With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Academic Theology

What exactly should the role of theology be in academia? In the modern world, the two disciplines almost seem to be at odds with one another. Even if we recognize that the most proper form of theology is doxology, that loving, prayerful response to one’s encounters with God, the practice of theology as a scientific discipline (as St Thomas Aquinas calls it) requires the theologian to study and investigate not just their own experiences of God, but what has been experienced and taught by others, especially the movement of the Holy Spirit working in the Church throughout history. They need to know what it is the Church proclaims; they need to know not just the words, but the intent and meaning behind her dogmas. They must understand that the way we define words changes from age to age. Thus, they must be made capable of properly reading creedal statements and interpreting them so that they make sense to the people who live in their own day and age. To do this, they must look into the sources of Christian doctrine. They must discern how and why different doctrinal positions developed, because this will reveal what a specific doctrine was meant to teach, and what it did not teach.. But there should be a purpose in all of this. Theologians are not meant to be curiosity seekers, looking for interesting facts to display; they are looking to understand their own relationship with God, and finding a way to bring that understanding to the community, for the good of the community and not for any individual glory. Their investigation should be to build up the faith, not to destroy it. They should seek to overcome confusion, not to add to it.

Academia, however, has a different intent. While once it was a pursuit of truth, now it is a pursuit of glory. Academia desires new ideas, new thoughts, and new traditions to argue over, to contend with, so that its practitioners can easily find an outlet for their writings. Academics are expected to publish, and their publications are expected to be new, improved analyses, overturning the way people used to understand their respective academic disciplines. It seeks to investigate, just as a theologian does, but for a different reason than a theologian would. It seeks to deconstruct the past as a means of overcoming its influence, so that the academic’s position can be accepted as the new norm to be followed. That is, if they have a position – many times, there is no reconstruction, there is merely a deconstruction; it is easier to cause doubt, to bring fire to the ideas of the past, than it is to rise out of the ashes, a phoenix.

When one combines the art of theology with modern academia, it is quite understandable why this new discipline, academic theology, is often a nihilistic wreck destroying the faith of its practitioners and its readers. There are many bright lights in the field, showing that the field itself is not without merit. Indeed, when it is done properly, it is a rather important endeavor and those who do it properly should be thanked for the contributions they have given to the world. But there are far more dim lights, far more black holes trying to snuff out whatever light that still exists, than there are these bright lights, and as time goes by, fewer and fewer bright lights seem to be born in the field. This could change in the future, and let us pray toGod this happens. But currently, as one who engages the discipline, I find the field to be in utter shambles, and there are many reasons for this.

First, the field follows the academic discipline in trying to deconstruct the past. Let me state that I agree with this, as far as it goes. We need to understand the past, and with it, we need to understand where our theological teachings come from, including the presumptions which helped shape their proclamation. But academics often feel, once you deconstruct the past, and show that a given teaching developed only as a result of a specific historical situation, you then remove all value of the teaching itself. This kind of historical criticism has led many theologians to doubt their faith, and when this study is not brought back to some sort of positive affirmation of the faith (as, sadly, is most often the case), it is not surprising that these studies end up destroying the faith of those who read them and those who make them. Of course, the academic, though they should know better, has fallen for a rather peculiar form of ad hominem. While it might be true that a given teaching arose out of certain circumstances, and those circumstances might not have been ideal, those circumstances alone do not determine the truth or falsehood of that teaching. The moral character of a teacher does not entirely determine the accuracy of their teachings; nor does the fact that a teacher gave inaccurate justification for a teaching mean that teaching is necessarily wrong.

Secondly, the field follows academic discipline in trying to offer new, innovative insights to justify its existence. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, because we would expect development of Christian doctrine as history moves closer to the eschaton. But the problem is that academic theology engages deconstruction of the past in order to justify new, and often farfetched, views. One needs to only look to the Jesus Seminar to see this at work. Its participants first seek to destroy the past, to destroy the way Christianity views Jesus, then it seeks to offer new, sensationalistic declarations on Jesus as a way to justify its existence. They realize (unlike some) it is not just a deconstruction of the past that is necessary. They realize that people need to come out feeling they gained something after reading the studies of the Seminar, and in this respect, they are right. But, for them, the pursuit they hold is that of the glorification of their own ego, and their right to that glory comes from the fact that they have published the newest, most absurd views on Jesus yet. Probably the only reason why they did not ask Dan Brown to be a member is that they at least hold some intellectual integrity, and require their participants to at least have a working knowledge of Biblical languages.

Thirdly, it seems that many people who engage in the field of academic theology at one time were people of faith, but after having their faith battered by the assault of modern academic deconstruction of the faith, they have lost whatever faith they once held, while remaining active in the discipline. They have nowhere else to go. So they just become historians looking at the past, with no belief, no hope to share with others. This creates a continuous, downward cycle in the field itself; all that is taught leads to the same faith-destroying conclusion one generation after the next. There is no understanding of how to take these new facts and interpret them in more fulfilling manners, because there is no faith left by the professor to impart to their students. Those few who continue to hold onto their faith do so with great difficulty, limping through their studies. It comes to no surprise that this has affected Patristic studies the most. Where once there was a lively theological contribution from the discipline, we find now it has become a discipline which seeks to destroy the ideas and reputations of the Fathers.

Fourth, because those who hold positions of power in the discipline no longer hold to any faith themselves, they discourage students from making the leap from historical analysis to any positive theological proclamation. They do this many ways. First, they will tell their students that their opinions do not matter; they are just students, after all. They must prove themselves in the discipline, in the activity that the professors find relevant (which, of course, is not theology proper). “Only when you have shown yourself capable of understanding all that we can teach you, after showing you accept all our deconstruction for a lifetime, you are permitted, when you are on top, to make your own theological declarations for us to hear.” Dissertations are to be done in this pattern – they are to be academic, not theological. This is the attitude of many (thankfully not all!) in the field. Imagine how different the history of theology would have been if this practice had been enforced in times past: how many theologians who died at a young age, such as Blessed Duns Scotus, would never have written any significant theological treatises? Imagine if St Pavel Florensky had been told not to write his theological masterpiece, The Pillar and Ground of The Truth because it was a proclamation of theological faith more than it was a study of the past?

Fifth, for those who still hold some faith, they do go to the other extreme – their problem is not a problem of deconstruction, but how they reconstruct the faith. Since academic theology follows the academic pursuit of newness, those who hold faith seek to justify their credentials by creating new, and often perverse, interpretations of the faith. At least they have faith, but what they have faith in – is hard to tell, and difficult to know if it is still Christian. But they are to be complimented, because in their struggles, they hold on, and have not found their faith to be entirely destroyed. There are many new areas of theological discipline where this is taking place, for example, in political theology, in ecumenical theology, and in my personal favorite, comparative (interfaith) theology. Yet, because what they create is usually a pure innovation, their idea holds very little weight, and is easily forgotten; the glory of an innovator is short and sweet, before a bitter fall from grace. In the end, their students will either have their faith shattered when their teacher and guide falls from grace, or they will seek to replace their teacher in a rather evolutionary fashion, waiting for their own short moment of glory.

It comes to no surprise that some of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, for example C.S. Lewis and Hans Urs von Balthasar, were not academic theologians, but people who held such a great faith, they had to proclaim it. C.S. Lewis, for example, might not have wanted himself viewed as a theologian because he was not capable of offering all the deconstructive analysis of the past, nor because he did not show all the intellectual sleight of hand that makes one seem to be a great theologian, yet he is, far more than most, a theologian in the truest sense. His writings are popular because they offer honest, yet insightful, declarations of his faith. He was willing, even, to accept his role as being a non-theologian, and to learn from the analysis of so-called theologians, but he did so in the true form: he analyzed the results, and used them to form some positive assessment of the faith. Hans Urs von Balthasar is an odd case. He could have been an academic theologian. He engaged all of its disciplines, but he never wanted to be a part of it. Even when he acted as a member of the International Theological Commission, he never called himself a theologian. He wrote out of faith, and wrote to promote it; he moved beyond the academic pursuit and turned his writings into a pursuit for truth, even if that truth is as old as the Church herself.

Those who actively seek to be academic theologians must look to the example, not of their peers, but of the theologians of the past; they must look to them as the proper example of what it means to be a theologian. We must not think our field is about debate on subtle points of history. If we are called to be a theologian, we must remember that as an academic theologian we are called to be a theologian first. We should be a theologian even more than being an academic. The training and discipline of academia is good, useful, and even needed, but it should be the form in which the practice of theology is engaged, instead of the means by which theology as a discipline self-destructs.

Labels: ,


  • At 2/14/2007 11:13 AM, Blogger Eric said…

    problems with your dissertation? advisor? colleagues?

  • At 2/14/2007 12:49 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Actually, my advisor is great, the readers of my dissertation are great (and I would say, I am proud to have them working with me on it), but this problem has been something I have felt for several years. I am not the only one who has seen and experienced this, but I think I am more sensitive to it, because of my own interests and the kind of work they require.

    As an example, I think one should just read theological journals and discern what is being done in them, what is being said in them. Is there any journal one can submit theological reflections to? Not really -- one submits to journals varies studies one undertakes, and usually this means, looking to what theologians of the past have said, putting them in the context of their day and age, and ending with a discussion of how great they were or how awful they were. I think there needs to be journals which will take theological reflections as well -- certainly they have to show competency in the material, but that is a different issue from whether or not true theological contributions are being done. To many professors, such contributions are done when one reveals a new way to understand what others wrote, not a better way of addressing the faith in our contempoary situation.

    I know, behind the scenes, some problems that the school had hiring new colleagues. When they did an intensive search for a patristic theologian, no one they found actually did theology; they just studied the past, offering criticisms of those who have gone before them, but did not engage those results as a way to help contemporary Christians grasp the faith in a better, more heart-felt manner. Indeed, it is well known here that one of our patristic scholars here, while a genius and so respectable in that regard, does not hold much if any faith, and tends to follow such deconstruction in in all her courses, including clases where she is teaching seminarians.

    I admit, I would rather be doing some actual theology than a study for my dissertation. I am struggling to make it so that it ends up being more than just a study, and I think I will; but I know the attitude of others in the department, and it is far wider than one might expect.

    Xavier, I believe, encouraged me in doing theology, and I think this was because the program did not seek to produce academics.

    So, I would say I have had some great professors at CUA, the attitude behind the system is far different, and far less theological; it reflects, in my opinion, how academia rejects the theological discipline.

  • At 2/16/2007 6:51 AM, Blogger Antonio449 said…

    This search for passing glory instead of truth is a specter across Academy I suspect.
    I study Spanish, right, so let's say I have a different tac on a certain construction in the language and its history. Well that's all very well and good. But if taken to extremes, when we take our means as an ends then everything is rendered meaningless.
    And "Oh, Vanity of vanities!" I say in my heart. Living a life puffed up and chasing after wind kills the soul and wounds human dignity.
    We must return to Wisdom instead of Knowledge which is mere technique and manipulation. If you cleave to wisdom, which is achieved in contemplation, mere knowledge will be added to you.
    As human beings the one thing we cannot do without is meaning. We hunger for it beyond all else.
    "All men desire to know", yes because all men seek the Divine Wisdom which is God's Word in the flesh, Jesus Christ.
    Everything else is secondary.

  • At 2/16/2007 7:09 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    That is all so true -- this pursuit of glory is what academia has become. Not all professors engage in it, and some really distant themselves as much from it as possible. But the kind of academia which makes news, the kind which gets the fame, is sensationalistic research aimed at overturning the past.

    As I said, there is a lot of great work done in academia; and originally, it was meant to be an aid in the pursuit of truth. Early on (in the Middle Ages) this slowly changed, but not to the extremes we see today. And while it is more or less understandable, when it comes into the theological discipline, that's where things really go amuck.

    I agree with you that we must seek wisdom, and transcend ourselves, die to ourselves, even to what we know in order to attain it; however, if the university was at least about the pursuit of knowledge in the positive sense, and theology engaged this, it would be a tool for wisdom.

    As it is, most of academia seems to me to be a true praise of folly....

  • At 2/16/2007 10:59 AM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…

    Thanks for the sage advice, Henry. Especially for one looking down the line to grad school. What's somewhat reassuring is that my best professors have warned me of such negative currents. If only theology were more often done from the knees, or similarly, at the foot of the cross...

  • At 2/17/2007 4:00 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Well, I would always recommend the field to those who find themselves drawn to it, but they must realize the difficulties within it. These difficulties have been in the field since the formation of academia (look to St Bonaventure and his growing dislike for what he saw was going on in his lifetime); but I believe things have turned far worse in todays' "publish or perish" age of academia.

    As for me, I do what they expect and then try to find time to do more in other places-- certainly the blog was created to allow theological reflection outside of academia -- to supply an internal need and a need I believed others have. Sometimes, as probably is obvious, the reflections I write are done rather quickly, but they allow me to put to voice some of my own thoughts, not having to worry about the various agendas I find in academic circles.

    As a side note, I'm planning on taking a few of my favorite blog writings, edit them (making the notes as footnotes, and adding footnotes to reflect the discussions we have had on here) and see if I can convince a publisher to put out a small book of essays. In order to do it, I plan to have a few which were not put online as well -- so they will feel there is something new being offered as well.

    If things work out (I do not know if they will) I might suggest this is something others might want to consider as well. Or something we can do as a group effort.

  • At 2/18/2007 11:30 PM, Blogger A.K. Schwarz said…


    It's good to be back to the blog finally. After a summary read: This is a great and necessary reflection. I believe the concerns you voice can be linked to the same concerns addressed or at least alluded to in Pope John Paul II's Ex Corde Ecclesia. The question of theology in academia deserves more pressing examination and certainly at least more personal reflection by those "in the field." Aspiring students of theology would do well to find mentors that will help form them in the proper "doing" of theology. I guess the real struggle is that theology's beating heart is essentially ecclesial and not academic. When the stress falls on the academic, the very core of what theology is about becomes distorted. As a side note, it is easy as a student to become so concerned about the academic side--in light of various pressures to "succeed" or be "accepted"--that theology becomes merely a human work which relies on our own ingenuity and "creativity" rather than the prior and most fundamental "creativity" which is the Creator and Redeemer Himself.

  • At 2/19/2007 4:20 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Indeed, the blog has provided a great forum: a bastion for theologizing. I grateful for having the opportunity to mooch off of you guys. I've certainly failed to find an outlet for this kind of discussion amongst my peers. Publishing your posts sounds like a great idea.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 2/20/2007 7:47 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Great to see you signed back in!

    The only good news I can say for the study of theology is that it seems a generation of us all feel the same thing, and so this might bode well for the future (if we don't fall into the same or new traps as our mentors did).

  • At 3/06/2007 12:35 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Eric, Henry, Antonio, Pat, and Andy,

    This is why one of the greatest gifts an aspiring teacher of our faith, or any aspiring academic, can receive is a rejection from a scholarly peer journal...my life is full of such gifts.

    Of course, one could easily say that the complaint being issued here is a collective "whine" from those of us whose work simply doesn't cut it (speaking only for myself, of course). That may be so too, and a thought worthy of consideration.

    No matter, though, the truest feature of this, in my opinion can be summed up as follows: the gift of doing theology, which is a gift given to anyone who consciously reflects upon his or her following Christ (to the cross and beyond), and which embraces many levels (practical, academic, artistic etc.) is most truly done when it is done as an end in itself.
    In this way, theology corresponds most closely with beauty. It's beauty does not need to be forced into the limits of published consent and normativity, (though when one's theological beauty reaches a particular degree, it may merit the desire of certain groups and so may be published.)

    Rather, the measure of the beauty of one's theology shines in the way it enables one to be a better student, a better friend, a better husband or wife, a better father or mother, son, daughter, musician, artist, doctor, lawyer, etc.

  • At 5/06/2007 4:39 AM, Anonymous Carole said…

    Hi, I just wanted to say thanks for this post. I am at the moment waiting for approval (or not) of my research topic for dissertation. The atmosphere of my school is much as you describe, you put words on the rather overwhelming undercurrent that is present there but somehow so slippery to try to get hold of or describe. I sometimes wonder what I'm getting into and whether it will do more harm than good for my soul. I have fears, both that my topic will be rejected, and alternatively that it will be approved. I am going to keep a copy of your essay just to remind myself of what it's all about. Thanks again.

  • At 5/12/2007 12:08 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    It's a difficult time (I am still in that stage, though I'm far enough along through the proposal stage and have gone through enough levels to know it will be approved by the university), but it is even more difficult when one realizes what one has to do is not what one wants to do.

    The only answer I have is: find a way to have some of your interests in your dissertation, and then work on it as background for other essays and books you might want to write in the future. My dissertation is not exactly what I want to do, but it will give me enough material to do what I do want to do beyond it.


Post a Comment

<< Home