Sunday, February 2, 2014

Systematic theology and its strangeness (2)

"Systematic theology has fallen on evil days". 
"There are few phenomena in the theological world which are more striking indeed than the impatience which is exhibited on every hand with the effort to define truth and state with precision the doctrinal presuppositions and contents of Christianity."

Despite the echoes in these remarks of sentiments possibly to be heard from contemporary systematic theologians lamenting all the challenges to their discipline in these postmodern days, these comments are actually over a century old. In fact, they were written in 1897. The first were penned by Edinburgh's Professor James Orr in his Introduction to Benjamin Warfield's The Right of Systematic Theology. The second are from the main body of Warfield's text itself.

It is interesting to read Warfield's summary of the sources of this 'impatience': claims that Christianity is about life, not thought; that it proclaims acts of God, not dogmas; and the concern that doctrine is a (Greek) way of truth-telling alien to the witness of the biblical narratives. Again, it's all very familiar. Less familiar, perhaps, is Warfield's confidence in aspiring towards a "pretty complete systematic theology" and justifying it with the claim that from the beginning Christianity has "ever come to men (sic) as rational religion, making its appeal to the intellect".  It's not that you don't have to scratch too far below the surface to discover the rhetoric of modernity in Warfield's protest, you don't have to scratch at all. 

It is interesting to ponder the history of the discipline in the intervening century, not least the development of the discipline, especially in English-speaking circles in the last two to three decades in particular. The 'impatience' with it has not subsided, but, as a discipline, systematic theology is lively, energetic and developing on multiple fronts. And it needs to be said that it has developed in directions that Warfield himself is unlikely to have approved of. The quest for 'completion' has not been abandoned, but it's surrounded by caution. Claims for the rationality, or perhaps the 'reasonableness', of Christianity are still made, but without the clear definitions of rationality which Warfield assumed.

Both of these developments have been very much shaped by the strange institutional location of the discipline, i.e., at the boundary of the church and the academy. Systematic theology faces some particular challenges in straddling this boundary (challenges which may or may not be shared with other theological disciplines). Some of these challenges were explored by the Catholic scholar, Nicholas Healy, in a 2009 essay, "What is Systematic Theology". Healy argues that systematic theology "must necessarily be a bit of an outsider in both the church and the university". When it shifts too much to the academic side of the boundary, it becomes an outsider to the church because its enquiring and constructive tendencies bring it into critical relationships with the church's ordinary and official theologies. When it shifts its balance back to the church side of the boundary, it becomes an outsider to the academy because its insistence on the transcendent nature of it's subject matter, i.e., God. (Healy argues all this at much greater length and helpfully differentiates between ordinary, official and professional forms of systematic theology.)

Yet claiming a transcendent subject matter is only the beginning of the problem. To say that the discipline's transcendent subject matter is God is not a stand-alone claim. Christianity fleshes out this claim by articulating a comprehensive vision of God and God's relation to the world. Here the claim for comprehensiveness and totality bumps into the claim of the postmodern academics that all such total claims (or meta-narratives) presuppose a totality of vision which no person or community can claim. And  to the extent that such a totality of vision is a truth claim (which it inevitably is), it invites the related criticism that truth claims are simply products of the time, place and circumstance of those who make them. According to that criticism, the 'effort to define truth' is not only misplaced, it is pretentious.

One important response from within systematic theology to these sorts of criticisms, has been articulated very powerfully by the English theologian, Sarah Coakley. She unapologetically pursues what she has coined a théologie totale. Her ideas around this theme have been emerging over recent years, and have now begun to take more formal shape in the recently published first volume of her own systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self. She refuses to abandon the making of truth claims, but does so in ways that "reason is stretched and changed beyond its normal, secular reach". This stretching occurs not least because she brings prayer, contemplation and desire into the theological task. 

Upending much of the postmodern concern about total visions, she argues that the pursuit of a total vision of God and God's ways in the world, far from being a strategy for control, is actually a practice of constant critique and renewal. In her own words théologie totale is
an attempt to do justice to every level, and type, of religious apprehension and its appropriate mode of expression. Thus it is devoted precisely to the excavation and evaluation of what has previously been neglected: to theological fieldwork in a variety of illuminating social and political contexts....; to religious cultural products of the arts and the imagination; to neglected or sidelined texts in the tradition; and to examination of the differences made to theology by such factors as gender, class or race. 
Her argument moves towards a proposal for an 'unsystematic systematics':
In short théologie totale makes the bold claim that the more systematic one's intentions, the more necessary the exploration of such dark and neglected corners; and that, precisely as a theology in via, théologie totale continually risks destabilization and redirection. In an important sense, then, this form of systematic theology must always also remain, in principle, unsystematic. 
All this is part of an attempt to "recapture the contemporary imagination for Christ, [and] to reinvite reflection on the perennial mysteries of the gospel". (Some of the ideas around gender and sexuality which emerge in this first volume can be sampled here. And, it will be interesting to see what role she gives to Christ and the biblical witness to him in future volumes of her (unsystematic) systematics.)

I suspect that neither Benjamin Warfield or James Orr would be entirely enamored of an unsystematic systematics. They may even find these days no less 'evil' than those of 1897. Perhaps they were just a little too impatient with the impatience directed at their discipline. That others have constructively engaged that impatience over the last century has refined and renewed systematic theology - albeit in ways which have not necessarily reduced its strangeness. Again to quote Healy, straddling the church and the academy, systematic theology is "a constructively unsettling element in both".

Benjamin B. Warfield, The Right of Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1897).

Nicholas Healy, "What is Systematic Theology", International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 (2009), pp. 24-39.

Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity (Cambridge: CUP, 2013).


Kyle Moffitt said...

Hi Geoff,

Thanks for the introduction to the strangeness of Sarah Coakley's théologie totale. Her understanding that systematic theology should lead to dark corners and invite constant critique and renewal is shown in her approach to same-sex marriage in the Anglican Theological Review 93:1. Here she presents the view of liberal theologians who describe marriage as an ascetical lifelong undertaking. In a sense, it is a "martyrdom - a witness, both suffering and joyful, to the life of Christ, and to Christ's love of the body, his church." This understanding of marriage is related to Ephesians 5, however Romans 9-11 is also reinterpreted so that same-sex marriages are grafted onto the old order as the Gentiles were onto the vine of Israel. Such an interpretation is challenging for conservative members of the Anglican Church, but its implications also hold challenges for the church's liberals who embrace more casual attitudes about divorce. Here, and elsewhere, Coakley's systematic theology leads to some unsystematic places!

Geoff Thompson said...

Thanks Kyle. I think your last sentence sums up the issue pretty well!