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

 

  • 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.

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
Syndicate

Response

General Responses

Please comment on any aspect(s) of the report that you believe merits further discussion. Please also list other resources (news articles, reports, essays, journal articles, books, websites, etc.) that you find relevant.

 

Responses by

MT Davila
Stanley Hauerwas
David Newheiser
Sunder John Boopalan
Brandy Daniels
John Bowlin
Greg Lee
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