Tuesday, May 22, 2007

What is theology? Some thoughts on another post.

I found Michael Westmoreland-White's post on 'What is Theology?' through Ben Myer's blog Faith and Theology. I began commenting on Michael's post, then realised I was writing more than he envisioned in the comments, and so I moved most of the comment here.

In order for my post to make any sense (hope I'm not being too optimistic here!), I have copied Ben's summary of Michael's post to provide some context. Michael's original post gives much more detail, so you really ought to go read it, too. But for now, here are the main points:

Theology is:

1) pluralistic (as a struggle for truth rooted in the conflict between different contexts and traditions)
2) narrative-based (using scripture to construe the community’s lived experience)
3) rational (as an intellectual practice rooted in communal practices)
4) self-involving (as a practice that takes place within the convictional community)

My thoughts:
Perhaps I am channeling the Barthgeist, but I am wondering if Christian theology can be more specifically Christian? In other words, can we start with the richness and mystery of the Lord, and only down the road arrive at the formal characteristics you mention? This would be a way of talking about theology as a human practice, but also as something deeper than this, that is more-than-human. (I imagine, say, a Jewish theologian could make an analogous description of her work.)

Maybe another way of getting at my concern is to say that even if theology is a human practice, it is something done in God and towards God. There isn't a 'distance' from our 'object' within which we can then 'reflect' on a previous 'encounter' that can then be systematised. This ties into your excellent point about theology not just being for 'theologians', but for all the baptised: theology is not just reflection 'on' church practices, but prayer, reflection, meditation, action(?), etc., 'within' such practices.

Perhaps this would then allow us to see theology as being about the depths of God - and through that, as being about the depths of humanity, life, and creation.

Interesting that the summary point 'theology is rational' ends up becoming something altogether different. It strikes me in light of that that perhaps points iii and iv might be usefully combined by saying that theology is a profession (in the older sense that you link with law and medicine, say). What I mean by this is that theology necessarily involves the self being ingrafted into a larger conversation - a tradition in MacIntyre's sense - which is extended through time and embodied in a people who have both shared politics and shared arguments. And so being 'overwhelmed' by the public identity given by a profession necessarily involves the self being connected with a community. (I think theology is also self-involving in the sense that it is transformative, to the extent that it is truly reflection on God, and through God, creation. But that is another point altogether!) But perhaps also - like 'science' or 'rational' - the term 'professional' might be lost for having too broad a range of meaning.

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Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I think the difference is between functional definitions of theology, such as what I am proposing (or channeling of McClendon) and content definitions.
I like the content of Barth's CD very much, but the problem I have with definitions like that is that "theology" becomes synonymous with "good theology" or even with "my theology" and that is just all wrong.
The nature of the way that theology is rational WILL be changed by its content--as I have already indicated.
Thanks for dropping by mmy site and leading me back to yours!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 5:43:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

If you are interested, I am continuing to work on this series on method in brief installments.
Check regularly on my blog, Levellers: http://levellers.wordpress.com

Friday, May 25, 2007 3:58:00 AM  

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