The harm of abstract theologizing: some thoughts by Frederica Mathewes-Green

I wanted to share this post I stumbled upon earlier this week by Frederica Mathewes-Green entitled, “Final, I hope, thoughts on abstract theologizing: the Lamp.

These words speak to me, and I think there is much wisdom here. Here main intention is “to defend…the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.”

That’s more than radical than it may seem. It’s more than saying a prayer before launching into our theological musings or diatribes, more than morning devotions before exercising your mind. She is talking about an entire orientation–or perhaps reorientation–of the life of the mind.

Here are a couple of quotes that I think get at her point:

When theology is connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help (the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth,” John 16:13), it is like plugging a lamp into a socket. The circuit is made, and your mind—your receptive, perceptive mind, not the analytical one—is flooded with illumination.

But if no connection with God is sought, if it’s just you and your high IQ, you’re left with a lamp that may well be complicated or aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. And if you get too absorbed in studying the rivets that hold the lamp together, and arguing with other experts about the metal composition of the lamp, it can be actually detrimental to your mind. You can latch onto theological ideas that are, in fact, not accurate, and refuse to let them go. I think we’ve seen this a few times in church history.

The further point I tried to make, and maybe can’t express, is that focusing on philosophy/theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for “zinging” me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.

Mathewes-Green sees a shift from, let’s call it, a contemplative context for theology to a purely analytical/theoretical theology in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Some might demur categorizing Aquinas this way, though Mathewes-Green points out that, “…at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.”

***************

Frederica Mathewes-Green has published 9 books, including The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Paraclete, 2009), Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy (HarperCollins, 1997) and The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians (Paraclete, 2001). Her essays have appeared the Washington PostChristianity TodaySmithsonian, the Los Angeles TimesFirst ThingsBooks & CultureSojournersTouchstone, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), on Morning Edition and All Things Considered,  and, among many other things, was a consultant for Veggie Tales.

 

  • Tim Sams

    Thank you Pete for this. Over the last year, I’ve sought more regularly to do the daily office (morning, mid-day, and evening prayer, but mostly evening to be honest) and I’ve noticed how in worship one is required to sit with scripture under a different context. The results and thoughts about scripture have been really surprising to me, but also a blessing. I think that may be one part of what she’s talking about, but I’d like to pursue what she has in mind even more.

  • mhelbert

    Thanx for sharing her post. I think you’re spot on with your observation that “It’s more than saying a prayer before launching into our theological
    musings or diatribes, more than morning devotions before exercising your
    mind. She is talking about an entire orientation–or perhaps
    reorientation–of the life of the mind.” One thing that I sometimes rant about is how many scholars get their forensic boxers in a bunch over technical issues that are totally disconnected from any actual reality. A lifestyle of devotion and humility could make their scholarship far more transformative.

  • mark

    Mathewes-Green’s thoughts on this issue strike me as deeply ignorant, so it’s fitting that her closing “quote” is actually a misrepresentation:

    “…at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.”

    In fact, as is well known (but probably not to readers of this blog), what Aquinas actually said–upon abandoning his writing after the vision that came shortly before his death–was:

    A ll that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me.

    That “compared to” proviso, btw, fits in perfectly with Aquinas’ teaching about the nature of human knowledge in general and of theological and philosophical knowledge in particular. No one with a minimal familiarity with his thought should be surprised by those words. The difference is that, whereas previously Aquinas had an theoretical understanding of the limits of human knowledge, his vision gave him an experiential basis of comparison. This is not a principled denigration of theoretical inquiry, but a specifically experientially based comparison.

    Another legend reports that, in another vision, the voice of Christ said to Brother Thomas: “You have written well of Me, Thomas. What recompense for your work do you want from Me?” And he replied: “None other than You, Lord.”

    You can read about these reports–taking them for what they’re worth–at these locations:

    Thomas Aquinas’ Big Pile of Straw

    When St. Thomas Aquinas likened his work to straw, was that a retraction of what he wrote?

    The main point, however, bears repeating: these reports of Aquinas’ words are in complete accord with his teaching about the nature of human knowledge in general and of theological and philosophical knowledge in particular. In no way do they constitute a denigration of human reason.

    • Scott Eaton

      Mark, I appreciate your correction to the quote from Aquinas, but I believe you have missed the point of Mathewes-Green’s reflections and Pete’s post. There was nothing in this that denigrated human reason.

  • mark

    Prayer is no substitute for ignorance; in fact, to have any worth, prayer presupposes valid insight into reality. Theorizing that is disconnected from reality is not true theorizing, and those who are drawn into that trap of barren manipulation of concepts are often lacking in self knowledge. That is the insight that the stories about Aquinas are meant to convey: his saintly self knowledge, not any disdain for the intellectual life.

    G. K. Chesterton, a man with a deep insight into Aquinas’ thought, captured that well–and here I quote from Etienne Gilson’s great classic The Unity of Philosophical Experience:

    In one of his best novels [The Blue Cross], G. K. Chesterton introduces a very simple priest who finds out that a man, though clothed as a priest, is not a priest but a common thief; when the man asks him what made him sure that he was not a priest, Father Brown simply answers: ‘You attacked reason. It’s bad theology.’ (38-39)

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      I think Mark is on the money here (yes, I’m on the fence as to Theism nowadays, but lets put that aside). I’ve had contact with Orthodoxy through friends and acquaintances long enough to realize that what often appears as profundity is nothing more than mystical arm waving. Sure, they might present it beautifully, but in essence it is often (and I’m trying hard not to be condescending) a more ancient variety of liver-shivers and emotional manipulation, but instead of televangelists you have beautiful icons and a capella music and chants.

      The inherent anti-intellectualism, couple with obscurantist theological arguments (like trying to tease apart the inner workings of the Trinity – really), is actually quite attractive to the hard-thinking academic/intellectual looking for peace and quiet. But you might as well find it in a Zen garden or a Confucian wisdom tale.

      • mark

        If I may add my two cents …

        What you wrote re the Trinity struck a chord with me. Much of what troubles me these days about orthodox Christian theology has to do with the influence of Platonic style thinking throughout the history of Christian thinking. “Teasing apart the inner workings of the Trinity”–a doctrine I do believe–epitomizes in some ways that problem.

        Aquinas’ explanation of the analogy of being provides a principled theoretical basis for discerning the excesses of Platonic type thinking, which tends to view reality as disconnected abstractions. The analogy of being explains in a “reasonable” way why the human mind is able to come to grips with reality in a valid way–valid for our limited human nature–but cannot plumb the depths of reality–much less of theological mysteries. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t continue to seek to deepen our insights, it’s just to keep our efforts in “reasonable” perspective.

        These are problems that must be addressed with reason, not somehow against or in spite of reason–self defeating exercises, in any case.

  • James

    A necessary corrective difficult to swallow–whether we quote Aguinas right or not.

  • mark

    To James and Scott:

    Let me leave it at this: whatever value there is in what Mathewes-Green has to say–and I do believe the corrective was necessary–it has more to do with human nature and human ego in general. I think her attack on “abstract” thinking involves setting up a bit of a straw man–which is also Chesterton’s real point. We need to distinguish between intellectual approaches, appropriate applications of reason versus ratiocination that becomes disconnected from the reality we purport to be studying.

    There are plenty of non-academics who are also caught in the thrall of egoism, who may even use that egoism in a kind of reverse, defensive manner to attack academic style inquiry, e.g., ‘you think you’re so smart, well, you don’t have half the prayer life that I do! You’re “insights” are as straw compared to my spirituality!’ I see that approach in the comments here on an extremely regular basis. I hold no brief whatsoever for the academic style that Mathewes-Green attacks, but I think she goes overboard in seeming to attack “abstract” thinking as part of the problem, for which something else–prayer? spirituality?–is a corrective. I’m all for prayer, but if divorced from our God given powers of mind it’s of little use. There’s a balance to be maintained in all human endeavors, and that balance will be lacking without real insight into the nature of human being–and that insight comes through reason, whether exercised in “prayer” or in an academic setting.

  • mark

    Sorry, I’m having trouble letting this go:

    Here main intention is “to defend…the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.”

    She is talking about an entire orientation–or perhaps reorientation–of the life of the mind.

    Admittedly, I haven’t read Mathewes-Green’s piece in its entirety, but in what sense is theology part of the “life of the mind” if it’s “not [to be approached as] an objective science”? There’s a contradiction here.

    Again, what Mathewes-Green seems to be complaining about–to put the best light on it–is human egoism. But human egoism is, at bottom, a failure of reason, a failure to look at ourselves and our inevitable human limitations … objectively, in the light of cold hard reason.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      But human egoism is, at bottom, a failure of reason, a failure to look at ourselves and our inevitable human limitations … objectively, in the light of cold hard reason.

      Yes, yes, a million times yes. I’m going to quote this.

      • rvs

        “Cold hard reason.” Ah yes, a reference to Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. :)

  • John Stamps

    Theology is compelling if it feels like you’ve touched a live wire, where you realize you are playing high-stakes poker that makes a difference with your life. For that reason, the best theologians are usually not professionals, or God help us, academics, but the outsiders — Pascal, Kierkegaard, Simone Weil are my three favorites. All three have a sense of the high stakes involved when you’re dealing with God. Otherwise we’re just juggling concepts and we’re cheating ourselves. We’ve settled for second-best. And to be honest, a lot of theology is deadly dull. Why would anyone study theology if you don’t feel like you’re coming closer to God? Maps are useful but they are not the territory itself. The purpose of a map is so that we can embark on a journey and make sense of our lives. And why should I trust the map if I sense the mapmaker doesn’t know what he’s talking about? If the map doesn’t help you get further on your journey, chuck it and find a map from someone who knows the territory. St Augustine drives me crazy but he understands this point all too well: “Give me a man in love; he knows what I mean. give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry. Give me one far away in the desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man. He knows what I mean. but if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about.”

  • Derek

    I basically agree with the substance of what she is saying here and I don’t necessarily see it as conflicting with my Calvinistic theology nor our call to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the Saints.

    In other words, good post! =)

  • rvs

    The cult of objectivity has–for a long time–hampered theological inquiry. A “contemplative context” surely involves things like the personal, the subjective, tone, aura, heartfeltness, and so forth.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      There is a major difference between the use of Reason, and the “cult of objectivity”. A good investigator/researcher is at least aware of the presence of subjectivity in him-/herself.

      And what the devil is “aura”, at least in semi-objective terms?

  • Susan_G1

    Great post! I wonder how many theologians pray while they think, read, study, contemplate, and when they don’t know what to think, wait silently and humbly on an answer from God? If anyone thinks this approach is naive or even silly, then I submit you do not really understand her post. If you think, God doesn’t work that way, I wonder if you’ve really tried it.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      And the problem with that is that one is so easily deceived by ones own feelings. And whereas reason can be subjective, feeling is never objective.

      BTW, I’m not disparaging feeling as some sort of wannabe Vulcan. But I am suggesting that trusting feeling the way you suggest is very dangerous. One has to regulate the results of feeling or intuition or whatever with rational correlation. Otherwise this is no different than some oeyi-goeyi new agey liver shivers.

      PS: If you wonder about the strong feeling in my reply – I came out of fundamentalist sectarianism that encouraged the supremacy of feeling, and the degeneracy of Reason. The scars run deep…

      • Susan_G1

        Klasie, The answer you would get (if you got one) would be in keeping with the rest of Scripture and would bear fruit.

        Do Vulcans feel? I thought they suppressed that. Do they meditate? yes. And This is what I would say is needed in theological pursuit.

        • Klasie Kraalogies

          Susan, see Bryan’s comment from this morning. That is exactly the issue.

  • Matthew Anstey

    I agree with the post, but this is also what Luther, Barth, von Balthasar, and the other great theologians say. Theology begins in prayer.

  • Bryan

    I’m a bit reluctant with this approach. As someone who has been around Charismatic circles for some time now, I can tell you that when the Holy Spirit is invoked when determining theology gets tough. One Charismatic group point the finger at another Charismatic group and says, “but this is what God showed me about this scripture.”

    To which another Charismatic group will respond by saying, “well that’s interesting because God showed me something completely different about that very same scripture.” It sounds a bit pious to suggest that theology begin with prayer. If prayer was all that was needed then why do we all come out with different conclusions? With all of the good material out on the merging of science and theology, why is it so awful to use our minds in comprehending God? After all, it is what he gave us.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      Yes.

    • Susan_G1

      It isn’t awful to use our minds in comprehending God. I don’t know how charismatics experience God or the Holy Spirit. I am very wary of using the phrase “God told me this”, because usually I don’t believe them. I think it trivializes God’s speaking to us. And I don’t think God would give us mixed messages.

      This resonates with me because I actually experienced this, twice. And it is with some reservations that I tell this story, because I understand how odd it sounds to Evangelicals.

      Once when I was a new Christian, I was preparing a Bible study on the OT law and whether we were supposed to keep it. I wanted to prove we had to keep it. I read scripture and Institutes and reams of things, and it looked like I was wrong. I was totally out of God’s will trying to prove it in that it was all my ego. I was new at this, and I realized my sin, I confessed it to God, I prayed that His will would be what I taught, and finally I asked Him why I was supposed to teach that we didn’t need to keep the Law; what was my purpose in teaching this if it was already known? And then I shut up and waited. I didn’t “know” better. I waited on God.

      He answered me. And when He did, there was no mistake that this wasn’t coming from me, first of all, because I was new, and didn’t use words like He did. His presence was palpable; I knew I was in the presence of a Holy and Awe-inspiring presence. It made me want to worship Him. I was humbled.

      I am not delusion-prone; I don’t hear voices, don’t have grandiose ideas. I’m a molecular biologist and a physician; science and nature are my passions (outside of my family). Interestingly, and I don’t know why, that was the last time I prayed like that, and it was the last time He answered me like that. But I got that bit of theology correct.

      That’s why this rings so true with me.

  • Guest

    Another excerpt from the original blog post that I especially liked: “Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I
    think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and
    it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the
    terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors.
    This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical
    sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome
    world.”

  • Chuck Sigler

    Another excerpt from the original blog post that I especially liked was:
    “Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I
    think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.”


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X