The Crisis in Theology

The Crisis in Theology April 9, 2019

According to Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun there is a crisis in theology (broadly considered through its location in academic institutions in North America) and they speak to this crisis in For the Life of the World.

Remember this from our last post about this new, important book:

We believe the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The flourishing of human beings and all God’s creatures in the presence of God is God’s foremost concern for creation and should therefore be the central purpose of theology.

What then is the crisis? It is both external and internal.

The External: shrinking job market, shrinking audience, and shrinking reputation.

The job market for academic theologians is closely related to the job market for academically trained ministers. Most mainline denominations still require academic training of their ordinands. But such denominations are a dwindling category with declining congregations, and they are bereft of financial means to actually hire seminary-trained ministers. Many vibrant and growing churches, on the other hand, don’t see themselves as needing academically trained ministers.

For all three reasons mentioned—diminishing demand of churches for academically trained clergy, closing down of seminaries or their transformation into online educational institutions, and loss of interest in theology in universities and colleges—the job market for PhDs in various theological disciplines is shrinking.

Over the centuries, however, one small segment of communities of faith—the clergy—used to read the work of academic theologians, both the more technical work and its popular versions. They no longer do, considering it largely irrelevant for their profession.

Ministers and lay folks no longer read theology; theologians no longer write for ministers or lay folks. “here is no gain in communicating eloquently and accessibly what has already been deemed arcane and vacuous.”

The general sense is that theology isn’t producing any genuine knowledge that accomplishes anything, that it trades with the irrationality of faith and is useless. Theology was among the founding disciplines of modern universities, the queen of sciences. Today, in many universities and colleges the queen has been deposed; in others she has been tucked away at the very edge of her erstwhile domain out of institutional inertia and, perhaps, a bit of respect for her bygone power and renown.

To exaggerate a bit: academic theology today is composed of specialists in an unrespected discipline who write for fellow specialists about topics that interest hardly anyone else.

But the Internal crisis is actually more significant:

And yet it is hard for theology to persist when it has forgotten its purpose: to critically discern, articulate, and commend visions of the true life in light of the person, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ.

This is the one complex illness that afflicts theology today, its most important crisis. The illness has given rise to two destructive coping strategies, which are tied to two central dimensions of theology, descriptive and normative, each as indispensable as the other. The first coping strategy reduces theology to a deficient version of its descriptive dimension; the second reduces it to a deficient version of its normative dimension. While each strategy has natural affinities with particular theological disciplines, both reductions can be found operating within every theological discipline.

How so? First, theology becomes “science”:

Theology could turn into scientific study of religion, and theologians—along with many other humanities scholars—could come to understand themselves as primarily engaged in a knowledge-producing enterprise, in an endeavor to incrementally increase the human grasp of the world.

This next statement is 100% accurate: “In a typical theological institution of higher learning today, perhaps as many as half the faculty identify themselves as “historians” of one stripe or another—including, as would undoubtedly have shocked their premodern predecessors, nearly all biblical scholars.” I have myself complained of this for a long time even if it is very true that historical work has to be done. Volf-Croasmun are right on this next point, too: “For theology as science, the subject matter of theology is Christianity, or more broadly the world of religions, rather than, as traditionally understood, God and everything else in relation to God (Thomas Aquinas) or “the knowledge of God and ourselves” (Martin Luther and John Calvin), or, as we will argue shortly, the world as the home of God (“the kingdom of God,” in the terminology of the Gospels)” (47). [SMcK: some of you may wonder why I don’t use page numbers. Because I too often see folks citing what I have posted and using page numbers as if they had read the material themselves. So, only occasionally do I now cite page numbers. The books are marked in my copies so I can find the page numbers if I need them.]

They turn to distortions of normativity: “The issue is not, as the complaint sometimes goes, that theologians like to debate arcane topics that seem detached from real life/2 That may be the case, but there are more significant problems for the normative engagements of theologians: nostalgia and attempts at repristinating (on the conservative side) and suspicion and unending critique (on the liberal side).”

Yet theology is trivialized when it is reduced to simply rehearsing and doggedly defending past articulations of the faith, as if the same thing needs to be said at every time and in every place or as if the same formulation means the same thing when used at different times and in different pi
aces.

For many, Christian convictions have been emptied of truth content; they are, even at their best, moves in a cultural power-game, crafted and employed to achieve certain desirable social ends. Those ends themselves typically turn out to be some variation of the modern triple concern with removing limits to freedom, fighting exclusion, and mitigating suffering.

To change the world, we need an “I have a dream” speech, not an “I have a complaint” speech.

Theology reduced to this mode of critique is fundamentally atheological.

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