Why Theology?: Reflections on an Existential-Academic Crisis

Friends of mine who have been subjected to a deluge of my depressive emoting will already be familiar with my current existential-academic crisis: I no longer know why my current research project gives any credence to theology as such. It is important that my point is clear here, for I do not mean that I know how the position, as some philosophers do, that theology is pointless in and of itself or that we must finally free ourselves of theological presuppositions in order to create a truly adequate and emancipatory mode of thought. That said, I never began my research with the intention of doing theology, meaning my work is not a matter of dogmatic, systematic, historical, or any other kind of theology. Obviously my MA is in philosophical theology, but it has never been clear to me what that would actually mean in the context of the program I’m in. For some members of staff it means something akin to apologetics or working out the philosophical kinks to make way for theological dogmatics. I tried to approach it as akin to something like a transcendental empiricism of the phenomena of theology, but then ended up writing an MA thesis on the metaphysics and ethics of environmental restoration through the philosophies of Bergson and Deleuze/Guattari! Certainly not a recognizable form of philosophical theology. (I’m digressing already. Try to focus.)

My current project began with the intuition that what could be called “ecological reason” (used in considering questions of relationality, the being of nature, environmental ethics, etc.) has its roots in both philosophical and theological debates concerning matters of religion (what is the status of creation in relation to the Creator) and nature (what is the status of the being of nature? what constitutes nature? is it self-causing?). Thus I undertook the task of a series of perverse readings of related figures (Aquinas/Spinoza, Bulgakov/Schelling, Bergson/de Chardin, Whitehead/Bergson, etc.) where I’d treat my own work as an ecosystem of thought where I’d introduce these divergent thinkers as organisms forced to interact with one another. My job was to facilitate these artificial ecosystems (which is not to call them unnatural) in an attempt to curtail the invasiveness of one species over the other, while, of course, recognizing that my own facilitating was another aspect of the ecosystem as a whole. The end goal would be something like a critique of ecological reason using a (always towards) meta-ecosophia.

All of this requires a great deal of investment in theological debates far removed from my own immediate topic. It seems that is the only way to be truly fair to the theological sources and can I really understand Aquinas without understanding the debates surrounding his dogmatics? Yet, as I went to a theology department seeking asylum to complete such a strange project, I’ve found that I’ve been sucked into a whole world of theology that is not only interesting to me, but seemingly insane! A rather uncomfortable position for someone like myself to be in, as giving quarter to the positions of one Dick Dawkins is quite distasteful to me. The problem seems to be, whereas I began with the idea of giving theology an inch it then demanded of me not just a mile, but a pound of flesh.

Whenever one is faced with such a demand they are surely to ask themselves what the fuck they got themselves into. Theology is one of those weird academic disciplines where you constantly have to prove that you’re not just an academic. Theologians are supposed to do theology for the the Church despite the fact that, as near as I can tell anyway, “the Church” doesn’t really give a fuck what theology does. When philosophers get so uppity as to think their work has any actual social or political relevance they are generally derided in the public sphere. My own work is quite consciously not for “the Church” or, perhaps, any determinate group of people other than those who are thinking and considering similar problems. Of course I have strong political commitments and live them out as best as I can and my own work is directed to a large degree by those commitments. I would hope it may even be helpful for people when they consider how to live a more gracious life upon this earth, but obviously less technical and more emotive groups will have greater efficacy in saving the planet than another book. But, yeah, back to theology. Frankly, or so it seems, I’m not really all that interested in my supposed Christianity. In some ways I’m a Christian by default, in so far as I am religious, rather than by ascent, meaning there is little interest in re-Christianizing Europe (My God!) or defending the faith. If the whole became Sweden maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, perhaps it would even be good.

So, I suppose this is a fine place to conclude, in so far as I have developed a real aversion to theology as such, why should I consider it? Seriously, that’s a question.

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13 Responses to “Why Theology?: Reflections on an Existential-Academic Crisis”

  1. Taylor Adkins Says:

    Isn’t it obvious with your translation interest in le Christ Futur that you are not at all interested in theology, but non-theology/non-religion?

    In other words, you seem to have gotten to the point where all theological decisions have become equivalent in terms of your theoretical struggles.

    However, it would be more than easy enough to say that Laruelle could fix all your problems. But maybe he can reinvigorate your childlike wonder for a discipline that seems to have been rubbing you the wrong way for a time.

    All the best,

    Taylor

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Taylor, yes that is certainly true and I would like to carry out that project after my current work on ecological reason. Clearly my early interest in a transcendental empiricism of theology and religion was revitalized and given direction by my reading of Laruelle.

  3. discard Says:

    I’d say you’re interested in “nature,” and some Christian theologians have had some things to say about nature, but that’s it for theology. Theology’s interesting solely in virtue of the question of nature (and of ecology as a way of thinking nature, etc). And not to worry about the rest.

    If a theologian wants to be for the church, that’s fine, but the for-the-church part has got to be an accident of their thought. That is, if the theology can’t stand on its own, then it doesn’t matter who it’s for. In short, those who defend their theology (or critcize another’s) regarding whether it helps the church, if this is the essential point, then they are sort of like glorified youth-group people.

  4. discard Says:

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that … heh heh.

  5. Brad Says:

    You and I attend to different angles on a very similar realm of thought, so I can relate to your anxiety. I go back and forth about whether I can accurately call my interest “theological.” I can make the case that my take on aesthetics attends to theology, and vice versa, in very interesting, and perhaps even helpful ways — but, interesting / helpful to whom? Thus far, I can’t really say. I hope you meet with more success doing so than I.

  6. Alex Says:

    I think you have adequately explained in this post the shape of your research project, why it is interesting, why it should involve theology to some extent (ie in questions pertaining to nature, which has, in the West, been very much thought in relation to what is not nature ie the supernatural etc, the whole bit where you explained where the whole debate has its roots in the relation of Creator to Creation, which is, of course, true).

    Now, I’m with Discard on this. Look at what theology has to say about nature, think about how it links up to the rest of it as discourse, but don’t worry about being bogged down in debates about it that link too much to other stuff. Your current crisis is in part something all academics have to experience when attempting a research project, the constant wondering ‘how long should I spend on looking into this whole other realm of stuff’ – at every point in a project one could spiral off into looking in extereme detail into something that isn’t neccesary for the thrust, but is within the subjects you are looking into. For example, right now, I might have to seriously learn quite a bit about Austrian economics (Hayek was one, much neoliberalism is). Obviously people spend their entire life thinking about this, and there are numerous historical and economic debates within it – but I have just to not get bogged down, learn a little bit and move on.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Calculating how much time to spend on “rabbit hole” topics relevant yet not central to your present project is, to my mind, largely a practical matter: on the one hand, you have to balance the need to actually finish your project against your fear of being called out on some kind of error or omission. To me, the ideal balance will be to do enough “side” research that non-experts will be impressed and experts who criticize you will look like petty assholes.

  8. Andrew Says:

    You wrote:
    Theologians are supposed to do theology for the the Church despite the fact that, as near as I can tell anyway, “the Church” doesn’t really give a fuck what theology does.

    The only place granted by society to academics is the academy. Now imagine a four hour Academy Awards ceremony with hosting by Billy Crystal or Chris Rock.

  9. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you mean.

  10. The Necromancer Says:

    As some of the comments here already suggest, what you are dealing with is more a question of spirituality than theology. In the context of the Western tradition, that is, admittedly, a kind of ahistorical rhetorical device. But perhaps not — I found your blog looking for other posts about “vitalism”. Maybe that’s the crux (well, if you’re dealing with folks like Bergson, Whitehead and de Chardin this seems fairly obvious…). My thesis came out of the history of medicine and science universe and was envisioned as something of “a natural history of the soul”. I certainly see an essential tension between medicine and religion (perhaps a variation on your term “nature”?) Maybe the struggle with theology as a discipline is really a question of framing. Unless you plan to become a Jesuit, I don’t think all the neo-Thomist mumbo-jumbo even needs to be foregrounded.

    Then again, I always had a soft spot for St. Francis.

    You ever read Lynn White, the historian of technology? Some good ideas in that stuff…

  11. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Necromancer

    Yes, I hear you on Francis. And I have read White’s famous essay, but that’s it. Would be interested to hear more about your project though. Feel free to email me if you’d like to share (anthonypaul.smith(at)gmail.com).

    All,

    I find it interesting that no one tried to defend having to consider theology to me. Nothing else to say yet about that, just interesting.

  12. Nate Says:

    hi Anthony,
    I don’t know what to say about theology, but I’m sorry you’re having this difficulty. In my second year of a comp lit and cultural studies phd program, one focused entirely on theory, I decided I wasn’t sufficiently interested to stay in anymore. But I have no job skills and I moved my whole life (and my wife’s whole life) to Minneapolis, cutting the ties we had elsewhere, so dropping out didn’t feel like an option. That program had an analogous relationship to what you describe re: theology and the church – an injunction to make faux marxism type gestures without any real content. I decided to stay in thinking “this is my best option for a job in the short term.” I ended up changing departments to a program in history (which is great for me but not what I’d recommend – changing degree tracks slowed me down a lot and is stressful).

    Sorry to ramble on about me, I’m a bit drunk. Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is two things. Again, sorry you’re having these difficulties, I know how rough they can be. And, seconding Adam, think of this stuff pragmatically to the best of your ability. A job as much as or more than a vocation, and a relatively livable lifestyle for those of us who love books. From that point of view, making your project fit academically is something to worry about as a hoop to jump through more than a real intellectual problem.

    xox,
    Nate

  13. Andy Says:

    This has been bothering me for the past couple weeks, not least because I am for sure one of the people who unashamedly do theology (and whatever else I think about) for the church. Your post gave me pause: surely the love of truth should drive thought? I have two comments before I go back to soul-searching.

    Firstly, we have to remember that not reflecting on what directs our research may easily lead us into being driven by others, not least the temptation to philosophical fashing and dominating personalities in the research field. So direction by the church is better than being led by fashion or claiming to be led by the Spirit.

    Secondly, I really don’t know what other people mean by doing theology for the church. What I mean is that I regularly ask members of the church (and priests) what they think I should be researching, what questions I should be finding an answer to. That then gives them a reason to read: they have “ordered” my book already (if I ever get around to writing one). But I suspect there are not many who do this.


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