Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Theology as "Resource"

This recently occured to me and I haven't really worked out the implications of this notion yet. There are certain kinds of theology that I just do not like, even if I agree with lots of what is said. I can be certain kinds of political theology, ecotheology, some feminist theology and so on. Why? Because it tries to make use of theology for other non-theological purposes. It speaks a lot of the Christian tradition as a resource for tackling various issues.

There are some obvious problems with this approach. Most importantly, it seems to imply that theology itself is not involved in the actual engagement with these problems, that happens on some different arena, be it the political world, everyday life or some kind of activism. Theology is then seen as a reserve of ideas or structures of thinking that can be taken out of its context and "applied" (is there any use of that world that is not corrupt?). Obviously very few of these theologians would agree with this image of theology, because paradoxically, that would be a extremely "conservative" view of theology, and the theologies I am now talking about usually thinks of themselves as progressive or even radical. So what is going on here?

What seems to be the motivation for this move is a wish to be relevant in a larger sphere of society than academia or church. This in itself is commendable, but there are a number of possible preconceptions that seem to be at work here that are problematic.

First, there seems to be an idea of the church as either isolated or insignificant, or both. To be relevant one has to engage with the secular, and then on secular terms, that is to bring in isolated ideas without connection to the messy religious stuff. Like, "See you can view nature as creation, with all the nice possibilities that opens up, without really having to think about God", which is obvious nonsense. So, instead of being relevant, you end up being incoherent or just confused.

Further, is not this an essentially market-based view of the world? Theology is then the production of marketable "ideas" as semi-products, competing in a imaginary marketplace of ideas. This is especially ironic if the "ideas" created are supposed to be a criticism of capitalism.

Ultimately this is a view of theology that presupposes that theology in fact is not "relevant" and thus has to become something else to be that. I wonder if one can say anything with some kind of importance if one starts by believing that one in fact cannot. Yet this seems to be the logic behind this kind of reasoning.

This brings me to the kind of theology that I do like. This would be the kind that instead of "exporting" ideas from theology to the outside, incorporates the world into theology. (see that I tried to continue with the market metaphor and say "import" but it would not fit). Now this is exactly what Tillich did, but I have to say that the ones that understand themselves to stand in some tradition from Tillich today are very often doing theology of the other kind. However, theologians that do theology more or less consciously against that tradition (Hauerwas, Milbank) end up doing what he did.

1 comment:

syksy said...

You wrote of the use of word "resource" in combination with a motivation for this move which is "a wish to be relevant in a larger sphere of society than academia or church."

Supposing you're right: the "relevant" discourse in the larger sphere of society would then be the economic, and key word to incarnate (my idiom for "import" :-) market thinking in theology would be the word "resource".

It seems like a credible description, and in that case it is done in a slight and friendly way, as has happened in our society otherwise: I'm thinking about the company personnel as a "resource" in the speeches of the company runners, for example. In a similar way the nature is seen as a resource, and the voluntary work done by the third sector.

Nobody would refer to the death of Christ as a "wonderful resource" yet (or does somebody??), but the pure thought, or the way I'm shaken by it anyway, reveals how much is lost as the seemingly positive content of the word is adopted. The Lost Something has an existential depth. It displaces man as the "manager", to continue the economic metaphor. But it also deletes the logic of the game of costs, benefits and manageable placements.

It looks like I'm ready to agree that it is a risk to talk about theology as a resource!