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Why Study Academic Theology?

Catholic Bishop Robert Barron takes Ross Douthat’s letter-writing critics to task: [1]

The letter to the Times is indicative indeed of a much wider problem in our intellectual culture, namely, the tendency to avoid real argument and to censor what makes us, for whatever reason, uncomfortable. On many of our university campuses this incarnates itself as a demand for “safe spaces,” where students won’t feel threatened by certain forms of speech or writing. For the first time in my life, I agreed with Richard Dawkins who recently declared on Twitter [2], “A university is not a ‘safe space’. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, [and] hug your teddy…until [you are] ready for university.”

Along those lines, I found it very weird last night when the Catholic writer Grant Gallicho (now headed to Chicago to run media relations for Archbishop Cupich [3]), on Twitter faulted me for writing critically about Villanova theologian Katie Grimes, a signatory of the anti-Douthat letter. He said my post was “creepy”; I asked him to explain. He tweeted:

I responded:

To which he replied:

It went back and forth like that a few more rounds. As a sign of  — I don’t know, fatigue? desperation? — he tweeted petulantly:

Well, that’s persuasive. All this over something I wrote yesterday examining three academic papers that anti-Douthat critic and Villanova theologian Katie Grimes put into the public realm.  [11] In the letter she signed, Grimes, who is in her twenties and works as an assistant professor of theology at Villanova, questioned the conservative Catholic Douthat’s ability to write about theology topics on the pages of the Times, as he is not a trained theologian. In a follow-up blog post [12], Grimes clarified that she doesn’t believe laypeople ought to keep silent; her critique, she said, is more specific:

I object not to the privileging of un-credentialed voices but to the Times’ inconsistent standard of credibility.  When it wished to employ an editorialist about the economy, it selected a Nobel Prize winning professor.  When the New York Times publishes articles about global warming, they trust the judgments of “credentialed” scientists.  One wonders why the New York Times does not extend to the discipline of theology the same respect?  In other words, while one does not need a PhD to perceive and to live God’s truth, one does need some sort of systematic training to pontificate (pun intended) about questions of church history and liturgical, moral, and systematic theology.  These can be found outside of the theological academy, but they must be found somewhere.

So perhaps rather than calling Mr. Douthat “un-credentialed,” the letter should have asked the New York Times the following question: with what criteria did they determine Mr. Douthat competent to act as an arbiter of theological truth?


Yesterday, in the comment thread on the Douthat affair, one of this blog’s readers posted a link to the four Grimes papers that Grimes has uploaded to Academia.edu [13]. The reader suggested that there was something unusual about them. I went to the site and read three of the four, hence the blog post that grieved the heart of Grant Gallicho. [11] Admittedly I was tough on Grimes, because I think her paper topics are silly, and conclusions either silly or monstrous. I linked to the full papers and published excerpts from them so readers can draw their own conclusions.

Why did I do this? Because Grimes signed a letter implicitly calling on the Times to prevent Douthat from writing about Catholic theology, because he’s a supposed ignoramus, and she elaborated that opinion journalists writing about theology ought to have “some sort of systematic training” in theology before writing about it. Well, let’s have a look at a sample of what Katie Grimes — holder of undergraduate and master’s degrees from Notre Dame, and a PhD from Boston College, and a job as an assistant professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova — has come up with as a result of her systematic training at two of the country’s top Catholic universities.

She offered in public, for the public’s consideration (which is why you upload something to Academia.edu), a paper about reading Thomas Aquinas through the lens of gender theorist Judith Butler, and concluding that the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) has misunderstood the medieval theologian, who actually would have considered homosexual acts to be morally licit. She posted a paper in which she lauds gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur as a “theologian.” And she posted a paper in which she contends that the Eucharist and Baptism, the two central sacraments of the Catholic faith, are fatally compromised by white supremacy, and that the Catholic Church can only find redemption if it begins lobbying the government to force white people to leave their homes. Excerpt from that paper:

The vice of white supremacy must be unmade by the transformative grace of Black Power, which places black life and freedom first. Theologians need to learn to care less about how to persuade whites to do the right thing and more on what they need to be made to do. Rather than intensifying projects of moral suasion, the church ought to begin devising strategies of white corporate coercion.


It is considered “unseemly” by Gallicho and those who agree with him that I harshly criticized Grimes’s work. Apparently criticism online amounts to “Internet-shaming,” and it is morally wrong for me, as a 48-year-old journalist, to criticize, even ridicule, the work of a 24-year-old theologian — the holder of a master’s degree and a doctorate in theology, mind you — because she is young.

What patronizing garbage. The truth is, I suspect, they know perfectly well that this kind of theology is hugely embarrassing to the cause of shutting down commentary from Douthat and those like him. If people know that this is the kind of thing that the professional Catholic theologians and their fellow travelers laying into Douthat write, and consider to be credible theology (versus Douthat’s newspaper columns), that the progressive Catholic cause suffers. If you are writing a letter trying to convince The New York Times that professional theologians know better than educated laymen about such matters, and this is the kind of work one of the signatories does, well, it makes you look less than persuasive.

Now, that list of signatories is long — see the letter here [14]— and contains a number of Catholic theologians who have been at this for much longer than Grimes has. It would be unfair to single out one scholar (and a very junior one at that) to represent the whole. To be sure, it’s very easy for people outside the academy to glance at the research and work that academics produce and go, Ha ha, look at those crazy professors and their weirdo work! Academic work is often by its very nature obscure and difficult, and subjects that may seem impenetrable, even comical, to outsiders may in truth be valuable and necessary. I get that. But sometimes, it really is ideological crackpottery. Whether Grimes’s three papers I considered are groundbreaking or insane, you can decide for yourself. What is pathetic, though, is the special pleading of progressive Catholics who say it is unfair to criticize the work of an assistant professor at a major Catholic university, because she’s starting her career.

Anyway, theologian Kevin Ahern writes today to denounce my blog post as “calumnious,” [15] and to explain why what I saw in those papers is not what’s really there. Excerpt:

Reading academic, peer-reviewed journal articles is hard work. Often in our own work, when preparing to cite a particular article at length, it is necessary to spend many days very carefully reading a single article. The reasons are fairly obvious: the article is advancing a thesis that is often complex; said thesis may cause you to re-think your own work, or lead it in a new direction; the research for the article leads the reader into an almost-endless array of theological insight (most of which the reader will be at least somewhat unfamiliar with). Grimes’s articles that Dreher cites in his post are no different from the generic peer-reviewed essay we cite above. They are meticulously researched, or else they never would have been accepted for publication. This is key in this debate, which has focused so much on orthodoxy: acceptance of these articles does not rely on whether the reviewers agree with Grimes but whether she makes a thorough argument and supports it with ample evidence. It would hardly be possible to give any one of these articles a fair reading in a short time. So, what we get from Dreher are some selected quotations without attending to Grimes’s more complex theses in these articles. Of course, such proof-texting of a text would lead to a failing mark in most introductory theology courses, so, as teachers, we can’t let it go by the wayside here.

OK, but I am confident that, as an undereducated but literate layman who somehow still has all his teeth, I would not much change my opinion on these peer-reviewed essays if I sat there steeping in them for days. The overwhelming impression I get from reading them is that they were written by someone who despises the Church and the Christian tradition. I’ll explain that later, but first, I’ve been dialoguing via e-mail with several professional theologians in the past day or two, most of them Catholic, all of them what you would call “orthodox.” I asked them if they could help me to understand how stuff like Grimes’s gets called professional theology. One of the theologians writes:

In Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s “The Nature and Mission of Theology” he talks about how the Church’s authority is not extrinsic to theology, but is the very ground of its existence, the condition which makes the nature and task of theology intelligible. The project of modern liberal thought cannot allow this. It colonizes Christian thought so thoroughly that it tempts the theologian to see him or herself the “lords of faith.”

Ratzinger provides an image for this which he finds in the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in Troia, a small town in the Apulia region of southern Italy. There he finds a relief on the pulpit dating from 1158 showing a lamb being pounced upon by a greedy lion, tearing into the lamb. This he says symbolizes the way in which the lion as a symbol of power constantly seeks to devour the the lamb which is a symbol of the Church. There is also a third animal in the relief, a small white dog throwing itself with tooth and jaw against the lion. The intentions of the courageous hound are clear. But will the small dog be consumed by the lion, or will his bite release the lamb from the lion’s bite? Ratzinger says that the small dog a symbol for the theologian who understands themselves to be the servants of the faith.

The modern liberal project requires theologians to conform themselves to a different standard, a standard extrinsic to the Church. This problem is not restricted to any one theologian. It has become the standard habit of theology to make the Church’s comprehensive understanding of faith and reason to conform itself to the new knowledge that arises from human experience. Just read the American Academy of Religion and you will see this in spades. It’s fine to single out theologians — young or old — who embody this approach to theology. But the problem is pandemic. The comprehension of the faith always seems to depend on some standard external to the Church — Judith Butler, Tupac, Base Communities, the experience of being Black, Hispanic, Male, Female, a sex addict — but when this happens to the theologian, he or she is always the lion and never the small white dog in the Troia pulpit. This theologian reads all of theology through the power box, instead of through the lens of seeking truth and understanding of the one true deposit of faith which is guarded by the apostles.

The great temptation of the theologian, Ratzinger says, is the temptation to make ourselves (our experience, our time, our culture) to be the lord of faith. But the only authentic vocation for the theologian is ecclesial. The theologian who understands him or herself as a servant of the faith is, in fact, the only one who is actually doing theology. All the rest saw off the branch upon which the whole theological task rests.

There is a whole sociology of knowledge aspect to this question which can be looked at from a purely secular point of view. The way people get formed, who they read, who they are told are most admirable, which essays and books are recommended, all build up certain standards for making intelligible judgments. The AAR or the CTSA are guilds which habituate students to a way of doing theology that is much more akin to the lion rather than the hound with a torch in his mouth.

Another theologian answers my query thus:

I have 20 answers and none. You practically have to go back 40 years to talk about how the liberal establishment took over these programs in the 70’s and has had to perpetuate itself by finding younger scholars who reject the JPII-BXVI papacies, and so have had to appeal in particular to PhD’s from Jesuit faculties (Fordham and Boston College in particular). The latter cultivate an idea of a radically adaptive Catholicism that is open to radical changes in the area of sexual ethics and (to some extent) abortion and that are solidly politically left leaning.

The left is especially worried about hemorrhaging: the loss of mainstream Catholics influenced primarily by the culture and that leave the Church because of a perception of its irrelevance and obsolescence in the modern secular world. So they reach out (desperately at times) to find ways to connect Catholic tradition with contemporary culture, to show the relevance of the former, while advancing the liberal causes they believe in. This makes for what many perceive as an internally incoherent and caricatural Catholicism that the secular left is unimpressed by and that traditional Catholics find alienating and unintelligible. It does engage secularized Catholic students, perhaps, but often only to deepen their confusion. Nor is it typically analytically rigorous, so it forfeits the respect of the philosophical disciplines insofar as it refuses to engage consistently the foundational principles of Catholic dogma.

I said, in an email exchange with this theologian, that I wonder if part of the progressive theologian outrage over the attention I paid to this young Notre Dame and BC-trained theologian has to do with the angst they have of what people outside the academy will think of theology if they see the kind of thing that actually passes for academic theology in progressive quarters. He responded:

Well, that is no doubt true. Part of the issue is also that they want to maintain the moniker of authentic Catholic identity in Catholic institutions even as they seek to modify them (or transform them rather radically albeit gradually) and this means that it is awkward to see this kind of caricatural theology that seems clearly to betray Catholic theology or even to fail at being Catholic manifest in the light for all to see.

I will add more to this long post if any of the other theologians I reached out to answer.

If I were a young person with a passion for theology and a love for the Church, and I thought I would reach the end of my studies as the sort of theologian who writes about St. Tupac and the Dumb Queer Ox, I would stay away from the formal study of theology for the sake of my own faith. And if I were any kind of believing Catholic, I would read things like this and begin to lose faith in the university institutions who produce and reward theologians who think like this. Of course this is just one graduate, but she was formed by elite Catholic theological institutions, and must be thought very good at what she does, else she wouldn’t have landed an assistant professorship at a place like Villanova straight out of her PhD program.

This fall, Grimes is teaching [16] two introductory courses, called Faith, Reason, and Culture, plus a senior-level undergraduate course on racism and the Catholic Church (that was her doctoral thesis topic [17]). It’s hard not to wonder what kind of introduction to the Catholic tradition these freshmen get in her class. For all I know, she handles the meat-and-potatoes intro courses like anybody else would. My guess from her writing is that she has intense passion for her work, and I bet that’s a passion she communicates to her students. The most memorable professor I had in my undergraduate years awoke in me a passion for philosophy. Though I never wanted to be an academic, I can honestly say that the passion that teacher gave me for the life of the mind, and for philosophical ideas, has guided my journalistic career. That intro course may be the first time most of those students will have encountered the study of Christianity and culture at that level. What will they come away knowing about the Catholic Church (Villanova is a Catholic university, if you don’t know) and what it has meant to Western civilization?

I know, it’s only three papers, but the impression I get from reading the work of Prof. Grimes that’s out in public is that this is someone who does not love the Church and its tradition, but is learning it to burrow inside and to “burn down the master’s house,” so to speak.

And that is the general impression one gets of the theological enterprise as seen from outside the academy. Mind you, I know good and faithful Catholic theologians who work within the academy. One of my friends used to teach theology at Villanova, and I know him to be a highly engaged, orthodox Catholic (N.B., I have deliberately not contacted him about this topic, because I don’t want to put him on the spot). Please understand, I’m not picking on Villanova here; I visited there last month, had a great time, and sat in on some wonderful humanities courses. I would send my kid to Villanova (though not to study theology). I am trying to understand why so many contemporary theologians seem so very hostile to the tradition they are supposed to serve, and why deconstructing — even destroying — that tradition appears to be a goal of theirs.

A reader of this blog who writes under the moniker WhiskeyBucks writes:

I watched in horror at what a top-flight humanities grad program did to my sister. She went in a lively, driven, extreme talent with original thoughts. I was so excited that she got into the program. Now she just sees Dead White Zombies on every street corner, feels compelled to deconstruct the oppressive subtexts of hardware stores and ice cream, and is ONLY friends with people who consider themselves revolutionary academics because they use the c-word on Tumblr as a performative rebellion against whatever social poltergeist that they proxy for their daddy-rage. Not to mention the only job she can find is bagging groceries, is more depressed than I’ve ever known her, and “can’t” bring herself to talk to her priest, because her little tribe has turned her against him.

So Katie Grimes isn’t the problem, she’s the product of the problem.

Another reader, Andrew W., who is not a theologian but is an academic, writes:

There are a number of disciplines that survive in academia because while they don’t produce a lot of graduates themselves, they’re embedded in the general curriculum as general studies requirements. Women’s studies or various minority studies come to mind. A person who decides to major in one of those disciplines is pretty much committing themselves to either trying to find a job where the degree itself doesn’t matter, or becoming an academic in that field. Religious studies has become one of those disciplines, and like most of them, the real way to get kudos in the discipline is to put on the appearance of challenging the status quo.

There are several problems with that. First of all there’s the difficulty of an academic discipline where much of the primary material involves the supernatural. Generally the academy is going to be materialist and taking these things at face value is not going to go over well. On the other hand an incoming Freshman who actually chose to come to a religious university very well may believe or even have had an experience of the supernatural. I can’t think of any other discipline where this is an issue.

Another problem is that religious studies programs are also supposed to be a starting point for the ministry, but they’re not really geared for that. Interesting as the anthropological and social background of the scriptures may be (even if they aren’t forced into a Marxist/feminist oppression narrative) religious texts are still ultimately meant to be applied.
As another person mentioned many Catholic universities in their promotional literature sell themselves as a place where the student’s faith is going to be nurtured. My Alma Mater, which was non-sectarian, also did this. What actually happens is the faith is deconstructed on the presumption that the student will develop a more mature faith in the process. Unfortunately if the follow-up to that is one story after another of virtuous victims suffering at the hands of an evil patriarchal misogynist religion if a person — and this is going to be most of the students in those required general studies courses in religion — isn’t all that interested in religion, they’ll tune out the professor, or they’ll give up the faith. If they are interested in religion they’ll either rebel, clam up, or become one more quasi-religious SJW attempting to reform the faith whether the faithful like it or not. Now that’s one heck of a bait and switch, particularly at 40 to 80k per year tuition.

That’s why I think these people went into panic mode when Ross Douthat used the word “heresy”. If word gets out that the religion departments at Catholic Universities are teaching a curriculum that is hostile to the Catholic tradition itself, and actually are encouraging the students to believe things which are recognized and condemned heresies (denial of Christ’s divinity, denial of the real presence in the Eucharist, Pelagianism) tens of thousands of parents and students are paying top dollar to send their students to Catholic schools that aren’t Catholic when they could send them to a state school at a fraction of the cost and the Newman center wouldn’t be actively trying to undermine the faith they had as children.

The humanities are having a terrible time of it in colleges today. Jacques Berlinerblau of Georgetown, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education [18], has deplored the habit humanities faculties have of holing up in their ivory towers. Excerpt:

There are many compelling explanations for the sorry plight of the humanities in 21st-century America. I have little interest in expounding upon them here, other than to observe that we, as a guild, are fanatically and fatally turned inward. We think and labor alone. We write for one another. And by “one another,” I mean the few hundred or so people who inhabit our fields—hectares and patches of scholarly specialization.

For the humanities to persevere (and for humanists to stop perennially bemoaning their miserable fate like the despondent cast of Che­khov’s Uncle Vanya) we must exorcise the demon of inwardness. We must cure ourselves of a psychological affliction that compels us to equate professionalism with specialization, erudition with footnotes, and profundity with the refusal to tackle broader questions not of interest to “one another.”

My contention is—and state legislators, boards of trustees, and belt-tightening administrations are there with me—that the humanities had better start serving people, people who are not professional humanists. Our survival as a guild is linked to our ability to overcome our people problem. If we don’t, well, then just get used to more memos from the provost announcing the “strategic migration of faculty resources” to the B School and away from your liberal-arts college.

The public redemption of the humanities that I have in mind begins in graduate school. (As for the present post-tenure generation, Dante’s warning to abandon all hope, lasciate ogni speranza, seems fitting.) The change will occur when we persuade apprentice humanists to engage their audience and then equip them with the tools to do so. Who composes that audience? In order of importance: students, scholars not in one’s field, and cultivated laypersons.

Now, ask yourself: whose interests are served by professional Catholic theologians whose research and writing focuses on queering medieval theologians, the theological wisdom of gangsta rap, and the racial malignancy of the Church? As Prof. Grimes has written, the Church is so evil and given over to white supremacy that the sacraments themselves are compromised [19]? She writes:

This corporately vicious operation of white supremacy within the corporate body of Christ requires theologians to change the way they conceive of liturgy, ethics, anthe relation between the two. In pervading the church’s corporate body, I contend, the vice of white supremacy permeates all of its practices, no matter how sacred.

Is it true that the Catholic Church, like other churches, has been guilty of perpetuating white supremacy, either affirmatively or passively, by not standing up to it? Undoubtedly, and this is a shameful blot on the Church’s past. Even so, how can you love a Church that you believe to be virtually demon-possessed by race hatred, and that exorcising it requires you to destroy its visible body and its ancient practices? If I thought that were true, I would want nothing to do with an institution so rotten, and if I were inside it, I would work as hard as I could to destroy it. It may be theology, of a kind, but is this really what Catholic theology should be about? It’s empowering within Catholic institutions the very ideology that seeks to destroy Catholicism, or so it seems to me. 

Philip Rieff wrote, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic [20]:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves. Many spokesmen for our established normative institutions are aware of their failure and yet remain powerless to generate in themselves the necessary unwitting part of their culture that merits the name of faith. “Is not the very fact that so wretchedly little binding address is heard in the church,” asked Karl Barth, rhetorically, in 1939, “accountable for a goodly share of her misery—is it not perhaps the misery?” The misery of this culture is acutely stated by the special misery of its normative institutions.

Theological faculties are normative institutions. If they fail to communicate the ideals of the Christian faith — and in Catholic theological faculties, the Catholic faith — they will die, and so will the faith. This is happening in America right now. [21] To what extent are theological elites the problem? Or are they the solution?

And: do they care one way or another, or are they, like Berlinerblau says of many academic humanists, only focused on writing for their tiny sect of insiders?

The professional theologians I know — most, but not all, of them Catholic — are diverse thinkers, but one thing that unites them is a love for the Church and the Christian tradition. I hadn’t thought of it till now, to be honest, but the thing I notice about all of them is that they treat the tradition with reverence — not slavishly repeating what they’ve been told, but engaging it as a servant, seeking to deepen knowledge of the divine and its workings within that tradition, and to steward the tradition through the challenges of our own place and time. What I see in the attitude of many progressive theologians is a rejection of the tradition, bordering on a contempt for it — and indeed a passion for rupturing the tradition, and remaking it according to their own ideological ends.

This does not give life. In fact, it is poison. I met an Evangelical law student earlier this month who told me that at her undergraduate college, a well-known Evangelical institution, the theology faculty had torn her faith down, but they gave her nothing with which to build it back up. She said she was one of the few undergraduates she knew to make it through without losing her faith.

Again, hers was an Evangelical school, supported by Evangelicals, many of whom surely have no idea that the theology department there sees its mission as relieving undergraduates of the burden of their religious belief. Mind you, I heard a theologian from a different Evangelical school saying recently that many of his students find themselves traumatized by some of the things they learn in their theology classes, because those things don’t line up neatly with the simple lessons they learned in Sunday School. But if they stick with it, they will emerge with a deeper faith, because they will have understood the roots of Christianity much better. This scholar is orthodox, though, and so is his institution. For now, anyway. Students (and their parents) can trust this institution and its professors to challenge the students on matters of faith, but to do so in a way that helps them grow in understanding and fidelity to the tradition. Why? Because these professors are faithful to it themselves, and receive the faith as a gift to be loved, and passed on in love. I believe this is not an academic exercise. Actual souls are at stake.

If the mission of any theological faculty is to be found in St. Anselm’s phrase, “faith seeking understanding,” then it appears to this layman that more than a few professional theologians really want their students to understand that the faith is nothing more than man-made nonsense, and what man has made he can remake in his own image. So, why study academic theology? Does one do it to shore up the master’s house, and maybe to add new rooms onto it, based on the experience of living in it during a different time? Or does one study academic theology to tear the house down and build something more modern on the footprint?

And how do people outside the academy know the difference? Here again is the “Apologia for Theological Inquiry” [15]posted on the Daily Theology blog by one or more (it’s unclear) of Grimes’s defenders. Read it and see what you think. I don’t trust it. At all. But then, I don’t have a theology degree. What am I missing?

UPDATE: Michael Peppard [22], who teaches theology at Fordham, writes:

At the end of Peter Steinfels’s book, A People Adrift, he suggests to folks like me (in Catholic institutions), that we “have often generally assumed the defense of innovation while leaving the task of protecting continuity to the hierarchy.” I think this is correct. But he says that in the future, “we will have to broaden our own sense of responsibility for the whole Catholic tradition.” This is a noble endeavor, and it is a great fit for the classroom. And “the future” of that comment is now.

So why doesn’t more of Catholic theology protect continuity? Why so much attempted innovation — some successful, life-giving, even true, but some not? One reason I haven’t seen discussed yet here is the entire research paradigm (in which I also participate): the rubber meets the road in the area of scholarly publication. One challenge I perceive is producing scholarly work that is faithful to tradition and also passes the originality test necessary to be worthy of a major journal or publishing house. It is paradoxical to get something published in a major venue within the wissenschaft paradigm that is conservative in the sense of preserving tradition – why would the publisher do that? Most scholarly publishers aren’t interested. And where would a tenure committee rank something like that? As long as university promotion committees say that what they value primarily is the production of new ideas, there will be up-and-coming scholars pushing boundaries. Outside of universities on the research paradigm, it’s possible things are different, but then again, even those professors were mostly socialized into the research paradigm during their top-tier graduate programs, so the ethos is quite widespread. That’s how I see it, in a descriptive, not evaluative, sense.

UPDATE.2: A theologian who will be anonymous here writes:

While I can’t speak specifically about Katie specifically (because I don’t know either her or her work), I can say that her “type” is common, especially in  theological ethics. Having looked over Katie’s CV and skimmed a few essays, I would dispute anyone who claimed she wasn’t doing interesting, or even sound academic theological ethics. Is her stuff trendy? To be sure. Is her stuff perhaps overly determined by its trendiness? Perhaps; I would have to read her far more carefully than I have before I could even begin to assess it for that. I did think her essay on Butler and Aquinas was academically feasible, even though it was seriously wrongheaded in presuppositions, interpretation, and conclusion. But, hey, people can be wrong. I don’t think that delegitimates her as a “real theological ethicist,” or even as a real Catholic ethicist. (I don’t know her personal faith, if she has one). So that’s my only qualifier to what follows.

I think academic theology in general suffers, not from a Nietzschean will-to-power, but a far more banal will-to-sophistication. You could couple this with a corresponding will-to-coolness. Theology finds itself in a terribly embattled, insecure place in the university. I think many departments are driven by an inarticulate desire to prove themselves to their peers and, by so doing, justify their place in the increasingly secular, hostile landscape of higher education.

There is a deep-seated fear that a lot of theologians have, I think, that their peers will dismiss them as fideistic, illogical, or intellectually spurious. “Divine revelation” isn’t a particularly academic concept and so the idea of doing any thinking—let alone ethics!—based on, emerging from, in working in conversation with, divine revelation simply doesn’t compute in the positivistic culture of academia. Doing theology as faith seeking understanding will be met with a cynical and dismissive eye, we theologians fear. [Aside: this goes to show the crisis of confidence theologians have in themselves and in theology as a discipline. I think you could make the argument that a great deal of theology is done today by people who view faith as an intellectual liability, rather than the source of their intellectual inquiry.] And so theologians will sometimes set out to prove their intellectual and academic merit by adopting modes of discourse that carry authority, that are sexy and popular, among their peers.

Lately, so it seems, the popular discourse that theology has adopted  has been the critical theory of folks like Foucault, Horkheimer, Adorno and the Frankfurt School and so on. Such discourse has been popular in the humanities and the social sciences, so by adopting this discourse, Theology shows its relevance and its intellectual savviness. A lot of my friends and colleagues who work in the intersection of Theology and Political Science or Theology and Sociology will describe their theological projects as “Marxian” (as distinct from “Marxist,” though I remain a bit fuzzy on the difference between them).

I think a lot of contemporary Theology at least adopts the method of Marxian, critical theory in an attempt to join the intellectual “inner circle” (to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase) and so justify our continued presence at the academic table. It gives the discipline of Theology some cultural cachet; it makes Theology look hip, exciting, sophisticated, and relevant. No more of this arid Trinitarian theology! No more of this oppressive sacramentality! Away, you dry scholastic speculation! We are talking about the real world now. Take us seriously!

I also think adopting this kind of discourse is tempting—and dangerous—because it enables us to frame intellectual discourse as a kind of justice. We can congratulate ourselves for boldly “speaking the truth to power” and defending those voices that have been unfairly neglected or unjustly silenced. Theology, in this sense, is finally focusing on the “least of these”—and so now truly doing the work Jesus wanted us to do. I think a lot of universities—and Theology departments too—simply assume that Theology has long been held under the oppressive regime of normative forms of privileged discourse. These forms of discourse are often perceived as unfairly neglecting or unjustly silencing other discourses and perspectives. To counter this privilege, real or imagined, we must talk extensively about “diversity,” “privilege,” “bias,” “structural oppression” and so on. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that when it is grounded in the imitatio Christi and the desire to share in God’s healing of the world. But I think such work can easily make Christ into an extension of a pre-existing political ideology. When that happens, we are no longer doing theological ethics. We are just doing the ethics of our own presuppositions and tastes and sprinkling a little Jesus on top. The Right does this; and so does the Left. It also lets us congratulate ourselves for “doing justice” by, well, just talking about it —raising awareness! — rather than actually doing it. But I digress.

I think the other reason Theology departments are so drawn to this kind of Marxian critique is that helps academics ward against the charge of being elitist. We think—or at least I have thought—that such discourse breaks academia out of the perceived irrelevance to the “real world” that became such a concern after the Boomers.  Such discourse, we think, brings us out of the elite Ivory Tower, where academics (apparently) have always sat in privileged and comfortable distance from the messiness of real life.  Such discourse brings academic thought into the realm of the people again, man: “We do our theology in the streets (with Tupac)!”  And while there may be something profoundly Christian in that—following the kenotic descent of Christ to the form of a slave—I fear that the motivation is, again, not imitatio Christi, but something far more self-serving.

So in the end, I think part of the draw of Theology departments to trendy theology and subversive, transgressive approaches to ethical issues is, well, it makes our department look good. It shows our intellectual sophistication to our academic colleagues and our “of the people, for the people” to the world beyond that damned Ivory Tower.

Like I said, I don’t know Katie Grimes at all, so none of this is directed at her. I’m speaking more of an academic type that I’ve encountered over and over. In that type, my fear is always that theology is being done primarily as an academic, and thus career-focused discipline, rather than as a religious or spiritual vocation. As Dante saw over and over, when theology becomes the instrument to an end other than prayer and the worship of God, things are bound to go wrong. I don’t know the hearts of the people involved, of course, so I can’t speak to their motivations with any confidence. But this is my sense of academic theology’s current state.

UPDATE.3: This morning I received a long, detailed e-mail from a Catholic theologian who is deeply closeted at his own institution because he actually believes what the Church teaches. He needs a job desperately, so he hides who he really is so they don’t fire him. He shared his identity (I checked him out), and his strategies of concealment. I swear, you would think he worked behind the Iron Curtain. He begged me not to blog any of it, but wrote to say all of what we’re talking about here is very true. He sees it. Lives it. Is terrified of it.

Meanwhile, this came in overnight from another theologian:

As a young academic theologian, I’m not sure what I think of your posting of Prof. Grimes’ work like that. (To be clear, I don’t know her and from what I read, I strongly disagree with her arguments and methods). I would hate for my own work to end up on a blog to be picked apart by anyone – but then, that’s why I keep my own academia page to a minimum and don’t write for blogs.

At any rate, I think Michael Peppard is correct in terms of the simple descriptive account of how the academic model encourages ‘innovative’ work and your other respondent is right that, as of right now, its the critical theorists that offer the easiest means of sexy-ing up your material from the tradition. I dare say this actually can be quite fruitful at times – though I think that’s rare. (I think some of Nathan Mitchell’s work in Worship using Foucault and Bourdieu via ritual theory is very fine).

One dimension that Peppard, et. al. haven’t touched on much is the psychological dynamic at work among graduate students in theology. Consider the fact that from the moment you apply to a particular program you are de facto in competition with an unknown number of people for the material, professional, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual resources of that department. After you get in, if you get in, this competition continues with your peers – probably your new friends among them – as well as with all those others who made it into other programs who are all potential rivals for the rare theological job opportunities available upon completion of your dissertation. Even after you are hired, there’s tenure to attain, and so the competition, while possibly less immediate remains. Now, in order to have an edge in all of this, you must ‘signal’ (to use a term from economics) your membership in the academic theological guild. You have to show that you really are really great/creative/knowledgable and will do great/creative/interesting work for your future employer. And, because you made it to graduate school at all, you can do this in your sleep – you may have even started doing so late in your undergrad. For years and years, you’ve been formed and rewarded for behaving a certain way –  taking up the ‘right’ projects, speaking the ‘right’ language, reading the ‘right’ thinkers, and interpreting them the ‘right’ way. And right now, there is a great deal of social capital in being a SJW and drawing our attention to the marginalized (as recognized by those who possess the social capital to identify them – don’t hear much about poor rural whites making the cut).

This is not to say that any one theologian is being disingenuous in his or her work – only that we’re kidding ourselves if we think that these kinds of power and reward systems aren’t at work shaping graduate students. At the least, it might explain how those already interested in, say, radical (and possibly violent?) racial politics, come out the other side of the program. It is no wonder that the CTSA found extraordinary ideological homogeneity in its members (they recently did an in house study because to the credit of some of them, they don’t think its a good thing). Those in positions of power have, willfully or not, made it so.

One response to all of this is that conservatives don’t ‘make it’ because they’re not good enough. But I’d point out that 1) whole programs that tend conservative do exist; 2) and they have their own ways of signaling their membership in the “orthodox” theological guild; and 3) the insularity and parochialism on both sides is so great that the two have entirely different standards for determining ‘quality’ scholarship. The same way readers here might laugh at pairing Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Derrida with Aquinas, the readers over at daily theology or Women in Theology might laugh at someone working really hard to resolve the discrepancy on essence/energies in Aquinas and Palamas. These things cut both ways.

The great frustration for me as a young academic theologian is that while I know precisely where my own theological commitments are, some of my friends – people who have shown me great Christian love and whom I would never want to lose over theological disagreements – are very much on the other side of the fence. I find that with them, these divisions seem far less than they seem in all of this brouhaha. Few have anything but the utmost love and regard for the Church – though perhaps not always the Church as I see it.

As I see it, there’s no resolution to any of this in the short term. I think in general once the old guard liberals retire off – which has already begun of course – the landscape is going to be very different. In some ways more difficult for the orthodox because for whatever their faults the old guard was still very much invested in maintaining some kind of Catholic identity. When the new wave comes into its power, the deconstructive and SJW approach to things won’t leave much standing. On the other hand, perhaps once the old guard leaves, the ecclesial turf wars will have largely ended and so the politics won’t be nearly so fraught. The new wave and the young orthodox have so little in common that there won’t be anything to fight over.

I’ve written myself into a minor despair so I’ll call it a night.

135 Comments (Open | Close)

135 Comments To "Why Study Academic Theology?"

#1 Comment By Chris 1 On October 30, 2015 @ 11:02 am

…when theology becomes the instrument to an end other than prayer and the worship of God, things are bound to go wrong.

This is the most conscise and the relevant comment on the thread.

#2 Comment By WT On October 30, 2015 @ 11:08 am

Gallicho is the one who is weird and creepy. As if there’s anything wrote with quoting published material that is publicly available to the world.

#3 Comment By Forester On October 30, 2015 @ 11:15 am

Thanks to Mark Hamann for capturing my sentiments as well. I particularly like this part:

“Traditionalists think all that baggage is important and that the thoughts of those who came before contain wisdom and truth. But when you start to discover that it’s founded on faulty premises, it makes sense to back out of all preconceived notions and start afresh and see where the process of seeking God leads.”

I lost my religion in college after taking a course in the history of religion. Even though it was taught by a believing and sincere Catholic, the facts on the ground simply blew my belief out of the water. Gospels written long after Jesus died, by people who didn’t know him. Many Gospels written, often contradictory, some included in the ultimate Bible, some excluded. And don’t get me started on the evil done in the Church’s name: the burning of heretics, the selling of indulgences, the efforts to keep the Bible untranslated into languages that people could read themselves. It’s hard to see the good in it through the centuries when it was so useful as a tool to keep the masses under control and the powerful in power.

And yet. It’s compelling enough for some to want to “…start afresh and see where the process of seeking God leads”, as Mark Hamann suggests. Besides, looking at Christianity through the lens of the current age is not new, nor should it be worrisome.

#4 Comment By Patrick On October 30, 2015 @ 11:16 am

“How boring. You vacated Catholicism ages ago.” He’s oddly less ecumenical than I would have expected for a Cupich trooper.”

Ha. If only Rod would’ve converted to Gaia worship, the Jesuits would accept his criticisms. “This is false because this man isn’t a Catholic” – that is real bigotry.

@ Eamus Catuli:

This “trad” thinks your comments about religious conservatives are usually quite accurate. But let me explain ourselves:

“Most conservative religiosity, to me, sounds like some of the ants agreeing that all the many puzzles they can’t explain must be the work of The Great Ant.”

I’d say so, but it is often because most liberal theologians, rather than attempting to figure out puzzles, are satisfied by impugning the small handful of puzzle pieces we actually do have, prompting conservatives to cling jealously to everything out of fear the liberals will destroy anything they touch in the name of Progress (hence you rightly criticizing conservative Catholic support for unjust social structures.)

What I mean is, there are all sorts of heretofore unfathomable mysteries about God – but His being born of the Virgin Mary is a puzzle piece we already have. We can discuss it, sure, but to cast doubt of it’s truth isn’t liberals “deepening tradition”: it’s destroying what we have.

#5 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On October 30, 2015 @ 11:22 am

From the last update: “I would hate for my own work to end up on a blog to be picked apart by anyone – but then, that’s why I keep my own academia page to a minimum and don’t write for blogs.”

Like I said, the publishing and peer review process is such a sham today that academics find themselves having to publish total crap they don’t actually want anyone to read. So, not only do our universities no longer focus on actually teaching pupils but the production of knowledge via publishing is such a sham young academics don’t want people to read the crap they had to write to pass through the gauntlet of the institution. Essentially, they are producing knowledge they would be embarrassed to have anyone discover.

Well done progressives, you’ve done great work with our university system!

#6 Comment By Jim On October 30, 2015 @ 11:37 am

One of the reasons why I have posted several times that I think a Quietist and Pietist response is needed for a modern Benedict Option to work is based on my own experiences in the academy and its agendas. Without a considered withdrawal from the modern academy, without a sustained critique of the academy’s assumptions and methods, I don’t think the Benedict Option will, over time, hold its own. The kind of thing you are describing here has been going on for over a century. The fields of textual and higher criticism as filled with these kinds of arbitrary, corrosive, analyses.

Asking an academic to analyze religion resembles asking a committed vegetarian to review the opening of a new steak house in your town. The vegetarian will write something and the vegetarian will be completely sincere, but for any non-vegetarian the review will be obviously distorted by the beliefs the reviewer holds.

In a similar way, the academy holds certain assumptions about how the world works, ideological preconceptions, that must distort their presentation. Like the vegetarian, the academics are completely sincere, but they are incapable of stepping outside of their assumptions. In a way they are incapable of intellectual empathy.

From my perspective it is the Quietists and Pietists who saw through the biases of the academic institutions and provided us with strategies to go another way.

#7 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On October 30, 2015 @ 12:12 pm

The Left wants to win, in spite of the masses.

No, those are the bourgeois bohemians. What allows the latter to fancy themselves “left” is a superficial resemblance to the disappointment of 1930s union organizers when the masses used the new-found leisure and disposable income won by union contracts to buy bigger and better TVs and watch Hollywood Squares. But that’s the fruit of settling for social-democracy instead of a full-bore proletarian revolution. The capitalist class has plenty of ways to take back all the money selling frivolities, and the advertising budget to convince anyone, including the working class, that there is nothing they want more.

#8 Comment By panda On October 30, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

“I am a political scientist and I have to say that there are several members of my department who mock Krugman with regularity for the shallowness of his columns on politics. Krugman’s Nobel Prize is on a topic he spends nearly no time writing about any longer.”

Yeah, Krugman is not all that when he writes on pure politics. However, there are plenty of economists who will vouch that his views on macro-economics, which is what the bulk of his columns are about, reflect the majority opinion in the discipline.

#9 Comment By panda On October 30, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

“Back when I was in undergrad at a fairly highly regarded public university in the field of psychology, I’d write long research papers the night before they were due, usually running on a six pack and a pack of smokes with “research” I did the weekend before, most of the time being spent smoking outside the library and perusing old church books I’d find. I would almost always get As, sometimes Bs for gramatical or citation errors (understandable considering the whole beer fueled furiously writing at 2 am thing) but often I’d get comments like, “You have an excellent grasp on the literature…”

Here is a pro-tip: grade inflation is real, and even if it isn’t in this particular case the expectations that professors have of undergrads are drastically lower than they have of graduate students.

And yeah, the argument that everyone spends hoursp poring over every any argument they cite is ridicilous. However, history is not a particularly argument heavy field in the sense that theology or philosophy is, in that a good historical paper should be relatively easy to grasp with a fast reading. Still, articles and monographs that are actually important to what you do take days to process, especially since you usually go along with the author’s footnotes. Academic work is, you know, work, even if you as an undergrad you were clearly superior to your professors in every which way.

#10 Comment By Eamus Catuli On October 30, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

Patrick, thanks for the comment. I take your point about why conservatives might seem defensive on this or that point of doctrine, but I’m skeptical that it’s “liberal theologians” who are the reason that humankind has spent thousands of years projecting anthropomorphic representations of God(s) that are, in my view, far too “small” to contain the immense size, age, complexity and genuine mystery of the universe as we know it to be today.

That’s what I mean about the ants on the kitchen floor. Of course their god is going to be a bigger, more powerful ant. Their “ant scientists” might have glimpsed the truth — that there’s a whole, huge, enormous world and civilization out there that isn’t just anthills or crumbs lying on kitchen floors, and that forces and perhaps beings are operating in it at a level far beyond any ant’s ability to comprehend — but the religious conservative ants are going to resist taking those insights on board. Perhaps some of them will then blame this on the liberal ants. 🙂

#11 Comment By B.E. Ward On October 30, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

Thank you, St. Evagrius

#12 Comment By Irenist On October 30, 2015 @ 3:18 pm


I lost my religion in college after taking a course in the history of religion. Even though it was taught by a believing and sincere Catholic, the facts on the ground simply blew my belief out of the water. Gospels written long after Jesus died, by people who didn’t know him. Many Gospels written, often contradictory, some included in the ultimate Bible, some excluded. And don’t get me started on the evil done in the Church’s name: the burning of heretics, the selling of indulgences, the efforts to keep the Bible untranslated into languages that people could read themselves. It’s hard to see the good in it through the centuries when it was so useful as a tool to keep the masses under control and the powerful in power.

Well, no one course will give you a complete view. Many of us are aware of the issues you mention, and yet remain (we hope) orthodox Christians. And of course, things may not be as bad as they looked in that one course. To take just one example, it is not an entirely settled issue whether the Gospels relied upon eyewitness accounts or not. I think the case that they do is quite good, and that much of the older debunking criticism is itself in the process of being debunked.

#13 Comment By Fr. James On October 30, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

It’s all true. I had to teach myself Aquinas back in the day. I learned to say what was expected. To this day I resent it. To those of you who do this kind of thing to the orthodox I can say it will not work. It only proves that so called “liberals” are in fact the most intolerant of all people.

#14 Comment By Irenist On October 30, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

@Eamus Catuli:

forces and perhaps beings are operating in it at a level far beyond any ant’s ability to comprehend

Sounds like one of Rod’s threads on the paranormal and supernatural. Not usually the conservatives complaining about those….

#15 Comment By Patrick On October 30, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

@ Eamus Catuli:

It’s a minor tragedy that I agree with your points here and we’re looking at the same thing through a different lens. For instance:

“in my view, far too “small” to contain the immense size, age, complexity and genuine mystery of the universe as we know it to be today.”

Oh, I agree entirely. Well put. But to say we don’t fully understand God isn’t to say we know nothing about Him, and this is where we differ. The religious conservatives you’re critiquing want to use the Creed as a “ceiling” when it is actually a floor. So we agree about the current narrowness, but your lens includes the Creed in the narrowness whereas mine (and other religious conservatives) says the Creed is the certain handful of puzzle pieces that we have in the Universal Jigsaw Puzzle. And it’s frustrating to conservatives when, in the whole wide universe in which we have so few pieces, liberal theologians want to attack the few things that we have rather than build something. Of course, you’re right that conservatives then “overdo” things in simply closing themselves off to new information, but even that affirms my belief in Original Sin; we don’t know what to cling to and what to let go of, often letting go of truths and clinging merely to established prejudices.

I miswrote about the “liberal theologians” being responsible for things, but the current events here at Dreher’s blog illustrate why conservatives get quickly annoyed and simply harden their hearts to anything smacking of progress or change. “Agree with me or you are bigoted” and “agree with me or, if you don’t, it’s assuredly because you don’t like women…(my evidence is that you’ve disagreed with me, which is evil per se.)” You can see how that is the mirror image of the fundamentalist Protestant you seem to caricature (or even the political conservative: “support the war or you hate America”, your lack of support for the war being the evidence that you hate America.) How tiresome, and you appear to get the temptation for a conservative to say, “Well, if you think I’m bigoted, you can solve your problem over my “no” vote” in anger.

#16 Comment By Isidore the Farmer On October 30, 2015 @ 6:07 pm

I will say that JonF’s comments help reveal how someone like GWB could so colossally screw up Iraq, or Angela Merkel could so colossally screw up Germany….

Which is to point out again, questions about variances in average intelligence, differences between population groups, etc., have a MUCH larger and direct impact on social and even fiscal policy than what one believes about evolution (common descent). But progressives become very nervous and defensive about these questions, instead demanding to know what everyone believes happened 4 billion years ago.

#17 Comment By Andrew W On October 30, 2015 @ 6:28 pm

@Mark and Forester

The liberals theologians aren’t trying to shed baggage so much as they are trying to repack the bags. If you challenge feminism with them they’ll pull “I’m right because God says so!” as fast as any social conservative.

#18 Comment By Erdrick On October 30, 2015 @ 6:30 pm

Niccolo Salo says:
October 29, 2015 at 7:11 pm
Can someone please put Cosimano out to pasture since his posts contribute absolutely nothing of worth ever here at TAC?

Why? After reading the tripe that passes as “theology,” I think Mr. Cosimano made the most relevant comment here.

#19 Comment By William Martin On October 30, 2015 @ 6:32 pm

Originally theology was the queen of the sciences, based on the supernatural, and the university was structured around it. After the Enlightenment philosophy became the queen and theology was now subjected to the rationalist work of the academic. What we see today is just the latest incarnation of the “deified” academician’s speculations.

The only solution is to exorcise theology from the secular humanist university system. Then the church can regain control over the theology being taught and practiced. It won’t happen because we all bow down to the university system as though it was given to us by God Himself.

#20 Comment By Chris 1 On October 30, 2015 @ 8:16 pm

This morning I received a long, detailed e-mail from a Catholic theologian who is deeply closeted at his own institution because he actually believes what the Church teaches.

I learned to say what was expected. To this day I resent it

I understand why someone would resent feeling that their options were the cross or lying, and why a person would choose to lie, but it’s a bit sad and I’m not sure it proves what people think it proves.

#21 Comment By anonymousdr On October 30, 2015 @ 11:03 pm

It’s all about where your loyalty lies, and as Rod says, do you want to build up the Master’s house or tear it down.

The idea that orthodox theology has to be a bland rehash of Thomas is nonsense. You can read all sorts of crazy stuff, the question is, do you love the Church and seek continuity with its teaching and tradition, or are you a subversive nominalist.

Its not like B16 hadn’t read most of 18th-20th century German philosophy–flip to almost any random page in “Introduction to Christianity” and you will find reference to some giant of modern philosophy. De Lubac (although he may be a bad example since he was in such trouble for much of his career) wrote a whole book, “The Drama of Atheist Humanism”.

I know that David Bentley Hart and Edward Feser are probably not in the first tier of currently working theologians/philosophers, but they both seem to have read widely in contemporary philosophy, in Feser’s case the analytic school, and in Hart’s the French post-structuralists. Feser, despite calling himself an unreconstructed neo-Thomist, seens to know an awful lot about analytic philosophy and uses lots of pop-culture references. He is just much more playful in his use than our favorite Tupac citing theologienne, and it is clear that he has strong loyalty to the institutional Magesterial church.

I once read a great line about Catholics studying Kant the way antiaircraft gunners study airplanes. I want my theologians to be more like that, or like that statue in the Gesu with Mary beating down Martin Luther.

#22 Comment By KD On October 30, 2015 @ 11:39 pm

There is a lot of value in Continental thought, people should be reading stuff like Heidegger and Battaille and Foucault. I can’t speak for Derrida, because his work is impenetrable. So why is what passes for Post-Modernism so bad, if many of the sources are valuable?

I think most academics, especially in the subtle disciplines like Theology, are perhaps insecure, and perhaps not very deep, and one compensates by imitating one’s peers. So you have this crap being produced (because it is safe and easy) and reproduced, because it is safer if you imitate your colleagues. Then you can all write a letter if someone tries to subject your work to critical scrutiny, and you can’t drive them away by an incantation of “racism, sexism and homophobia”.

There is a lot of Jargon in Post-Modernism, and so it lets mediocrities hide in obscurantism, protected by the fact that they are all imitating each other, and there is safety in numbers. And Siarlys bringing up the bourgeiose bohemian factor is spot on–let’s all be aging cogs in the center of the middle class establishment but pretend we are really radical because we write tom-foolery to enflame Umericans, we get stupid tattoos and we sleep with our graduate students. I don’t think we are dealing with heretics, we are dealing with insecure mediocrities who can’t accept the reality of how reactionary their role really is in the Corporate Clerisy.

Theology is an interesting discipline, if you note there are only a handful of theologians people actually study, the Cappadocians, Origen, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Aquinas, the Schoolmen, Calvin, Luther. How many 19th century and early 20th century theologians do we remember? The fact is it is very hard to write good and innovative theology–probably about 12 Christians in history have actually accomplished it in 2000 years.

The best most people can do is to try and translate the Greats of the Past into contemporary idiom. The Truth does not change, but the meaning of our language decays into cliches and formula. So the real work (which is still hard) is to re-incarnate the tradition in the Living Word of today. The work is primarily transmission of the Faith, which is original–but the impetus must flow from within the Faith, not by trying to impose doctrinaire Leftism on it from the outside (but reading these folks, I don’t think they are inside the Faith to begin with, but more confusing for them, many sincerely believe that they are).

To summarize, it is incredibly hard to do good theology–centuries go by without good, innovative theology–within each generation, the best is merely passing the torch, not increasing its brightness. It is much much harder than good acting.

On the other hand, it is incredibly easy to do bad theology, almost as easy as bad acting. Further, if you put enough bad actors in charge of drama department, they will come to believe they are good actors, because they all imitate each other.

#23 Comment By KD On October 30, 2015 @ 11:45 pm

That was my Judith Butler performative reading of contemporary SJW theologians.

#24 Comment By Eamus Catuli On October 31, 2015 @ 4:47 am

@KD: Excellent “Judith Butler performative reading.” As an insider, I see nothing to disagree with in your analysis of postmodernist obscurantism in academe. (Nor in your remarks about theology, although there I’m not an insider.)


Sounds like one of Rod’s threads on the paranormal and supernatural. Not usually the conservatives complaining about those….

No, because those are about poltegeists and stuff, which are also “small” in the terms I’m using — based on an essentially pre-Copernican view of the universe as being somehow all about humankind and its everyday concerns.


And it’s frustrating to conservatives when, in the whole wide universe in which we have so few pieces, liberal theologians want to attack the few things that we have rather than build something.

Yes, I can see that, and I appreciate your efforts to explain it. I also find your “ceiling / floor” analogy illuminating. I suppose one difference between us is that I — under the influence of the higher criticism as I am — see the “floor” as a lot less finished and well-constructed than you do. To me, it’s less like the floor of, say, a modern skyscraper, and more like one of those floors that archeologists dig up in 2,000-year-old Roman villas: beautifully put together at one time, no doubt, but now dusty, cracked and lying in fragments, with incomplete bits of faded ancient mosaics here and there. It’s still a floor — something you can stand on — and to the extent that we can reconstruct the original craftsmanship that produced it, it’s very admirable work. We might want to borrow ideas or patterns from it in designing a modern floor, but we have lots of other materials and styles we can draw on nowadays as well. (And with that, I think I’ve officially beaten the metaphor into the… floor.)

#25 Comment By Bernie On October 31, 2015 @ 11:44 am

If my child wanted to study philosophy or theology (and some, if not all, Catholic universities require some study of these, regardless of one’s major), I would pay for a Catholic university education only at those colleges and universities recommended by the orthodox Cardinal Newman Society that has done extensive research regarding sound Catholic teaching. I trust it. Here are those colleges and universities (see far left of screen).


I speak from hard experience, having obtained 30 graduate hours in theology/religious education from Boston College – Jesuit and liberal. It nearly destroyed my faith and I was saved solely by God’s grace.

In general, there is a lot of intellectual pride in being on the cutting edge of things, even if it’s thinking is disastrous. This is where academia likes to be – PC and cutting edge. Academia ostracizes those who don’t jump on the latest idolatrous innovation, which usually has something to do with the latest cultural fad. It’s poison for the soul.

Students are usually young and very impressionable, easily awed by great intelligence, and that is one of the chief reasons these professors wield the influence they do; they’re not holy, but often very smart. Couple this with the young person’s peer group being easily persuaded by this innovative and often heretical teaching and you have a religious disaster, cloaked in theological sophistication.

Many students either lose their faith entirely or their spirit is so gutted by the experience, that while they may continue to go through the motions of attending church, etc., they have been assigned to the walking dead inside.

It is one thing to think critically; it is another to be taught to BE CRITICAL IN THINKING about everything from God, to the church, to Scripture. It keeps a person constantly in a state of debating or fighting orthodox teaching. Nothing is ever to be humbly accepted; there must always be *ifs, ands, or buts*. The soul is never completely at peace, the faith must always be criticized in some way, the humble are ignorant, and ALWAYS, the criticizer knows more than anyone else.

So we have the likes of the Jesuits, the liberal sisters who are ever-present in Catholic university theology and philosophy departments, and the Katie Grimes, et al. They ruin souls and slap themselves on the back for their enlightenment. There will come a day of accounting, and may God have mercy on their souls.

#26 Comment By anonymousdr On October 31, 2015 @ 11:59 am

Just looked up an ex-girlfriend who is a theology PhD. Her thesis is on, wait for it, Judith Butler.

Why did we ever get rid of the Index? Even Papa Francesco has spoken out against gender theory. Its not like this is only coming from Cdl. Burke and SSPX.

St. Ignatius is probably listening to “Tears in Heaven” on repeat right now.

#27 Comment By Patrick On October 31, 2015 @ 2:17 pm

@ Eamus Catuli:

“see the ‘floor’ as a lot less finished and well-constructed than you do.”

Perhaps you do, perhaps you don’t: I doubt you do, given that God is infinite and our little floor, the Nicene Creed, is a few paragraphs (plus a few detailed cliff notes if you count the Catechism, which explains the Nicene Creed line-by-line.) In fact, I’m compelled as a matter of faith to believe God’s wisdom is infinite, and measuring God against our “floor” would be “floor”/infinite. That’s how porous our floor is as a matter of orthodox faith. Pretty porous!

It isn’t as if “holes in the floor” can’t be sealed (bits of orthodoxy developed or put in more focus). The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary wasn’t defined until relatively recently. It’s just that “the floor” itself – no matter how porous it is, is the proper forum in which to learn more about God rather than by inventing a new-fangled modern “floor”, which would tell you more about your own ingenuity and intellectual prowess – which is substantial, Catuli, I gotta say – than about God. (I’m suspicious that ingenuity and intellectual prowess actually *is* some peoples’ God, haha. No, seriously.).

Thus while we are in basic agreement on the problem, our (“religious conservatives”) remedy is that the zeal to improve things and reform things is properly applied to repentance and refurbishing the old floor and maybe, if you are truly blessed, helping to fill in one of it’s gaps (like the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady.) This is where I say a lot of conservatives confuse refurbishing the floor or the possibility of new knowledge with “disordered innovation”, and oppose what they ought to welcome.

Sadly, I suspect we get to a point where I say, “the Nicene Creed is real puzzle pieces – and the very few real ones we have” and you say, “No, there not. We’re going to found a new morality incorporating modern stuff.” All sorts of heresies sound just like that. They are all gone (expect Protestantism, which is dying), while orthodoxy lurches on. I hope your new morality – whatever it comes to be (and the post-moderns are good at critiquing but always cagey about specifics, which can be held up for examination) doesn’t destroy peoples’ lives.

Ok, I’m off to confess my sins to a priest, medieval-style. Ha.

#28 Comment By Joe M On November 1, 2015 @ 2:00 am

Creepy? Seriously? I find Cupich’s ongoing commentary to be “creepy” as it comes from a bishop but upends the faith of bishops and laymen. Any media manager of the Bishop’s will likely be a master of using orthodox vocabulary to dismember orthodoxy nonviolently. If he is calling you out on Twitter you are doing something right.

#29 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 1, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

Patrick, again, thanks for clarifying. I think we are agreed in hoping for a future theology that is better — more profound, more illuminating of our place in the cosmos and in relation to ultimate things — than some (or most) of what we happen to find already on hand.

#30 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On November 2, 2015 @ 10:03 am

To take just one example, it is not an entirely settled issue whether the Gospels relied upon eyewitness accounts or not

I’ll argue against anyone who wants to take me up on it that John, at least, was a slightly edited eyewitness account, and that Luke relied on eyewitnesses.

Yes, I can see that, and I appreciate your efforts to explain it. I also find your “ceiling / floor” analogy illuminating. I suppose one difference between us is that I — under the influence of the higher criticism as I am — see the “floor” as a lot less finished and well-constructed than you do

The problem I have isn’t that liberal theologicans want to tear down the house. (Well, it is in part that they want to tear down the house while calling themselves Catholic). My bigger problem is that metaphysical materialism, naturalism, historical criticism and ‘modernism’ more broadly want to tear down the house without building anything in its place. If you want to tear something down you have a moral duty to construct something in its place that you have good reason to think is better. Modern liberal theology too often boils down to denying the supernatural altogether.

#31 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 2, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

If you want to tear something down you have a moral duty to construct something in its place that you have good reason to think is better. Modern liberal theology too often boils down to denying the supernatural altogether.

So, Hector, we’re not obliged to believe in any particular God, and maybe not in any “God” at all, but we do have some kind of obligation to believe in the supernatural? First time I’ve ever heard that argument.

I don’t get where this idea comes from that things can’t be torn down unless something is built in their place. If an old, crumbling building is a firetrap and an eyesore, it might be a public service to tear it down and just let the grass grow instead. But, at any rate, I think most secularists who “tear down” belief in the supernatural believe that they are “building” something in its place — namely, a more rational, enlightened, truthful, fact- and evidence-based way of looking at the world.

#32 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On November 2, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

I’ll argue against anyone who wants to take me up on it that John, at least, was a slightly edited eyewitness account

So, John was personally present when “in the beginning was the Word…?”

Someone is going out of their way to ask that someone muzzle Cosimano…

A few posts ago, Charles grandiosely announced “All nature proclaims the truth of Cosimanian Orthodoxy.” This is true: nature “red in tooth and claw,” nature unmediated by any hope that there is a transcendent deity who created it all for the purpose of pulling us beyond the probabilities of a cold indifferent universe, DOES proclaim more of less what Charles offers as humorous observation. Its useful to be reminded of what our lives would be worth if it were not that, for some unfathomable reason, God loves us and in spite of ourselves, manages to improve our chances a bit.

#33 Comment By Eamus Catuli On November 3, 2015 @ 1:28 am

Hector, sorry, looking at this again (after a few hours’ sleep), I think I might have misunderstood. You’re making the narrower point that liberal theologians, specifically, have a duty not to deny the supernatural? OK, that’s interesting, and I guess I would have to think about it. As I said above, my problem with theology is that I’m not aware of any theology so far put forward that seems “big” enough to include what we now know to be true about the universe. The theology I’ve read all seems, for want of a better term, basically pre-Copernican.

Arguably, that’s why it’s about the supernatural: because it lacks a capacious enough grasp of the size and complexity of nature, so it relies on positing a bunch of things outside the “small” conception of nature that it acknowledges. But I don’t know. Maybe you’re right — maybe without some kind of supernatural element, it wouldn’t really be “theology,” just cosmology or philosophy or something.

Anyway, I would say again that my views on this are just those of an interested outside observer, because really a theology can be properly evaluated only from within the doctrinal or faith tradition that it’s aiming to expound.

#34 Comment By Sal On November 3, 2015 @ 10:10 am

Nothing new under the sun…

All I read here reminds me of the experiences that Frederica Mathewes-Green, Father Stephen Freeman, and others, but especially Khouria Frederica, relate when they talk about their time in Episcopal seminaries decades ago. It’s not anything new at all, and as Father Stephen proposes, it’s simply a symptom of the modern project that began during the ‘Enlightenment’.

On another note, I’d like to share something about my experience at university. Economics was one of my majors, and I recall that most of it presented as Truth, not ideology. I can understand the strong impact such an approach can have on today’s adolescent mind.

#35 Comment By Evan On January 18, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

Actually, Grimes lauds Tupac as a prophet. She obviously doesn’t distinguish theology from prophecy. Probably hasn’t read the bible then.