Games (Some) Theologians Play
If you’ve been following my blog recently, you know that I defend the value and autonomy of theology as a definite discipline for the churches. In a nutshell, when theology (as I described it in my recent series What Is Theology and Who Does It?) is abandoned or neglected, the church gets sick (and by “church” here I mean to include both the church universal and the individual congregation). When it is doing its job rightly and when the church is listening appropriately, theology is the conscience of the faith community especially in matters of belief. It steers the church toward right belief and away from wrong belief. And without that contribution, the church tends to become overly accommodated to culture, losing its cutting edge, or separatistic and sectarian, losing its contemporary relevance.
Having expounded and defended theology, however, I need to add that, unfortunately, many theologians have given theology a bad reputation. One way in which they have done that is by playing games with a serious subject. With these games they trivialize theology and suck its usefulness for Christians and the churches out of it.
I’m fond of reminding you that I’ve been involved in theological pursuits for over thirty-one years. That’s not to boost my ego but to explain why I think I have a right to speak about such issues. I’ve been teaching theology full time in three Christian universities for thirty-one years and during that time I’ve edited a well-known Christian scholarly journal (supported by approximately fifty Christian universities), written sixteen books of theology, contributed chapters to numerous edited volumes of theology and written too many theological articles to remember. I’ve served as consulting and then contributing editor to Christianity Today for many years and the magazine has published many of my articles and book reviews. I’ve been in the middle of several theological debates and controversies in which careers were at stake. I’ve served as consultant to several Christian organizations and spoken and numerous Christian churches, colleges, universities and seminaries. Much of that activity has been within the evangelical “world,” but some of it has been in the so-called “mainstream” Protestant “world” as well. I’ve participated in several series of ecumenical dialogues both in Europe and the U.S. I’ve been interviewed on many Christian radio stations and podcasts. I’ve been featured in several Christian magazines—including one in the Netherlands. I’ve been mentioned in the New York Times Books Review magazine and in Stern—the German equivalent of Time. I’ve hobnobbed in various capacities with leading “world class” theologians including Hans Küng, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann. I served as president of the American Theological Society (Midwest Divison) and as co-chair of the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion.
All that is simply to say I have a lot of experience in the theological “world.” Whether I’ve made my mark there is for others to say; all I’m saying is that I’m no novice in it.
Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed a great deal of nonsense alongside a great deal of meaningful progress in theology.
Theologians are human beings and therefore finite and fallen; they are not automatically saints or even ethical people. Often they play the same games other scholars and academics play and make the same mistakes others make. Too seldom does anyone call them on them.
For all my love of theology, I must admit that some of its bad reputation is deserved insofar as theologians’ behavior is theology. I prefer to make a clear distinction between theology itself and the actual ways in which it is done by theologians. But I don’t expect everyone to recognize or acknowledge that distinction. Many people look at what theologians do and blame theology for that.
So what are some of these “games theologians play” that bring disrepute on it?
First, some theologians, like other scholars and academics, have enormous egos which show in one or both of two ways. Either they attempt to go “one up” over other theologians, considered their rivals, or they sniff around in other theologians’ writings until they find a flaw and then pounce on it and attempt to discredit them with them. All this is, either way, supposed to make them heroes. Fame and reputation are the goals. Theologians are no more gifted with intellectual humility than other scholars, unfortunately.
Christian theology ought not to be done this way. It may be standard, expected behavior in the academic world, among other scholars, but it is a disservice to the kingdom of God and the churches. Theologians ought to collaborate, congratulate and congregate, not compete.
Second, some theologians attempt to make names for themselves by being extreme in some way. It’s well known that books sell and followers flock when a theologian writes and speaks in strange “tongues”—proposing radical ideas previously unknown or at least undared (by Christians) and/or using shocking language. An obvious example, of course, is the 1960s “death of God” theology (so-called “Christian atheism”), but there are many other examples—both conservative and liberal. Especially since the 1960s theologians have competed with each other to shock audiences. A current example is the rise of “queer theology.” All one has to do is peruse the program book of the American Academy of Religion to see theologians and religion scholars attempting to outdo one another with shocking paper titles proposing theological ideas that would make the church fathers and reformers (to say nothing of the apostles!) spin in their graves.
Third, especially among conservative theologians, some take on the mantle of “self-appointed Grand Inquisitor” and become heresy-hunters in order to get pats on the back and upwardly mobile careers. This is especially effective for them in certain neo-fundamentalist circles and institutions. One conservative evangelical theologian invented quotes and attributed them to rivals and theologians whose reputations and careers he wanted to damage. (I know this because I was one of his targets and he attributed a damaging quote to me in a press release when I never said that or anything like it. His intention clearly was to damage me and the institution where I taught and to boost his image among fellow neo-fundamentalists.) Another conservative theologian writes books and articles mainly about alleged heresies hidden in plain sight (according to him) in fellow conservative theologians’ books and articles. He has gained a reputation as especially “discerning” among constituents, raking in much support for his “ministries.”
I have been in professional society meetings where theologians stood up during the Q & A time and attempted to humiliate presenters of papers or panel members by pointing out their alleged ignorance or lack of intellectual acumen. I have known theologians who set out to ruin rivals’ reputations with insults and innuendoes. One world renowned Protestant theologian told me to not write my dissertation on another theologian because “he stole his ideas” from him. I thought the evidence could just as easily point in the opposite direction! At one professional society meeting, during the reception following the presidential address, a well known Protestant theologian interrupted my conversation with a well known Catholic theologian and, to me, in front of him, berated him, using vulgar language. But more subtly, some theologians set out to undermine their imagined rivals in order to boost their own reputations. It’s well known that they often use their graduate students to wage theological war on their rivals.
All that is to say that, in spite of its value to the churches, theology can be twisted and distorted by being practiced in harmful ways. Unfortunately, there’s no universal oversight agency to call theologians out on such behavior. (I mean “unfortunately” in a relative sense; in an absolute sense I wouldn’t want such a universal agency to exist. However, I think it would be good for the evangelical community to have something like an oversight panel made up of all kinds of evangelicals to call out theologians who behave badly.)
In my three part series on “What Is Theology and Who Does It?” I described theology (as I mean it) as a “servant discipline.” There should be no room in Christian theology for massive egos that specialize in mastery over others. Many years ago, in some Christian circles, theologians published only with their initials—for this very reason. I am not advocating that, but it illustrates a sensitivity to the true purpose of theology—not personal reputation but servanthood.
Theologians who are mainly concerned with making a name for themselves, iconoclasm, or heresy-hunting should be called out. I have done that in some cases, where I thought I could have some influence, by approaching them directly—via letters or e-mail messages. I’m advocating public shaming. Here I am suggesting that you, my readers, discern when a theologian is “playing games” such as I have described and avoid them. And suggest others avoid them. One way I have of doing that is by omitting their names from lists of recommended theologians—even if they are brilliant and influential.