Thursday, 20 February 2014

Humble Confidence: The Appropriate Theological Attitude

I've just got round to reading January's International Journal of Systematic Theology (IJST). I really look forward to it coming in the post: it is the universal problem of research-students-who-are-within a-few-months-of-submission that we become so engrossed in the topic at hand (in my case Karl Barth) that other things pass us by. So, IJST affords me the opportunity to lift my head from the Barthian-pit and read a few other things and have those bits of my mind that remember what it was like to read freely in any area of systematics re-enlivened (avoiding the Barth essays within the journal...for now). Normally I skip over the editorials and head for the articles, but last night I read Steve Holmes' editorial for the January edition. In it Holmes, senior lecturer in Systematic Theology at St Andrews University, considers with what attitude the discipline of theology must engage with other academic disciplines. He outlines two, before settling on the third.

The first attitude Holmes describes is imperialistic. He recalls the medieval idea that theology is the "queen of the sciences", and suggests that "on this account, systematics engages other disciplines in order to complete them, to lead them into their proper place in human knowledge, rightly structured." There is something quite aggressive in this approach: it forbids other disciplines from being ends in themselves - their proper contribution to human understanding can only be realised when they're annexed by theology. There is a kind of implicit "evangelism/apologetics" involved in this sort of approach. As Holmes characterises it, "if the claims of the Christian gospel are true, they are necessarily of the very highest importance." The problem with this approach in the academy is that everyone can say it of their own discipline: if it is true, it is of the utmost important. It is therefore not very interesting, and will not engender positive and constructive relationships between disciplines.

The second attitude sounds much more apathetic to my ear, but it has a distinguished history in the academy: desperation. Holmes grounds his discussion of this attitude in Schleiermacher's Speeches to the Cultured Despisers and argues that the key concern here is not for the purity and power of theology, but for garnering some recognition: "to find a place in the modern university, theology must endlessly reach out, to prove its usefulness or interest in dialogue with other disciplines." The thought of it is exhausting, seeking always to justify the existence of theology within the academy - a requirement of many academic disciplines in our modern intellectual climate. But, for me, this approach betrays something of the impetus for theological study in as much as its orientation is toward its own utility, with the criteria for this being set by external agencies.

So Holmes offers us a middle way, a different attitude which avoids the imperialism of some medieval theologies, and which avoids begging for recognition from other disciplines before proceeding to its own task. He calls it "humble confidence." I think this is a really good description of what is needed: the confidence grows out of the fact that "the intellectual vibrancy and utility of systematic theology lie in its claims to be an integrative account of all reality" and this integration is historically and culturally pervasive and potent, "therefore it has an important - though not privileged - position is a plural university..." The humility to which Holmes directs us is necessary because, in our post-modern culture, the integrative account we offer must be credible and plausible to others. So we proceed by engaging other intellectual disciplines "not on the basis of demanding their acquiescence to our interpretative schemes, but on the basis of our willingness to show that our interpretative schemes are repeatedly helpful and generative for various areas of thought." Holmes goes on, "we accept that, in our current intellectual climate, others will need to see it working before they even entertain the idea of its having value."

As I read this through a second time, I could hear my younger (much more conservative) self wondering about the orientation of Holmes' humble confidence: what about the task of the theologian to elucidate and explicate the content of the Christian gospel? Then I remembered that the way Barth has affected my thinking on this topic is more implicit than explicit. In a changing university climate, the academic theologian celebrates and reiterates the gospel in a particular way, by engaging other disciplines constructively, creatively, and Christianly for the sake of the common good. This requires a great deal of thoughtfulness and ingenuity. It also requires prayerful support. So often our academic theologians are characterised as enemies of the gospel - not because they hate Jesus, but because they betray the simplicity of gospel - of trust and obedience - by their insistence on thinking deeply about its content. (This kind of anti-intellectualism is surprisingly common amongst clergy...). But it is as important for the mission of the Church as anything else that we refuse an isolationist policy, most especially in the university, and we engage other forms of human endeavour. Humble Confidence is a helpful summary of the requisite attitude that makes this kind of missional activity possible.

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