect more concretely what the future holds for Syndicate in light of what I have learned in this process.
The Syndicate Report on the State of Theology and the three symposia organized in response reflect on the field of academic theology. The report is not a comprehensive sociological study. It does not provide a neutral, objective, scientific account of any of the questions it raises. It focuses on anglophone, academic theology, and it is weighted heavily (though not exclusively) toward the theology in North American, European, and Australian contexts, of the sort typically featured in Syndicate symposia. Neither is it a manifesto, which represents the interests of particular individuals or groups. It is more like a seminar, a series of related conversations, which together contribute to a set of broader, ongoing conversations about the nature, state, and future of the discipline. Making this project public is intended to elicit continuing critical and constructive discussion about the topics raised. I hope that others find it useful.
The ten theologians involved in this consultation were chosen because they bring a diverse range of social and institutional perspectives, they represent the major branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline/Black/Evangelical Protestant, Pentecostal), and they are able to speak about trends in the discipline beyond North American theological academy. I consider them high-impact leaders in the field. These are people who organize other people; they have edited major journals, led their institutions, run important centers, or take leadership roles in professional societies. The ten participants include James Alison (priest, Madrid, Spain), Natalie Carnes (Baylor), Luigi Gioia, OSB (Von Hügel Institute, Cambridge), Grace Kao (Claremont School of Theology), Vincent Lloyd (Villanova; Political Theology Network), Loida I. Martell (Lexington Theological Seminary), Charles Mathewes (Virginia), Aristotle Papanikolaou (Fordham; Orthodox Christian Studies Center), Nimi Wariboko (Boston University), Thelathia Young (Bucknell).
The survey I administered prompted participants to define theology and identify its most important disciplinary conversation partners, to identify the most significant and dynamic work currently being done in the field, and to speculate on what the future holds for the discipline, envisioning its most important challenges and opportunities. They were asked to generalize and then to provide specific, concrete data, with the hope that the two sorts of answers would be mutually illuminating. I read the answers under each section together, identified patterns, and used those patterns to create interpretive categories. This allowed me to identify how frequently the responses aligned (the numbers indicate how many out of the ten participants responded in a certain way). I have written something in which I believe each individual can see their responses and which seeks to summarize, make connections, and move the conversation forward.
I wrote the report for anyone who senses some stake in the state and future of academic theological discourse, not just for those trained in academic theology. This is reflected in the relative brevity of the report and in the form of its presentation. After restating the questions, I summarize my interpretation of the responses and then provide a fuller account of the interpretive categories I relied on while offering greater detail about the results I gathered.
Part I: Defining Theology
What is theology? What are its primary disciplinary conversation partners?
Theology is talk about God. Theologians in a variety of self-defined subdisciplines analyze God-talk; they take intellectual responsibility for how their communities talk about divinity. Christian theologians relate self-critically to Christian teaching and practice in light of Scripture, which is normative for Christian communities. Because people use God-talk to describe what matters most to them, theologians also relate critically to the implicit and explicit theological claims in nonreligious (social, cultural, political) settings. They prioritize engagement with fields in the humanities and social sciences, especially philosophy, critical theory, literature, history, anthropology, and economics.
Theology as a discipline was described in the following ways: as a kind of activity, by its subject matter and source materials, and as a web of related subfields. Every response identified theology formally as a mode of discourse, which involves reflection, study, contemplation, analysis, or interpretation. Nearly everyone said that theology is about God, and it involves claims about God’s work in the world and about the human condition. Nearly everyone explicitly or implicitly located theological discourse within a local community. Most of the responses identified Christian Scripture as a normative or authoritative source for theological claims. A significant minority highlighted the importance of tradition and some form of communal practice, such as prayer or liturgy, as objects of theological analysis (theologians analyze Christian teachings and practices) or formative influences on theological study (such study takes place in the context of faith, prayer, and worship).
Christian theology is always, and perhaps primarily, a self-critical practice within the life of Christian communities, whereby some of the community’s members relate more rigorously and analytically to Christian teachings and practices and to Scripture, as the normative source of both. But it is not only that. Everyone I consulted with also treated theology as an academic practice, which can be located within a university or in conversation with non-theological disciplines. There are two reasons for this, one internal to Christianity and one external. First, Christians believe that Christian truth-claims must be intelligible within the world and adequate to it. Theology’s classical definition, “faith seeking understanding,” requires that it take intellectual responsibility for Christian teaching by drawing on and holding itself accountable to a broad range of sources and disciplines. Second, God can be described independently of particularly Christian terms. Theology can therefore relate analytically and (self-)critically to the discourses, traditions, and practices of any community. Theology in this context functions as a mode of analysis, which asks: what do these practices, these teachings, these assumptions tell us about how a given community thinks about God or the gods about what it means to be human? Because people use God-talk to discuss what matters most to them, what motivates them most deeply, what they desire above all else, theological analysis need not focus specifically on what is identified as “religious.” It can examine and reframe a wide variety of institutions and social formations (the nation-state, capitalist markets, healthcare systems, penal justice, marriage), intellectual traditions (liberalism, Marxism, Platonism), and communal practices (arts, crafts, filmmaking, medicine, sports, community organizing).
Participants often treated theology as an umbrella term for a web of related subfields. The responses identified or referred to the following subfield: systematic theology analyzes the meaning of Christian doctrines in relation to one another. Constructive theology relates the logic of Christian belief to the contemporary world. Biblical theology interprets the theologies of the biblical authors. Historical theology interprets theologians from the past. Ethics focuses on the normative implications of Christian teaching. Philosophical theology either makes philosophical sense of theological claims or makes theological sense of philosophical claims. Political theology looks at the political meaning of theological claims and analyzes the theology implicit in political structures, logics, and practices. Contextual theology indexes theological claims to marginalized communities (e.g., black, womanist, Asian American, feminist, and queer).
Participants were asked to identify theology’s primary disciplinary conversation partners, to name specific, non-theological works they deem essential reading for theologians, and to list exemplary multidisciplinary theological works. I looked at what was named or implied in the responses through three lenses: the areas (humanities, social sciences, etc.), the disciplines mentioned, and, where applicable, relevant topics (gender/sexuality, race, politics). The responses located theology’s primary disciplinary conversation partners in the humanities and social sciences. Every response listed a humanities field; half listed a social science. One identified physics, and two listed alternative sources such as marginalized perspectives or ecumenical dialogue.
Within the social sciences, about half identified anthropology and sociology and significant minorities named economics and politics. Within the humanities, almost everyone named or identified works that engaged philosophy (political philosophy, continental philosophy, and hermeneutics) or literary studies (including literary theory and literary works such as novels and poetry). A significant minority also identified history, classics, and some identified aesthetics/art and psychoanalysis. Notably, nearly everyone referred to a set of related discourses called “critical theory.”1 The plurality of these references focused on sexuality and gender, on race, or on analysis of the effects of capitalist markets. Because these social hierarchies are thought to be intersecting and therefore mutually implicating, this literature often analyzes such topics together.2
Part II: Identifying Significant Work
Where is the most dynamic or significant work being done in the field?
The most dynamic theology is typically conversant with and faithful to the Christian tradition, but it rarely focuses on internal doctrinal debates. Instead, seeking to be responsive to the concerns of the present, it draws on other disciplines to illumine the meaning of Christian teaching about God, Christ, and humanity and to explore how to rearticulate those teachings in today’s world. Motivated by the concerns of marginalized people, this work tends to address critiques of capitalism and global markets and the concerns of critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and political theory. This work is especially happening within constructive theology.
Participants were asked to locate the most significant or dynamic work in the field, to identify specific examples of such work, and to state why they believed it to be significant. Most participants referred to topics and specific books/authors. Some identified meetings, centers, societies, and projects.3 The topic mentioned most—and by a majority of participants—was in the area of sexuality, gender, and queer studies. Most of the responses pointed to work that addressed questions about gender, sex, sexuality, race, and their intersections with one another and with global capitalism and colonialism. Four mentioned capitalism and economic inequality. Other areas mentioned multiple times were Pentecostal studies, ecclesiology, community organizing, and philosophical debates about language. When asked to identify specific works, participants listed work addressing political theology (8), capitalism/economics (8), race (7), and sexuality/gender/queer studies (6). A sizable majority of the work could also be categorized as addressing traditional theological loci about God, human nature, Christ, and salvation. By far the most common locus—which came up for nearly everyone—was theological anthropology (Christian belief about humanity), which is at the intersection of systematic theology, political theology, and social ethics. Half identified work in Trinitarian theology (Christian belief about God), and a significant minority identified work in Christology (Christian belief about Jesus).
Most of this work is engaged in critiques of social hierarchy and motivated by a desire to highlight the voices and concerns of marginalized communities. Nearly everyone identified theological texts written in conversation with philosophy, critical theory, or history. Around half were in conversation with literary studies or the social sciences, especially economics. A significant minority were in conversation with science. The subdisciplines represented were overwhelmingly systematic theology, ethics, political theology, and contextual theology. The more recent category of “constructive” theology tends to combine all those subfields mentioned. Five were in philosophical theology and two were historical theology.4
The most common reason for identifying a work as significant or dynamic is that it takes the discipline in a new direction (8): it takes up a new body of literature (animal studies, German Romanticism), it engages something in a new or fresh way (theological aesthetics through critical race theory), it seeks to build something new (redefine ecclesiology after the clerical crisis), or it redefines how theology is done more generally. Most pointed to work responding either to some ecclesial, political, or social crisis or to an academic problem. About one-third of the responses pointed to how the work draws attention to marginalized voices or communities. A significant minority described the work as shedding something theologically undesirable (the weight of clericalism, the grip of hetero-capitalist logic, etc.).
What is the most dynamic work in the field? The short answer is that it is “engaging with the Christian tradition deeply and faithfully while also grappling with specific forms of worldly domination.” This combined emphasis draws attention to another important factor: how such work retrieves Christian tradition through conversation with outside discourses. The underlying belief is that rigorous attention to the Christian tradition can offer insights, challenges, analysis of contemporary problems, matters of public concern, or important academic questions. Some retrieval theology emphasizes what I call refinement, in service of theology’s essentially self-critical task. Other disciplines help theology to reframe a particular theological question within the terms of the Christian tradition, or they provide a methodological intervention that reshapes how theological questions are approached. The “critical discourse from another field” helps to “illumine possibilities for Christian theology that were previously not seeable.” This also often serves the communities that rely on theologians to reflect their own commitments back to them. Other retrieval theology emphasizes the application of the tradition. The tradition serves as a resource from which to respond to some problem or crisis or to provide critical insight into some aspect of the present. This work “correlate[s] the questions and issues of the present with the resources of faith, history, or schools of interpretations.” The outside engagement, then, helps situate the manner of theological engagement. Works that emphasize theological application tend to blur the lines between theology and social ethics, or between theology and philosophy in cases where theologians show how engaging the Christian tradition can enrich another discipline. The most dynamic work identified typically both refines and applies. The outside discourses allow for “the revitalization or reworking of old concepts to meet new challenges.” There is a back and forth momentum, in which the engagement with other disciplines reshapes theological terms, which in turn respond to academic, social, or political issues. Another important theological dynamic worth mentioning relates to work that engages in what I’ll refer to as reckoning. Theological reckoning highlights and sometimes accounts for what has gone wrong in theological traditions. It can be a critical moment in a larger process of refinement or application, or it can be done on its own, as a way of calling theological discourses to account for harmful assumptions or effects. Often, work that seeks theological reckoning will show how some state of affairs (colonialism, white supremacy, etc.) has roots in a series of theological assumptions or arguments.
Part III: Speculating about the Future
What is the future of theology? What are its challenges and opportunities?
Theology’s future lies in increased intellectual engagement and social diversity. The greatest challenges are simultaneously intellectual and structural. Rapid change and unpredictable institutional realignments in church and academy, especially in conditions of relative economic scarcity, contribute to intellectual isolation and ideological and social polarization. These challenges provide new intellectual and social opportunities, despite continued anxiety about the future.
Those who predicted theology’s future tended index the future to intellectual and social factors. Mostly, they saw theologians bringing the Christian tradition into deeper, more sustained conversation with the concerns of marginalized people and with the social conditions inhibit the full flourishing of all. Many saw increased interdisciplinarity. One suggested that climate change would make theology more relevant in the coming years. For a substantial minority, however, the future remains an open question. They expressed serious concern about the discipline’s future. They worried that the discipline may not be able to respond adequately to contemporary intellectual challenges or to the institutional realignments currently taking place, especially in the wake of church crises. Generally, the responses gave the impression that academic theology is beleaguered. It is feeling the pressure of economic scarcity within higher education. It is also feeling the weight of church conflict, scandal, and the decline in church attendance in the United States. Tellingly, when prompted to list challenges and opportunities the discipline faces, everyone named challenges. Only six described opportunities.
Responses named four types of challenges: structural, intellectual, social, and cultural. Structural challenges involved (and often combined) institutional factors, such as trends in university hiring, the isolation of theology in theological schools, economic factors, such as the decline in enrollments at seminaries, ecclesial shifts, such as the clerical abuse scandal or decline in church membership, or challenges related to academic publishing. Intellectual challenges involved both intellectual stagnancy and the effects of ideological polarization. Social challenges ranged from lack of diversity to lack of connection. Cultural challenges were often tied into to the other challenges, and they were related to the forces of secularization, politics, economics, and other factors that affect economic life. The most commonly cited challenges were structural and intellectual. They focused on the intersection of institutional realignments and pressures in the academy and the church on the one hand, and the effect of those alignments on intellectual life on the other.
These responses were particularly difficult to untangle because of how interrelated the various challenges are. For example, the most commonly cited challenge, intellectual stagnancy (8), was characterized by some as consisting essentially in a lack of ideological or social diversity. Others characterized it by noting the isolation of theologians from other sections of the academy. Additionally, intellectual stagnation can have a variety of causes: elite institutions are risk averse, which makes them less likely to support cutting-edge work; pressures on the publishing industry or by tenure and promotions committees discourage experimental work; the decline of faculty positions in university departments leaves most theological research to be carried out within the relative intellectual isolation of theological schools, resulting in a more parochial focus; scarcity of resources affects the courage and intellectual verve of many working in the discipline. Sometimes, the problem was named alone: as a lack of engagement with other religions, with marginalized voices, with philosophy, or with the concerns of everyday life.
The second most commonly cited challenge is related to the institutional and economic pressures theologians feel. Portions of the academy, especially in the humanities, have not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. There are not enough jobs. Existing jobs are being eliminated. Many schools have cut humanities faculty, have reshaped their curricula to respond to market pressures, and are transmuting the liberal arts into accoutrements for professional degrees. Most of the newly available positions are not permanent. Many of the permanent positions are not conducive to productive engagement. The belt-tightening of their institutions, combined with implementation of technocratic assessment measures, have given many of them excessively heavy teaching and administrative loads, which keeps them from doing their own research and writing. A significant minority also identified challenges had to do with ideological division, with social conflict, with the decline in church membership, and with the loss of confidence resulting from the sexual abuse crisis.
Some of the above challenges can be reframed as opportunities, just as identifying a problem makes it possible to respond creatively to it. In this sense, the collapse of a clerical system can lead to something new; decline in pastoral candidates creates an opportunity to engage grassroots communities on matters of social justice. Intellectually, theology might rearticulate itself. The intellectual challenge gives theologians a chance to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that theology can be daring and smart, to find new opportunities for engagement, and to speak meaningfully through polarization. The predominant sense is theology is undergoing a crisis of relevance, that its place has been or is being called into question. This may be why so much of the work identified above addresses that crisis head on, and it does so without compromising the force of Christian conviction. Its openness to other discourses and especially to challenges is seen as a sign of its strength.
Another way of thinking about it is this: if theology is a self-critical practice within the church and an intellectual practice in the academy, the challenges and opportunities it faces are related to rapid developments in academic and ecclesial institutions. These institutions, which locate theology, have an uncertain future. Christian churches face crises of trust and relevance. Academic institutions face financial difficulty and a political loss of confidence. The serious intellectual challenges theology encounters, rooted especially in matters of justice, are exacerbated by a sense of scarcity and alarm related to this uncertainty. In this context, the social focus of many of the responses is striking. One noted how the challenges are an opportunity for a new generation to bring different, improved sensibilities to the theological academy. Multiple responses suggested that the future lies in discovering new ways of thinking together, stressing the need to find new ways of connecting, such as the Syndicate Network, alongside new ways to increase the diversity of voices, especially those on the margins. Here, the polarization that divides and threatens becomes a chance for the social and the intellectual to converge. The challenges are structural and economic. The response is social. The question is whether that will be enough.
Conclusion and Next Steps
This report is the result of a consultation with a cross section of a carefully chosen group of high-impact individuals working in the field. It is not without its limitations, mostly resulting from the limitations on inviting only ten individuals to respond. Though the sample I have invited represents the state of contemporary, mainstream theological conversations, it is biased toward anglophone, North American and European theological discussions. I did not attempt to identify demographic patterns, because the group is not large enough to meaningfully identify trends within demographic segments. (There were six men and four women; there were five people of color, and three from outside of a North American context.) It is also heavily weighted toward senior scholars working at established, highly respected institutions (though, there were no responses from theologians who teach at evangelical institutions). Further, there were some participants, which I was keen to involve, who declined to participate in the survey due to time constraints.
I consider the initial consultation a first step. The next step involves discussing the report in public. I will curate a conversation about the issues the report raised. Though I will offer the initial participants a chance to respond and expand on the summary, I will mostly focus on overcoming some of the limitations I’ve identified. I will invite a broader, more diverse cross-section of individuals (by seniority, institution, region, communion) to write targeted responses to the different sections of the report. The result will be a much fuller, in-depth discussion of many of the issues identified above.
The three symposia that will be posted in the coming months establish some strands of ongoing conversation. They were organized with several goals in mind. One goal was to assess the accuracy and representativeness of the report’s conclusions. Is the report broadly accurate? What are its limits? Another was to determine which parts of the report merit further attention. A third goal was to encourage deeper reflection on what makes theological work significant. What are the criteria for identifying significant work, the process by which work becomes influential, and the temporality in which it makes its mark? A fourth was to reflect on the relationship of theological work to its institutional contexts. Where does theology thrive? Where does it languish? What opportunities and challenges does the discipline face in its current institutional contexts?
Apart from the resources to engage in a broader, quantitative social-scientific study, I pursued the first goal by asking a fairly wide cross-section of academic theologians from around the world to respond critically and constructively to the report. While few ended up contesting its overall conclusions, some drew attention to various inadequacies and silences. Others added perspectives they believe were neglected. I expect (and hope) that such constructive scrutiny continues. I pursued the second, third, and fourth goals by inviting panelists to write essays responding to targeted prompts. One group of panelists was asked to respond to any aspect of the report that merits further discussion, beginning a process of identifying what they took to be especially significant. Two other groups were invited to respond to more detailed prompts addressing how to think about what makes theological work significant and about the contexts in which theology thrives.
Beginning on Monday, February 10, essays will appear each Monday and Thursday. They will appear as “Replies” to the prompts, which will be posted as commentaries on the report.
I am grateful to everyone who supported this project at various stages: the Templeton World Charity Foundation, whose generous donation to Syndicate made this project possible; to Bonnie Zahl, Peter Jordan, and Andrew Serazin of TWCF, who first approached me with the idea to do a project like this, funded it, and helped see it through; to John Gleim, whose excellent work as Syndicate’s editorial assistant freed up my time and attention; to Brandy Daniels, Chuck Mathewes, Jim Keenan, and Luke Bretherton, who pointed me in very helpful directions in early stages of planning; to the survey respondents and panelists, who generously, enthusiastically, and expeditiously offered their time, energy, insight, and attention; and to Christian Amondson, for his friendship, support, vision, humility, drive, and generosity, apart from which Syndicate would not exist – all who value Syndicate and the conversations it makes possible are in his debt.
Critical theory analyzes how racial, gender, sexual, market, political, and other social categories are constructed, how they intersect, the interests they serve, and the effects they have. Christian theologians often find that such analysis speaks to the sense that the Christian theological tradition was complicit in the formation of a world-order that has situated people in dominating and demeaning social hierarchies, which distort how they relate to themselves, the world, and to God.↩
Works or authors that were mentioned repeatedly were: Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was listed three times, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Marx’s Capital, and works by Michel Foucault and James Baldwin were each repeated twice. Two participants suggested that there were no non-theological works that were essential reading for every theologian.↩
The meetings, projects, groups, collaborations, and centers mentioned were: the WorkGroup on Constructive Theology, the Society of Christian Ethics, the Political Theology Network, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, the Religion and Its Publics project at UVA, and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.↩
Half the participants pointed to the work of Linn Tonstad (Yale), who writes at the intersection of queer studies and traditional dogmatic/systematic theology. Three pointed to recent work on capitalism and markets by Kathryn Tanner (Yale). Two responses noted the work of Luke Bretherton (Duke) on theology, ethics, and community organizing.↩