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Why Study Academic Theology?

To shore up and build the Master's house -- or to destroy it?

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

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, “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), 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.  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, 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. 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. 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 — 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,” 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 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). 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, 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 ? 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:

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. 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” 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, 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.



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