Why do theology?

This weekend, a lurker e-mailed asking why I do theology, given that I am not a traditional believer or pious person. It is a question that used to come up a lot here, back when we were more engaged with the theology blogosphere (during a time when it was itself more active, and on balance probably more conservative, than it currently is). The sticking point seemed to be my claim that I was doing theology, rather than simply doing scholarly work about theology.

I maintained, and still do, that there is no magic handshake called “belief” that allows one to engage in the intellectual game attached to the specific system of thought known as “Christian theology.” This is all the more the case given that Christian theology conceives of itself as addressing all of humanity — so why not take them at their word? Further, historically the boundaries between philosophy and theology have always been porous, so why should there be special restrictions on starting from within the “theological” aspect of that blended tradition of thought, while there are no qualifications attached to entering in through the “philosophical” side?

The very fact that this question, which to me fundamentally is a non-question or at least a boring question, keeps coming up seems to me to go back to a lot of tired cliches about the boundaries between the “secular” and the “religious.” I try to practice what Dan Barber or Anthony Paul Smith might call a “generic secularity” in my theological work, a secularity without secularism.

All that being said, I personally do theology because Christian theology is a system of thought in which I have invested a great deal and which has profoundly shaped my life (for good and for ill). It is the place where I feel most able to make a significant creative contribution, in contrast to closely related fields where I’ve invested considerable time, like philosophy or the theologies of other monotheistic religions.

For the near term, most of my work will be in a critical or genealogical rather than constructive vein, but I have done work that I take to be undeniably “constructive theology” (e.g., Politics of Redemption), and I reserve the right to do so again without warning or hesitation.

10 Responses to “Why do theology?”

  1. mikewc Says:

    Lurker here.

    I asked the question because I have what appears to be a pretty common intuition: that there is conflict between theology and (for lack of a better term) enlightenment reason, and the conflict is a zero sum game. Confession vs elimination. I also have the conflicting intuition that one can play in either sandbox without being under the authority of either. I’m just not sure how to articulate that second option to myself without it looking like dissemblance inside my head. The options in the email I sent were the best I can do.

    I appreciate the response. Food for thought.

  2. dbarber Says:

    For what it’s worth, mikewc, my proposal would be that theology and enlightenment are two sides of the same coin. Or, more precisely, that the continuity is greater than the discontinuity, and that the framing of the matter in terms of the latter serves to advance the former. Forgive the self-promotion, but attempts of mine in articulating this can be found (if you have interest), variously, at
    http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/act-criticism-secular
    https://www.academia.edu/4372089/On_Diaspora_Christianity_Religion_and_Secularity_Link_and_Reviews_
    https://www.academia.edu/4372096/Deleuze_and_the_Naming_of_God_Post-Secularism_and_the_Future_of_Immanence_Introduction_pdf_and_Link_
    and a paper from a panel called “Why Theology?” https://www.academia.edu/5281672/Why_Theology_pdf_

  3. dbarber Says:

    also, because the damnation of Christian theology is bound up with the anti-blackness of secular modernity; the theodicical orientation of the former is reconfigured, intensified, and exacerbated by the latter

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Have you ever noticed that it’s enlightenment reason that poses this zero-sum game between faith and reason while the religious traditions themselves basically never do (except for marginal movements reacting against enlightenment)?

  5. mikewc Says:

    Dan, the Gourgouris book looks great, and I’ll have to track it down.

    In my email to Adam, I proposed two basic reasons for why one would engage with theology: 1) the history of human desire is completely bound up with religion, so to work through desire/values/discourse/what have you, an engagement with theology is necessary, and 2) Political concepts are just as much bound up with religion (sovereignty, etc), so again, engagement is necessary. From reading the introduction to your Deleuze book, I get the impression you’d agree these options are viable ones, yes?

    Adam, I appreciate the point. It prompted me to remember my other sticking point: the distinction between theoretical and practical reason.

    On one side, there’s the question of what exists. On the other, there’s the question of why we behave and think as we do, and whether or not we can behave otherwise. The two sides are no doubt related – our ability to think about what exists is tied up with our historically situated behaviours. But the practical side has also always depended on the theoretical side – “God exists, therefore we should…” vs “God does not exist, therefore we should…”, and so on.

    Reason has thoroughly colonized the theoretical side; it seems that the detente that religion attempts with reason is an attempt to keep a seat at the theoretical table, to continue to be able to pronounce on what exists.

    So: to leave aside the question of what exists when it comes to theology is to focus entirely on the practical side of things. The history and nature of why we do what we do, and whether or not we can do otherwise. Theology continues to be necessary.

    But if the ability to pronounce on what exists is left entirely to reason, if faith no longer tells us God exists, then the we’ve got a choice: maintain a clear line between theoretical and practical reason, with religion on one side, or keep the link between them, and see reason continue its slow encroachment on the practical side as well.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You seem to have an agenda with regard to “reason” that I simply don’t share.

  7. Joe Calandrino Says:

    It is perfectly fine to commit theology from time to time; when done thoughtfully, it is a profoundly human endeavor. Theology is often a liminal game, and its limits are often shape-shifting; things get interesting when it interdigitates with other -ologies. I am particularly sympathetic to Adam’s commitment to a certain porosity anterior to the chiasm. Indeed, those moments of chiasm provide opportunities to release events. While I have little interest in culture wars and warriors, and place no faith in positivism and its outcomes, I happily confess my confessional Catholicism and a deep interest in what’s going on under the name of Christianity and other hard-hitting words like God and justice (and I should also confess that, while I have never been in his classroom, I am lately a student of John D. Caputo). I am currently grappling with just how his notions of weakness, insistence and event haunt the Catholic Tradition, even any theological gesture.

    I would also suggest that the kind of theology that interests me is one that denies that faith and reason compete in a zero-sum game. That game is a non-starter in any poststructuralist approach to theology. Such games must arbitrarily dismiss any kind of excess or uncontainability as so much nonsense (positivism’s strategy), and in so doing, close off horizons of the event. There is always a remainder in the kind of game being offered here. Recognizing such excess is one of the weak forces that makes theology possible.

  8. OTL Says:

    I’m confused a bit, so do you actually believe in God, that Jesus died for humanity’s sins and that heaven is real? I’m not trying to sound like a sarky new atheist or something but I’ve always wondered?

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My whole point is that that question does not (or at least should not) matter. I’m not propagandizing for any actual existing Christian organization if that’s what you’re asking.


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