While it has been some time since I have blogged, I plan to make up for this fact soon. I have been in the process of editing some videos from a class that I’m currently teaching called Philosophy of Human Nature. I’ll post these on Homebrewed soon, and I sincerely hope that they’ll be of some use to you all. In the mean time, I’m at American Academy of Religion sitting in a Starbucks far too late to make the Homebrewed Christianity event taking place on the other side of the city. Knowing that part of the idea of this event is to both call into question and defend a notion of acaemic theology, I’m taking the chance to add my two cents while I can. I will focus my efforts on systematic theology.
Let me first of all start off by admitting that I cannot defend the whole enterprise called systematic theology. That is, I cannot defend it as some absolute set of propositions each of which relate to another in an eternal unified whole. I think that this point stands in two important sense. First, for those who would defend such a view of systematics, I don’t believe that they’re defending systematics as a whole but, generally, their own systematic positions, which is a power move to the utmost degree (conscientiously advocated or not). Systematics is and must remain open both in terms of the fallibility of human knowing and in terms of the flow of being in its becoming. Our propositions and understandings of God do, will, and must change. Neither can I defend the general hubris by means of which systematic theologians have upheld this discipline in the past. Systematic theology is not an end in itself, which it has too often been taken to be, but a means toward the proclamation of the Word in thought, word, and deed.
For now, I want to focus on the critique that I believe is taking place tonight that academic theology is “impractical,” unable to do anything about the contemporary situation. To that I say, precisely.
Let me be clear, here: we must act within our world and open paths in this world toward peace, justice, and love. I will never decry the importance of something like “action,” often expressed as “activism.” However, activism acts on a worldview that it believes to be true, if not absolutely, then certainly with a great degree of probability. This is where disciplines like systematic theology come in.
Systematics and other academic-theological disciplines are, for one, activities in their own right. They are analyses of the world or past worlds as the are and have been such that in these worlds. The difference is, however, between the activity of thinking in systematic or academic theological terms and other activities (or activisms)is that thought is a manner of activity that opens up new interpretive possibilities–new ways of understanding the complex web of beings-in-relation that forms our world.
In this regard, the focus of systematic theology is not found in ensconcing a particular actuality (a possibility come to fruition through, say, bodily activity); it is found in opening up ever greater interpretive possibilities–interpretive possibilities that expose the complexities of the world in which we live at least enough to yield some humility in the theologian and activist alike. Systematics, then, brings nuance to a world that we too often want to interpret in the blacks and whites of “absolutely right” and “absolutely wrong,” which usually yields the violent logic of “me against them.” Systematics, then, holds a critical function (in the strict sense of critical), positing space between a overriding desire to act directly and the need to think that action through.
In saying this, however, I would contend that the proof of my argument is in the pudding. Thus, I want, secondly, to challenge skeptics of this idea to a task. For 30 days, read someone–an op-ed columnist, perhaps–with whom you greatly disagree. (I make my critical thinking students do something like this, by the way.) Come to know their thought and be able to think their thought after them to such a degree that you’re able to predict how they would be able to approach specific questions. Get into the intelligibility of what they say. I believe that you will have a simultaneous experience. You will be freed not from your disagreement of the person but of your desire to belittle them. This is no small step as too often it is our desire to belittle that deprives from basic understandings of opposing positions. You will also become freed, however, to see through holes in your previous worldview such that, even if you’re still not open to this particular person’s thought in and of itself, you are open to new positions and new possibilities from other persons with competing worldviews.
Take all that and apply it to the attempt to illuminate a basic theological worldview, and you’ll hopefully see the importance of systematic theology and its practice. Systematic theology illuminates new possibilities for the expression of faith for the activist and theologian alike such that neithers’ expression could remain absolute in its contextuality.
Does this, by the way, mean that the activist must stop her work? Absolutely not! It simply reminds the activist that it takes more than their work to open the possibility of their work in the first place. Her work will open up new grounds by means of which to think through world, for sure; but it also rests on the illumination of worldviews that both she and others have opened up through theological and philosophical exploration in the first place.