Theology and academia

I’ve had more free time than usual this week. But, as my previous post suggests, I’ve spent a lot of it with a controller in hand. It’s shameful, I know, that I’m not studying Koine Greek declensions, but hey, even I need some downtime.

Anyway, there was a post a little while ago by Michael Peppard at the dotCommonweal blog* that I’ve been meaning to comment on. The thrust of his post is that there isn’t much conservative academic theology for the same reason that there isn’t much conservative academic whatever in general:

For better or worse, I do not think most academic theologians in current conditions regard their primary job to be the reception of doctrine as a “deposit” or “gift” and the transmission of it to the next generation. At a research university especially, transmitting received knowledge may be a function of introductory classes, but the rest of one’s job description (upper-level classes; graduate education; publishing) lies elsewhere. That is to say, academic theology shares a similar model for research as the rest of the university: one must consistently produce new knowledge about the world; the process of double-blind peer review is the gold standard; notions of scientific repeatability in analysis are also applied to the “data” of theology and religion. Theology as done in the university is usually investigative, exploratory, and boundary-pushing. If a pre-tenure professor does not have those qualities to some significant degree, the chances of tenure and promotion are low. One might criticize here that I’m describing the modus operandi only of the “R1” universities, but those departments are the primary source of the Ph.D.’s who populate smaller colleges and thus spread the research culture.

While many of the heavy hitting theologians – the Cappadocian Fathers and Thomas Aquinas, for instance – pushed the envelope in terms of the language and philosophical apparatus they spoke with, they understood themselves as defending or explicating the faith that had been handed on to them. Nowadays, that attitude is going to find an easier place to thrive in the seminary than in the university.

A commenter on Dreher’s blog (where I got the link from) makes a worthwhile point, or rather two points:

Peppard argues that it helps to make it in academia if you are willing to question assumptions and this is a turnoff for conservatives. I disagree. Most of what theologians/religious studies profs do is Kuhnian normal science, and that requires a deep acceptance of the rules of the game common to all scholars in the field. I wonder (from the outside) if the problem for conservatives is their unwillingness to completely suspend their belief in divine inspiration of scripture? That is, the deracination of religious practice may not appeal to someone with a reasonably active spiritual life. It’s like going through an art museum with sunglasses on. But for some reason liberals seem to find that more manageable than do conservatives.

I wish we would take more seriously a conservatory model of higher ed. We do receive a deposit from previous generations, whether that was Acts, Augustine, Aquinas, or Adam Smith. We could teach students to understand these works the way conservatory profs teach students to understand Beethoven. The rewards for ensuring that this knowledge is preserved for future generations are nil in R1 universities. “Boundary-pushing” as Peppard writes, is really just normal science, and the cost of that time spent researching is the inability to transmit the riches of our tradition. I’m glad at my college students do get introduced to that.

The difference between Catholic theology and [insert discipline of choice here] isn’t a matter of dogmatism vs. scepticism; it’s more a matter of different sets of rules, with what is traditionally understood as theology being acutely incommensurable with a lot of the modern rule-sets. There is a reason why the people historically referred to by the Church as doctors or theologians tend to also be canonized saints. Theology is a particular intellectual practice within the spiritual life, and is inseparable from an individual’s prayer life, etc. The closest parallel is the study of music, which tends to be an extension of one’s own musical life.

I am still not sure exactly where I want to fit in. Since I currently have no pretensions to the priesthood or to some other sort of ministry in the Church, it is an open question as to what, exactly, my theological education at seminary is preparing me for. Part of me does want to just take it as personal ‘equipment’ and then go on to something else – whether doctoral work in English or Philosophy or just finding a more practical career altogether. Or perhaps I will find myself teaching Biblical Theology down the line…

About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in Catholicism, fragments of culture, higher education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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