Saturday, September 5, 2009

It's a Full Moon night and I find maybe I AM a Theologian after all

And that Full Moon trines my watery Cancerian Sun form watery Pisces so I'm in a strange mood tonight after a busy day of meetings and marking. It's got me in a Leonard Cohen mood for some reason and I've been posting Leonard Cohen covers on Facebook. I say all this for no special reason except perhaps to excuse a rather rambling post that I can't help but feel might end with Leonard Cohen. But if so, why not?

Anyway I notice around some of the blogosphere there's been some discussion about the role of theology and how it fits vis a vis religious studies and most impellingly biblical studies. Part of it seems to come out of an op ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Kurt Noll, "The Ethics of being a Theologian". I'm not going to talk about this piece mainly because I haven't yet read it in full but rather in bits and pieces in the ensuing conversations. But if you're interested in a bit of it here he concludes thus:

Am I trying to imply that theology is without value? Certainly not. I do not presume to tell theologians how to be theologians, and I will not attempt to define the value of theology. I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.I now realize how I should have answered the philosopher who asked whether I had trouble defending religion to my students: "I explain complex religious doctrines to undergraduates every time I enter a classroom, and I've never had difficulty doing so. But I tell my students that my role is to explain and evaluate, never defend, religious belief and practice."
So, anyway, over at the Dunedin School, Deane Galbraith wrote an appreciative piece in which he largely backed Noll's arguments and binaries and also dissed astrology to boot, playing that old astronomy = 'true and real' binary over and against astrology. Here's a bit more of what Deane had to say:

Theology is a means to use data to defend existing presuppositions. By contrast, in biblical and religious studies, at best, our ideologies are overt. They’re still there, of course, as “the trendy postmodern” thinkers highlighted. Yet a fundamental difference exists in that so many more of the presuppositions of religious and biblical studies are themselves open to challenge and reformulation. It’s not enough to just point the finger and say, “You’ve got presuppositions too!” Well, d’uh. Of course we do. Instead, the salient question is this: “What kind and how many presuppositions aren’t you willing to challenge?” Sure, in practice, our willingness to change our presuppositions and paradigms might be slow. But only in theology are too many such changes prevented on a priori grounds, and only in theology is this defence of so much of what is already believed held up as a virtue.
The difference between serving your ideology and being open to data is always one of degree. But it is this very relative difference which makes the distinction between theology and academic studies so fundamental.

Personally, I think Noll's piece is a bit of disciplinary turf war boundary drawing to claim a respectable place in the respectable domains of academe as opposed to those off with the pixies theologians who should really go back to the cloisters where they belong. Mind you my own alma mater is graced with a delightful circuit of cloisters so I'm not certain how tightly fixed the boundaries of academe really are as opposed to the jiggery pokery/(popery?) realms of cloister/church/temple.

Anyhoo, Deane's piece brought an immediate response from Roland Boer:

On another line – ‘theologians practice and defend religion’. In short, theology is apologetics, a rearguard action. Oh come on, Noll (via Deano)! Why is it assumed that theologians must be believers? We don’t expect a teacher of French to be French, or a student of ancient Greece to believe in the Greek gods, or even an art critic to be an artist. So why does a theologian need to be a believer (in God I mean)?

Roland's comment generated quite a discussion thread, which you can check out. Roland then put up a post, Theists and Atheists and Theology, or Pinning Me Down. I'll quote some of the best bits below:

In contrast to the many who still assume that theism and theology are the best of friends, I would suggest that it is perfectly consistent to practice theology and not believe in a god. Theology is actually a system of thought, with its distinct terminology, modes of argument and lively debate that can operate quite well without any external reference point. In a sister discipline to theology – biblical criticism – this is a viable way to carry on one’s work. In fact, for well over a century, biblical criticism has operated with the assumption that one does not include the gods as causes of history or as those responsible for the production of the biblical texts (in their writing, gathering and ordering into a canon). At most, the multiple personalities of God are actually characters in the story, as with any other literature. The assumption that you need to believe in order to be interested in the Bible would have to be one of the strangest making the rounds today, shared by believers and non-believers. We don’t expect an art critic to be an artist, a literary critic to be a novelist or a poet, a student of classical Greece to be a believer in Apollo or Venus, or a lecturer in French to be a French national.

If this is possible with biblical criticism, then why not with theology? Let me put it this way: biblical criticism is finally shedding the misleading attachment to intention. For too long it was assumed that the holy grail of interpretation was the intention of the author. So when scholars and readers came to the Gospels, the aim was to find what Jesus himself intended – and thereby what God intended through these sayings. Biblical critics, or at least many of them, have realized that intention is one small part of interpretation. Apart from the impossibility of finding out what the author(s) might have intended, or indeed accounting for the role of the subconscious in the production of texts, the search for intention relies on a relatively recent, bourgeois assumption, namely that thoughts are the possession of an individual mind, the private property of an owner who is thereby the arbiter of meaning. However, even if we allow some space for intention (problematic as that might be), it needs to take its place beside many other factors, such as unconscious and unintended meaning, the sense provided by readers, the roles of social norms and cultural expectations, the intrusive roles of history and economics, the conflicting ideological voices in a text, or indeed the objective sense of the words on a page, the nature of the text itself and how it is structured.

So also with theology: once we move past the assumption that religious belief is the core or perhaps the overarching unity of theology and realize that it is one part and by no means a necessary one, then theology shows all its other colors. It deals with nature and the environment (creation), with the human condition (anthropology), why the world is the way it is (harmatology), the problem of suffering, the nature of the human subject (via Christology), the nature of history, hopes for the future, how human beings might live together (ecclesiology), and the nature of mythology (the central stories with which theology deals). Do not get me wrong, for I do not wish to ban belief in God. But there should be plenty of room for theologians who do and do not believe in God. After all, the discipline has a wealth of experience discussing and debating crucial issues central to human existence. It would be silly to discard, demonise or cage it in.
Roland's piece generated further conversation with Missives from Marx which lead to a final piece from Roland:

So, a brief response from me to Miss Marx: I think there's a way forward on this issue and it might be as follows. Instead of defining each discipline by a core idea, I prefer to think of disciplines as intersections of various lines. So theology is isn't defined by explaining belief in muscled fairies, but by intersections of the sorts of things I mentioned - history, environment, human condition, hope, social questions, mythology etc. Or as you put it, ontology, anthropology, existentialism, and social philosophy. You could do similar exercises with each of these disciplines or approaches and come up with similar results. I reckon you could do the same with literature, architecture or even physics.

I have to agree here. Personally I find the boundaries between theology, literary studies, politics, queer theory, sexuality studies, feminist theory, biblical studies, sociology, religious studies, history, to name a few, thoroughly porous. And acknowledging Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Buddhology must be added to the equation too. And any religious studies worth its salt must take account of magic, ritual, astrology, numerology, divination, I Ching, theosophy, Kabbalah, Tantra. Certainly any biblical studies that wants to exclude astrology and numerology from the purview of the biblical is cutting off its nose to spite its face (and might be unconsciously sustaining older theological agendas to boot). The biblical worlds are worlds that intersect thoroughly with astrology and numerology too. Of course I can't claim to know exactly what the astrology was but it clearly has some relationship with the Western astrological tradition which goes back to the turn of the era.

I am not an atheist. I am a theist standing in Christian traditions, which themselves represent a compromise between ancient polytheisms and ancient monotheisms. The religious world of the Old Testament is not normatively monotheist and YHWH is not God the Father as we in the West have somehow come to believe in a latter day unconscious modalism. (That's something I've come to realise in the last few years.) The Christian Godhead is not distinct from the God/s of Judaism/s and is probably closest to the God as revealed in the Tree Of Life of Kabbalah. The Christian Godhead is also not distinct from the God(head) of Islam. All three traditions worship the One (in the Many) of the ancient Middle East and hence I think there is no substantial difference vis a vis the God who commissioned Zarathustra and who speaks in the Avesta. Is that why Matthew portrays Magi journeying to pay homage to the infant Jesus? Or is it because Jesus is born in the cusp of the new Great Year so he truly was born at the ending of the age, an ending that all the ancients could recognise, especially the Magi who were well versed in the ways of astrology and thus understood better than most the timing of Jesus epiphany? It draws on utopian thought, ancient utopian thought yes. But be that as it may, it casts a shadow in which we still stand.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I don't like boundary demarcations least of all those that attempt such demarcations based on the politics of Western rationality. Sure there are differences between religious studies scholars, biblical scholars, theologians but there are also overlaps. Most religious studies scholars I've known are attempting more than just an empirical study of their chosen religious field. In one way or another they are doing what might be termed theology or perhaps grappling with ultimate questions. Likewise most biblical scholars I know come with some kind of religious concern at least initially. I did - it was and it remains to work to end the religious roots of homophobia in biblically based religions. It is an advocacy role, a role of engaged scholarship and my presupposition that homophobia is bad is not one I'm likely to question. I don't have to be a believer to do that and there have been times when I have let go of faith although I think it was more a process of what Meister Eckhart termed 'praying God to rid me of God' and God heard my prayer and so I have even more reason to pray. So probably I am a theologian.

I've rambled on too much and really gotten nowhere so with the mention of prayer I shall end with one courtesy of Leonard Cohen in honour of the full moon.

"If It Be Your Will"

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing

If it be your will
If there is a choice
Let the rivers fill
Let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in hell
If it be your will
To make us well

And draw us near
And bind us tight
All your children here
In their rags of light
In our rags of light
All dressed to kill
And end this night
If it be your will

If it be your will.

I love that image of rags of light. And sorry, Roland, but I think I completely muddled up a perfectly good interblog conversation. I'll blame it on the full moon.


  1. Hey Michael, loved your post! The Taylorization of academia (along with so much in our world) really does it more harm than good.

  2. You sound very much like Jacques Derrida in "The Truth in Painting". :)


  3. I sense a bit of fallacy or special pleading here in the idea you don't need to be a poet to be a literary critic or French to teach French etc. Doubtless this is the case - very basically - and likewise one doesn't need to have travelled to teach geography. But it would surely be better to have travelled and a French national would teach a better accented french and some of the greatest literary critics like T.S. Eliot have in fact been poets and dramatists in their own right. Religion is basically about forms of transcendence and belief. If you have no feeling for either then I think it would be more difficult to deal with and fairly teach religious texts