Theology’s Blind Turn? A Response to Rausch and @AmericaMag

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By Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap.

In an article written for America Magainzes’s most recent edition, titled “Theology’s New Turn”, Thomas Rausch explores the phenomenon wherein “Disciplines once considered marginal now dominate the academy.” Rausch identifies this experience as stemming from his task of reviewing job applications at his academic institution. Less than a year removed from formal theological study, I can echo his experience, not necessarily in reviewing resumes for teaching positions, but in listening to the interests of my colleagues in the classroom, reading the curriculum vitaes of young, unfamiliar professors, and perusing the titles of dissertations having received final approval. Indeed, the specialization of theology has had many positive consequences, some of which Rausch enumerates. Those opinions, peoples, and perspectives largely marginalized by traditional Catholic thought have entered into the light of theological day. Moreover, what could be called the democratization of the academy has, in fact, given voice to a large number of people (the laity, women of all backgrounds, and traditional ethic and racial minorities, anyone?) once confined to intellectual outposts on the dark side of the college campus.

Yet at the same time, such specialization should also cause us some concern. These problems, I should note, are not purely doctrinal (I reserve the right to comment on those matters in a separate post). What is more troubling to me are the methodological and intellectual consequences of the atomization of (post-)modern theology. Say what one wants about Scholasticism (or, gasp, neo-Scholasticism), one must still admit that a common language made theological discourse possible in ways that are not the case now.  To recall John Courtney Murray’s commentary on the American Experience, the underlying agreement regarding democracy as a first principle in America made possible the vigorous and ultimately fruitful arguments regarding democracy’s application. Pushing things back further and at the risk of mixing metaphors and proving my own imperialistic leanings, agreement upon First Causes are what makes debate about accidental properties and causes such incredibly fertile grounds for philosophical and theological inquiry. Perhaps, then, the question that we ought be asking in this matter is whether or not Queer Theology or Eco-Theology can speak in a theological language intelligible to other members of the academy who do not share these disciplines.  Let me ask the question in another way: how would the best theologian I’ve ever known, my now deceased grandmother – the faithful daily communicant and pray-er of the Rosary – recognize these theological efforts as both Catholic and catholic?

A second, equally important problem regarding the specialization of the academy is one to which most graduate students can testify. When attempting to engage an introductory theology course, liberation Christology is just one of many possible means to an end (Chalcedon, if one wish not to be a Docetist, is not): it is a valuable heuristic, albeit one that does not deserve historical privilege at the exclusion of other methods. In other words, does the atomization of the academy spell the death knell for the general practitioner in the academy? To put it basely: judging by Rausch’s article, Walter Kasper’s or Joseph Ratzinger’s broad theological perspectives might no longer be seen as strengths in today’s academic world, but rather both men could be considered as lacking in “passion” or in the ability to “appropriate one’s historical circumstances.”

I can recall reading the different articles in the second edition of Systematic Theology for a class once. Each chapter had a different author, and, because of this, possessed not only differences in writing style, but also dramatically different perspectives which, rather than ending in a particular and idiosyncratic theological locale, began from these locales. Such confusion answered Tertullian’s old inquiry into what Athens had to do with Jerusalem with another equally enigmatic city. This type of theology misses the point, for the answer to Tertullian’s question ought to begin with the name Christ, and then, and only then, add in an additional geographic point of our own choosing.

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One thought on “Theology’s Blind Turn? A Response to Rausch and @AmericaMag”

  1. There is a benefit in theological discourse, I agree, in starting from the same place and sharing first principles. (There is a terrific story about G. K. Chesterton that illuminates the issue–one one occasion, while driving through downtown London, he noticed two women arguing with one another from the windows of their apartments on opposite sides of the street. Chesterton remarked, “Those women will never agree.” When asked why, he added, “Because they are arguing from different premises.”) But the benefit of beginning discourse from the same premises can, I think, quickly dissolve if mere self-indulgent conversation ensures; that is to say, if we are sharing too-same a perspective, we lose the potential for real dialogue, real discourse. There is a real challenge in attempting to wrap one’s mind around a wholly other perspective, proceeding from a wholly other premise. But an effort to break open the wholly other (whether from the inside or out) is equally a challenge. An effort must be made on both parts, then, to seek communication. Making one’s presuppositions, premises, principles, and methods clear and obvious is a sound start. Only then can the specialists begin to understand one another, and perhaps subsequently fruitful discourse can be had.

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