Theology will have no future if it does not remain a distinct discipline.
Editor’s note: This article, a response to “The crisis in Catholic theology” by Grant Kaplan, is part of The Conversation, a new initiative of America Media offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read more views on this issue linked at the bottom of this article.
In the Book of Job, the friends of Job attempt to soothe his suffering and agonized questions with wisdom about God. Eliphaz asks, “Now think: Who that was innocent ever perished?” (4:7). Zophar tells him, “If you prepare your heart...you will forget your misery!” (11:13, 16). Elihu even offers to speak “on God’s behalf” (36:2).
All five speak and reason (logos) about God (theos). Mustering the most venerable wisdom of their traditions, they do theology with natural prowess. Then God appears. His arrival is jarring. Their confidence withers. With piercing irony, their venerable theology is overturned: Now God (theos) speaks (logos).
This scene offers an image of the peculiar, twofold nature of theology. It is, of course, reasoning about God and all things in relationship to God. But it is also reasoning informed by—and ever seeking—God’s speech.
[Theology] is, of course, reasoning about God and all things in relationship to God. But it is also reasoning informed by—and ever seeking—God’s speech.
This image came to mind as I read Grant Kaplan’s stimulating assessment of the state of Catholic theology in the United States. Among other proposals, he rightly calls for the greater integration of theology with other disciplines to “reconceive theology for the 21st century.” He names several areas—critical theory, disability studies and environmental studies—to which one could also add the sciences, like cognitive science or physics. This engagement is imperative, but theology must also have a vision of itself first.
Dr. Kaplan cites the origins of historical theology—an integration of history and theology. In the 19th century, when the study of history was en vogue, integration of history into Catholic theology faced serious obstacles. In some cases, any attempts to integrate history into theology were met with suspicion, even toward Cardinal Newman’s groundbreaking account of doctrinal development. Today, the historical dimension of the church and revelation has become indispensable to Catholic thought and occupies its best theologians. But some historical theology was genuinely irreconcilable, or even a vehicle for patently anti-Catholic theology, as with the brilliant Lutheran historian Adolf von Harnack. Newman’s thought, by contrast, was animated primarily by a Catholic theological vision of God’s speech reverberating through history.
The development of historical theology highlights a risk in interdisciplinary theology: If it loses the spirit of theology, it takes on the shape of another discipline. In research today, the theological reality can become ever more historically bracketed and distanced by respectable qualifiers—“well, according to Aquinas”; “for Irenaeus, of course”—until it has receded beyond our mental horizon. The theologian becomes instead an archivist or a museum curator, dedicated to preservation but not animation. This is why a vision for theology is vital.
The development of historical theology highlights a risk in interdisciplinary theology: If it loses the spirit of theology, it takes on the shape of another discipline.
The questions that faced historical theology are still relevant; to raise them is not to denigrate other disciplines. It is to remember to ask, “Is this theology? If not, what is?” This disciplinary question may seem pedantic, but the “crisis” facing the future and justifiability of theology classes, departments, funding and majors indicates that it is not.
Graduate students need to learn how to do this work of integration, but they first need to know how they will introduce undergraduates to theology as its own vibrant discipline. This opportunity is irreplaceable in Catholic universities, and Catholic theology will have no future without it. Undergraduate courses cannot become introductions to religiosity or historical surveys of Ancient Near Eastern religion. They must introduce students to the unsettling nature of Catholic theology captured in Job, as a discipline in which the object of study—God—is simultaneously its speaking subject. This is the origin of theology’s capacity to elicit surprise and wonder in new students. This proposes the awkward, discomfiting reality of a living word of God. But if any discipline is going to make this proposal a first principle, shouldn’t Catholic theology be the one to do it?
More views on the crisis in Catholic theology:
- Grant Kaplan: The crisis in Catholic theology.
- Ligita Ryliskyte: The liberal/conservative divide is hurting theology departments. The way forward won’t be popular.
- Ty Monroe: Theology has no future if students can’t afford to study it.
- Carolyn Weir Herman: Theology departments can’t just focus on academics. Spiritual and moral formation are needed, too.