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Tom BeaudoinDecember 30, 2009

Off and on over the past several months, I've been listening to (and watching performances of) Wilco's song "Theologians," from their 2004 album A Ghost is Born. I come to the song more as someone presumably addressed by the title than as a Wilco devotee.

I cannot help but hear this song as a rebuke to the great mass of academic and churchy theologizing that fails not only to "reach" contemporary Christians and those curious about Christianities, but that fails to risk inhabiting the "lifeworlds" of such people, ostensibly a crucial source for theologians (insofar as faith is practiced by humans) and audience for theologians (insofar as theology is meant to be taken in by humans). "Theologians don't know nothing about my soul." And toward the end of the tune, we learn that maybe it's Jesus who is singing this taunting song: "Where I'm going you cannot come"; "I lay it down"; "A ghost is born." It's rare that we get the image of Jesus singing to theologians, whether in "secular" or "sacred" music.

Recently, I posted this short reflection on some of the praxis-based limits of contemporary Catholic theology. Much of my teaching and research these days traffics in a domain of theological study called "practical theology," which tries to theologize from and for religious practice, to take "practice" as determinative for Christian life and thought as others take "belief" to be. Indeed, to break down the dichotomizing of belief and practice which is itself a problematic kind of theological practice.

It would be easy to say that the Wilco tune is taking aim at theology that construes itself as a kind of theory. It goes beyond this brief post to try to parse different meanings of theory that might apply to theology, but suffice it to say that much of theology does indeed see itself as a theoretical discourse, not because this is necessitated by theology "as such," but because of the pressures, norms, and practices of academic discourse and the circulation of intellectual distinction in academic theological circles. This is well documented in critical theories of academic life, but hardly ever acknowledged in academic theology. It is most often liberation and feminist theologians who raise it, but much of academic theology proceeds without very much of a critical philosophy of academic life living intentionally inside its own arguments. This is one reason that you might have a thoughtful band like Wilco, or a thoughtful guy like Jesus of Nazareth, protesting that theologians have not really "gotten" them.

Of course, it might be that Wilco or Jesus are also upset with some traditional theologies that get repeated today from the pulpit or in popular theological books, and that contemporary academic theology is not the target. So be it, but that would only show the relative ineffectiveness of academic theological thinking at shifting what Christians say and do in the larger world of ministry or society.

An orientation toward practical theologies, it seems to me, does not necessarily solve the problem, because so many practical theologies turn out to be actually afraid of the singularity of "faith" practice and its weirdness, instead of being critically abandoned to the singularity of "faith" practice and its weirdness. One thing my students and I discuss in class is how frequently the turn to practical theology is an attempt to govern practice by calling something practical theology which is really an ahistorical systematic theological fantasy centering on practice. Not that I am against ahistorical systematic theological fantasies that center on practice. In the end, that may be - properly understood, of course - just about all we've got to work with. But if so, let's call it that.

So all this is a long way of saying that I cannot see how on my commonsense reading of Wilco's "Theologians," we theologians are anything but well-rebuked.

One way I try to respond pedagogically to this rebuke is to offer a graduate seminar here at Fordham that teaches research methods from practical theology that try better to "know something about souls." I'll be teaching this again in the spring, and we will be focusing on the study of lived faith with the help of works by Dutch theologian Ruard Ganzevoort, English theologian Jeff Astley, and U.S. theologian Mary Clark Moschella, among others. They each develop practical-theological viewpoints on a research orientation toward lived faith.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Cross-posted to Rock and Theology

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Beth Cioffoletti
12 years 4 months ago
This is why I could never understand the fear that traditional theologians have held toward liberation theology, which (among other things) invisions a Church that doesn't think only of itself, but lives as a great service to the religious experience of humanity.
A theology of words alone doesn't convince anyone.  Theology must be pregnant with action, and born of suffering and struggle - the flesh and blood of human lives.
Carolyn Disco
12 years 4 months ago
I come late to appreciating this post, but find it dead accurate. From Beaudoin's Rock and Theology blog (though the rock is not germane to my age group):
I see that part of what needs to happen, is happening and will happen among Catholic theologians in the United States is a profound rethinking of what it means to be a theologian in relation to an institutional church that is collapsing quickly.
More people are walking out than walking in, and without recent immigrants, the decline would be even more evident. At best, the near-inevitable can only temporarily be forestalled. This is a genuinely “new situation” here in the States, one hardly admitted — much less negotiated or integrated — in polite theological circles.

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