Modern academic theology needs to rediscover God

All of us in the academy need constantly to remind ourselves that we are not masters of a subject, but instead subjects of the Master, Jesus Christ, and servants of his Church

The recent online dust-up between author and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and a number of rightly recondite Roman Catholic academics has revealed the tendency among the latter to resort to their fainting couches and scream for Douthat’s head on a platter because of his offensive views and lack of “credentials” (as Bishop Robert Barron has recently noted). That is repellent and risible in itself. Pulling rank and rattling one’s degrees like so many brass buttons or gold medals is a vulgar spectacle in anyone, but especially so in Christians from whom one has a right to expect a certain degree of modesty. And most of Douthat’s critics, to borrow Churchill’s phrase, have rather a lot to be modest about.

As someone trained in the Anglo-Canadian academic system, I note certain curiosities about Americans and academics. Americans turn degrees and “credentials” into an absurd fetish and repository for all kinds of misplaced faith. Holders of these degrees are magically assumed to have all sorts of insights and skills which, in practice, they often do not. And yet they brandish these credentials like buckler and shield to ward off an impudent Douthat, who temerariously dared to question their arguments. Their de haut en bas treatment of him reveals nothing more than their own insecurity.

Why are they so insecure? Contemporary academic theology today operates between the Scylla of academic scorn and the Charybdis of ecclesial disdain. In seeking to avoid the shoals of one, much academic theology has driven itself into the whirlpool of the other, and as a result been destroyed by both. In seeking to be accepted by their peers in other departments, even at ostensibly Catholic universities, the temptation is always to capitulate not only to “scientific” methods, but also to academic politics, which notoriously tilt left.

In capitulating to prevailing politics and breathlessly huffing and puffing to catch up to the Zeitgeist—rather than unpacking the riches of the Tradition like a “householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52)—much of academic theology today has come to be regarded by many Catholics as an intellectual wasteland. Thus academic theology today is surrounded on all sides by criticism and contempt—from university and Church alike—of our own making. If academic theology survives at all today (and “survival” is the word for it), it often does so in many places by huddling together as a tiny minority chattering self-congratulatory shibboleths about “speaking truth to power” (whether that “power” is the CDF or the CIA).

Is this a generalization? Yes. But it is not without foundation, as anyone who has ever suffered through the purgatory of a meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America will tell you.

Are there academic theologians doing outstanding work today? Again, yes. What makes their work excellent, however, is that they have not sought to avoid the “whirlpool” of the Church, but in fact serenely sail on the barque of Peter. Here I think of people—some of whom I count as friends, all of whom have written profitable and faithful works of considerable intellectual achievement and Catholic orthodoxy—such as Matthew Levering, Khaled Anatolios, Brian Daley, David Fagerberg, Sidney Griffith, Lewis Ayres, Matthew Lamb, Reinhard Hütter, Leroy Huizenga, Chad Pecknold, Daniel Keating, Robert Barron, Paul McPartlan, Nicholas Lombardo, Mickey Mattox, Francesca Aran Murphy, Christopher Ruddy, Michael Waldstein, Thomas Weinandy, and Robert Louis Wilken, to name just a few.

But there are others, too, no less worthy: among Eastern Catholics and Orthodox in the academy today, I would draw attention to such as Michael Plekon, Nicholas Denysenko, Paul Gavrilyuk, Brian Butcher, Peter Bouteneff, Daniel Galadza, John Behr, Brandon Gallaher, Vassa Larin, Robert Taft, Peter Galadza, Andriy Chirovsky, Mark Morozowich, Augustine Casiday, Radu Bordeianu, Will Cohen, Edith Humphrey, Andrew Louth, and John McGuckin (inter alia). These also show that it is possible to do theology as the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church did theology—on their knees, contemplating and praising God.

But the above are a minority in modern academic theology. Too much theology today is uninterested in God. I have lost track of the number of books I have read where God gets a perfunctory nod in the Preface and then disappears entirely in the next several hundred pages as the author enters into “dialogue” with the preferred interlocutors of today—usually trendy academic figures and topics or else fellow theologians.

This is hardly a new practice. In 1979, the well-known and influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote a long review essay of then-current works in “medical ethics” by ostensibly Christian scholars. He opened his review with the acid observation, “If I were God, I do not think that I would want to be studied by most contemporary theologians.” That is “because the general intellectual level of theological argument is perhaps lower than at any time since the tenth century.” As he goes on to note, “modern Roman Catholic theologians have been to an alarming degree narcissistic,” giving the “impression of being only mildly interested in either God or the world; what they are passionately interested in are other Roman Catholic theologians.”

These intra-mural discussions are often done by people who view the Church (especially the hierarchical Magisterium) as the enemy, and the Tradition as some kind of dead-weight to be chucked overboard under the disguise of “dialogue” with the latest fads—post-structuralism, transgender advocacy, trans-humanism, and other rubbish. Theologians of this inclination will continue to be regarded rightly with skepticism and disdain by most Catholics until and unless the former stop trying to change the Tradition from within, and instead allow themselves to be transformed by it.

All of us in the academy need constantly to remind ourselves that we are not masters of a subject, but instead subjects of the Master, Jesus Christ, and servants of his Church. Our task must be to teach him and nothing else; our job is to build up “the Church of the living God as the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

If bringing God back into the picture and returning to fidelity to his Church will help academic theology avoid the Charybdis of ecclesial disdain, resolving the problem of contempt from the wider academy will take greater work, but the solution is the same. God must be at the beginning, center, and conclusion of everything we say if other academics are ever again to take theology seriously.

God, however, has too often been an embarrassment to many academics who, ignorant and ill-bred, have grown up with the vulgar prejudice that theology is at one with phrenology or astrology. To escape that condemnation, many theology departments tried to reinvent themselves as “religious studies” departments, supposedly using ostensibly “scientific” methods of study to render legitimacy to their endeavors. But that ill-conceived attempt was doomed from the beginning, as even two of its most vigorous modern proponents have been recently forced, through gritted teeth it seems, to recognize: “it is delusory to think that ‘religious studies’ has ever achieved, or can achieve, a full emancipation from religious concerns.” As these authors go on to note, “the academic study of religion remains subservient to theology, in however subtle or nuanced a fashion, by continuing to support a learned practice and/or appreciation of religion rather than by any scientific study of religion” (Luther H. Martin and Donald Wiebe, “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline: The Persistence of a Delusion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 80 [2010]: 587-597).

The answer here is not—pace Martin and Wiebe—to try to study religion more “scientifically” or “naturalistically” or “cognitively” but instead for theology to recover her lost—and in many cases deliberately and willfully abandoned—role as “queen of the sciences.” And here I think John Milbank (an Anglican) showed us the way of recovery a quarter-century ago.

In his landmark 1990 book Theology and Social Theory, Milbank traced out the genealogy of the modern university in which theology has been progressively displaced and her authority usurped. In many cases, Milbank argued, theology has gone along with this: “the pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease, because once theology surrenders its claim to be a meta-discourse, it cannot any longer articulate the word of the creator God, but is bound to turn into the oracular voice of some finite idol such as historical scholarship, humanist psychology, or transcendental philosophy.”

Today one finds ample proof that too much of academic “theology” consists largely of history, psychology, and philosophy—and other trendy and less edifying phantasms and pursuits. To avoid further reduction to these categories, theology must, Milbank counsels, recover her confidence to “position, qualify, or criticize other discourses” lest she be still further positioned, qualified, and criticized by them, as she has been, resulting in her position today on the farthest peripheries of the academy—and in many cases, banished outright.

The choice to return from banishment remains ours, and the path forward remains one that leads directly back to God. As such, our return will not and cannot consist of high-handed triumphalism in which we begin by denouncing each other right and left for believing too much, too little, or too differently from the “magisteria” of our own making. Only our total surrender to God will allow him to speak through us, and only such a surrender will make our words worthy of a hearing from Church and academy alike; for only then will we have been purified enough to speak not our own words, but the very Word of God himself, the logos to theou.


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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 86 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).