Symposium Introduction

The Project

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 Report

 

Introduction

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 Symposia

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.

 

 

Gratitude

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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Syndicate

Response

What Makes Theological Work Significant?

What makes theological work significant?

  1. How do you determine what counts as significant work? How should the “impact” of theological work be measured or assessed?
  2. How do theologians influence one another? Christians? Other academics? The broader society?
  3. How long does it take for work to make its mark?
  4. What questions has the discipline been most concerned to address? What are the questions that you think most need addressing? Are there any questions that you think are over-emphasized? Does attention to some questions at the expense of others have an adverse influence on the discipline?
  5. What sorts of interdisciplinary engagements (disciplines, subjects, methods) do you find most productive? Least productive?
  6. What approaches do you see that are most promising? What kinds of work do you expect to be most important in the future?
  7. Please list other resources (news articles, reports, essays, journal articles, books, websites, etc.) that you find relevant.

 

Responses by

Lucy Peppiatt
Simeon Zahl
Ellen Armour
Natalia Imperatori-Lee
Jonathan Tran
Sarah Coakley
Joel Halldorf
John Behr

 

  • Lucy Peppiatt

    Lucy Peppiatt

    Reply

    Response to the Survey Report on the State of Theology

    By way of commenting on the impact of the teaching and practice of theology, I find it helpful to see these operating in three different spheres of society. The three spheres I see are (1) theological education for the church, (2) Christian theology within religious studies at school and university, and (3) a Christian theologian’s role in public discourse in relation to government, policy, ethics, the justice system, education, etc. Differentiating between the three spheres enables us to measure impact because it gives us a way of understanding what the purpose and goals are of a specifically theological contribution in any given sphere. One cannot measure the impact of an endeavour without first understanding the goal, so I would begin here.

    On reading the report I felt that the participants were in favour of all three endeavours, i.e., they would support a theologian’s role in educating the church, participating in higher education and university-level academic discourse, and contributing to public life. I did feel, however, that there was some confusion at times as to which theological role we were speaking of, especially in relation to some of the negative appraisals or pessimism regarding the theologian’s role over against more positive perspectives on “opportunities” up ahead. So to my mind it would be helpful to differentiate between them. I also felt that there might have been some expectation that university-based theology/divinity faculties might be able to provide significant input in all three spheres whereas I don’t see that as the case. Some theologians are much better suited and better trained for one rather than the other, and to some extent, a theologian needs to find her place and serve there, but to be clear on what she is expected to do in any given sphere. This doesn’t mean that one person can’t have a role in all three spheres, but differentiating between them will help to guide the discourse and aims of the involvement, and thus to measure impact.

    Having differentiated between these spheres, we can then begin to measure impact because we have first identified goals. We will see that impact will probably be measured in different ways. For the church-based theological educator, I would suggest that impact will be measured in terms of the deepening and strengthening of the students’ faith, and growth in confidence and skill in ministry (teaching, preaching, mission, pastoral care, justice initiatives, etc.). This will be evidence that the teaching programme is achieving what it is designed to deliver. Impact will also be measured in terms of numbers of students attending, and enthusiasm for the programme among church leaders. There is a great need for theologians to contribute to teaching within the church, and in my opinion, there are many opportunities up ahead as church leaders see the need for deeper engagement with theology and scripture.

    The challenge for theologians working in these settings is not to become part of a church bubble where they lose sight of the wider theological conversation. In my view, it’s essential that theologians working in this church-based context continue to develop ideas in conversation with other theologians, that they submit work for peer review, and that they publish. Having said that, one of the main signs of impact for church-based theological educators is whether they can effectively translate complex theological concepts to people who have no theological background and so they will need to learn to speak two modes of discourse fluently.

    I particularly liked the idea of “theological reckoning” mentioned in the report. “Theological reckoning highlights and sometimes accounts for what has gone wrong in theological traditions.” It calls “theological discourses to account for harmful assumptions or effects.” This seems to me to be a crucial process for the church, but will be most effective when carried out by church-based theologians because they will be the ones who will be trusted to speak out from within the tradition. This kind of theological reckoning will only be achievable within relationships of trust where the theologian is deemed to be working ultimately for the upbuilding of the church and not simply as an exercise in deconstruction or criticism. This kind of theology is done in an overt expression of worship, prayer, and faith, which is appropriate here.

    The university-based Christian theologian is in a very different sphere and will be called upon to bring a different contribution to her context. For the university-based theologian (who in the UK might have some kind of impact on religious education at school level), impact will be measured in entirely different ways. The university theologian is involved in the broad discipline of religious studies and must be conversant with that world. It is essential in this sphere for the theologian to be able to defend the teaching of Christian theology within the larger conversation. I don’t see this as a difficult task per se, making a case for the importance of students to grasp the significance of the Christian religion, the role of the Bible, and Judeo-Christian perspectives for nearly all other areas of study should be a no-brainer for anyone with any sense of history and the history of ideas. I do know, however, that humanities in general, philosophy, and religion are somewhat beleaguered disciplines and this is perhaps a wider conversation about the state of higher education. I think this is some of the reason for the pessimism around the future of theology, because of the depressing truth that it is becoming harder and harder to make a case for the centrality of religious studies, when this should absolutely not be the case. It might be that some more general work in the role of Christian theology in a well-rounded education would be worthwhile. With the acknowledgment in a postmodern context that spirituality and faith are not insignificant in pedagogy, it could be timely.

    In sum, the university theologian will need to hone her skills of conversation with other disciplines, and to make sense for those around her as to why theology is part of the educational mix—why it’s even in the curriculum. There are good reasons for this, but the case still needs to be made and should be made strongly. I was interested to read that anthropology as a theological branch of study features so highly on everyone’s list and it seems to me that as well as the argument of the need for students to know about the role of Christianity in history and the history of ideas, anthropology is a field in which Christian thinking cannot and should not be ignored.

    University theology is something that should be supported by the church, as this is where much of the theological reckoning begins. Unfortunately, there is often a dissonance between the academy and the church, not to say suspicion on both sides. University theology can be hopelessly out of touch with lived Christian experience and vice versa. Places where the two can come together would be most welcome in my view.

    Finally, there is a place for a Christian theologian in the public conversations of the world. Some theologians are perfectly suited for this. They are well read, well appraised, and articulate, and they have a hearing among policy-makers in different spheres. Theologians here can bring perspectives that others can’t and can speak prophetically for a vision for the common good, empowering the disempowered, the curtailing of excess, the importance of sacrifice and self-control, nonviolent solutions, etc. Impact will be measured by invitations to join the conversations and the steering of groups towards an ethic of Christlike love. Christian theologians have much to offer on crucial issues: poverty, women, poverty and women, the impact of technology and advances in science, education, pornography and the breakdown of intimacy, and climate change are just some. These are debates that are going on and will go on with or without a theological contribution. Those who are gifted at bringing theological perspectives to bear on these issues should be writing in ways that can be heard by others outside the academy and the church.

    In terms of resources, I would say the most fruitful resource is friendships for sharing of ideas. These can be discovered and forged at conferences, colloquia, symposia, via social media, or simply around the dinner table. As long as they are forged with those who think differently from us as well as the like-minded, I am optimistic about the future of theology.

    • Simeon Zahl

      Simeon Zahl

      Reply

      What Makes Theological Work Significant?

      Although many different answers to this question are possible, for myself I think of significant theological work as possessing two qualities above all. The first is explanatory power. Does a given theological argument or framework help bring to the surface dynamics of Christian belief, practice, and history that have long been present but which have until recently been overlooked, underestimated, or mischaracterized? Does it give voice and conceptual structure to problems that are widely felt but as yet inadequately or inchoately articulated? Then it has explanatory power.

      The second quality of the most significant theological work is what I think of as constructive generativity. Does a theological angle foster compelling new interpretations of old texts and old questions from the history of theology? Does it have critical implications, bringing to light real religious and intellectual problems, while at the same time opening up pathways for reparative and constructive work that go beyond the merely critical? Does it help us to find new solutions to longstanding problems in theology and in Christian practice? Then it is constructively generative.

      Of course, there are a host of different judgments involved in what actually constitutes “explanation” or “generativity” in a given case, and there will be a lot of disagreement on that front in practice. But I do think you can point to cases where what I am talking about is pretty clearly visible. A fairly typical example might be the “postliberal” approach to theology that emerged out of the work of Hans Frei and George Lindbeck, amongst others, at Yale in the 1970s and ’80s. Frei and Lindbeck’s work provided conceptual tools for drawing attention to the importance of Christian practices rather than just propositional belief in shaping Christian identity and experience. In particular, they helped to show how Christian doctrines and scriptural texts function not just as truth claims but also as a kind of “grammar” that lies behind and informs liturgies, prayers, modes of Bible reading, and other forms of identity-shaping religious practice.

      This was an angle that proved remarkably fruitful. It proved able, for example, to help make sense of dynamics that were being observed in the ecumenical movement, where it was becoming clear that doctrinal disagreement had often served to mask shared experience amongst Christians. The “postliberal” approach also generated attention to hitherto overlooked topics like the literary dimensions of scriptural texts, helped provide a generation of Protestants with a new theological language for understanding the importance of liturgy and the sacraments, and gave theologians compelling new ways of justifying traditional Christian practices in an age when their value could no longer be taken for granted. In each of these ways, the approach to theology pioneered by Frei and Lindbeck helped make sense of problems that many late twentieth-century Western Christians could relate to, and provided conceptual tools for developing new answers to those problems.

      A second example is more recent. Theological work focusing on the themes of embodiment and materiality is currently proving to have both explanatory power and strong constructive potential. This “turn to the body” has helped bring to light a kind of implicit anxiety about bodies, about bodily experiences, and about bodily difference in much modern theology. It has drawn attention to the role of factors like affects, spatial and geographical location, and material culture in theological knowledge-production, and has helped open up the resources of early and premodern theologies which were not shaped by post-Enlightenment assumptions about the primacy of the individual rational mind over the physical body and its material environment. For example, Anglican theologians like Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley have helped focus attention on the significance of embodied spirituality and ecclesial and liturgical locatedness to foster visions of Christian life that respond to contemporary experiences of alienation from bodies and communities in religion, and to diagnose why more rationalistic approaches to faith have often failed to generate a thriving contemporary spirituality. New theological attention to embodiment has also helped draw attention to ways that modern theological appeals to a disembodied “universal” rationality have in fact been shaped very deeply by racial, economic, and gendered dynamics, serving in practice to help foster the suppression of marginalized voices in theology and beyond.

      Concretely, we see the explanatory power as well as constructive generativity of theological attention to embodiment and materiality in the work of theologians like Willie Jennings, who has drawn attention to how dynamics of geography and spatial location have molded and warped the Christian theological imagination in the colonial and postcolonial eras, and Linn Marie Tonstad, who has demonstrated just how deeply theological reflection on the doctrine of the Trinity is shaped by implicit assumptions about gender and sexuality. For my own part, I have argued for the importance of theological analysis of the affective dimensions of embodied Christian life, and have sought to show that questions about the plausibility or implausibility of Christian ideas in the contemporary world cannot be addressed persuasively without attention to these affective dynamics.

      In the turn to the body as in postliberal theology, we are talking about theological work that has helped to diagnose real problems in contemporary theology as well as in modern life, that has provided tools for fruitful new analyses of traditional theological concepts, texts, and debates, and that has paved the way for creative and compelling new theological visions for the contemporary world.

      Theological work that succeeds in getting widespread traction in the field often has several further features as well. One is interdisciplinarity. When I started out in theology in the mid-2000s, interdisciplinarity was such a buzzword that my first instinct was to roll my eyes. It seemed to me then – and sometimes still does – that often we are jumping into interdisciplinary work before we have received a good grounding in our own discipline first. But it is clearer to me now how illuminating it can be to view our own theological problems and questions through the eyes of another theoretical framework or perspective, or on the basis of a completely different set of data points, or simply through a different academic culture, attuned to different kinds of questions and problems. This is perhaps especially true for a field like theology where many of the most important questions have been asked many times before. It is no wonder, then, that so much of the most creative and worthwhile Christian theology has developed, historically, in critical and constructive conversation with work outside of theology, from the early church’s wrestling with the insights of Neoplatonism to Thomas Aquinas’s creative appropriation of Aristotle. And the same holds true today. It is no accident that “postliberal” theology was influenced by insights about constructivism from anthropology, psychology, and critical theory; that Willie Jennings’s work draws directly on developments in anthropology, sociology, and postcolonial theory; or that Tonstad’s thinking on the Trinity has been made possible not least by her use of insights from queer theory and gender theory. For myself, I have found the work of affect theorists like Eve Sedgwick and Sara Ahmed to be particularly generative for contemporary Christian theology. As I argue in my new book, insights from affect theory are capable of throwing old texts and theological problems into new relief, and provide powerful categories for describing dimensions of Christian experience that seem to be neither univerals nor simply products of cultural and discursive construction.

      At the same time, significant theological work also tends to be rooted very deeply in the resources of theology’s long and varied past. Grounded in ancient scriptural texts that in turn attest to the incarnation of the Son of God in history, Christian theology is always engaged in an act of translation between the past and the ever-changing present. The result is that it is rare for theological work to gain long-term traction if it is not deeply resourced and shaped by resources local to Christian theology: by Scripture, by church traditions and confessions, by certain theological texts that have been particularly influential. Indeed, it is in failing to recognize the importance of such rootedness that interdisciplinary work is most vulnerable to going wrong, dressing up insights developed elsewhere in theological clothing without any substantive contribution from theology itself.

      In this context, it is not surprising that the theological method broadly known as “retrieval” or ressourcement, whose immediate origins lie in strategies developed by Henri de Lubac and others to voice an alternative Catholic theological vision to the one that was dominant in the early twentieth century, has emerged in recent decades as one of the most compelling methodological approaches for Christian theologians across confessions. There is something about the logic of “retrieval,” especially when combined with a logic of “repair,” that is particularly well-suited to knowledge-production in a religion that is so deeply tied, formally as well as practically, to its own history. This does not mean, of course, that one simply draws on traditional resources uncritically—far from it. It is rather that the most powerful theological developments, including critical ones, tend to arise in close engagement with the resources of tradition, rather than out of simply rejecting or jettisoning them.

      A final feature of significant theological work, in my view, is that it usually has clear practical implications for the life of the church in the world. So often, creative breakthroughs in the history of theology have arisen in the context of reflection on concrete problems that are salient in Christian experience. One classic example is Martin Luther’s development of a new theology of grace in the early sixteenth century, which catalyzed the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s theological creativity emerged quite directly out of his personal spiritual troubles, and his new ideas about salvation gained traction in significant part because of the way they exposed latent problems in medieval penitential spirituality and proposed a pastorally compelling alternative. More recently, it is clear that the staying power of liberation theologies derives from the fact that at their best they both draw from the deep theological resources of a religion whose founder turned always to the poor and the powerless, and do not hesitate to deploy these resources to advocate for concrete political and social change. In a rather different key, the same phenomenon would seem to be at work in the widespread appeal of virtue ethics in recent years. Although I believe, and have argued, that there are reasons to be critical of this recent turn to virtue ethics, there is no question that it is an approach to Christian ethics with a robust theological tradition behind it that at the same time provides a powerful tool kit for thinking about how contemporary Christian life should be shaped.

      Looking at the contemporary theological landscape through these lenses may give some clue as to which current developments are likely to have staying power. At the moment there is a strong trend, especially in the United States, towards theologies that are deeply concerned with political change, liberation, and social and ecological justice, especially in relation to historical and contemporary realities of marginalization. These energies do not seem likely to disappear anytime soon. But in my view it is the theologies that are most effective at connecting such impulses with the deep resources of Christian theological traditions, rather than simply mirroring intellectual developments already developed more effectively in other disciplines, that will be most likely to endure.

      Writing as I am from the perspective of Europe, the demographic decline of Christian belief and practice in the twenty-first century looms particularly large over theology. In this context, the most significant theologies going forward are likely to be the ones that are not fettered by lament and nostalgia, but which seek to bring Christian theology’s enormous intellectual, spiritual, and cultural resources to bear on contemporary problems in creative new ways, and which can foster a plausible and transformative religious hope in the midst of the world’s many difficulties.

    • Ellen Armour

      Ellen Armour

      Reply

      What Makes Theological Work Significant?

      Of the many insights that emerged for me from the report to which I respond here, one is particularly critical for framing my remarks. One cannot separate questions about the significance of any individual theologian’s work from the larger question of theology’s significance as a discipline. And that requires attention to theology’s relationship to the various macro- and micro-cultures (if you will) in which it is / we are embedded. Those run the gamut from our globalized and networked world to the various communities that populate it, including but not limited to communities of faith. I definitely concur with the report that attention to human diversity is a marker of significance. I, too, expect that to continue into the future. But let’s remember that one’s “social location” is not only taxonomic, but spatial and temporal. Significance will ultimately be decided retrospectively, so let me begin by seeking lessons in theological import and impact from the not-too-distant past.

      A retrospective glance at just how certain founding figures in feminist, womanist, and black theology, for example, have impacted theological studies can illuminate dimensions of “significance” that are easy to overlook. Theologians like Mary Daly, James Cone, and Delores Williams broke open new trajectories in theology. Those trajectories were generated in response to culture(s) and the faith communities embedded in it/them. We wouldn’t have black, feminist, or womanist theology without the social movements that gave birth to them—and faith communities were integral to those movements, initially as, not only as incubators and supporters (to varying degrees, of course, and not always intentionally), but also as sources of the oppression that prompted those movements. The significance of these three theologians lies not just in what they wrote, but in the scholarly movements and conversations they generated. Of course, groundbreakers aren’t created ex nihilo. as indicators of significance.; they emerge out of often critical conversations with theologians who are their contemporaries (womanism arises out of a critique of both black and feminist theology, for example) and who predate them (Barth, in Cone’s case, for example). Those are conversations in which the loci long deemed essential to Christian belief and practice (God, sin, and Christology, e.g.) are particularly essential. I worry sometimes that we underplay this dimension of the import of Cone and Williams, in particular—and thus diminish their impact—when we read them only in terms of social location. The claims they make from that place about such topics as God, sin, and Christology make a claim on all Christians and all Christian theologians.

      Gauging theology’s impact on its cultures (including faith communities) is harder, I think. I share the report’s concern that theology has little cultural cachet these days. Not only do few of our fellow humanists have a clue what theology is and thus what we do, the same is often true for communities of faith. Our impact on them is typically indirect—through our students, mostly (and not just those who graduate from seminaries and divinity schools, but also those we teach at liberal arts colleges and state universities). Books have to be taught to be significant, so they have to be assigned first. I wonder what we would find if we could survey syllabi over, say, the first ten to fifteen years after these theologians’ first works were published? Today? And if we surveyed students who took those classes now to see how reading Daly, Cone, or Williams had impacted them over the years?

      Another limit to significance identified in the report can be the perceived conflict between academic rigor and accessibility. Some of theology’s rigor comes from serious engagement with cognate disciplines of various sorts. I concur with the report that interdisciplinarity is critical, in my view, to a theologian’s significance. While philosophy has long been theology’s go-to cognate discipline, the list has expanded considerably in recent decades. Think of the famous sociological turn inaugurated in one way by George Lindbeck, in another by Ada-Maria Isasi-Diaz. That turn was prompted for both by a frustration with academic theology’s disconnect from lived theology, one result of that perceived conflict. I’ll address the disconnect in a moment, but let’s remember that accessibility runs in another direction as well. While we can rattle off the names of those in our cognate fields whose work is deemed significant, few of us have anything close to that status in our cognate disciplines. (In part, this is due to theology’s low place on academia’s totem pole.) Might this be a (lost?) cause worth pursuing? After all, we turn to these disciplines because we find them helpful in addressing the pressing issues of our day. The issues that confront our world—climate change and the economic and political challenges it poses, the impact of new media and digital technologies, the rise of nationalism and political strongmen (all of which are bound up with what we’ve come to call white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy, by the way)—need all of the intellectual tools we can throw at them.And that includes theological ones. It’s incumbent upon us to do what we can to make that case.

      As promised (and in closing), some reflections on bridging the gap between academic theology and lived theology. In addition to the perils we face in our time and place, there are also opportunities. For all their disruptive and distorting effects, new technologies and new media offer us access to wider publics. Online journals like Syndicate and open source publishing, podcasts, social media platforms (Academia.edu and LinkedIn as well as Facebook and Twitter) each provide different routes of access that can build significance. If we academic theologians want to be significant, we would do well to mine those connections as resources. Not only or even primarily for distributing our work, but for generating insights into what work is needed and fostering new communities of accountability and support for it.

      Taking full advantage of these opportunities may require cultivating new kinds of literacy—and thus investments of time and energy that are in short supply in today’s academy. Fortunately, the next generation is on it!  VDS graduates are mobilizing virtual resources to grow robust global networks of faith leaders in real life (Rev. Jennifer Bailey’s Faith Matters Network, https://www.faithmattersnetwork.org/), to spread the good news of feminist theology (Sarah Smith’s podcast “Theosophia,” https://www.theosophiapodcast.com/), queer inclusion (Greg Thompson’s podcast “Out Loud,” https://gregthompsonmedia.com/out-loud), and to speak the truth of Latina experience (https://www.priscadorcas.com/). Scholar-activists like Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and colleagues (see https://activistheology.com/) and my former PhD student Dr. Hilary Scarsella (http://www.ourstoriesuntold.com/) are using their academic training in theology, ethics, and cognate disciplines to do impactful and important work.

       

    • Natalia Imperatori-Lee

      Natalia Imperatori-Lee

      Reply

      What Makes Catholic Theological Work Significant?

      In my work I view a primary task of theology as one of translation. That is, theology is a boundary-crossing endeavor in which faith seeks intelligibility in the ambiguity of history. As a work of translation all theology is contextual, partial, tentative, provisional given the contingent character of human language and symbol systems.

      Because I work within the Roman Catholic tradition, the work of theology (including my own work) reaches the so-called “people in the pews” through a process of mediation. That is, most Catholics get their theological information either from homilies at Sunday mass, or from university or continuing education programs. The average Catholic does not encounter theological texts in her daily life, and the majority of homiletics is done by priests educated in the diocesan seminary system, which is separate in many cases from graduate programs in theology in major universities. The exception to this model are the formation programs for clergy in religious orders (such as the Jesuits or the Congregation of the Holy Cross) who educate their seminarians alongside laypeople in graduate programs housed in universities for the most part.

      When I think of theology having an impact on the church, I mean this in a bifurcated sense. On one hand I want my theological production to work toward the reform of the clericalized, patriarchal, kyriarchal institution of Roman Catholicism. On the other, I hope my theological perspective reaches the people of God through classrooms, reading groups, and other direct-to-the-pews initiatives such as livestreams of academic lectures or pastoral presentations. Theology as boundary crossing necessitates this bifurcated approach, because there exists within the Roman Catholic Church a boundary between academic and ecclesial theology, a boundary reinforced by the different educational models I describe above and policed by bishops and culture warriors on both sides of the divide.

      Beyond this bifurcation, one major stumbling block for theological understanding is rooted in a persistent failure to recognize the so-called theological “canon” as particular, contingent, and provisional. As such, theological work in my corner of the Roman Catholic ecclesiological world finds itself in a perilous moment. Theology, as an ecclesial and academic discourse, is beleaguered, particularly because of the fusion of ecclesial and educational institutions with systems of domination like Euroamerican colonialism and white supremacy. In these contexts, theology can be used to harm and dominate, or to baptize systems of domination and violence, in ways that betray faith, or mistranslate it. This is as true in seminaries as in Catholic universities and institutions of higher education.

      What speaks to me most clearly about the source of this beleaguered moment is what the Syndicate report calls “intellectual stagnancy.” I would call this an “imaginative truncation” that is rooted in fear of the Other. This truncation can be cultural (as in proponents of maintaining a Euroamerican Catholicism that is exported globally) or spatial, where notions of holiness are limited to ecclesial precincts and thereby exclude the lived reality of people of faith. Roman Catholic theology has left the lives of the people of God radically under-theologized, preferring an emphasis on sexual morality and purity rooted in idealized notions of theological anthropology and ecclesiology. In doing this, theology succeeds in erasing the holiness of wide swaths of the people of God. Specifically, the experiences and spiritualities of colonized cultures are relegated to the realm of “syncretism.” The experiences of persons who do not accept the gender binary are “ideologies.” Those who seek liberation are merely “materialistic” or “sociological.” Rationality and theological knowledge production are guaranteed thereby to remain the province of the powerful, and alternative, robust forms of meaning-making are either viewed as ancillary to the task of theology or ignored altogether.

      In this time of imaginative truncation, I have found feminist theory (in its secular, intersectional/intercultural varieties especially) and art/aesthetics especially literature and art/craft produced by women to be the most fruitful “critical discourses from another field” that push theology forward into new realms. Both feminist theory and narrative/storytelling re-present reality in all its messiness and ambiguity, and reorient theological discourse away from static, idealized notions that inevitably erase non-dominant voices. Both these discourses also require listening as an essential step in knowledge production, and listening, particularly to non-dominant voices, has not been viewed as essential for many theological tasks, including ecclesiology.

      Ironically, these (aesthetic, narrative) discourses have been fertile feeding grounds for generations of feminist theologians before mine. An emphasis on storytelling and narrative, as well as a focus on art and craft produced by those on history’s underside, characterize the work of many feminist theologians from a variety of cultures. Similarly, feminist theology has enjoyed a fruitful partnership with feminist theorists from its earliest days. That interaction with these fields remains “outside” the so-called “traditional” canon of theology testifies not to work that must be done in the future, but to a failure to properly narrate the past. Feminist theologians, particularly those working in intersectional frameworks, have suffered a kind of genealogical violence whereby the contributions of generations of thinkers, their interactions with storytelling and gender theory, the frameworks they have built out of these interactions are neither taught nor traditioned in theological training. While at one point in my career I attributed this to mere oversight or perhaps ignorance, increasingly I am convinced that the omission is intentional, designed to make young women and marginalized thinkers waste time in the bog of repetitive work. One important way in which theology can push toward the future is to put an end to this genealogical violence by engaging, incorporating, and teaching theologies from marginal perspectives not as enhancements to “canonical” theology but as constitutive of whatever we want to call “the canon.” Otherwise, both the church and the academy will not only lose important theological texts, but condemn future generations of religious thinkers to mistranslation.

    • Jonathan Tran

      Jonathan Tran

      Reply

      Lovely Things: The Confessional Ends of Critique

      Syndicate’s report observes: “Most [contemporary theology] is engaged in critiques of social hierarchy and motivated by a desire to highlight the voices and concerns of marginalized communities.” In answer to the question, “What is the most dynamic work in the field?” the response comes back, “engaging with the Christian tradition deeply and faithfully while also grappling with specific forms of domination.” These observations match the kinds of theological books and topics most energetically taken up in recent years. The observations also raise a complex set of questions and tensions that amount to something like, “How now shall we live?” or for this particular occasion, “How now shall theologians go about their work?” Attention to hierarchy, marginalization and domination reflexively turns the tables on Christian researchers, forcing them to ask questions about their own positions—and Christian theology’s broader position—respective to systems of oppression. If the reflexive self-consciousness makes it difficult to know how to go on with theology, that is as it should be. Going forward, as more and more research yields more and more reasons for reticence in speaking about God, what form will theology take?

      We find contemporary Christian theology in this present moment, then, buffeted on two sides by (1) a self-consciousness about historical Christianity’s complicities in horrendous moral injuries and (2) an activist inclination toward evangelistic/prophetic speech, leading to (3) a hazy normative presence in the world. (1) follows from ever growing suspicion and acknowledgement of those injuries. (2) follows both native evangelistic/prophetic responsibilities and cultural contexts eliciting moral comment. (1) and (2) combine to produce in academic theology an odd type of normative speech, at its worst vacillating between ostensibly apophatic quietism and passive aggressive virtue signaling. It is an odd moment, one laden with critique and reasons for critique, but also gesturing toward something more. What role does Christian theology give to critical theory, and what role does critique give to Christian confession?

      In order to get to (1)’s acknowledgments of Christian complicity in hierarchy, marginalization and domination, critical theorists have had to scrutinize systems, confront institutions, interrogate relationships, question stories, dissect sentences, break down concepts and otherwise turn up the ground on everything that makes the world familiar and livable. After all, the world critical theorists have pulled apart is continuous with the one we live in. They could not upset the past without agitating its presence in our time. That is largely the point, not to tinker with this or that but to overturn powerfully inveterate systems determining the world in which we find ourselves, putting us on the outside of our own lives. Hence, J.L. Austin’s image of the philosopher who “casts himself out from the garden of the world we live in.”1 If in order to gain purchase theorists have had to deconstruct everything, then they have also displaced the criteria by which we can think our way into the future. 2

      Collectively, critical theory will leave us chafed by our own skin, both aware of the blighted circumstances of our world and trapped in the reality that we have just the one. Stanley Cavell writes, “For Wittgenstein, philosophy comes to grief not in denying what we all know to be true, but in its efforts to escape those human forms of life which alone provide the coherence of our expression. He wishes an acknowledgement of human limitation which does not leave us chafed by our own skin, by a sense of powerlessness to penetrate beyond the human conditions of knowledge.”3 Critical theory does not so much escape as refuse human forms of life for their tendencies to go bad. Fully conscious of how systems, institutions, relationships, stories, sentences and concepts can go horribly wrong—aware that there has been no limit to their horror, no boundary to the field of contingency—theorists mistrust them altogether, precluding disappointment by putting them in doubt.4 In Cavell’s treatment of Wittgenstein’s private language argument, an illusory confidence in myself is matched to a general distrust of others. Skeptical doubt gestures toward something true about the human capacity for community, including its profound human limits.5 Yet, a generalized doubt—not of any specific relation but all relations—precludes failure and disappointment, and therefore community.6 Looking to escape forms of life critical theory comes to suspect them all, preemptively checking betrayal by undermining inclinations for trust.

      By pushing too hard on the idea of social construction, critical theorists have stripped the human of much that is natural. The acids of critique eat away at those human forms of life holding together nature and convention, judging nature a consequence of bad faith and conventions confining and somehow negotiable.7 Considering that the resentments motivating critical theory trail hundreds of years of moral injury, this will go on and on, making it increasingly difficult to positively identify with all those features of human life that make the world familiar and livable: systems, institutions, relationships, and so on. This is the truth of skepticism. Such knowledge, as Rita Felski explains, also makes us strangers to the ordinary.8 This is skepticism’s threat. It schools us out of mutuality, takes us out of life, warns us against the local and provincial, provokes the cosmopolitan. The inclination to see problems in everything will eventually, given enough time, ruin one to everything. The default position will become, rather than jumping in, sitting back, where critical distance becomes a point of pride and the findings of structural analysis, academic entertainment. We will forget what critique is for, an instrument for finding one’s way in the world, what Felski calls “the commonsensical aspects of critique.”9 Self-awareness of one’s location and position will leave one embarrassed, itching for some way out of the rough ground.

      Literary theory’s “postcritique” movement seeks to distinguish between criticism and critique, and worries that instead of critique serving the work of literary criticism, it has taken on a life of its own.10 Ronan McDonald speaks of an “anterior” that critique seeks, something sought but often lost when the critical mode takes over:

      Critique is often leery about values and judgments, especially aesthetic ones. Values are there to be ‘interrogated’. Where do they come from? Whose power interests are served by them? Critique produces negation after negation, like a child continually responding ‘why?’ to every answer. The turn against critique emerges in part from exasperation at this tourniquet around evaluative language…. Highly critical movements like Marxism, feminism or post-colonialism/de-colonialism clearly have avowed and overt anti-oppressive politics. Though such political and ethical projects deploy critique as a cardinal tool, they also need the vigilance demanded when putting acid in a bucket or handling a Rottweiler. The critical spirit hungers for the anterior, seeks to get outside convention and unveil delusion.” 11

      If so in literature, so much more so in those discourses where normative speech is not mere luxury or excess. The challenge for Christian theology in this moment isn’t so much the important literary distinction between criticism and critique (say biblical criticism and critique) but rather working to ensure that the indispensable acids of critique do not melt away the will to pursue goodness, truth, and beauty even when they seem so frustratingly unavailable. Christianity’s right deployment of critique falls to its confessional mode, less critique in service of criticism and more critique in service of confession. On the other side of critique, Felski is interested in our attachments and attunements which makes of critique intensifications of, as it were, attachment and attunement.12 Cavell seeks an acknowledgment of the threats and truths of skepticism following from the reality that “we are each endlessly separate, for no reason… we are answerable for everything that comes between us; if not for causing it then for continuing it; if not for denying it then for affirming it; if not for it then to it.”13 Christian theology’s critical speech is one of her routes into God’s life, the confessional critical mode as a way to attach, attune, and answer—that is, participate.

      One might think of Augustine’s attempt to reimagine Plato’s analogy between politics and mind as taking two stages. First is the critical work of unmasking Rome’s pagan pretense for the sake of getting to the axiologically anterior city of God. Second, and parallel, is the confessional work of discovering at base—covered over by sinful pretense—the creaturely desire to testify to that triune presence. Critique clears the way for confession and proclamation. For Christian theology, critique serves confession and genealogy serves Christian proclamation. Confessional speech directs critical speech, the anti-Manichean proclamations orienting the anti-pagan genealogy, showing that no critique can “go all the way down” such as to uproot the creaturely basis that testifies to there being something there. Augustine’s tethered critique discovers not a bottomless pit of fault—though Augustine, the original master of suspicion, gives us plenty of fault—but God as the rough ground of the Christian confessional life. “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all” (Confessions X.xxvii.38). If Christianity names some person’s or group of persons’ relationship with God, then theology names a posture toward the world refracted through that relationship. Augustine imagines the world possessed of “lovely created things” that can be “plunged into” in “unlovely” ways. Taking his characteristically erotic route, Augustine advances a full-bodied hermeneutical posture toward the world as the material substance of divinity. God’s being “within” created things makes them “lovely” and one will be late in loving God inasmuch as one pursues love only on the “external” surfaces of the world. Rather than entering in, one loiters about. All the while, the beloved waits.

      Augustine predicates relating to God as a depth relationship with the world where the ability to gauge depth proves critical for life with God. The rightly critical mood arises within that life. It acknowledges something about one’s relationship with one’s lover, confessing that something has gone wrong—is currently going wrong—and that such love needs to be entered into again, though now under damaged conditions. Some will push forward, denying the wound by pretending that nothing is wrong, riding roughshod over the “chokecherry” materiality of the world.14 Call these the deniers, though we might call them traditionalists. Others will be turned back by the sight of the wound, deciding that nothing redeemable remains. These are the despairing, and above all they despair of the wounds they bear. Still others will at the site of the wound enter in, venturing deeper intimacies not only despite but because of the damage, surface as depth. Call them the resolute; they stand resolutely between denial and despair.

      Syndicate’s report of contemporary Christian theology relates a space interestingly populated by questions of what it means to “engage” amidst “domination” that marginalizes by, among other ways, tempting disengagement and self-marginalization. The deniers hold others responsible for the damage and deploy critique as rearguard reaction on the way out of a world they have largely left behind. The despairing despair of themselves. Critique for them points outward toward an evil matched in purity only by the wounds they themselves bear. The resolute daringly and smartly (per the report’s terms) use critique in order to make their way further in, a path in continuity with the tradition and the damage it has doled out, imagining—as an act of faith—goodness amidst the damage and—as self-preservation—damage amidst the goodness. How do we confess damage so great that it keeps us away from God while also confessing any existing thing—no matter how damaged—exists insofar as it exists at all in God? For the resolute, the path in will travel between these two parallel senses of confession.


      1. J. L. Austin, Philosophical Papers, ed. J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 195.

      2. “How, indeed, might one find the truth of that which, as such, deconstructs the criterion of truth itself?” Shoshanna Felman, The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages trans., Catherine Porter, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 43.

      3. Stanley Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 61. Cavell continues, “The limitations of knowledge are no longer barriers to a more perfect apprehension, but conditions of knowledge überhaupt, of anything we should call ‘knowledge’” (61-2).

      4. Veena Das in her book Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary broadens the causes and consequences of skeptical doubt, locating skepticism’s truth and threat in the already fraught conditions of cultural difference. Speaking of the 1947 Partition that divided India and Pakistan, she writes, “these experiments with violence raise certain doubts about life itself, and not only about the forms it could take… The precise range and scale of the human form of life is not knowable in advance, any more than the precise range of the meaning of a word is knowable in advance.” Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006), 90 (emphasis original). One comes to see through Das’ study of genocide that just as meaning follows use so our lives go where our words take us, our worlds as violent and dark and damaging and offensive and regrettable as our words, and vice versa.

      5. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), xxv.

      6. “Risks and error are inherent in the human, part of what we conceive human life to be, part of our unsurveyable responsibilities in speech and in evil (in, as Descartes put it, our being provided with free will),” Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 261. I was drawn to this quote by Judith Wolfe “‘The Ordinary’ in Stanley Cavell and Jacques Derrida,” Minerva – An Internet Journal of Philosophy 17 (2013): 250–68.

      7. See Cavell’s treatment of nature and convention in Cavell, Claim of Reason, 86–125. See also Toril Moi’s engagement along these lines, Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies After Wittgenstein (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 56–61

      8. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 139.

      9. Felski, 81. See also Rita Felski, “Comparison and Translation: A Perspective from Actor-Network Theory,” Comparative Literature Studies 53, no. 4 (n.d.): 747–65.

      10. See Elizabeth A. Anker and Rita Felski, eds., Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

      11. Ronan McDonald, “Critique and Anti-Critique,” Textual Practice 32, no. 3 (2018): 365–74.

      12. See Elizabeth A. Anker and Rita Felski, eds., Critique and Postcritique (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

      13. Cavell, Claim of Reason, 369.

      14. Toni Morrison uses “chokecherry” in order to image Sethe’s wounds throughout Beloved (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

    • Sarah Coakley

      Sarah Coakley

      Reply

      A Bigger World of Theology

      I’m grateful for the opportunity to comment on the Syndicate Report on the State of Theology. I want to begin by applauding the care that has been taken over the survey and the clarity and succinctness of the analysis within it. I think it captures very accurately the concerns and interests of a particular strand of academic theological work at this time (and it happens to be a strand of interests with which I am myself also largely associated as a theologian). However, I think the most important and first thing that needs to be said is that the group that was asked to comment on their views (while “diverse” in one sense of that overused word, i.e., ethnically and racially, being half “non-white”) are not diverse at all in terms of types and forms of “theology” currently at large, nationally and internationally. And frankly this skews the outcomes of the report from the start, in what is to me a quite disturbing and misleading way. Let me therefore hazard and distinguish a number of comments that come to mind, starting from this fundamental narrowing of the pool of representation.

      1.

      Who are the “theologians”? It seems they are academic (rather than obviously church) theologians, largely concerned with political, social, racial, and gender-related issues in the contemporary world and sharing a broadly “liberal” stance—in short, the average Syndicate reader! They are also, I think, mostly on the slightly younger end of the professional pool, and therefore I am not certain that they all yet qualify as scholars who are “defining the field” institutionally. Overall, from what the report says, these theologians seem slightly distanced from the life of the churches, or at least largely embarrassed by recent church scandals and divisions, and thus not making any church allegiance their first point of identification. Various categories of “theologians,” note, don’t seem to be here at all: biblical exegetes (of any stripe); influential church leaders, bishops, pastors, etc. (including those representing the Catholic magisterium and other official synodical bodies, i.e., theologians speaking for and from the church rather than from the academy); pastoral or practical theologians (they are not mentioned at all); conservative theologians who are mainly concerned with defending classical doctrines or strict Christian moral standards (they seem, unspokenly, to represent the “enemy”?); journalistic or popular theologians who write influential accessible books, blogs, or tweets; theologians who are mainly concerned with breaking down difficult divisions between religions (especially between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam); analytic philosophers of religion (or “analytic theologians”) who are largely concerned with apologetics: with defending belief in God as rational and coherent, or exploring what are often regarded as “defeaters” for Christianity, e.g., the problem of evil, or the apparent clash between evolutionary thinking and theological thinking; and finally (and rather differently) theologians who write primarily about prayer, “spirituality,” and ascetic practices. The fact that this list is such a ragbag is of course itself revealing; but what it may demonstrate is the particular “blind spots” of the (equally particular) set of personnel represented in the survey.

      In short, the report represents one very partial strand for reflection, rather than an analysis of the truly “diverse” nature of theological endeavors worldwide at this time. The “diversity” it claims hides an underlying homogeneity.

      2.

      This first comment obviously relates to the topic of “substance” as it is outlined in the prompt questions. Another area of interest is apologetic questions. In wide swathes of the Western world belief in God has all but evaporated (the religiosity of the United States is of course the exception not the rule). Why is it then that most liberal theologians are so completely uninterested in defending the faith? Why is it that only, it seems, a minority of the group surveyed even saw science and religion, and their various contestations, as a key theological priority? Why was engagement with skeptical atheistic philosophy not given a more central focus?

      3.

      This comment relates in turn, of course, to the issues of “Criteria” and “Process.” It is perhaps unfortunate that the survey is primarily descriptive (of the attitudes and concerns of a particular group of theologians) rather than obviously responsive and critical. The theologians surveyed undoubtedly write high-quality work, mainly for each other to read and argue over! For decades now (roughly since the early ’60s), theologians in the academy have largely written for each other in this way, rather than for the general reading public (whether Christian or skeptical), or even indeed for the churches. Often their prose has been obfuscating to the point of inscrutability. It has to be asked whether the real challenge is to encourage a form of theological engagement with a wider readership, one that does not assume a religious narrative (and then tries to reform it politically), but rather agonizes more explicitly about why a religious narrative should command rational and moral respect in the first place.

      4.

      Temporality: it is a noted feature of (especially liberal) theology in North America that it is entranced with the new. The hottest books on Syndicate are ones that take decisively distinctive and “novel” lines (even if the novelty resides in brandishing a forgotten “fogeyish” alternative!). This can often lead to “flash-in-the-pan” debates which are briefly exciting but quickly forgotten and superseded. It is an interesting challenge to ask oneself which of the recent developments in academic theological work is likely to have the shelf-life of an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Barth. The fact is that it does indeed take time to know the answer to that question; but the intellectual quality of a truly excellent ad original mind usually does stand out, even if only a few recognize it immediately.

      5.

      Interdisciplinarity: this is not a good as such, but only if it genuinely illuminates a theological topic in a fresh and decisive way and does so without danger of methodological or ontological reductionism. However, since “theology” is itself “field-encompassing” in its range, it is inevitable that theology will continue to broker interdisciplinary relationships. More work is needed, however, on how to do this well in relation to a range of contiguous (or noncontiguous) disciplines.

      6.

      The Future: I do believe that there is a lot of theological work that is not currently being encouraged in the academy (for reasons that the report highlights), and moreover a lot of talented young theologians who cannot at present get tenured jobs in the academy. There is therefore an increasingly important role for external funding bodies in supporting genuinely “free” intellectual endeavors and research which would not otherwise be pursued. Particularly exciting is the possibility of placing highly trained, gifted, and flexible young theologians into academic circumstances which would normally be uncomfortable for them, e.g., in top-rate science laboratories, philosophy departments, politics and economics faculties. At the other end of the spectrum there is the need for theologians to reinvigorate the theological life of the churches, where the laity often suffer from discouragement in theological thinking, and religious leaders (and bishops) are drifting more and more away from theology towards “business” models of thinking.

      7.

      Resources: Monographs and scholarly articles need to remain the bedrock of scholarly theological work; but there is an enormous need for top-rate, accessible materials to be made available to the wider reading public online. There is room for such endeavors to be assisted, but enormous care needs to be taken on quality control. (The Australian Broadcasting Company’s Religion and Ethics webpage is one of the few really good existing examples of this form of communication; but some elements of PBS television are also to be commended, e.g., Robert Kuhn’s Closer to Truth series.)

      ****

      I do hope these responses sufficiently reflect my appreciation of the careful report. Please note that the sharpness of my critique about the chosen “pool” in no way diminishes my admiration for the task that has been undertaken, nor does it reflect badly on the particular interests of the “pool” itself. These are interests I deeply share myself. But there is a bigger world of “theology” out there, and surely we ought to be taking account of it.

    • Joel Halldorf

      Joel Halldorf

      Reply

      Political Theology Before and After Trump: Challenges for the Postliberal Critique of Liberalism

      When the populists reached parliament, I felt well prepared. It was September 2010, and the Sweden Democrats received 5.7 percent of the popular vote. When we gathered for morning coffee at work the day after, anger, sorrow, and disbelief reigned. How was it possible, someone said, that a party with Nazi roots, nationalism on the agenda, and Islamophobic rhetoric had made it all the way to the parliament?

      I remember thinking: Why are you so surprised? Do you not know that modernity is broken?

      What makes theological work influential? In this essay I argue that its ability to interpret the present cultural and political condition is a decisive factor. Although this might seem obvious to some, it is perhaps for that reason often overlooked. The works of the new traditionalists, or postliberal theologians, have become influential due to their ability to understand and in a sense predict the turmoil of the last decade. Events such as the war on terror, the financial meltdown of 2008, and the rise of populism makes little sense in the narrative forwarded by Francis Fukuyama, but not in those presented by Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas or William Cavanaugh. They made the cracks in the liberal order visible through their analysis of nationalism, capitalism, modern alienation, and individualism. But they rarely used their foresight to reflect on options to or improvements of this order.1 Today it is doubtful whether their critical project can continue if not paired with constructive proposals of some kind. After the surge of populism, with its own critique of liberalism, political theology will have to articulate alternatives to the present order, both in order to avoid associations with this movement, but also as an expression of solidarity.

      Political Theology Before 2016

      In the last decades, theologians have been ahead of the curve. The experience is a bit odd, since theology in the twentieth century was considered backwards, left behind and anything but relevant for current events. Theology was something the church did in a vain attempt to catch up with the modern world.

      But somewhere along the way that changed. In the 1980s, the new traditionalists turned a critical eye towards modernity. Drawing on the Christian tradition—but also in dialogue with Marxism, critical theory, and a host of philosophers from Wittgenstein to Isaiah Berlin—they engaged in the deconstruction of modernity. They used Augustine to understand consumer-culture, Aquinas for ethics, and the Gospels against modern nationalism. So while Francis Fukuyama lauded the end of history, theologians in this vein had quite different expectations of the future. MacIntyre’s seminal work After Virtue (1981) begins by likening the impact of modernity on ethical discourse with a major environmental disaster, and it famously ends with the claim that the barbarians are not at the gates, it’s worse: “they have already been governing us for quite some time.”2

      These perspectives were introduced in Swedish theology during the 1990s by Arne Rasmusson and Ola Sigurdson. They challenged the dominant liberal Lutheran perspective that had argued that the church ought to adjust to society. These were ideas that had made sense in the hugely successful postwar era. It seemed then as if the Swedish nation was on its way to heaven, and the church just wanted to get on board the train. But in the early nineties, major recessions and economic crisis hit, with social ills in its wake. The discovery of a political theology critical of liberalism, but not tied to the recently failed Marxist project, met an apparent need among a new generation of Swedish theologians.3 In other Western countries the optimism of the 1990s was replaced with a similar doubt after 9/11, the war in the Middle East, and the financial crashes of 2001 and 2008. During this period a number of influential books emerged that picked up themes akin to those who had been around in political theology due to the new traditionalists. The two I will mention here appeared in other fields and had a wide impact, but both referenced theologians and arguments from the new traditionalist school. They have in common that they present an analysis of the present that is not just philosophical, but also historical: They give us a story of who we are by relating how we got here.

      The first is A Secular Age by Charles Taylor from 2007. Taylor had by then been immensely influential on the field of theology for decades, and just like Sources of the Self (1989) this was a story about modernity. But the sequel was different. The biggest change is not that he has moved the focus from the individual to society, but rather a change in tonality: in A Secular Age the optimism of Sources is exchanged for a bleaker view. Taylor has not completely given up his faith in the ethics of authenticity as a way to human flourishing, but he is more wary of the superficial understanding of expressive individualism that consumer culture fosters: “A simplified expressivism infiltrates everywhere. Therapies multiply which promise to help you find yourself, realize yourself, release your true self, and so on.”4

      The second example is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, which received wide attention when it came out in 2012. That Mark Lilla reviewed it—however critically—was an indication that theological conversations were being discovered outside both church and academ.5

      Gregory’s perspective is gloomy. He begins by explaining that it is the cultural war—the breakdown of conversation into relativism and polarization—and looming environmental disaster that motivates him to write (see Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 15–19). Inspired by Radical Orthodoxy he writes a story about a failed modernity: from its inception with Duns Scotus, via Luther and the reformers, and up to the modern era. Medieval Christendom failed due to its inability to unite power and caritas, and modernity is failing because “reason alone” cannot answer ethical or existential questions. This was MacIntyre’s criticism in After Virtue, but Gregory goes further in teasing out the political consequences of this line of criticism. Modern liberalism, he concludes, does not prescribe a moral agenda, but is nonetheless dependent on such an agenda for the common life. In want of a common good we are now held together by the cultural glue of consumerism, and increasingly coercive nation-states. This can only work for so long. Gregory concludes: “I wish this book could have a happier ending” (381).

      Despite this pessimism, there is no attempt to provide a political option. Gregory is content to envision “the unsecularizing of the academy” as a response to modernity’s failure. Lilla accuses him for having a more sinister agenda: “Faith seeking understanding, with a curfew at eleven—that’s Gregory’s historical, and apparently future, ideal.” But Cavanaugh, in his review, defends Gregory by arguing that the book is not about politics as state policy, but rather politics as the life of the church:

      [Gregory] also could have made clearer what the modern world might look like today if medieval Christians had not botched their caretaking of the Gospel, or what he would like the modern world today to learn from Christendom. But I think that a charitable reading of Gregory’s text would see that his main purpose, in a brazenly immodest book, is really quite modest after all: he wants us to see that an integrally Christian life is not impossible. . . . Gregory’s book can be an important aid for Christians to imagine a life in which the Gospel is not alien to any part of life, not estranged from how we investigate the natural world, undertake economic transactions, study history, or build a common life with both Christians and non-Christians.6

      In other words: rest assured, this book might predict the downfall of modernity and the liberal order, but it does not suggest any political option.

      Political Theology and the Rise of Populism

      This theological critique of modernity prepared readers for the breakthrough of populism in 2016: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the success of Marine Le Pen in the French election, the rise of illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe, and the growth the Sweden Democrats into a 20 percent-party in Sweden. Populism has many layers, but must also, I believe, be understood as a popular—albeit highly misguided—reaction to the malaises of modernity.7

      Postliberal theology is political, but not on the level of party politics. This is a consequence of the Hauerwasian maxim “let the world be world.” The idea that the church should focus on being church, and not try to make the world more just. This explains why postliberal theologians knew the problems, but still did not present solutions. In 2012, the Swedish theologian Jayne Svenungsson drew attention to this inability of postliberal theologians to come up with an alternative political project. She rightly reminded them that history did not, in fact, end in 1989, and that postliberal theologians should take political responsibility and present some vision for society as a whole. Postliberal pacifists are however great at prophetic protesting of injustices, perhaps even at imagining a new and more just world. But drafting budget proposal, policies, and the structures of a society in order to get there does not come as naturally.

      But from 2016, the civil wars in the Middle East and the inhumane policies of the Trump administration made life beyond liberalism seem a little too bleak. Now conversations within postliberalism started to shift. Personally, I was affected by the European migration crisis, and the decision of the Swedish government to close its borders to refugees in the fall of 2015. Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran responded to the election of Trump by arguing that the church should focus on being a “hospitable, just, and truth-telling community.” That is of course true. But what good is the hospitality of the church if the government stops those needing hospitality from ever reaching its doors?8 Hospitality in an international context is dependent on a generous migration policy. When Sweden closed its borders, I began looking for ways to faithfully influence politicians as well as public opinion.9

      A sign that current political events was shaping conversations among the new traditionalists was the publication of James K. A. Smith’s book Awaiting the King (2017), the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies project. In this book, he goes so far as to shift allegiance from Hauerwas to the British ethicist and political theologian Oliver O’Donovan. In a footnote, Smith explains his change of mind: While Desiring the Kingdom (2009) “tended to paint what feels like an almost entirely antithetical stance vis-à-vis liberalism (and capitalism),” he now sees things differently:

      I would also grant that my own thinking has shifted on precisely this point, largely because of sustained engagement with Augustine’s City of God and the corpus of Oliver O’Donovan. So my argument here represents a more mature take on these matters.10

      This matured Smith—or I would argue: Smith after the rise of Trump—explains that he now views neither liberalism nor Constantinianism (“the two bogeymen of the Yoder/Hauerwas catalog of threats”) as Babylons that we need to flee. Rather, they “bear signs of the earthly city bent towards the city of God.”11 The implication is that theologians need to do to the Western liberal order what St. Francis of Assisi was admonished to do to the church in the twelfth century: propping it up with their shoulders, to hinder a total collapse. The risk here is, of course, that the critical project gets completely lost.

      Political Theology after Trump

      When the result of the Brexit vote came out Florian Philippot, vice president of France’s Front National, tweeted in delight: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” The populists were not content to point out the deficits of modern liberalism, but presented an alternative: a political order based on nationalism and ethnocentrism, one that promised stability, protection from the destructive forces of global capitalism, and a sense of belonging. In doing this they stood, and still stand, largely unchallenged. The political options of the late twentieth century, neoliberalism and socialism, are less convincing than they once were.12 However, until a political program that provides another way forward emerges, the only choices are in effect populism or politics as usual.

      This rise of populism raises the stakes in political theology. Postliberal theologians need to ask themselves if it reasonable to critique liberalism and capitalism when it means that you might be saying things Steve Bannon could agree with? I would argue that it is—but it is necessary to combine such criticism with constructive proposals that show that you desire another direction than what the right-wing populists are suggesting. Further, it is important to show that they are your opponents too.

      The reception of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2017) illustrate these points. Arriving just after the election of Trump, though written before it, the book received wide attention: the New York Times published three pieces on it only in January 2018, and most other newspapers and magazines commented.13 It has been translated into fourteen languages, and received an appreciative endorsement by none other than former president Barack Obama.14This response is a witnesses to the quality of an analysis flowing from a theologically informed critique of liberalism.

      Deneen works in political philosophy, but uses sources such as MacIntyre, Gregory, Cavanaugh, and Wendell Berry.15 The book clearly draws on the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, although Deneen avoids words such as subsidiarity and personalism.

      There are many parallels between Deneen’s book and those mentioned above. Deneen writes accessible, and is particularly indebted to Alexis de Tocqueville. But his critique of liberalism as an ideology that undermines human relations, corrodes character, and is dependent on continuous economic growth is familiar. Compare the quotes above from Gregory and Taylor with Deneen’s analysis:

      Liberal society . . . would collapse if economic growth were to stop or reverse for any length of time. The sole object and justification of this indifference to human ends—of the emphasis on “Right” over “Good”—is the embrace of the liberal human as self-fashioning expressive individual. This aspiration requires that no truly hard choices be made. There are only different lifestyle options.16

      These are harsh words, but not unlike what has been said before in political theology. Still, the times have changed. Not only was there a growing general interest for this kind of analysis, there was also stronger reactions against it. In the Commonweal magazine, the political scientist Alan Wolfe wrote:

      We live at a time when populism and nationalism are attacking liberalism with renewed vigor. Under such conditions, there exist critiques of liberalism aplenty. Would Deneen be happy seeing his book embraced by ultra-right quasi-fascists or ultra-left Sanders-like populists? I hope not. But I cannot see in this book any path that would allow serious political thinkers to find fault with Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, or, it must be added, Donald Trump. Something tells me that if Trump were ever to read a book (an idea about which we need not worry) he might like this one.17

      The critique was even harsher in the Guardian, were Hugo Drochon labeled Deneen anti-democratic, despite the fact that Deneen’s book actually ends with the vision of a revitalized democracy through local communities.18 But it shows that it is no longer possible to critique liberalism without also condemning populism and articulating some constructive proposals that point in a different direction than populism. I think that it is also necessary to express, perhaps clearer than what Deneen does, appreciation of the greatest moral achievement of liberalism, and that which the populists most clearly threaten: minority rights and protection.19

      Three Ways Forward: Bretherton, Milbank & Pabst, and Integralism

      The demand for a constructive, and not only critical, political theology, has already started shaping conversations among theologians in or adjacent to the postliberal school. Here I will point out three directions they have taken so far.

      The first is represented by Luke Bretherton, who wrote on the church’s contribution to society already in Christianity and Contemporary Politics (2011) and then again in Resurrecting Democracy (2015). Bretherton is influenced by the new traditionalists but differs in several respects, as Jonathan Tran has noted.20 He rejects what he calls the “Manichean” criticism of this school since it paints “the world” in too dark colors, and is unable to provide theological reasons for a fully engaged work in society.21 In contrast, Bretherton argues that “the prophetic no must be premised on some form of eschatological yes.”22 He cannot be accused of ignoring the virtues of liberalism, but what about alternative political options?

      Bretherton writes that the church should see revitalizing the political order—resurrecting democracy—as part of a faithful Christian witness. His political approach is oriented towards community organizing: renewing society from the bottom up, through civil society. The focus is not on state policy, rather he seems to believe that necessary renewal can take place within most of the political options currently on the table. Bretherton’s focus is on the church, but he presents a vision of a church that participates in politics together with non-Christians, united in a quest for the common good. His priority of the local is Tocquevillian, yet it also has affinities with the political theology of Rowan Williams. Williams similarly considers local communities to be the foundational institutions that make up society and make human flourishing possible.23—or to start influencing policies in order to shape a culture more friendly to community life, be it Christian and other. That is what Milbank and Pabst try to do.

      I have sympathies with the ambition to influence policy. In contrast to Dreher’s Benedictine vision, we could call it a Dominican option: An attempt to change society through faithful engagement, just like the monks sent out to preach from the 12th century onwards. I think it is necessary for political theology to move in this direction, even though one can of course be  critical of the exact path chosen by Milbank and Pabst: aspects of their critique of liberalism, as well as some of the policy proposals they put forward, Liberalism is a broad tradition, and it seems more likely that a way forward should involve a new construction of this tradition than the creation of something wholly new. In his review in the New Statesman, Rowan Williams gives them some praise, but comments critically that their book has “an almost Chestertonian enthusiasm about medieval polities and economies that a more sober history would want to qualify, and assuming a great ‘fall’ with the advent of Protestantism.”

      Pabst and Milbank draw on the British socialist tradition from John Ruskin, but their project can also be described as trying to introduce Catholic Social Teaching in British politics. This seems to me to be the ambition of Blue Labour as well, namely to create an equivalent of the continental Christian Democracy.24 The catholic connection helps to explain why their proposal is communitarian, and thus at odds with the nationalistic populism. The nation-state has always had an odd place in Catholic Social Teaching, who knows better the local city and the wider empire. It is worth noting that the priority of local, small-scale communities unites all of the above-mentioned thinkers: MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Cavanaugh, Deneen, Bretherton, Milbank, and Pabst.

      The third option is found mostly outside the halls of the academy, in places where other futures of political theology are envisioned. While some academics see Deneen as going too far, he is among those who younger and more radical voices on “Weird Catholic Twitter” call “the dads”: established voices well aware of the downsides of liberal modernity, but too comfortable in their position to really challenge it. (This group also includes C. C. Pecknold, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George.) In these circles, the problem with political theology today is not that it is too critical of modernity, rather that it is not critical enough.25

      Here, criticism of liberalism is blistering, and combined with suggestions of an option, namely catholic integralism. The most articulate proponents are Fr. Edmund Wadstein, O. Cist., and Adrian Vermule, professor at Harvard Law School. The integralist option has been discussed not only on blogs (notably thejosias.com) but also in Church Life Journal of Notre Dame.26 While many probably assume that it is a right-wing project, it does not fall easily on a right-left spectrum. Leftish versions have also been presented, for example the Tradinista Manifesto, published online in 2016. The group anonymously described themselves as “a small party of young Christian socialists committed to traditional orthodoxy, to a politics of virtue and the common good, and to the destruction of capitalism, and its replacement of a truly social political economy.” They called for a struggle against liberalism and for an integralist political order, but also rejected nationalism and made their stand on minority rights clear, calling for the eradication of “racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and similar forms of oppression.”27

      Here is a political theology outside—still, at least—the academy, but nonetheless an interesting sign of the times. When Mark Lilla went to France he discovered a similar movement: young, conservative Catholics who disdain capitalism and love pope Francis’s Laudato Si.28 They are traditionalists, but miles away from the old neocon guard of First Things. While George Weigel infamously interpreted the anti-capitalism of Caritas in Veritate as Marxist additions by corrupted coworkers in the papal household, these young Catholics rather see them as the most valuable parts of the encyclical.29

      Although I do not think this proposal represent a convincing way forward, these voices do serve as a reminder that while populism is a frightening phenomena, the malaises of late modernity are real as well. Perhaps particularly so to Gen Z, or iGen (born in the late 1990s and early 2000s), who experience it most intensely. Jean M. Twenge and others have shown that the mental health of American youth has plummeted since 2012—and figures in Sweden are similar.

      Modernity is a technological wonderland and a spiritual wasteland. Late or liquid modernity accelerates many problems visible in high modernity: depletion of social capital, lack of deep connection, the superficiality of politics as well as culture, loss of hope, and a general sense of fragmentation. This is a reminder that criticism of modernity, including liberalism, is not just an academic exercise but an attempt to understand a cultural condition that people inhabit, and to some extent suffer under. Given the apparent deficiencies of this culture, criticism must continue. But it must be criticism of a certain kind—and not only criticism.

      Some Suggestions

      In terms of method, political theology needs to go beyond philosophical analysis of the present condition, to gathering knowledge about how this is experienced. Naomi Klein claims that we should “think our way out of the present,” but this is possible only if one listens carefully first. After the 2016 election Paul Ryan famously said that “Donald Trump heard a voice out in this country that no one else heard.” Whatever one thinks of what Trump heard, and particularly of how he responded, it is clear that he channeled a widespread frustration that other politicians as well as pollsters missed. Theologians need to listen to the voices on the ground, and to this end I believe a turn to ethnography would be welcome in political theology; a turn similar to that now taking place in ecclesiology.30 If I am right that the vitality of theology and its impact is dependent on its ability to interpret the present condition, a thick understanding of this condition is necessary to provide analysis as well as guidance.

      The rise of populism reflects many things: racism, economic injustice, restructured media, and a post-political order. But it would not be possible for it to reach so far and wide if it did not connect with widespread discontent. In light of this, I have argued political theology finds itself in a conundrum: criticizing current constructions of liberalism might make you sound like a populists, but abstaining from criticism makes populism the only movement where discontent is articulated. It becomes increasingly difficult to find a position outside the narrow confines of the dominant political positions of for-or-against. The two manifestos “Against the Dead Consensus” and “Against the New Nationalism” show that the cultural war is increasingly framing conversations in theology.31 The art of finding outside positions has always belonged to Hauerwas’s particular genius. This is an expression of an intellectual Libertas ecclesiae, it is a consequence of his emphasis on the importance of the church being church, and never a means to some other end. This is essential to safeguard. But moving forward, I believe three other things are also necessary for the future political theology.

      First, to acknowledge alliances, which includes avoiding the language of the cultural wars. But the fact that a Manichean worldview is incompatible with the gospel, does not mean that critique always have to be “balanced” or “polite.” Severe criticism is possible, but must be combined with a generous acknowledgment of the virtues of the opponent, as well as a belief in the good will of most people. This kind of antagonism does not need to stand in the way of friendship, in fact, if it is honest and enacted in a good tone it can be a way to friendship.

      Second, criticism must to be combined with constructive proposals. With Bretherton, Williams, Deneen, Cavanaugh, and others I believe that a good society is built from the bottom up. But the current political structures do not seem amiable to a vital civil society. As Pabst, Milbank, and the Blue Labour movement realizes, reforms in the spirit of subsidiarity and personalism are necessary to strengthen community and counter the fragmenting forces of late modernity. Community organizing needs the support of community-friendly policies. It is necessary to articulate and argue for such policy, i.e., to change the general political framework. This demands a renegotiation of some tenants of the Hauerwasian version of new traditionalism, but since the policies I have in mind belong to the natural good, I don’t think it is a Constantinian project.

      Finally, if one is able to avoid Manicheanism and put forward constructive proposals, it is possible to continue the critical project, which I think is imperative. It must be clear, however, that criticism is always an expression of solidarity; it is an attempt to analyze a cultural condition which we all share, and which church, state, market, academy, and others have created together. In short: no gloating at the failures of the current political rulers. Instead, we should recognize that those who suffer most from the present moral and political disorder are not academics, but the poor and marginalized: refugees, minorities, and the downtrodden.

      Moving forward I think Catholic Social Teaching will be an important source for constructive work. This is a form of political theology that has proven its ability to combine criticism with cooperation. It also fits within the liberal tradition, broadly understood. This is important since, as Daniel Luban has pointed out, “none of liberalism’s current critics have pointed to an alternative that is both normatively attractive and entirely non-liberal, and I doubt that we should hold our breath for the emergence of one.”32 Catholic Social Teaching has the potential to renew politics without being revolutionizing, promoting a transition from individualism to personalism, and to subsidiarity balanced by solidarity. It can help fashion a relational liberalism, building on but still different than the individualistic liberalisms that are currently dominating.

      This might be a minor shift, but in the long run it can prove immensely important.


      1. Cavanaugh has suggested distributism as an alternative economy, but generally as an option within the capitalist framework. An economy for alternate social bodies exemplified by Focolare. See for instance William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed.

      2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 263.

      3. For more on this, see Arne Rasmusson, “A Century of Swedish Theology,” Lutheran Quarterly 21.2 (2007) 125–62. Rasmusson and Sigurdson were both born in the 1960s, and came to influence a younger generation of scholars born in the 1970s and ’80s, for instance Jonas Ideström, Andreas Nordlander, Jan Eckerdal, Maria Ledstam, Patrik Hagman, and also myself. Postliberalism also merged well with an evangelical theology characterized by a radical congregationalism. Accordingly it shaped Örebro Theological Seminary—Sune Fahlgren, Roland Spjuth and Lars Johansson, and later Fredrik Wenell, Åsa Molin, and Mikael Hallenius. For a Scandinavian discussion on postliberalism, see for example Joel Halldorf and Fredrik Wenell (ed.), Between the State and the Eucharist (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

      4. Taylor, Secular Age, 475.

      5. Mark Lilla, “Blame It on the Reformation,” New Republic, September 13, 2012, https://newrepublic.com/article/107211/wittenberg-wal-mart.

      6. William T. Cavanaugh, “The Modest Claim of an Immodest Book,” Pro Ecclesia 22 (2013) 406–12.

      7. I develop this perspective further in Joel Halldorf, “Populism as Existentialism: The Sweden Democrats and the Longing for Connection,” in Is God a Populist?, ed. Susan Kerr (Oslo: Skaparkraft).

      8. Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran, “A Sanctuary Politics: Being the Church in the Time of Trump,” March 30, 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/a-sanctuary-politics-being-the-church-in-the-time-of-trump/10095918.

      9. In Joel Halldorf, Sök Babylons fred (Skellefteå: Artos, 2016), I try and formulate a political theology and ecclesiology to this end.

      10. James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King, 95n8.

      11. Smith, Awaiting the King, 115n41. Smith does not go as far as Henry Stout in his embrace of the current shape of this order, see pp. 36–41.

      12. This point is made convincingly George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2017). Some have put their faith in the leftist populism of Bernie Sander or Jeremy Corbyn, but if that will be a viable option is still an open question. In Sweden, Åsa Lindeborg and Göran Greider have forwarded the same idea in Populistiska manifestet (Stockholm: Natur & Kultur).

      13. In the New York Times David Brooks and Ross Douthat wrote comments, while Jennifer Szalai reviewed it. All in January 2018.

      14. “I don’t agree with most of the author’s conclusions, but the book offers cogent insights into the loss of meaning and community that many in the West feel, issues that liberal democracies ignore at their own peril.”

      15. In the preface, series editors James Davison Hunter and John M. Owen IV draw parallels between Deneen’s book and the works of Hauerwas and Milbank.

      16. Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 39.

      17. Alan Wolfe, “Loving the Amish,” Commonweal, February 12, 2018, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/loving-amish.

      18. Hugo Drochon, “The Anti-democratic Thinker Inspiring America’s Conservative Elites,” Guardian, April 21, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/21/patrick-deneen-book-why-liberalism-failed-catholic.

      19. As I read Deneen, such appreciation can be found in the book, albeit not overly clear. Towards the end he writes that going forward “the achievements of liberalism must be acknowledged” and that it is necessary to “build upon those achievements” for the future (182). Earlier he has counted “the ongoing victories over sexism, racism, colonialism, heteronormativity, and a host of other unacceptable prejudice that divide, demean, and segregate” to the virtues of liberalism (28).

      20. See Jonathan Tran, “Assessing the Augustinian Democrats,” 528n10.

      21. Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 190–92.

      22. Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 60.

      23. Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square. See also Mark D. Chapman, “Rowan Williams’s Political Theology: Multiculturalism and Interactive Pluralism,”

        Another influential project in the postliberal tradition is that of two other British theologians, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst. Their book The Politics of Virtue (2016) also gives priority to local, small-scale communities. However, they also emphasize the need for substantive changes in the political order for these communities to really flourish. The fact that they present different solutions than what the populists are offering makes it possible for them to express strong criticism of liberalism even after the rise of populism 2016. Among their policy suggestions are the reinvention of guilds, the development of a “civil economy,” and a stronger establishment of local colleges.

        The shift to policy in Pabst and Milbank reflects, as I understand it, a sense that the modern forces of fragmentation are too strong to withstand through community activism alone. Capitalism, liberalism, and digitalization are all pulling us apart. Christians are modern people too, and the current cultural climate makes robust communities of the kind envisioned by Hauerwas almost impossible. That leaves only two options: either the drastic Benedict option suggested by Rod Dreher—and described as unrealistic by Hauerwas[footnote]See the interview by Peter Mommsen in Plough Quarterly magazine 9 (2018), https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/church-community/why-community-is-dangerous.

      24. It is worth noting, however, that in the emphasis on local, intermediate communities, Bretherton as well as Pabst and Milbank are in line with where much of the more sophisticated political debate has moved the last years. From the right, the journey goes from individual to community, and from the left from state to community. The former can be exemplified by Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic (2016), and the latter by George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage (2017), as well as to some extent Naomi Kleins, No Is Not Enough (2017).

      25. The integralism of “Weird Catholic Twitter” was portrayed by John Allen in January 2018, see https://cruxnow.com/news-analysis/2018/04/27/weird-catholic-twitter-offers-a-reminder-of-catholic-complexity/. Influential accounts include @NoTrueScotist, @sancrucensis, @rafaeldeArizaga, @Chateaubraind, @piagone.

      26. See, e.g., Wadstein, “What Is Integralism Today?,” Church Life Journal, October 31, 2018, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/what-is-integralism-today/. See also Timothy Troutner, “The Integralist Mirroring of Liberal Ideals,” Church Life Journal, March 8, 2019, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-integralist-mirroring-of-liberal-ideals/.

      27. The manifesto can be found at https://tradinista.tumblr.com/manifesto.

      28. Mark Lilla, Two Roads for the New French Right,” New York Review of Books, December 20, 2018, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/12/20/two-roads-for-the-new-french-right/?printpage=true.

      29. See “Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red,” where Weigel sighs over “leftist and progressive conceptions” and ideas on “redestribution of wealth” in the encyclical, and concludes that “Benedict XVI, a truly gentle soul, may have thought it necessary to include in his encyclical these multiple off-notes, in order to maintain the peace within his curial household” (Weigel, “Caritas in Veritate in Gold and Red,” National Review, July 7, 2009, https://www.nationalreview.com/2009/07/caritas-veritate-gold-and-red-george-weigel/). Andrew Willard Jones’s review of Weigel’s latest book in First Things is a sign that the catholic neocon perspective as a project is not only old, but intellectually over (see “Catholic Ironies,” First Things, November 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2019/11/catholic-ironies).

      30. Fieldwork is now a major currant within ecclesiology, and it has also been done to some extent in systematic theology, for example in the works of Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Luke Bretherton, and Sarah Coakley. For this turn in ecclesiology, see “The Ecclesiology and Ethnography Network” connected with Durham University. It includes Pete Ward, Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Jonas Ideström.

      31. See “Against the Dead Consensus,” First Things, March 21, 2019, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/03/against-the-dead-consensus; and “Open Letter: Against the New Nationalism,” Commonweal, August 19, 2019, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/open-letter-against-new-nationalism.

      32. “Among the Post-Liberals,” Dissent, Winter 2020, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/among-the-post-liberals

Syndicate

Response

How Is Theological Work Shaped by Its Institutional Contexts?

How is theological work shaped by its institutional contexts?

  1. What are the primary social, cultural, institutional, disciplinary, etc. contexts where theological work takes place?
  2. What opportunities (now and in the future) does theology face in its various institutional contexts?
  3. What challenges (now and in the future) does theology face in its various institutional contexts?
  4. Where, in your opinion, does theology thrive? In what social, economic, cultural, regional, etc. contexts do you see the most important work taking place in the future? Where is this work already happening?
  5. What contexts and circumstances stand in the way of, or have a pernicious effect on, theology’s flourishing as a discipline?
  6. Please also list other resources (news articles, reports, essays, journal articles, books, websites, etc.) that you find relevant.

 

Responses by

Shannon Craigo-Snell
Rachel Muers
Sameer Yadav
Michelle Sanchez
Cheryl Sanders
Maeve Heaney
Stan Chu Ilo
Andrew DeCort
Ruth Padilla DeBorst
David Nacho
Nikolaos Asproulis
  • Shannon Craigo-Snell

    Shannon Craigo-Snell

    Reply

    Third-Order Theology

    I have been asked to consider how theological work is shaped by its institutional contexts. The imperfect tradition of delineating between “first-order” theology, which is a community’s statements and practices about their own relating to God, and “second-order” theology, which is critical reflection upon such statements and practices, is useful in this task. The Syndicate Survey Report on the State of Theology focuses on second-order theology.

    Doing second-order theology well requires grounding in a community that supports such activity, a community that shapes the content of theology and the venue in which it is presented, and a community that holds those doing theology accountable. For Christians in general, that grounding community is their church. Another category of those doing theological work is paid professionals, including pastors, priests, chaplains, therapists, and organizers. Here the grounding communities of accountability start to multiply, with denominations, professional organizations, and employers joining the mix. A third category is those engaged in the academic discipline of theology, who are primarily grounded in colleges, universities, and seminaries. These three categories of second-order theologians (1. all Christians, 2. clergy and professionals, and 3. academics) are related and entangled in various ways.

    The primary institutional contexts for academic theologians confer different costs and benefits. Colleges and universities offer easy access to interdisciplinary and interreligious interlocutors. They often require the publication of scholarly books, which hold the promise of long-term influence on the discipline. Some colleges and universities give scholars lighter teaching loads, teaching assistants, and regular sabbaticals, thus providing more time for the required academic research. However, these benefits tend to be offered by more elite institutions, so they come with a significant cost. Students at elite schools—even those that boast of racial, ethnic, and national diversity—tend to come from a fairly narrow socioeconomic and cultural demographic. The isolation in the cultural upper class that occurs in elite institutions is a limitation.

    Seminaries and divinity schools often lack the interdisciplinary and interreligious contexts of colleges and universities. At the same time, when seminaries include communal worship, field education, and the like, they grant the opportunity for embodied and communal learning that defies the educational constraint of modern epistemological models. The separation of “archive” and “repertoire” as ways of creating, storing, and transferring knowledge is troubled, blurred, and—occasionally—undone.1 The denominational uniformity of some seminaries is a drawback for academic theologians. And yet, denominational seminaries are often regional, which can result in a student population that is socioeconomically, racially, and culturally diverse.

    Seminary professors often carry heavier teaching and community responsibilities, with fewer resources (such as teaching assistants). Their time for scholarship is limited, and the expectations are different, as well. Many seminary professors publish some of their work with church presses aimed at an audience beyond the classroom. While fewer academic books might lessen a theologian’s influence on the discipline over time, there is an immediacy of influence when teaching clergy, counselors, and activists. An idea in the professor’s Thursday lecture might turn up in the student’s Sunday sermon.

    Almost every seminary in the United States is under financial strain. This has led to job loss for some and job insecurity for many. It is difficult to do excellent theological work in an institution on the edge, while trying out creative curricula to entice new students, via platforms that were not covered in graduate programs a decade ago. This is easier, however, than that which is asked of adjunct professors trying to piece together a living at poverty wages while repaying student loans. Their access to disciplinary influence is limited by the number of hours in the day. Many adjuncts acquire a breadth of knowledge and depth of pedagogical expertise that would be of incredible value to the discipline of theology if they only had the time to write it.

    I count myself in all three categories of second-order theologians. I am a Christian, an ordained minister, and a professor. I taught in the Religious Studies Department at Yale University for a decade, and I’ve now been teaching at Louisville Seminary for nearly as long. I thought I would miss the international and interreligious diversity of Yale’s students, but there is a wider range of ideas and opinions in my classes in Kentucky, due to greater racial and socioeconomic diversity. While I long for the kind of time and context that would make it easier to put another academic volume on the shelf, I am daily thrilled by the remarkable work my students are doing in the world. I have been incredibly fortunate in my academic career—separated from my adjunct siblings by luck alone. At the same time, teetering on the edge of fifty, I am not sanguine that this ride will last until retirement.

    Such self-focused reflections about the institutional contexts of theology are easy to fall into and almost comforting in their own depressing way. They allow me, for a moment, to think that the greatest theological problem of our day is how to help the discipline flourish, or how to train clergy for a changing church. That is easier to contemplate than detention camps at our southern border, rapidly warming oceans, or hate crimes on the rise. First-order Christian theology has been a vital tool in creating and maintaining these realities. Such theology is being artfully wielded in well-funded ways for political power, at the great expense of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Christians—particularly white Christians—helped put Donald Trump in the White House and have acquiesced to an increasing array of racist, xenophobic, sexist, and earth-destroying policies.2

    Currently, the most pressing context for theological work in the United States is the amalgam of Christianity and politics that is generating enormous harm on local, national, and global scales. This infuses institutions from the Senate to the courts to ICE. Its rise has weakened institutions such as public schools, libraries, and the EPA. Harmful first-order theology must be met by careful second-order theology. It is an abdication of responsibility for theologians (all Christians, clergy and professionals, and academics) to allow harmful and incoherent theologies to flourish unchecked. The appropriate institutional context for second-order theology is everywhere that first-order theology takes place, be it the university or the grocery store.

    Particularly as someone situated in the Reformed tradition, I embrace second-order theology as a way to move Christian communities away from our worst tendencies and toward our eschatological identity. Second-order theology—a self-critical exercise, even when it garners insight from other sources—relies on Christians to do this self-regulatory work. While necessary, this is not sufficient. The world is too small for this now. Christianity’s influence is too large and its history too violent. Christians need assistance in reflecting on our theology. Christianity needs third-order theology.

    First-order theology is a community speaking and living its faith. Second-order theology is that same community looking in the mirror, with lots of other resources at hand, to see how things are going. Third-order theology would be turning toward our neighbors outside our tradition to understand how our speaking and living looks from their perspective. I do not mean to suggest that we outsource our self-reflection. Rather, we should do the work of cultivating a broader community of accountability. If theology is a self-articulating and self-critical project, then there is little opportunity for our non-Christian neighbors to understand our positions or call out our hypocrisy. Anyone can call anything “Christian” or “what the Bible says” and relatively few feel qualified to reject the claim.

    The work of third-order theology includes making our theological commitments so transparent that those outside our tradition understand them. In a culture of biblical illiteracy, when left-leaning Christian theological voices rarely make the news and mainline Christians do not mention faith at the office, this is a serious educational undertaking. The work of third-order theology requires Christians to engage with people beyond our primary communities on important issues, even when it’s uncomfortable, so that our neighbors know our theology and can tell us when we miss the mark. The intentional cultivation of a broader community of accountability would look different in the institutional contexts of churches, universities, and seminaries. Each institutional context would have opportunities and impediments. However, the attempt might help Christian theology as a whole shift the larger institutional context—the amalgam of Christianity and politics in the United States—in life-preserving ways.


    1. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 19–20.

    2. It is now customary to cordon off a particular section of white US Christianity for blame, under the label “evangelical.” There are many church communities in the United States that neither support nor condone the current administration. However, if mainstream Christian communities were significantly different than evangelical ones, we would not be taken by surprise when people we know as friends, as neighbors, and as family understand Trumpism and Christianity as compatible. Christians claim that we are, corporately, the body of Christ. If this is true, then mainline blindness to the intense fear and ready anger abiding in evangelical Christianity is a form of culpable ignorance.

    • Rachel Muers

      Rachel Muers

      Reply

      Nodes, Networks, and Interstices

      Initial Thoughts: Theology and Institutions

      There is an understandable tendency, in writing about Christian theology, to focus on the creative and systematic intellectual work of individual theologians. Syllabi and textbooks are often structured around lists of personal names; academic belonging, credibility and authorisation are secured by citation, by engaging intensely with the work of individual theologians, by locating oneself within intellectual genealogies to which names are attached. If we ask about the contexts of theology from this starting point, the question is about what contexts nurture the best work by individual theologians. Institutional contexts will be evaluated in terms of the extent to which they provide an open and bounded space for the development and exercise of individual creativity. The Syndicate report, however, emphasises the character of theology as a shared and communal practice. This is welcome, and it opens the way for wider and deeper reflection on theology’s institutional contexts—how institutions can be, not only frameworks to protect theologians’ creative spaces, but also formative of theological practices and outputs.

      The report describes theology as “always, and perhaps primarily, a self-critical practice within the life of Christian communities.” “Communities” here carries no particular institutional or organisational weight; the intention is simply to say that theology is done by Christians for (the larger group of) Christians. What would happen if we said that theology is “a self-critical practice within the life of [Christian] institutions”? This formulation draws attention to ways in which institutions embody and sustain particular theologies, in a broad and sometimes a narrow sense of the term. The institutions in which we do theology embody and sustain localised visions of the good, including visions of good theology or good academic work. Theology can, and will to some extent, reproduce the patterns of the institutions within which it takes place, including the historical power relations and exclusions that the institutions are founded on; and it is also particularly well placed to challenge these patterns, both because of its relationship to a wider network of “Christian communities” past and present, and because of its commitment to reasoning about all things in relation to God as their origin and end. As the report puts it—theology can “examine and reframe a wide variety of institutions and social formations,” and, I would add, can do so recognising its own implication in those institutions and formations.

      Talking about theology as a practice within the life of institutions draws attention—as does the report—to the historically-embedded power relations that form theology, and to the ways in which these power relations are open to critique and transformation. Again in keeping with the Syndicate report, it also challenges any neat separation between “church” theology and “academic” theology—recognising how Christianity shapes the ostensibly “secular” institutional landscape, and also how church “communities” inhabit the organisational and institutional world.

      In the rest of this piece, reflecting on the various examples and material presented in the Syndicate report, I attempt a somewhat speculative typology for understanding and evaluating how theology works in relation to institutions in the early twenty-first century. I consider the different ways in which theology thrives—and the different opportunities and challenges it faces—in three different types of context, taking one or two representative examples in each case and in no case attempting to be exhaustive. I look first at theology’s nodes—gatherings of theologians with strong shared and extended commitments to particular ways of doing theology, shared assumptions, and common libraries. I then turn to theology’s networks—contexts of theological work that rely on multiple connections across differences of disciplinary background, cultural context, starting assumptions, and so forth. Finally, continuing the possibly overextended metaphor of the net, I look at how theology happens in interstices—in contexts, institutions and projects that are not primarily theological but that in some way allow room for theological work. My argument is that all of these types of context provide distinctive opportunities for theology to thrive—as well as, of course, distinctive threats and challenges to theology’s flourishing.

      Intensities: Theology in Nodes

      Many examples might be cited of how in the contemporary context theology is well served by intense, often relatively small-scale or geographically restricted, committed gatherings of theologians around strong shared commitments. Examples listed in the Syndicate report include the Workgroup on Constructive Theology, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham, and the Religion and its Publics project at UVA. From a UK context, looking at geographically-based nodes (which also happen to be confessionally based), one might think of the Centre for Protestant Theology at Aberdeen or the Centres for Anglican Studies and Catholic Studies at Durham.

      If this sounds like a very traditional “ivory tower” model of theology, or seems redolent of academic privilege, we might cite the thirty years of work by the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, united by a strong shared vision of theology as a critical justice-seeking practice for women in Africa, immensely productive of individual and collaborative work, built on the commitment and solidarity of a relatively small group of “founding mothers” and effectively challenging entrenched assumptions about how, where, and by whom theology is done.1 In the UK context, the newly-launched Centre for Black Theology at Birmingham promises to achieve a step-change in the visibility and power (academic, ecclesial, and social) of theology in a liberative mode.

      Theology can thrive in “nodes” in the contemporary context by enabling depth of study and of conversation—circumventing some of the institutional pressures noted in the report (isolation, fragmentation, and financial pressure) through concentration of human, material, and intellectual resources, and through unashamed “partiality” and specialisation. Theological nodes have attractive force, both in the sense that they appeal and in the sense that they draw people in. There is no reason to assume, however, that these “nodes” are restricted in their influence and benefits just because they are focused in their activity. At its best, the flourishing of theology in “nodes” has widely-diffused benefits; it gives theology visibility and credibility, and also, through the multiplicity of nodes and the self-confessed partiality/particularity of each, makes the diversity of the field apparent.

      Extensities: Theology in Networks

      The Syndicate report repeatedly emphasises the importance, for the continuing vitality of theology, of extending and diversifying theological conversation. To that end, it draws attention to the importance of strong and open-ended networks for theology—with low “barriers to entry,” processes and structures focused on enabling attentive conversation across difference, and the potential to generate new interactions—connecting existing “nodes” and developing new ones. Syndicate itself is rightly named in the report as an important contemporary example of a network space of this kind within which theology can flourish; another example mentioned in the report is the Political Theology Network. We might think of the many overlapping virtual networks sustained in the “theological blogosphere” (without ignoring the fact that these networks can become inward-looking); or the many overlapping networks represented by the “learned societies” for theology in the UK and elsewhere.

      Lest it be thought that theological networks are a phenomenon of the internet age, I draw attention here to the continuing—and arguably growing—theological generativity of the worldwide ecumenical movement. Admittedly, ecumenical theological work may not always have low barriers to entry in terms of cost or status, but it does have a focus on attentive conversation across difference, and the potential to connect ecclesial, academic, and geographical “nodes” of theological work in new ways. Examples would include the recent work done by the World Council of Churches’ Commission on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, with further forthcoming papers on environmental theology and religious difference.2

      Networks represent a different and complementary response to the challenges of isolation, fragmentation, and marketization, as well as some other problems named in the report such as institutional risk-aversion. They enable relatively low-risk experimentation in theological conversation and community. It is important, however, not to underestimate the resources required to maintain a strong network; the relatively low cost and low risk for the participant often masks a high cost—at least in terms of effort—for those who take responsibility for the health of the network (paradigmatically—the moderator of the comments page, the editor of Syndicate . . .). Moreover, since the benefits of the network are less concentrated and less obviously attributable, those who devote their efforts to theological networks may be less likely to be rewarded and supported.

      Openings: Theology in Interstices

      The Syndicate report also shows that many of the productive institutional contexts for theology in the contemporary world are specifically not designated as “theological” spaces. It is striking to see the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse included in the list of contexts for the most “significant and dynamic” work in the field. This draws attention to the fact that theology in the contemporary world often seems to flourish in the interstices of institutions or projects that engage with urgent and troubling questions to which theologians can, and do, respond. The various commissions on historical sexual abuse provide a series of vital and troubling examples; but we might also consider, for example, the theological work undertaken within and in relation to church-based development agencies (for example in the UK, Christian Aid and CAFOD). Looking outside identifiable institutions, there are diverse theological voices arising from international grassroots responses to climate breakdown, and to large-scale migration and border enforcement—theology flourishing in the interstices, or rather the gaping holes, in global systems.

      Interstitial theological work may well be missed in surveys that begin from either the academy or the churches—but it may prove to be some of the most creative and important work. The questions around its flourishing concern how theologians who are working in non-theological institutions and spaces can be sustained and resourced from nodes and networks of theology—but also how the experience of theology in the interstices can help to promote theology’s ongoing accountability and attention to wider contexts and communities, and to prevent disciplinary isolation.


      1. See for a critical and appreciative history of the Circle, Helen Labeodan, http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2074-77052016000200008.

      2. See World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order, Come and See: A Theological Invitation to the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, Faith & Order Paper Number 224 (2019), https://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/publications/ComeAndSeeFullPages.pdf.

    • Sameer Yadav

      Sameer Yadav

      Reply

      Theology and Bridge-Building

      What distinguishes the work of theology from non-theological religious studies is that theological inquiry is grounded in normative confessional commitments to the subject matter of that inquiry. For that reason, the primary institutional contexts for the work of theology are those that value, or at least do not forbid, religiously committed scholarship. This does not mean, however, that theology only takes place in privately funded religious institutions. It can also take place at state-funded university religion departments (the University of Virginia being a notable example). But the religious precommitments that motivate theological studies does mean that theology is an embattled discipline in the landscape of academic culture. The methodological debate between those who believe that religiously committed scholarship on the religion in question has no place in the academic study of religion and those who advocate for religious participant-scholarship is a palpable undercurrent of every single annual American Academy of Religion meeting. Those methodological debates are often more heat than light, and there remains a good deal of space for a better quality of conversation across the divide.

      Another feature of the landscape of academic theology generated purely by the nature of religiously committed scholarship is that its literatures divide along roughly confessional and ideological lines. Christian theologians, unless they are comparative theologians or have a primary interest in interreligious dialogue, tend to read and write only for other Christian theologians. Rather, we tend to write only for a select subset of other Christian theologians.  It is thus fairly easy to recognize fairly autonomous literatures operative for e.g., liberationist vs. traditionalist Christian theologians. The tribalism of confessional identity among theologians themselves thus tracks strongly with the self-contained character of their theological scholarship. There are of course certain figures and works that occasionally cross-pollinate—most Christian theologians know something about both Cone and Augustine, etc.—but cross-pollination is not the norm. While it might seem perfectly natural that such divides in the theological literature would stem from the distinct normative commitments of its authors, it is striking when compared with the way scholarship is conducted in other academic disciplines.

      To take an example from the humanities, consider mainstream analytic philosophy. There are many differing families of views about, e.g., the metaphysics of truthmaking, causation, or time.  But despite widespread disagreement on these issues, everyone who works on any one of them is roughly familiar with the same literature and varieties of arguments. The overlap in bibliographic references between philosophers holding different views about the same subject matter is considerable.  By contrast, one can pick up two theology books on some theological subject matter—say, Christ’s incarnation—and the two works might have few if any shared authorities, arguments, or bibliographic references in common. This is not necessarily a critique (although perhaps one lurks in the nearby bushes), as there may be many good reasons for the disjointedness of scholarly literature in theology that are disanalogous with the problems and questions of contemporary analytic metaphysics. Still, it provides a kind of opportunity for more interdisciplinary work and methodological bridge-building within and across particular theological perspectives within the same broad religious identification. Moreover, since Christian, and to a lesser extent, Jewish, theology is what I know best, I am not sure that this same phenomenon about the disciplinary context of theology holds beyond the so-called “Abrahamic” theological landscape.

      I am ordinarily not the most optimistic person, and so I am inclined to suppose that Christian theology in the academy faces so many more challenges than it does opportunities, especially in the North American context. I will name three. First, there continues to be very wide disconnect between actual confessional communities—ordinary religious believers, their forms of religious belonging and practice—and the academic communities of confessional religious reflection. Theologians are in the awkward position of writing books mainly for one another (within their ideologically defined groups) without any clear social infrastructure for their proposed constructive work on the norms of religious belief and practice to actually interface with the existing norms of religious belief and practice that their work so often purports to be about. Second, the widescale economic crisis in higher education has impacted theological education as much as it has the humanities more broadly, and this has included a greater reliance on adjuncts, cutting of theology programs and courses, and a move to more online instruction and professionalized ministry foci aimed at producing more revenue streams with less infrastructure and overhead expense.  Apart from elite university divinity schools with large endowments, the work of academic theology in its interdisciplinary, exploratory, speculative, and critical modes is being suffocated by these economic pressures.  Third, many of the private confessional institutions where the bulk of theological inquiry takes place have continued to struggle to maintain the balance between the academic freedom required for theological inquiry as a genuinely scholarly enterprise, and an accountability to the religious and ideological mission of those confessional institutions.  Many such institutions tend to have a very carefully and well-reasoned articulation of this delicate balance between the religious precommitments that serve as a starting point for theological inquiry and the needed allowance for discovery, criticism, and revision that belongs to the work of theology as an academic discipline.  However, theological accountability in confessional institutions ordinarily translates into an accountability to the religious constituencies to whom such institutions are most financially beholden—its donor base and the religious constituency from whom it draws most of its tuition dollars.  The aforementioned disconnect between academic theology and actual religious community introduces unique dysfunctions into the process of properly assessing whether the delicate balance at which confessional institutions aim is actually being achieved without either stifling theological inquiry or violating the stated religious mission of the institutions in which it is being carried out.  These three difficulties—disciplinary solipsism, economic collapse, and the competition of confessional and academic interests—are interlocking and pervasive features of the landscape in contemporary theological education.

      Against this (rather grim) backdrop, the most promising theological work being done at the moment is happening at various kinds of intersections with other disciplines, with distinctively religious problems being uniquely illuminated by those disciplines. To cite an example where I have been deeply invested, the rise of analytic theology as an important voice in academic theology has more recently moved toward a greater dialogue with the social sciences and philosophical literature on social ontology and the metaphysics of social structure, and this work in my view has a great deal of promise for the future. Analytic political theologies, liberation theologies, theological anthropologies of social identity, and ecclesiology that attends to real-world problems of human belonging are ripe for further development and elaboration. Likewise, the internal diversification of topics and interests in analytic theology has included the shedding of new light on standard tropes in more mainstream theology that has in many quarters grown tired, such as work on Christian mystical experience and practice, or sacramental theology, or the rejuvenation of theological interpretation of Scripture.

      The relative fragmentation of academic Christian theology, the persistent chasm between religiously committed scholars and their wider constituencies, and the economic and ideological constraints on its predominantly confessional institutional contexts are therefore all obstacles that need to be addressed in order to preserve the health of the discipline. Both institutionally and individually, therefore, perhaps the greatest opportunity consists in the kind of intellectual flexibility and creativity that resides with bridge-builders. Projects, programs, institutions, and individual scholars capable of identifying and transgressing established institutional, intellectual, and disciplinary boundaries within which their scholarly work takes place and mediating that work within their religious communities stand the best chance of formulating the questions and problems that can transcend the field’s tribalism and stave off what will otherwise be its stagnation and inevitable demise.

    • Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

      Michelle Chaplin Sanchez

      Reply

      Theology as Teaching

      I.

      As a theologian, I maintain a normative and practical commitment to the basic idea that theology is teaching. For many (not all) of the sources I work on, theology is teaching that concerns God and God’s relation to the world in conversation with received traditional sources (whatever they may be). Theology thus simultaneously concerns the self, human beings, nature, questions of cosmic order, sociopolitical order, law, and the operation of power more generally. If theology is teaching, “theological work” is a mode of work in which knowledge and action are inseparable on two levels.

      On the level of what is taught, theology concerns the relation between the structure of reality as theological discourses have imagined it macroscopically (i.e., God, the cosmos, nature) and the way we readers/students behave microscopically and understand ourselves. Put another way, theological teaching animates a productive relationship between large-scale conceptual thinking/imagining and small-scale concrete praxis.

      Then there is the level of teaching itself: teaching is a reciprocal activity that takes place between teachers and students (who sometimes switch roles or occupy more than one). It involves giving and receiving ideas through deliberate activities that shape and reshape the way both parties act, respond, perceive, and think.

      II.

      I give this preamble to clarify how I understand the institutional context of theology. If theology is teaching that concerns the relationship between received-historical conceptions of reality and the formation-cultivation of embodied persons, then a number of institutions are invested in this task: places of worship and universities, obviously; but also homes, workplaces, political institutions, community organizations, medical venues, entertainment production companies, and so forth. Because of contingent historical factors, not all of these institutions understand themselves as doing the work of theology. Yet theological work is happening whenever a relationship is performed between (a) things and ideas existing at scales that cannot be empirically verified, yet that invariably address and situate the context of worldly life; and (b) bodies in the world seeking direction, meaning, and a sense for what they ought to do.

      III.

      Opportunities and challenges: Anecdotally, many people I interact with express confusion over what theology is at all. I’ve encountered this both among people who identify as nonreligious and among decades-long churchgoers. I suspect this confusion (or suspicion) reflects the changes theology has undergone in recent centuries, in the contexts of secularizing nation-states and secularizing universities. Especially since the eighteenth century, theologians have made the simultaneous effort to position their work as legitimate (though at times polemical) alongside the human and natural sciences, which for some meant reconceiving theology as a propositional and systematic exercise in truth-claims. This, in turn, funds the urge to use these claims to define and discipline the identities of religious adherents.

      The field’s self-critique of this modern reconfiguration of theological work typifies the opportunity I see for the field today. Those with access to and training in the deep archives of historical traditions of text and practice have begun to use a wider array of methods to expose the historic and contemporary porosity of theological methods alongside wider human concerns: politics, social order, art, and social critique. This kind of work shows not only that theology has always been interested in the critical formation of individuals and communities, but also that (because of this) theology has always been implicated in a wider array of strategies for forming and organizing individuals and communities.

      I find excellent academic examples of this kind of intervention in, for example, recent works of political theology that show deep resonances between historical theological teachings and strategies of public reason (Smith’s Weird John Brown, J. Kameron Carter’s work on the “Imperial God-Man” come to mind); or works that take seriously the theological dimensions of literary work and the literary dimensions of theology (Victoria Kahn, Julia Reinhart Lupton). Theology thrives when practitioners (in and outside the academy) become open to, and interested in, the extent to which contemporary persons remain shaped by large-scale teachings and become invested in how those teachings do—or could—shape our collective life and perhaps allow us to reimagine it.

      The increasing influence of deeply-informed long-form think pieces, shared on the internet and published in outlets such as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, or New York Magazine—or even web-based outlets such as Vox or Buzzfeed—show promise at generating this kind of theological self-consciousness outside of the traditional institutional contexts of theology. The promise of this kind of media is rooted in its willingness to engage in cultural criticism for mass consumption, which means making connections across disciplines and illuminating the wider views of the world that draw from distinctively theological discourses to enable cultural phenomena. This also allows for increasing critical awareness of the way theologies have been used as tools within contexts of power, either to critique or to shore up systems of oppression.

      Yet, this is a largely intellectual opportunity that faces severe material challenges. All the talk of the decline of the humanities, declining church attendance and the closing of seminaries, etc., is in my view rooted in the contemporary value placed on monetization as a primary governing logic. Work that cannot be monetized is (generally) no longer considered valuable or important work. Yet it is difficult to monetize the slow and subtle relational work of theological teaching. Monetization is enabled by branding strategies addressed to the human desire for a stable identity. People are encouraged to pay for the things that contribute to this identity and to make those choices in relation to a “brand”—often a particular face or logo that bespeaks a lifestyle that can be attained through purchases. This dynamic, however, runs exactly counter to the critical and formative work of theology, which is precisely designed to challenge given identities and perform new relationships between people by means of discourses that refer to things that transcend consumer economies.

      Monetization may be compatible with the distinctly modern mode of theology I discussed above, insofar as the embrace of propositions (especially when tied to the “brand” of a specific community or figurehead) can be used to shore up a stable identity. Yet, this has the effect of rendering theology either quaint/anti-intellectual (consumer Evangelicalism) or, at best, as a countercultural option (something like Dreher’s Benedict Option). Both effects only obscure theology’s wider critical-pedagogical operation within multiple domains of contemporary life.

      IV.

      It is, of course, difficult to account for all the factors that would need to change for theology to flourish. But one promising avenue I see is for theological education to become explicitly critical of the recent disciplinary triangulation of theology. Theologians must work to remember the broader pedagogically-inflected posture of theology and bring this posture to bear in a wider array of social spheres, using a critical methodology capable of contextualizing the implicit theologies shaping modern society (and the injustices it perpetuates). Practically, academic institutions should begin providing opportunities for graduate students to cultivate careers outside of academic theology—careers including law, journalism, advocacy, government, and business. These are areas where the implicitly theological order of labor and life is ripe to be made explicit, and areas where the totalizing paradigm of monetization needs to be challenged.

    • Cheryl Sanders

      Cheryl Sanders

      Reply

      “Debunking, Unmasking and Disentangling”: Theology and Institutions

      What are the primary social, cultural, institutional, disciplinary, etc. contexts where theological work takes place?
      The primary contexts where theological work takes place are academic, including seminaries, divinity schools, religion departments, and Christian higher education. Theologians who teach, learn, and do research in these institutions also engage each other in scholarly meetings, peer-reviewed publications, conferences, symposia, online, and via social media.

       

      What opportunities (now and in the future) does theology face in its various institutional contexts?
      Theology brings a variety of sources and methodologies to bear upon the study of ideas about God, humanity, and human destiny. From the vantage point of the university, the greatest opportunity I can envision for theology is to arise as a focal point for convergence of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences in critical analysis and interpretation of human behavior, institutions and character as informed by what people believe. Theologians should be key conveners of these kinds of conversations in higher education. To illustrate, here are three examples of projects where I have been a participant in efforts undertaken to extend the impact of theological studies to broader audiences throughout the academy and beyond: (1) Mobilizing for the Common Good: The Lived Theology of John M. Perkins (2013), edited by Peter Slade, Charles Marsh, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, one of a stream of symposia and publications produced since 2002 by the Project on Lived Theology directed by Marsh at the University of Virginia; (2) Ron Sider and John Borelli convened a series of Catholic-Evangelical dialogues annually over a period of years (2008–2015) bringing together Catholic and Evangelical theologians, ethicists, journalists, and church officials, then compiled chapters stemming from these conversations in Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good: A Dialogue in an Historic Convergence (2018); and (3) Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity (2018), a collection of ethical and theological essays edited by David Evans and Peter Dula representing an effort to offer Christian responses to the atheistic vision set forth by journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me (2015), his best-selling volume of letters addressed to his teenaged son analyzing the state of race relations in the United States.

       

      What challenges (now and in the future) does theology face in its various institutional contexts?
      Prominent among the many challenges faced by theology in its various institutional contexts is the ongoing impact of the decline of mainline Protestantism in the United States, as measured by lower church attendance, closure of churches, and falling enrollment of students in master of divinity degree programs designed to prepare them for ordained ministry. While the church may not rank as high as the academy as the primary context for theological work, the demand for theologically trained professionals will certainly decrease if fewer opportunities and audiences are available for engagement of theological concerns in congregations and denominational gatherings. There is a disconnect between theologians and congregations resulting directly from the fact that many theologians shun religious participation and affiliation altogether. Thus, we have theologians producing armchair analyses of what churches should or should not do, and we have congregants who do not recognize and cannot name even the most prominent theologians of our times. In the academic context several disturbing trends pose major challenges for the future of theology—the increased marginalization of theological discourse in the university, the relative silence of theologians in the various arenas of public life and popular culture, and the virtual disappearance of theological discourse from the public square.

      Theologians performing the role of public intellectual are few and far between. The same can be said about congregations with theologians in residence.

       

      Where, in your opinion, does theology thrive? In what social, economic, cultural, regional, etc. contexts do you see the most important work taking place in the future? Where is this work already happening?
      Martin Luther King Jr. remains the best model and exemplar of the theologian as a public intellectual focused on a sustained project of social transformation. In the five decades following his assassination, King’s stature as a public intellectual has not been overshadowed by any of his critics or admirers, nor have his methods of social protest—marches, prayer vigils, nonviolent resistance, and arrests—been updated by his followers. Gary Dorrien’s text Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (2018), analyzes the intellectual formation, social impact, and political influence of King in light of the collective engagement of the social gospel by twentieth-century black preachers, scholars, and leaders. The intentional formation of a new generation of theologically informed public intellectuals may be our greatest prospect for future thriving of the discipline. Some of the best theological work is now being produced in this light by Vincent Lloyd, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and Luke Bretherton. Conscientious attention is being devoted to the role of theology in the current political climate by two theologically informed journalists writing for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson and E. J. Dionne. (Both were participants in the Catholic-Evangelical dialogues mentioned above.)

       

      What contexts and circumstances stand in the way of, or have a pernicious effect on, theology’s flourishing as a discipline?
      When in 1949 Howard Thurman wrote a brief but poignant defense of his commitment to follow Jesus as a black American, he lamented the inability of Christianity to address the problem of racial discrimination and injustice. Seven decades now after the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited, this dilemma persists largely as a theological problem that remains unresolved. In my estimation, theology will never flourish as long as it serves the interests of white supremacy. The key challenge is the reframing of theological conversations so that the value and influence of theological work can be affirmed beyond the classroom, the guild, and the library. Reframing implies a broader dissemination of these conversations to diverse audiences without losing the focus and impact necessary to accomplish the ends set forth early on by womanist ethicist Katie Cannon in her agenda for liberation ethics, namely, “debunking, unmasking and disentangling” the ideologies, theologies, and systems of value that operate in the society. How can theology flourish as a discipline and not address its own pernicious effects on people’s lives?

    • Maeve Louise Heaney

      Maeve Louise Heaney

      Reply

      Theology Today: Where Is the Need?

      This response to Syndicate’s analysis and summary of the consultation process on the state of theology is that of a female, Caucasian, full-time academic, involved in research, teaching and theological formation for ministry at a public and Catholic University in Australia, with past experiences of work in theological institutions in Europe and the United States of America. From that perspective, I would divide the institutional contexts currently influencing the state of play and future of theology into two broad types: universities (public or private) with a history and heritage of investment in the Christian or Catholic intellectual tradition and its role in higher education, and the various forms of theologates and schools of ministry focussed on training future ministers and leaders for Christian communities of one denomination or another. These are the institutions that have, or are committed to finding, resources for theological education.

      Various aspects of the text seem particularly important:

      • That theology is a discipline with multiple self-defined subdisciplines that critically reflects on itself in interaction with other disciplines. How theology defines its aims and areas of expertise is often shaped by the institution in which it is practiced;
      • That theology is (and has always been) critical reflection on itself for its own growth and development and at the service of the world, for whom it must be intelligible and from whom it must learn and grow;
      • The work identified as significant work is emerging more from theology’s interaction with the surrounding culture than from internal doctrinal conversations;
      • The importance of theology’s interaction with marginalised communities, which stems not only from its inherent mission but also the recognition of the historical complicity of Christian thought in that same marginalisation.

      Given the document’s (understandable) emphasis on challenges over opportunities, I will start by naming two opportunities which I think the current situation affords us for theological work. The first is the growing recognition of the need for theological formation beyond the parameters of those who would naturally seek to study theology. Not only are most adult Christians recognising their need for ongoing theological knowledge and formation, but a variety of organisations are also seeking theological education to support the understanding and development of their identity and the ethos. While this can be hijacked and negatively affect theological curricula when implementation strategies are tied to market pressures, it is also, in some way, a sign of the times and opportunity for growth. Pastors and ecclesial leaders are always going to need an assimilated solid philosophical and theological education, but perhaps they can, and should, receive this alongside and in dialogue with others seeking to respond to their vocations in the world, individually and as groups.

      The second opportunity comes from the current sexual abuse crises. How is this an opportunity? Because for some denominations, one of the greatest impediments for the advancement of theological discourse is found in the ecclesial culture that constitutes its raison d’être. This public accountability to state authorities outside of ecclesial culture,1 while painful for all involved, may represent one of the few ways in which otherwise impenetrable structures of authority actually reform. We are in a moment of real possibility for change, if only because these crises are affecting the reputation of its leaders, and as a result, the number of people in the pews.

      In what direction should this reform move? Theology thrives where the link between serious thought and the teaching and formation of future leaders are held together, in the practice, financially and systemically, by a leadership structure that understands the link between theological investigation and the resources (time, expertise, and collaborative research) needed to develop and maintain the discipline.

      Theology also flourishes when it is allowed to invest in slow thinking and build a methodological interdisciplinary approach to knowledge that is not random or based on the local genius or rising star who publishes most or who brings in the most grant money. For theology to be what it is meant to be, building on the heritage or tradition of each subfield implies time and space to critically reflect and verify its processes. The report identifies the various ways in which theology “subdivides” its fields of study: by subject matter, source materials, and/or as a web of related subfields. In the current climate of specialised knowledge, it is the last option that holds more promise for theology.2 It understands theological investigation itself, prior to or alongside its interdisciplinary relations, not as a series of independently trained scholars or schools unaware of where and how their (necessary) expertise intersect with that of other disciplines, but as unified although differentiated tasks within a process. Theology will advance and flourish when it reflects on how each area relates to and interacts with others, for the critical accountability of each and the advancement of knowledge. Only in this way will it create the framework for fruitful and focussed interdisciplinary work.

      This is a challenge, financially and perhaps even more profoundly, conceptually in a world that values speed over quality and technology over humanities and the arts (which figured very little in the report, although the arts have always been critically reflective voices for society).

      By way of conclusion, what can we learn from the fact that attention to the margins is identified as central to significant theological work? The implicit, underlying concern that emerges time and time again in this document is that the institutional context in which theological investigation takes place shapes every aspect of theology: how it is defined, whether it flourishes into significant contribution to society. By addressing the challenges and responding to the opportunities which more often than not manifest themselves in the form of crises. Only a dialectic relationship between the theological community and the institutions within which they work will allow theology to articulate and effectively play its role as “critical friend” or transformative leaven for the education of the future generations. It takes a mature understanding of the place of education and academic freedom in both church and state to sustain this and a willingness to pool resources and use them wisely and collaboratively, above all in relation to the smaller, ministry-focussed institutions. Once again, it may be the crises being faced that guide us in that direction. Sadly, there is no guarantee that mature thinking will win the day, although our faith and hope count on it.

       


      1. Such as we saw in the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

      2. By way of example, this is the ethos and modus operandi of the various Lonergan Institutes around the world (Boston College, Regis College, Canada, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, Dublin Lonergan Centre, and the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome), based on the work in theological method of Bernard J. F. Lonergan, SJ. Cf. https://bclonergan.org/; http://www.lonerganresearch.org; https://bellarmine.lmu.edu/lonergan/; https://lonerganmorin.wordpress.com/2007/03/04/dublin-lonergan-centre/; https://www.unigre.it/it/ua/facolta/teologia/progetto-lonergan/.

    • Stan Chu Ilo

      Stan Chu Ilo

      Reply

      An African Response to the State of Theology

      What I intend to do here is to reflect on three aspects of the survey report which I find very significant for theology, especially for me as an African theologian. I will conclude with three propositions on the meaning, task, and future of theology. To begin with, I must say that reading this text was reinvigorating for me. It also helped me to draw some contrasts between the broad spectrum of perspectives of the theologians consulted from different Christian traditions vis-à-vis some of the conclusions and criteria for doing theology in the Roman Catholic tradition proposed in 2011 by the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church in the document, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles and Criteria.

      My first submission is that the state of theology today must be considered first and foremost from the point of view of World Christianity, that is, from the stance of a post-Western Christianity and a post-Christian Western society. What this means is that the epistemological canons for defining theology and terms like “revelation,” “faith,” “understanding,” and other associated concepts which were current in the dominant theological discourse which had provenance in the West need to be rethought. Whereas there is the need to identify those family traits which create some commonalities of Christian experience along diverse human histories and cultures where the gospel has been received, one cannot neglect the following facts:

      • Theological discussions and theological education in the West and particularly in North America has become very binary and polarized. What has emerged particularly in the Catholic Church since Vatican II are different theological camps of theologians who are preoccupied with various theological and ideological projects and who find it nearly impossible to establish some common grounds through a creative and humble dialogue carried out in a spirit of love, respect, and gratitude;
      • Theological productions in the West are no longer feeding from and nourishing the life of faith as it once did in the past. Many reasons account for this, which should be critically studied and understood in envisioning the future of theology. No one in the West can deny the fact that the public role of theology and religious discourse in the public square have become muted by the rising cultural currents of a post-secular society and the internal crisis of identity and meaning in the different church denominations with regard to fundamental beliefs, practices, and moral teaching, as well as the credibility deficit resulting from the moral failings and scandals in our churches;
      • Theological productions in the Global South are heavily influenced by these currents in the West and the force and verve of theological productions in the Global South that came with the birth of liberation theology in Latin America has waned. As a result, theological reflection in the Global South has not kept pace with the exponential growth in the Christian population and the emergence of diverse experiences of the faith in new ecclesial communities and movements, especially Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity. In addition, the social and prophetic edge required of theology in the complex social contexts in the Global South seem to have become blighted because bad state actors have learned how to live with theologians in peace and in many cases there is no more tension between the claims of the empire and the claims of theology and churches in reversing the unacceptable trajectory of history and structural violence in the Global South. This challenges many theologians from the Global South to become even more self-critical of the content, context, method, and relevance of their theological reflection and productions for their communities of faith.

      These three realities among many others mean that a precise definition of theology may not offer a satisfactory answer to everyone. This is why the survey report’s descriptive approach presents a very good starting point for understanding the diverse portrait of theology in World Christianity today. The survey offers some helpful insights which require further elucidation.

      First, the survey shows that theology is about God and “involves God’s work in the world and about the human condition.” Theologians are like the fingers of John the Baptist, and their first and most important task is to point to God and show the footprints of God in history. This means that today’s theologians need to pay greater attention to the anthropological perspective of faith and its relationship to the task of bringing about the eschatological fruits of God’s kingdom in the complex history of our times.

      Second, theology must be located “within a local community.” This needs to be emphasized today because in some settings today even in the Global South, some theologians and church leaders romanticize baroque theology and often equate fidelity to the gospel and church traditions with some restorationist and reactionary theological agenda. This poses serious challenge to the emergence of transformational local theologies capable of addressing the spiritual needs of people and which can link their faith commitments to their social and ethical commitments in realizing cosmic and human flourishing.

      Greater critical edge is required today as shown in this survey to challenge some existing paradigms of theology whose sad legacies have endured to this age. In many instances, some baroque theologies have often been deployed as a weapon for reinforcing the claims of empire and white supremacy in the era of defunct Christendom. Some theologies have been used to legitimize some evils in the past like racism, sexism, classism, slavery, cultural erasures of minorities and peoples of color while justifying privilege, power, and violence in the unholy quest to defend either God or the church or both. This sad reality has produced and sustained theologies in some settings which have reduced the ever-expansive range of God’s infinite love to the limited sphere of unredeemed nativistic particularism—cultural, political, and nationalistic projects which are far removed from the kingdom of God.

      It needs to be emphasized once again that theologies are cultural products. Theologies bear the marks of particular cultures and contexts; theologies are thus not perennial. It would then be seen as a form of cultural idolatry to absolutize a theological product or romanticize our theologies as a universally valid product for all times and for all seasons. Viewed in this light, there is the need to constantly question theological productions which make absolute and totalizing claims—and Christian theologies are awash with such claims. As the survey shows, theologians must become more humble and also more self-critical of their locus of enunciation and the hidden transcript which often lie behind many theological productions. This requires that we constantly place before us the needs, joys, and hopes of the communities which we serve and their hunger for God and for meaning.

      At the same time, we must recognize that communities are not fossilized in time; communities of faith are like the Word of God in its encounter with life. The biblical readers grow in the Word and the Word grows in them. In the same vein, communities of faith grow through theological reflection, and theological reflections receive sources for newness by being grounded in the communities of faith—touching the wounds in that community, speaking to the pains and pathos of that community, and lifting the veil of gloom in any community through steering God’s people to a radical conversion and commitment to the gospel in its richness and beauty. If this is true, then it means that every theology can grow and every community of faith grows beyond the restrictions of cultures and historically conditioned factors as it moves unrelentingly into the infinite horizon of the God of love, light, and hope.

      At the same time, the danger to be avoided is always the challenge of reducing theology and faith within a community into unchanging traditions and perennial communal practices which lack freshness and openness to the surprises of the Holy Spirit. Everything human is open to distortion and idolatry. This is the challenge facing all theologies and all Christian communities—how to renew what is culturally conditioned through deeper encounter with the timeless grace and presence of God whose love and revealed truths transcend our limited human horizon. Theologies like the communities of faith from which theologians are born face the danger of growing old, tired, weak, and irrelevant and failing to recognize this decline because of human blindness. The crisis facing many Christian traditions today is not the crisis of faith or anthropology. It is rooted in this idolatry of self, culture, ecclesial traditions and human systems and projects. This happens when certain Christian traditions or ecclesial life which are the products of the church’s self-constituting identity in the gospel’s peregrination in history are cast as an eternal sociological form which has no internal differentiation and which is impervious to change and reform. Theology is, therefore, deployed to restore this form even though the exigencies of history summon us to move beyond the limits of our human appropriation of the divine and the systems, rituals, and ways of thinking which we have developed to make what is properly divine intelligible to our human mind.

      Many of us theologians from Africa feel this external pressure, and the pull to theologize within a limited space and with predictable results. This consumerist approach to theologizing is very counterproductive and makes it difficult to produce local theologies which bear the wounds and hopes of our people. There is also the internal stress that comes from realizing, for those who are perceptive enough, that current theological productions in Africa, for instance, have not adequately met our people’s quest for intelligibility in their commitments to the gospel. In addition, such theologies have not been able to address the heart-wrenching poverty and suffering in the continent which are often the result of false religious narratives, preaching, and Christian proclamation as well as the result of the crisis of the nation state and failed projects of modernity in Africa. How can God’s people in Africa be brought down from the cross? How can the exuberant expressions of religiosity in Africa be turned into strong spiritual and moral traditions so that God’s people can become agents in their own history? How can a new global justice built on a God-centred ethics be enacted in the conversations in theology today when such conversations are often divisive, binary, and ideological and often verging on new forms of theological fundamentalism burdened by our past histories? There are three concluding thoughts for me which are germane to answering these questions:

      First on the meaning of theology: There is a need for an articulation of the meaning of theology. This begins for me, as an African theologian, by paying attention to the actual faith and social context of people and using that experience as a narrative of the footprints of God. Theologies can only thrive when theologians pay greater attention to the narratives of actual faith than to restoring the institutional narratives which are often mediated through the ideologies of power and privilege. This may challenge the institutional claims and ecclesial contexts of theological productions today and raise critical questions about what the traditions of the Christian churches mean today. It will, however, design a new portrait of the continuities, discontinuities, and disjunctures which may need to be accepted in listening to the voice of God today, the changing frontiers of the faith, the signs of the times so as to clearly and practically articulate and bear witness to what the Spirit is saying to the churches in the movement of the Spirit in history.

      In a sense, for me, the task of theology in Africa is not about how to retrieve, refine, and appropriate the Christian traditions. Some of these traditions demonized, and distorted, the cultural, spiritual, and religious heritage of Africa which are the resources which are needed for bringing about an African Christian faith and life. Theology can thrive in Africa not by an attempt at a synthesis of all of traditions, but rather by analyzing the multiple layers of history, traditions, communal Christian practices, the questions about God, evil, good, healing, and modernity discourse. It will proceed to show relationships of these realities in terms of the power dynamics which are working together in producing the false historical consciousness in the continent built on some false narratives of faith, culture, society, and history.

      Second, I see the task of theology as that of telling the story of God’s deeds in history and for most people in the Global South this will involve a liberation historiography. There is the need for liberation historiography which recognizes and reverences the voices of those peoples, social classes, groups and races whose embrace of the gospel has been badly affected by cultural erasure, violence, and narratives of contamination mediated through some versions of Old Christianity. Liberation historiography is an approach to doing theology in the era of World Christianity which recognizes the important impulses and reforms taking place in non-Western Christian cultures. It does this by challenging and overcoming the long history of contaminating narratives attributed to the past of non-Western peoples in the era of Christendom.

      Finally, is a return to beauty and the theology of recognition. In a wounded and polarized world, I see the possibility of Christian theology becoming a bridge between cultures, religions, and civilizations. This begins with affirming the otherness of people and embracing other people in a nonjudgmental way through a culture of encounter, recognition, and respect. At the heart of Christian theology is a person—Jesus Christ—who embraced the wounds and brokenness of humanity through an act of selfless love and by seeing humanity in its total and diverse condition. He overcame the two roots of human sin—pride and selfishness—all of which lead us to the idolatry of the self, of history, cultures, race, and nations and of our systems and projects. Through his act of condescension in the incarnation he overcame pride; through his Paschal Mystery, he overcame the idol of the self and ego. He taught us that we are all the same and that the world is the theatre of divine beauty and not a war zone.

      Theologians must approach their task from the perspective of faith in this God of love and of hope who shows us that there are no boundaries which divine love cannot break and no amount of suffering and wounds which cannot be taken up through the wounds of the Lord. The future of theology will be determined by how theologians can see the footprints of God in the wounds and brokenness and emptiness of today’s world with its rejection of God, love and deeper embrace of one another in mutual respect and adoration. We must be with God’s people in their places of fear and pain; joy and hope. Theologies which emerge from the actual faith and experiences of today’s wounded world can help our faith communities to become models of what we wish to see in the world by showing us how we can break the boundaries of class, race, gender, nationality, creeds, and all exclusionary categories. Theologies for the future should become more interdenominational, more interfaith, more interreligious, and more people-centered and less power-centered. It will be academic and scholarly in some sense, but also more practical, pastoral, and prophetic. Theologies for the future must be done through communal practices of discernment and prayer so that we can find common grounds in our shared concerns for a healthy world and healthy people. Being a good theologian should be judged to the extent that one is in love with God, with God’s people, God’s church, God’s creation, and all things because of God. It is a vocation to embrace the wisdom of God born out of deep faith and love and to be a bearer of a message of hope and newness to a wounded world, a fragile creation, and Christian communities in diverse human societies searching for the way, the truth, and the life.

    • Andrew DeCort

      Andrew DeCort

      Reply

      Theology in Ethiopia

      I.

      There are several contexts in which theological work takes place in Ethiopia. My knowledge and experience focus on the broadly Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal community (approximately 20 million), so my remarks will be focused on them. The ancient Ethiopian Tewehado Orthodox Church (approximately 45 million) is extremely important; its theological work and influence broadly fall into the descriptions below, but there are also unique dynamics and platforms that should be unpacked.

       

      Schools: First, there are approximately twenty (predominantly Evangelical) theological colleges/seminaries in Addis Ababa. There are many more smaller schools in the countryside, which are often affiliated with the schools headquartered in Addis. The leading institutions are:

      • Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology: graduate; co-owned by the major Evangelical denominations.
      • Mekane Yesus Seminary: graduate; Lutheran.
      • The Evangelical Theological College: undergraduate and graduate; affiliated with Baptist World Alliance.
      • Addis Ababa Bible College: undergraduate; Assemblies of God.
      • Trinity Theological College: undergraduate; Orthodox.

       

      These institutions tend to be Pentecostal in theological orientation and practice, except Trinity. They have trained many of the more prominent Christian leaders in Ethiopia today, as well as American theological institutions like Fuller, Gordon Conwell, Wheaton, and Dallas Theological Seminary.

      However, “theology” can be looked at with suspicion as “dry,” “intellectual,” and lacking power in Ethiopian Christianity, so these schools have limits in their wider ecclesial and cultural influence. They also struggle to organize and promote events that engage the public, so they can feel more like islands than embassies of theological work in terms of Ethiopian public life. The trained theologians with PhDs in these schools tend to write in English, so the reach of their work is limited in the Ethiopian context. Some write in Amharic or Afaan Oromo, which engages a wider local audience.

       

      Churches: Second, churches are extremely important—perhaps the most important—platforms for promoting various theologies. This theology is almost always implicit; most would not describe themselves as doing “theological” work and may even oppose this description of what they do. They would speak in terms of declaring the word of God and unpacking Scripture. This implicit but very influential theologizing usually takes the form of passionate preaching, which can happen several times a week for several hours at a time.

      Many churches are led by popular, charismatic men who develop large followings – thousands in their congregations, tens of thousands on their social media. In reality, these men are the most influential theologians in Ethiopia today. The overwhelming trend is toward a quasi-American/Nigerian style of the prosperity gospel, which emphasizes God’s promise of health, wealth, and success in response to confessions of faith and financial giving. Writers like Myles Munro, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, T.D. Jakes, and others have significant influence.

       

      Christian TV: Third, there is a proliferation of Christian TV channels in Ethiopia, which are also extremely important in shaping the popular theological imagination in Ethiopia. These programs are often recordings of church services but also include additional original content. Even the very poor often have TVs, and TV is a powerful tool for reaching the approximately eighty million Ethiopians who live outside urban areas where many of these churches are based. You will find these Christian TV channels on in many homes and office spaces. Some of my friends talk about how they are shocked to see their elderly parents, who survived the brutal Derg (communist) regime, regularly watching this flashy, often prosperity-driven TV content. I tend to think that TV is a major frontier for the future of theological imagination in Ethiopia. Again, this theological work is implicit but influential. More often than not, theology is preaching in Ethiopia, and TV disseminates preaching to the largest audiences.

       

      Social Media: Fourth, social media is a very fascinating and important platform for real-time, popular theologizing in Ethiopia. Many young Ethiopians write content on Facebook about what they believe, what they’re reading, what they take to be important and/or erroneous. This generates heated discussion and debate in the comments. I have a large following of Ethiopians on Facebook, and I’m always amazed when I receive messages from complete strangers who write to say they’re following my content or we actually meet in person in Addis and they say that they know me and read my work. Of course, Ethiopians writing in Amharic have far greater reach and impact.

      My point is that Facebook is probably the most important platform for the freshest, live theologizing in Ethiopia. This may not be recognized as traditional theology, since it is often shorter, less systematic, more opinionated, etc. But this is how much theology is being done in Ethiopia. Posts go viral and then get shared widely over Telegram, WhatsApp, and other platforms.

      Beyond Facebook, there is an explosion of YouTube content, which is usually the recordings of sermons and other preaching content. It’s fascinating to see preachers, including Orthodox preachers, getting huge followings. Their videos can be viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Broadly speaking, Ethiopian culture tends to favor oral over written communication, so YouTube video content is a very powerful platform for disseminating passionate theological opinions.

      There are also a few websites that curate theological content, usually short essays and some videos. Hintset.org is the most important in my opinion. Semayawithought.com is another.

       

      Books: Fifth, Ethiopians write and publish theological books in local languages. Some of the most popular authors will print fifty to sixty thousand copies, and those copies will usually reach several readers. A normal print run is two thousand copies.

      There is a vital need to build a library of rich, relevant theological books in local languages. Still, these resources may often have a more “trickle-down” affect. Some of the topics that my contacts have recently published books on include the prosperity gospel, secular music, and prophecy. My partner Dr. Tekalign Nega and I are currently publishing the first book in Amharic on the theological ethics of neighbor-love, which is entitled Balinjeraye or My Neighbor (expected in March).

      The Ethiopian Journal of Theology has been a project that the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology has envisioned for over a decade. I was its founding coeditor from 2016 to 2018. Unfortunately, however, we were never able to get it started. Some of the key challenges are getting Ethiopian theologians to submit articles and securing finances to make the journal sustainable.

       

      II.

      There are several opportunities theology in Ethiopia faces. First, Ethiopian theology faces the opportunity and challenge of engaging current affairs, especially related to public life. Traditionally, Ethiopian theology has been largely silent on issues perceived to be “secular” or “worldly” like poverty, politics, and oppression. As political crisis intensifies in Ethiopia, this silence is becoming less sustainable.

      Will Ethiopian theologians and theologies find ways to address the most pressing issues in Ethiopian life, or will they remain dualistic and detached? If they remain so, how will this affect the new generation’s view of the church and faith? I meet more and more young people who are walking away from Christianity or at least church attendance because they see it as irrelevant and indifferent to human suffering.

      The most crucial issue is ethnic identity, ethnocentrism, and othering, which leads to division and violence. Some of the other issues needing address include gender roles, engagement with culture (Evangelicalism is fiercely opposed to all forms of music except worship music), sexuality, mental health, and discovering one’s purpose.

      Second, with the growth of Internet access in Ethiopia, it becomes harder to sustain monolithic, dogmatic, authoritarian visions of what Christianity and Christian theology are—though this is still the overwhelmingly dominant model. As Charles Taylor might say, there is a pluralization and fragilization slowly emerging in Ethiopia as Ethiopians read more authors and follow more teachers. I hear more Ethiopians talking about “postmodernism” and issues of relativism and how to recognize truth. Will Ethiopian theology reinforce fundamentalism, or will it develop a dialogical culture where ideas can be discussed and community created without silencing questions and condemning healthy diversity?

      Third, I think ecumenism is an important opportunity and challenge for Ethiopian theology. Will the Orthodox and Evangelical churches—not to mention the Islamic community—find ways to talk with one another, collaborate with one another, and forge a vision of the common good that can strengthen moral vision and values for the coming generations? I hear many Ethiopians talking about moral crisis and how fundamental values like respect for others, telling the truth, and working with integrity are vanishing. Will the churches be able to de-emphasize their doctrinal theological disagreement and unite around a practical, public theology that articulates what it means to be human and what is worthy of love as many people ask, “Who am I? Where are we going? Is there any hope?”

      Overall, I think the biggest opportunity for theology in Ethiopia revolves around developing theologies that focus on neighbor-love. How does our theology speak to people outside the church? How can our theology dialogically engage with people who differ or disagree with us? How can diverse theologies come together to promote shared values like human dignity, generosity, justice, freedom, and truth? These are questions of neighbor-love, of how we see and treat others. If neighbor-love is recentralized, I see a lot of positive potential for faithful, fruitful theology.

      Dr. Tekalign Nega and I are working on Balinjeraye: The Neighbor-Love Movement (nlmglobal.org) toward this end. Balinjeraye is a social movement that revolves around a covenant and seven practices supplemented with creative educational material, social media content, and regular events in urban and rural Ethiopia. We engage with very senior religious and political leaders and Ethiopia’s exploding youth population for the sake of inspiring love, justice, and flourishing for all neighbors. You can follow our content and work at nlmglobal.org.

       

      III.

      The challenges as I see them are often overlapping and interlocking. Let me mention a few.

      First, there is widespread fundamentalism and anti-intellectualism in Ethiopian Christianity. Beliefs are declared by authoritative religious leaders, and people are expected to affirm and obey or face criticism and exclusion. Thus, people are afraid to ask questions and freely express their thoughts, because this will make them appear to lack faith and expose them to the risk of being looked down upon or rejected. Expressing doubt is even more risky and rare. People can receive death threats for expressing critical or divergent theological perspectives.

      Thus, “theology” as a discipline—especially academic, critical theology—is often seen as unnecessary or dangerous; instead, one should simply preach. Moreover, doing theology can itself be a risk for Ethiopians, because you may be seen as less spiritual; if you raise serious questions and don’t give simplistic answers, you will likely be seen as suspicious and dangerous and thus no longer recognized in the community.

      Second, the prosperity gospel is almost certainly the fastest growing implicit theology in Ethiopia. This theology centralizes a confession of unquestioning faith at its very core, so it profoundly contributes to a wider religious culture in which asking questions and clearly formulating arguments is unvalued or even condemned. Will the prosperity gospel discover loving God with the mind and open space for theological reflection?

      Third, the denominations in Ethiopia are often aligned with particular ethnic groups. Thus, there is concern that the theology that is being done in churches (again, primarily through preaching) can be ethnocentric. I have heard accounts of preachers justifying violence toward others by using the Bible and what could be described as theological reasoning. Today Ethiopia has the largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Will Ethiopian theology be able to respond constructively to this crisis of ethnic conflict, or will it simply reflect and reinforce it?

      Fourth, poverty and lack of resources—including faculty, time, and books—greatly inhibit doing theology. Many Ethiopian theologians have too many responsibilities to actively write theology. They teach at their school, hold administrative positions, preach at their church, serve on a board or committee, present at conferences, and serve their families. In some cases, they take on these multiple responsibilities to sustain themselves financially, because academic salaries can be unsustainable. Schools having more staff and more money to allow their staff to have the time they need to read and write would assist the growth of theology in Ethiopia.

      Finally, I’d mention that Addis Ababa has no center for theological imagination. As I mentioned above, Addis has many schools and churches, but these are often focused on their own communities and lack programming that engages the wider public. A center is needed that engages young people in accessible language with rich content about the most relevant theological issues like ethnic identity, political culture, care for the poor, entrepreneurialism, justice, vocation, gender equality, sexuality, mental health, ecumenical relationship, and many others. This is a dream I am actively pursuing. I hope to establish a center called Faith and Flourishing in Addis as soon as I can raise the funds to make it possible.

       

      IV.

      The question, Where, in your opinion, does theology thrive? In what social, economic, cultural, regional, etc., contexts do you see the most important work taking place in the future? Where is this work already happening? elicits a tensioned response from me.

      On the one hand, good theology thrives in challenging contexts where people are faced with the hardest, most practical questions—for example, ethnic conflict, extreme poverty, political injustice, gender-based violence, mass displacement. Where is God in these realities? How does our view of God shape our responses to these realities? But the burdens of these realities can also crush the energy and inspiration to think, dialogue, and write theology. I’d also mention that these contexts expose the disconnected or even irrelevant nature of some theology.

      On the other hand, theology thrives in contexts of abundance and beauty—spaces that allow plenty of time, resources, and inspiration to ask questions, explore possibilities, open the imagination, converse with others, and write freely. I’m depressingly tempted to say that it often—not always!—takes a decent amount of money to do theology. Of course, this setting may also make theology more detached and desensitized to poverty, injustice, corruption, violence, etc.

       

      Further Resources

      Bekele, Girma. The In-Between People: A Reading of David Bosch through the Lens of Mission History and Contemporary Challenges in Ethiopia. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011.

      DeCort, Andrew. “On Human Flourishing: A Call for Public Responsibility in Contemporary Ethiopian Christianity.” In A Church for the World: The Church’s Role in Fostering Democracy and Sustainable Development, edited by Samuel Yonas Deressa and Josh de Keijzer. Minnesota: Fortress, forthcoming.

      DeCort, Andrew. “Public Theology in Ethiopia: State, Church, and Neighbor-Love.” In What Does Theology Do, Actually?, edited by Matthew Robinson. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, forthcoming.

      DeCort, Andrew. “Ethics after Devastation: Coming to Terms with the Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Today and the Current Situation in Ethiopia.” Vertantwortung: Zeitschrift des Dietrich-Bonhoeffer-Vereins 62 (2018) 44–48.

      Eshete, Tibebe. The Evangelical Movement in Ethiopia: Resistance and Resilience. Baylor, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009.

      Fantahun, Arefaynie “Preachers of Prosperity: The New Face of Ethiopian Evangelical Christianity.” Ethiopia Observer, September 1, 2019. https://www.ethiopiaobserver.com/2019/09/01/preachers-of-prosperity-the-new-breed-of-ethiopian-evangelists/?fbclid=IwAR3ygIIL46URxVvB-dUqjXiAmluM9xhg6E-6o6Y7r9jJo0MA3e2q_rAMMCY.

      Gardner, Tom. “God Wants Ethiopians to Prosper.” Economist, November 24, 2018. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2018/11/24/god-wants-ethiopians-to-prosper.

      Haustein, Jörg. “Pentecostalism in Ethiopia: A Unique Case in Africa.” In Global Renewal Christianity, vol. 3, Africa, 128–46. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2016.

      Haustein, Jörg. Writing Religious History: The Historiography of Ethiopian Pentecostalism. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011.

      Heliso, Desta. “The Relevance of the Study of Religion in Ethiopian Context.” Ethiopian Reporter, July 28, 2017. https://www.thereporterethiopia.com/content/relevance-study-religion-ethiopian-context.

      Hintset.org.

      Semayawithought.com.

      Teklu, Theodros. The Politics of Metanoia: Towards a Post-Nationalistic Political Theology in Ethiopia. European University Studies 947. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2014.

      Teklu, Theodros. “Public Theology and the State.” African Public Theology. Langham, forthcoming.

      Teklu, Theodros. “Religious Pluralism and Cohabitation in Ethiopia: Some Critical Notes.” In Religious Pluralism, Heritage, and Social Development in Africa, edited by M. Christian Green et al., 33–47. Stellenbosch, South Africa: SUN MeDIA, 2017.

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