Sunday, January 16, 2011

David Brooks on the Atrophy of Theology Today: A Matter of Perspective

I'm not surprised to see a number of leading figures of the American Catholic intellectual center celebrating David Brooks' recent observation that our culture has a hole in it caused by the atrophy of philosophy and theology.  My centrist brothers and sisters seem unable to understand that what Brooks persistently decries, as he decries the loss of theology in our culture, is the very backbone of theology in the Catholic church following Vatican II, and of similar strong movements in all the Christian churches in the same period: the attempt to connect the dots between abstract theological ideas and the lived experience of human beings, an attempt at dot-connecting that tries to make sense of the truth claims of religious groups by examining the effect of those truth claims on the real lives of real human beings.

And, in particular, real human beings living on the social margins throughout the world.  Whose very existence creates a profound challenge for any theology that seeks to define God as love.  It's always safe to talk about love in the abstract, and that's where the political and theological center firmly intends for that theological discussion to be confined.  But the moment we grant that Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic, or any other) doctrinal language about love makes sense only against the backdrop of the real human lives that we claim God has willed into existence and which God loves unreservedly and without distinctions as to social class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else, we have a problem on our hands.

How to talk about love in a world in which many people experience precisely the opposite of being loved?  By God or anyone else?  And how to talk about love within faith communities that keep nattering on about God's loving embrace of everyone when they have no intent at all of making the all-inclusive loving embrace  of God real in their concrete decisions, actions, and behaviors, or in the life of their communities of worship?

David Brooks' observation that theology is atrophied in our culture today is a slam at the central thrust running through much of Christian theology today, which maintains that we cannot do theology adequately without connecting doctrinal truth claims to the lived experience of human beings, and, in particular, to the lived experience of human beings on the margins of societies around the world.  "Atrophied" theology commits the unforgivable sin of vulgarizing ideas, by distastefully proposing that we talk about the effect of ideas outside the polite chambers of our colleges and beltway think-tanks.  And above all, by measuring the truth of what we say about love or justice against the lives of those affected by our rhetoric about these matters.

Or perhaps Catholic centrists who applaud Brooks for decrying the atrophy of theology in our contemporary  culture understand his point very well, and they are--precisely--applauding his highly selective and denatured reading of Niebuhr, which repudiates the social gospel foundations out of which Niebuhr's Christian realism moves and develops his theology of sin and social realism.  Perhaps Catholic centrists applaud Brooks' debased Niebuhrian theology because it undercuts the movement to social analysis (and the appeal to social justice) that run through Niebuhr's theology from the social gospel tradition he both critiques and presupposes as foundational.  

A social gospel tradition that remains a dangerous memory in American culture, because--as Martin Luther King, Jr., who read social gospel theology and employed it in his movement for social transformation, demonstrates--it always has the potential to make what ministers and priests talk about from the pulpit on Sunday real in some troubling, unexpected way in the world in which we live.  And making the church and what it proclaims real, in real lives, may not be what many centrists have in mind at all, as they talk about the truth claims of religious groups.  Or God.  Or love.  Or communion, church, and so forth.

And far from having atrophied in contemporary culture, theology remains strong and vibrant, if we know where to find good theology.  For anyone who wants to read a recent first-rate, provocative, profoundly disturbing (and that's what all bona fide theology should do to us) theological essay, I recommend Mary Condren's essay last week in the Irish Times, discussing how the official theology employed by the Catholic magisterium meshes suffering, knowledge, and power in a way that makes much Catholic theological rhetoric about love a "poison container" hiding and transmitting violence (and excusing violence of the powerful against the weak).

Mary Condren is an Irish theologian.  I've recommended her powerful work before.  Along with many other women who are doing theology in the Catholic tradition today, Condren recognizes that

[e]nlightened theologians examine theologies not only for their internal logic or truth status but also for the effects of truth: the healthiness or otherwise of theological stories.

And so theologians today have no choice except to engage traditional theology, insofar as it legitimates, excuses, even glorifies violence, particularly the violence of the powerful against the weak, and insofar as it seeks to cover over much of the violence in our world with a glossy rhetoric of love--e.g., rhetoric about an all-loving Father who demands the blood of His Son because, well, He loves us so much that He wills the sacrifice of His Son to redeem us.  Condren follows the statement I have just cited above with the following:  

They [i.e., enlightened theologians] urge that we develop theologies of redemptive love rather than redemptive violence, especially in the light of the legacies of child abuse and religiously inspired political violence.

In my view, as long as theologians are writing theology like Mary Condren's--illuminating, troubling, faithful to the best instincts of a tradition while engaging that tradition critically from the vantage point of contemporary experience--theology isn't atrophying at all.  Though some of us may judge that it is, if we do not promote that engagement of the tradition and the surrounding culture by theologians who read our traditions and the world in which we live through the eyes of those living on the margins of church and society.

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