Stating the Obvious

Once one begins to spend a good deal of time in academia, one begins to notice something depressing about most of the writing in one’s field: more often than not, it consists of an inflated, self-important declaration of an indisputable truism under the guise of making some remarkable discovery.  Indeed, this discovery, we are told, promises to be the basis for shedding new light on hitherto thorny problems.  Thus do academics justify their existence by presenting to the world as products of arduous research observations that in fact should have taken only a moment’s reflection.  Here’s a nice example that I came across in A.J. Joyce’s Richard Hooker and Anglican Moral Theology, citing an article by Brian Vickers:

“Vickers observes that in the Lawes Hooker is, in effect, writing for three distinct ‘audiences’: the first Vickers identifies as the reformers, Hooker’s principal opponents, whose minds he hopes to change, and against whom he has no hesitation in using rhetoric for polemical purposes; the second is the general public, for whom he aims to set out the opposing cases in a ‘judicial’ fashion, inviting the reader to judge between them; the third is himself: when moved to express his own feelings about a major aspect of Christian belief, he has no hesitation in doing so in hyperbolic terms. . . . This ‘threefold audience’ is one factor that helps to explain why it is that the task of interpreting Hooker has proved so complex.” (63-64)

So Hooker writes for his own satisfaction (first person), to convince his opponent (second person), and to convince a broader audience that is judging both his opponent and him (third person)?  Really?  Fascinating.  But I’m afraid I must ask, “Of what polemical writer is this not the case?”  Indeed, almost any piece of persuasive writing will have these “three audiences,” although sometimes one or another will predominate.  Sometimes an author will be much more interested in thinking through things for himself, regardless of whether others find interesting what he has to say, and the first-person objective will predominate.  But for most who go into print, the second and third persons are in view as well.  Sometimes the second person will predominate, in a piece of controversial writing that really hopes to persuade a particular opponent or group of opponents; but if the third person were not in view, why not write a private letter?  So the third person, the undecided general audience, that is to be persuaded that one’s opponent is wrong, is always in view as well.  

Now, admittedly, it is not quite a truism that all polemical writing will have all three audiences, because it will sometimes be the case that a writer is so convinced that his opponent(s) are incorrigible that he has no interest in fact in persuading them, but only in addressing himself to the third-person audience that is attending to the controversy.  Or sometimes the writer will make little attempt to differentiate his strategy for persuading the opponent and persuading the undecided.  It is, in my view, an important point about Hooker’s work that this is *not* the case for him; there is a genuine and distinct effort to persuade the opponent.  So this point might be worthy of some emphasis, and perhaps this is what Vickers is up to, although his article proves unnecessarily ponderous in making the point.  But to act, as Joyce does, as if Hooker’s “threefold audience” makes him a uniquely sophisticated and difficult to interpret writer, thus providing scholars with an excuse for their interpretive difficulties, is just silly.  

Why Academics Need Lent

I could make apologies for simply re-posting, verbatim, my Lenten meditation from last year.  However, the liturgy doesn’t make apologies for repeating itself, verbatim, every Ash Wednesday, does it?  (Oh great—I just compared my blog to the Book of Common Prayer.  So much for Lenten humility.)  And these thoughts are as relevant as ever to my experience of studying theology in constant dependence on God’s grace.  Each week, it seems, I am more aware of how little my studying, writing and theologizing is something I do, and how much it is something I receive—as I study, I feel less and less like an adventurer forging my way through the thickets and more and more like a child following a winding little paper trail that my parents have left behind, luring me toward the prize.  Lent serves as an annual reminder of this dependence, and of the far more mundane dependence of the mind on the body and its earthy rhythms.  So enough of the prologue.  Here’s the repost:

Many evangelical and Reformed folks today are wont to turn up their noses at the practice of Lenten fasting.  There seems to be something unhealthily ascetic about it, with the notion that somehow we draw nearer to God by mortifying our flesh and thereby becoming more spiritual.  There seems to be a trace of Gnosticism, a sense that the body is a bad thing and we must beat it down, cast off its desires and its needs, to be truly spiritual.  And there is also a sense that this practice must lead to pride, to the notion that because one has overcome one’s bodily desires to become more spiritual, one may take pride in this superior spirituality and self-discipline.  

And so there has been a tendency to try to re-cast Lenten fasting–we are exhorted to choose something that we are too attached to, and to “give it up” for Lent so that we can become more cognizant of our warped desires, our idolatries of worldly things, and be more single-minded in our devotion to God.  If you care too much about chocolate, give up chocolate for Lent, acknowledging that God is more important than chocolate, etc.  Or it needn’t even be food.  Perhaps you watch too many movies–why don’t you give that up, so as to put God back at the center?  We’re afraid that Lent not be construed as an unhealthy mortification of the body, so we recast it as an opportunity to refocus our desires and devotions on God alone.  

There’s certainly nothing wrong with such a refocusing, and indeed that ought to be part of a healthy Lenten practice, but it seems that something crucial is left out in this approach.  And this, I think, is because the standard discomforts about Lent–it leads to Gnosticism and pride–have got it precisely backward.  Rightly understood, Lent is about purging us of spiritual pride by reminding us of our bodily condition, of snatching us away from lofty heavenly speculations and putting us firmly back in our tabernacles of skin, bones, and appetites.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” the priest tells us as he administers the ashes.  Remember that you live in the body.  And being in the body means being a dependent being, a being that depends upon God’s animate and inanimate creation, in its manifold forms, to continue living, functioning, thinking.  (My friend Byron has highlighted this nicely in a Lenten reflection he’s just posted.)  How does Lenten fasting do this?  Well, it’s really quite simple.

Usually, we don’t know how much we need something, until we don’t have it.  Indeed, we might start to imagine ourselves as self-sufficient, as “self-made men,” because we have become so accustomed to the prerequisites of our existence, that we forget that we’re even there.  If you’ve spent your whole life going to a fantastic church, you might start to imagine that your rich spirituality has something to do with your own excellence of soul, and only when you have to move away into a spiritual wasteland do you realize how dependent you were on the spirituality of others.  Likewise, as long as we have all the food and drink that we need, we forget that we even need it.  We forget that our ability to function, to do anything–to walk and run, to think and write clearly–depends first on the nourishment of our bodies by things outside us.  For academics like me, this temptation is all the more powerful.  The athlete is aware at all times of his bodily needs, but the academic can start to imagine that all he needs is his mind, and his mind is his own, his private domain, the accomplishments of which he can take full credit for.  He may eat three square meals a day so as not to feel a stomach-ache, but he doesn’t really need them to do what he does, right? 

Until he doesn’t have them.  Try skipping a couple meals, and then try to carry on an intellectual debate.  Try to write a paper.  How ’bout just reading a book with comprehension?  It doesn’t take long at all without food before mental function starts to get cloudy, until the conceptual leaps one might ordinarily make with effortless facility become slow and arduous tasks.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We are not independent minds or spirits, communing with God and thinking deep thoughts all on our own.  We are embodied minds, minds that cannot so much as follow a syllogism without a regular supply of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.  This is easy enough to forget as long as you have that regular supply, but by taking that away, Lenten fasting provides us a rude awakening–it brings us face-to-face with our own frailty, our humanity, our dependence.  

Lenten fasting, then, does not try to liberate us from the body, but reminds us that we are chained to it.  It does not encourage spiritual pride–on the contrary, it mocks the very notion, by reminding us that we cannot take credit for any of our accomplishments–we’re hardly able to even think spiritual thoughts without the aid of dead plants and animals filling our stomachs multiple times a day.  Lent is not an ascetic exercise to take us away from earth on lofty flights into the third heaven; no, Lent brings us back down to earth, the earth of which we are inescapably a part.  Lent reminds us that we are creatures, dependent at all times on other creatures, and on God the creator of all.  

“No Man Can Serve Two Masters”: Church and Academy in Tension

So, the Church needs theology.  We’re all agreed on that, hopefully.  And as I argued in the last post, that means not merely listening to its own inchoate voice, but seeking to let that voice be clarified by careful interrogation from theology as a discipline.  We’d go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we relied on nothing but experts, but we’d also go to hell in a handbasket pretty quick if we tried to get by without experts.  (Needless to say, “experts” here should not be taken to signify “those who have all the answers,” but merely “those who have learned (or at any rate begun to learn) how to frame the questions.”) 

Having defended the role of theology as a discipline, I will now offer a few thoughts on the deep problems currently afflicting the relationship between this discipline and the Church it is called to serve. 

First, I think that pausing to meditate on this word “discipline” can help us think more clearly about what we’re talking about.  Of course, the term carries academic connotations—we speak of an “academic discipline” of sociology, or applied chemistry, or English literature, or whatever.  And so one might think that when I speak of “theology as a discipline” I’m referring to “theology as an academic department,” theology as part of the university, perhaps with seminaries thought of as sort of hangers-on that can also basically claim to be part of the academy.  But of course, “discipline,” fundamentally, means “training to act in accordance with rules” or “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training” (to borrow from  To say that we need theology as a “discipline” is to say that we need theology as a disciplined regimen of reflection, a trained skill of thinking.  That, of course, does not require institutional embodiment, and certainly not in the “academy” (whatever exactly that is), or the university.  


As a discipline, the task of theology represents a distinct (though not necessarily separate) calling from that of pastoral ministry and preaching.  We might be prone to wonder whether (as someone commented on the previous post) our problem started when we began to think that one could be a theologian without being a pastor, and perhaps that was the fault of the university.  After all, all the great early Church Fathers were churchmen—bishops, usually—occupied day in and day out with teaching, preaching, correcting, baptizing, and administration.  (Of course, even this generalization is too broad—think of Jerome.)  But the origin of the theologian-as-such did not come as the product of the universities, since the universities took over the task of theology by and large from the monasteries, which were the institutional context within which the discipline of theology was by and large nourished from the 6th century through the 13th.  Of course, the monastery was not necessarily detached from “church life”—from preaching and pastoral ministry.  There was a great deal of overlap and cross-pollination.  And certainly, the monasteries were a thoroughly liturgical context.  Nonetheless, it was possible to devote one’s life to study of the Scriptures and reflection upon God, without devoting one’s life to active Christian ministry. 

Of course, there are doubtless problems that can arise from this disjunction, but we would be foolish to deny that there are also benefits.  Clearly, when we think about the most important qualities in a good pastor or even a good preacher, rigor of theological reflection is probably not the highest.  Love, compassion, confidence, ability to communicate, perhaps authority—these are all essential qualities, and these are qualities that many a would-be-theologian does not have.  If we required, then, that all our theologians also be, or at the very least, first be, pastors, then we would be inflicting an awful lot of atrocious pastors on the Church.  But of course, many Christians who lack a superabundance of these relational gifts may possess intellectual gifts, or skill in written communication, as well as a passion to uncover the the depths of God’s truth and put it to the service of the Church.   They may be eminently qualified, in short, for the discipline of theology, and we would be unfairly depriving the Church if we insisted that none of these could engage in that discipline unless they were ordained ministers.  And of course, even for those gifted in both, there is the question of time; both tasks are enormously demanding, and there are few who can carry out both with consistent success.  Thus, we should speak of two distinct vocations (though of course it is quite possible that both may coincide in one person): the vocation of the theologian and the vocation of the minister. 

However, these are not simply two parallel occupations; there is a teleological relation.  The theologian is oriented to the service of the minister in a way that the minister is not to the theologian, because the task of theology is fundamentally to serve and build up the Church.  If philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then theology is the handmaiden of ministry.  Of course, the minister is to serve every member of his flock and support them in all their lawful calllings, so to this extent he is to serve the theologian as well—but contingently.  The essence of the theologian’s task is to build up the Church, and therefore to help equip the minister (though of course also laypeople) in his task.  And this is where the question of institutional arrangement becomes pressing.  


In today’s world, the theologian occupies an odd position; he has a conflict of interest.  Whereas the carpenter’s task is to serve the architect, and so he relies on the architect for his paycheck, and the architect’s task is to serve the person who wants a new office building, and so he relies on this person for his paycheck, the theologian rarely makes his living off of the Church that he is called to serve.  He works in service of the Church, but he depends on “the academy” for his paycheck.  Whenever such a disjunction happens, it usually spells trouble (consider the current crisis of the healthcare industry, in which the doctor’s task is to serve the patient, but he relies on the insurance companies (or in most countries, the government) for his pay check).  We might think that this is only really a problem if people are being greedy, but this is not the case.  The theologian is rarely trying to get rich; he is just trying to make a living.  But to make a living, he has to please his employer, and his employer, therefore, will in large part set the agenda for what he does.  He may earnestly wish to serve the Church, and yet he has limited time and resources, so he can hardly let the Church set the agenda for his work if the academy is also doing so.  

Of course, “the academy” is a vague bogeyman if there ever was one, but perhaps we all have enough of an idea of what I mean for the following contrast to make some sense.  A theologian in service of the Church will be attentive to the needs of the church of which he finds himself a part, or the churches with which he finds himself connected.  He will ask what their urgent questions are, what serious confusions hamper their grasp of the Gospel and their witness to the world, what errors threaten their faith.  And then he will set himself the task of teaching and writing to answer these questions, clarify these matters of confusion, refute these errors.  He will teach and write in such a way, not necessarily so as to be understood by each and every churchgoer (indeed, how could that be possible), but at least in such a way that his contributions may be mediated to the church as a whole by its leaders and its most thoughtful and engaged members.  He will, moreover, seek to spend enough time immersed in its life and its discussions that he may not only clearly know the questions of its members, but also learn from their own insights and experiences.  How will the theologian engaged in this task fare in the academy?  He may succeed well—many have—but the minefield through which he has to navigate is not one through which the route to success is clear.   

As his paymaster, the academy will expect the theologian to demonstrate his ability to fruitfully engage with the vexing questions that preoccupy the academic discipline, his ability to contribute some new knowledge to their discussion.  The academy will not necessarily think much of his interest in the petty and naive questions that trouble ordinary churchgoers, it will not necessarily think much of his determination to draw on and preserve ancient wisdom, his reticence to say anything novel, or his engagement with un-respectable and unsophisticated interlocutors.  It will expect him to engage with academic secondary literature instead, and the more he is engaging with sources that the ordinary congregant would never so much have heard of, the better.  It will expect him to bring out some new and innovative opinion, rather than simply saying “to the law and to the testimony!”  It will expect him to invest his time in engaging and debating the most prestigious, sophisticated, and up-to-date scholars, not some podunk seminarian.  Attempts to ward off errors facing the church, if these errors lack academic respectability, will be seen as a waste of time.  He will be expected to spend his time attending conferences, reading articles, and writing articles, not chatting with pastors and parishioners, or attending Bible studies.  

The young theologian will find himself particularly lost in this minefield.  An established theologian, one who has secured his living and his reputation, has earned for himself a certain leisure devote himself to issues that are of concern to the Church, not merely the academy; perhaps even more importantly, he will be more able to see the whole big picture, and so to see how questions raised within ordinary congregations relate to questions that matter at the highest levels of academic reflection as well; he will find issues on which he can engage on both levels at once.  For the young theologian, however, who has not yet climbed high enough to see the whole lay of the land, this kind of perspective is difficult.  He must, it often seems, choose which set of questions he will address, and which audience he will address, and he only has the time and resources to address one; after all, he’d rather get through grad school sooner rather than later.  Financially threadbare and without an established reputation, he cannot risk investing time or resources in projects that will not help him climb the academic ladder.  He must consent, only temporarily he hopes, to set aside his larger dreams of serving the Church, and simply do his time in the discipline, closeting himself away in academic journals and academic conferences.  He looks for points of intersection, to be sure, but they are often hard to find, and his imagination is perhaps stultified by the narrow walls of the specialized sub-discipline within which he must work.

Once he has completed this regimen of training, although he may at last now have more leisure to return to the concerns that originally motivated his study of theology, he may find that the passion has been smothered, that he has become so habituated into this way of life that he has by now forgotten how to do theology in service to the Church.  He no longer can speak the language of ordinary Christians; even ministers seem hopelessly naive and provincial.  Engagement no longer seems even possible, much less profitable, and so his paymaster—the academy—wins in the end, and he devotes his life to its service.


This is a bleak tale, to be sure, and I do not pretend to say that this is a universal experience, or that the chasm between church and academy is yet so unbridgeable as this implies.  So much great work is still being done on the intersection between the two, and new ways of bridging them are being thought up all the time by Christian scholars and churchmen.  But we would be foolish not to recognize that we are in a predicament, if not perhaps quite yet a crisis, and some serious thinking by those on both sides of this divide is called for.

In a third post, I hope to at last move around to some possible solutions to this predicament.

“Listening to the Marginalized”? The Role of Theology in the Church Today

On Saturday, New College hosted a conference entitled, provocatively, “Does the Church Need Theology?  Addressing the Gap Between Professor, Pulpit, and Pew,” which I had the privilege of helping organize.  The conference was a great success—well-attended by a wide range of constituencies, with enthusiastic dialogue from all, and a hunger at the end for further discussion in future conferences.  Best of all, most everyone present seemed to agree with the premise that we need more theology, not less, in our churches—which is a premise one can hardly count on in these postmodern times.  

In the opening talk, Paul Nimmo advanced the claim that theology, as “talk about God,” is something that everyone who is a Christian does unavoidably, even if inarticulately, and is thus not merely the proper province of the learned.  The subsequent speakers amplified this emphasis and it was presupposed in much of the group discussion, which focused on how we might render clearer and more articulate the latent, largely unvoiced theology in the congregations.

As a Protestant, I of course cannot but hail this emphasis, for the priesthood of all believers might be just as well stated as the preacher-hood of all believers, or even the professor-hood of all believers.  Reflection upon revelation is not the exclusive preserve of an enlightened or authorized elite, but arises spontaneously by the illumination of the Spirit in every heart that feeds in faith upon the Word of God.  Nonetheless, it is perhaps needful in these democratic days to disentangle this wonderful Protestant doctrine from some of its more bastard descendants.  For Paul Nimmo was equally insistent in his claim that there remained a discipline of focused and regulated reflection to which some Christians were called as a vocation, a theological vocation that had as its task the guidance and, when necessary, the correction, of the whole Church.  Of course, this discipline remains itself always open to correction by the whole Church and by the Word, bound to be forever listening to the voice of Christ and the voices of His members.  Needless to say, this latter claim failed to generate as much enthusiasm, though it was more underemphasized than openly repudiated. 

As someone training for this theological vocation, I cannot but be conscious of the awkwardness of speaking up in its defence.  Perhaps due humility would dictate that I should simply take to heart the admonitions of yesterday, and leave others to offer an apologetic for the theologian, if one needs to be given.  I shall not take this humblest of courses, but I am at least sufficiently cognizant of my bias that I offer these thoughts more in the manner of musings than of an apologetic.  

Some present at the discussion seemed to be operating on the basis of an unvoiced syllogism: “theology” is something that every Christian does and is called to do, thus the “theologian” does nothing unique, and therefore, we need not bother to listen to theologians, but should instead focus merely on empowering the theologian within each one of us.  Perhaps no one quite said it that way, but many remarks inclined in this direction, and only a deaf man could be unaware that the spirit of this syllogism suffuses much of the contemporary church, both liberal and conservative.  But the “syllogism,” if indeed syllogism it is meant to be, is one hardly worthy of the name.  We might with equal plausibility assert that since each one of us, every day, is called upon to make judgments about human behavior, determining motives, discerning patterns, and predicting future behaviours, that each of us is a psychologist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist, and therefore we have no need of the disciplines of psychology, sociology, or anthropology.  Of course, perhaps I have chosen my analogy poorly, since more than a few of us (myself included) are likely to feel at times that a world without psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists might be a nice world indeed.  

So let’s try the analogy of science.  All of us inevitably “do science.”  We all interact with the physical world around us, analyze what we see, observe patterns, form generalizations.  When I notice that certain shifts in wind and certain cloud formations are likely to presage a thunderstorm, I am doing primitive meteorology.  When I determine that olive oil and vinegar will tend to separate, and need additional ingredients, well-mixed, to form a stable dressing, I am doing primitive chemistry.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  Of course, no one would deduce by this ubiquity of scientific engagement with the world that the vocation of dedicated scientists was pointless.  Indeed, we can extend this analogy further.  People puzzle over how the highly specialized reflections of trained theologians could become in any way useful for the everyday life of the ordinary Christian.  But the specialized reflections of trained scientists are if anything still more abstruse and bewildering.  Yet they are regularly brought to bear on the lives of ordinary people—usually not directly from the Chemistry department at MIT to the kitchen, but mediated through various strata—the researcher, the textbook-writer, the cookbook-writer.  The same mediation can bring knowledge from professor to pulpit to pew. Now, the analogy is far from perfect.  I think we ought to insist that everyone should be a theologian in a more actively engaged and self-conscious sense than everyone should be a scientist, and that, since theology is nourished by faith, not just reason, the gap between layman and specialist ought to be much narrower in theology than in science.  Indeed, we must also insist that, because of this primacy of faith, which the poor widow may have in far greater abundance than the tenured professor, theology as a discipline has an urgent duty to listen to, and be corrected by, the voices of ordinary people in a way that the discipline of chemistry certainly does not have.  Yet the analogy should be enough to prove that the “professor-hood of all believers” does not obviate the value of professors. 


Unsurprisingly, though, there was a more radical version of this call for “theology from below” articulated at the conference, an insistence not only that we should be getting our theology by listening to one another, but by listening to what N.T. Wright wryly refers to as “that blessed postmodern category, the ‘marginalized.'”  We were strongly exhorted by Kathy Galloway to “do theology by listening to those on the margins.”  One contributor to the group discussion even expressed an objection to one of the questions they were supposed to reflect on: “What difference would more theological reflection make for practical Christian ministry, such as serving the homeless or counselling broken families?”  She said, “Why ‘serving the homeless’ instead of ‘being with the homeless’?  Why ‘counselling broken families’ instead of ‘listening to broken families'”  Of course, these are very fair concerns.  

Perhaps we do need a kind of ‘affirmative action’ in theology, giving particular weight to the perspectives of the marginalized, precisely because they have been marginalized.  Theology has had, and continues to have, more than its fair share of imperialism, as, within each tradition, a privileged elite of established perspectives force themselves upon everyone else as “the answers.”  Merely ministering sympathetically to the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, can be a way of preserving the us/them distinction, maintaining our superiority as we condescend to give them aid, thus putting them in our debt.  So “serving the homeless” that doesn’t include a commitment to simultaneously “being with the homeless” is at best of limited value, and at worst could perpetuate the ugly patterns of inequality.  Likewise, “counselling broken families” that does not seek first to attentively, patiently, and earnestly listen to them, that seeks to merely give them answers instead of giving them a voice, can be a form of arrogance more than of love.   

Nonetheless, as much value there is in these emphases, I think we need to be careful.  For “being with the homeless” without serving them, and “listening to broken families” without counselling them is not love either.  Most people who are suffering, broken, or marginalized want help; they would rather be brought out of their pit instead of just having us jump into it with them for the sake of solidarity.  I was particularly struck by this thought when Kathy Galloway asserted that “Jesus spent his time listening to the marginalised—to tax-collectors and prostitutes—and so should we.”  Well, hang on a minute.   It is undoubtedly true that Jesus gave particular focus in his ministry to the marginalised, as liberation theologians and many others have helpfully brought to our attention.  But I can’t recall many scenes in the gospels in which Jesus sits down with a group of tax-collectors and prostitutes and says, “Now tell me what you think about the kingdom of God”; “Please, share with me your experience of God.”  Of course, he may well have done so.  Indeed, I doubt not that in the close relationships he formed with many of his disciples, Jesus took a great deal of time to listen to them and find out what they thought.  But the gospels tell us little of this.  What they seem to think most important is not that Jesus saw fit to listen to the marginalized, but that he preached to the marginalized.  Jesus brought the kingdom of God to them; he did not invite them to recognize that they already had the secret to it within themselves, if only they would give voice to it.   

To those who are lost, searching for answers, disempowered, the most loving thing that we can do for them is what Jesus did, to go them and show them the way, tell them the truth, give them new life—that is, preach Jesus to them.  The point I am making here is not really about prioritizing spiritual needs over physical needs.  By all means, we need to show Christ’s love by caring for people’s physical needs.  But when it comes to caring for spiritual needs, we shouldn’t convince ourselves that it is arrogant to claim we have anything to offer them, so we should simply profess ourselves empty-handed and insist that they do the talking.  We do need to give a voice to the voiceless, but they will only have a true and authentic voice when they have Christ, and we cannot bring Christ to them without theology. 


A final musing I would like to share here is my suspicion that, if we ask who the most marginalized voices in our society today are, we might well answer “those of the past.”  The question was raised in small group discussion—”Can we sustain a commitment to orthodoxy while developing our theology in engagement with the marginalised?” or something to that effect.  A “theology from below,” it seemed, was in tension with the claim of theology to encapsulate age-old received truths, so much so that one person saw the slogan “Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” as scandalous.  And yet, in all this fervour for democratic theology, we should not forget what I think G.K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”—the voices of all those who have gone before us.  These, our forebears in the faith, are now the voiceless, and they are, in our fast-paced and forgetful society, at risk of being the most marginalized of all.  Any theology that claims to take its cue from those on the margins must be willing to take its cue from the Church of ages past.  Otherwise, we risk setting up an imperialism of the present, condemned to be always transcending itself, and trampling on whatever it has received from the past.  To do theology merely by listening to one another is to condemn ourselves to hearing a monotonous voice indeed, for with all our diversity, we today share far more assumptions (so many of them, no doubt, silly and groundless) than we realize, and we must appear from the perspective of history provincial indeed.  

So, by all means let’s have the priesthood, and the preacherhood, and the professor-hood of all believers, but let’s make sure it’s really that of all believers—of a rabbi from Tarsus, a beggar from Assisi, a crazy monk in Wittenberg.  Understood this way, the doctrine that seems to blame for wild individualism can be one of the greatest safeguards against it.  Understood this way, we can insist that theology as a discipline does have some answers to offer, without being arrogant—because theology recognizes that it has received these answers as a gift, and its calling is to share this gift, enriching it in each generation with new gifts gained in conversation with all the saints.  


In a subsequent (much shorter) post, I will explore what seem to me are perhaps one or two of the more serious problems plaguing the current relationship between theology and the church and what might be one or two of the most promising solutions.    

The Promise and Perils of Academic Blogging

The following is adapted from a talk I gave yesterday at the University of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference

The purpose of blogging for me (and what seems to me its most valuable use for students like myself) is both to brainstorm ideas for my reserch, and to reflect on issues lying at the intersection of my academic work and the interests and experiences of more ordinary people.  This latter goal is perhaps easier for me, given my particular field of study, than it would be for many young academics.  After all, I am working in Christian ethics and political thought, and almost everyone has occasion to worry about how to live ethically and to dispute about politics.  Perhaps a biochemist would have more difficulty blogging in this middle space.  But where it’s possible, it’s very useful, since it helps keep you from becoming the kind of detached, super-specialized academic that can only talk to other academics.  If you’re planning to teach, this kind of blogging is very good practice. 

But my first purpose now is not, of course, to teach.  Rather, my blog serves, first and foremost, as a thinkspace, a place for me to brainstorm ideas on questions that I’m thinking of researching or writing, as a place to post book reviews or interesting passages as I research key sources, which I might use later in my writing, or even as a place to post initial drafts of my thesis or other projects.  

But the blog also helps keep me from becoming so narrowly focused on my research that I can’t think intelligently about other issues, as too often happens to Ph.D students.  Attending conferences and talking with fellow students is of course one good way to maintain some breadth, but for many of us, there’s no substitute for writing, as a way of processing and organizing information, and indeed generating new insights.  Of course, many students try to publish journal articles on topics loosely related or unrelated to their research, as a way of keeping some breadth in their studies, but this can be a very demanding and time-consuming process, requiring a level of thoroughness in research and care in citation that one can rarely justify given the demands of one’s primary research project.  Blogging is a great way to solve this dilemma.  It gives one an outlet to reflect seriously and carefully on issues that one is interested in, but without demanding the rigor and time investment of a journal article or conference paper. 


Now what makes the blog a truly useful way of accomplishing both these ends is of course the presence of other people.  Naturally, I could sit and brainstorm and write up thoughts on my computer to my heart’s content, but this would not be terribly useful, for any number of reasons.  For one, it would be difficult to be sufficiently disciplined; the temptation would always be to stop writing when a thought was half-formed and only partially articulate.  The simple awareness that others may be reading compels you to organize your thoughts, to clarify them, to qualify them where necessary; to anticipate objections, rather than simply trusting in one’s first instincts.  And, if you are writing with a largely non-academic readership in mind, as I am, then you’re also forced to think about how to simplify complex ideas, how to communicate them in lucid language, rather than hiding behind technical terms, and how to make the thoughts interesting and compelling to a non-specialist.  Ph.D students often have woeful writing skills, and the exercise of writing a Ph.D is not one that tends to improve them much, since your supervisor has to read your work, no matter how boring it is.  Although blogging was perhaps once associated with loose, careless, and sloppy writing, nowadays, quality blogs are in high demand, and blogging can provide a great opportunity to practice writing well, really engaging people’s attention.  And of course, if hypothetical readers translate into actual readers, as they almost surely will do if you have anything worthwhile to say, you can get feedback–criticism of poorly-formed ideas, questions that invite you to reflect and explain further, suggestions of sources that you could use in further research.  Your posts may also lure in other readers–potentially other postgraduate students, or even established academics, with interest in similar issues, giving you the opportunity to learn from them and form relationships.  Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find regular interlocutors, with your same interests but somewhat different perspectives, who will consistently challenge you to rethink and refine your assumptions, often opening up space for great intellectual breakthroughs that reshape your research and make it far clearer and more useful than it otherwise would have been.  This has been my own experience, and I have been enormously blessed by it.


Now it is important to note at this point an important tension that has been introduced.  I started off talking about blogging as something I do primarily for myself, but its usefulness depends also upon its being done for other people.  Now this tension turns out to be a persistent and difficult one. It is important, I think, not to start out with a more altruistic concept of blogging–“I am writing in order to help share my wisdom with others, and illuminate them about all these important issues.  I will use my superior learning to help correct popular misconceptions on a whole range of issues.”  Such a posture is actually ultimately more selfish, because more arrogant.  You may in fact have many useful things to offer the world, but it’s best not to start off by assuming that you do.  It’s easy to get an inflated idea of your own importance in blogdom.  It doesn’t take much for you to find that a couple dozen folks a day are popping in to see what you’ve been writing, for maybe one hundred pairs of eyes to read each well-written post.  If you venture onto a subject of popular interest (as I did when I wrote a theological critique of the final Harry Potter movie), then social media could turn you into a temporary celebrity overnight.  This can quickly go to your head, and this is bad for any number of reasons.  For one thing, even if you have a truly wide readership, and one that is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean you really know what you’re talking about.  1000 hits a day is no substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article or positive feedback from your supervisor.  If your #1 goal is to be a successful Ph.D researcher, then you need to keep your eye on the ball and maintain due humility about the scope of your knowledge.  

Even aside from that problem, however, too much of a focus on your readership can pose a real problem.  For instance, suppose you get in the habit of posting about three times a week, and then you get to a phase of your Ph.D where you have to focus really intensively on some research, and you find you hardly have any time to post.  Well, if you fall into too much of the mentality that your blog is for your readers, then you will feel a lot of pressure to keep putting up posts.  Otherwise, readers might start getting restless–or stop following your blog altogether!  If the pressure to keep posting means you spend time on your blog that you should be spending on research, then the blog has shifted from being a useful servant to a cruel taskmaster.  Another way that this can happen is through comments.  The payoff of a successful blog is that it demands more of your time.  Lots of people read your posts, and they comment–they ask questions, or they argue with one another, or they argue with you.  Naturally, you want to engage their comments, especially if they’ve been hard-hitting in their criticisms, and you start taking it personally.  But they may end of having much more time to keep arguing with you than you have to spare; it’s not hard to find yourself spending up 10 hours a week blogging and replying to comments.  And there’s also the danger of becoming so worried about projecting a polished, all-knowing, omni-competent image that you’re afraid to actually think through difficult issues on your blog or be honest about questions you’re struggling to answer.  That makes the blog less useful for yourself and your readers.  


 Now, all of this might suggest that the best way to blog is to write as if nobody is reading.  But, for obvious reasons, this is not a suitable solution.  As mentioned above, one point of blogging, instead of just jotting down notes to yourself, is to compel you to write better.  A false humility that assumes that hardly anyone is actually reading can become an excuse for carelessness and flippancy.  This can become particularly dangerous when expressing controversial opinions or critiquing other writers.  Controversy and criticism are of course an inevitable part of academic life, but they have to be managed very carefully.  Within academic writing, there are a host of unwritten rules about how one engages in these, attempting to ensure that even the sharpest disagreements remain gentlemanly, respectful, and restrained.  There is naturally a bit more freedom in a blogging environment, which can be useful, but it is very easy to go too far, indulging in colorful rhetoric or blunt attacks that will hurt your own image and may come back to haunt you.  In fact, it’s remarkable how quickly one may be brought to regret the carelessness that comes from this false humility.  Once, when blogging about a prestigious visiting lecturer’s presentation, I made some carelessly-phrased joking criticisms in the midst of what I thought was clearly an attitude of good-natured appreciation, assuming that only a few friends and students would be reading my post.  But tones of voice do not come through in writing, and 24 hours later, my supervisor was asking me to explain myself, the lecturer in question having seen my post and angrily contacted the school.  Since then, I’ve made a point of trying to always write with the assumption that anyone could be listening, and to guard carefully in advance against possible misunderstandings.  If I do have anything to offer in my blogging, I don’t want to turn people off by the way I say it.


So, in order to blog successfully, it’s important to simultaneously be always aware of your possible audience, and yet not preoccupied with them, remembering that the blog is first and foremost a tool to aid you in your own thinking and research, and that you will likely be of much more use to the world, and any potential readers, in the long-term if you successfully complete your research than if you spend all your time blogging.  It’s important to try to project an intelligent and respectable image through your blogging, but not to be so concerned with image that you’re no longer being genuine–the key is to use the blog as a way to explore your own interests and clarify your own ideas.  By making this your focus, you may well find that, as a by-product, lots of people–even important people, even potential employers–do want to listen to you and talk with you.  Through my blogging, I’ve formed lots of great relationships and hopefully made lots of good impressions.  But important as this result is, it’s more likely to happen if it remains no more than a secondary goal, not the primary purpose of all your blogging.