Theory snob or attentive theologian? A thought on my dissertation.

I think this will be the first post related to things that are “cropping up” as I work on my dissertation. I hope that they might also stimulate some thought and discussion for my readers who like to have their minds tilted sideways a bit, as I do! As many of you know, my PhD work involves assessing the dialogue between GLBTQ* theologians (especially those who find Queer Theory useful) and Evangelical-movement and pentecostal theologians. One of the main Queer theorists is Judith Butler, who has written several difficult but rewarding books about gender, sex, and sexuality in contemporary social thought. Part of her viewpoint might be called “social constructionism,” the idea that society and language shape most of what we experience, rather than an intrinsic “essence” that we have previous to our use of language or any interaction with others. It seems that the main origin of the phrase, “the social construction of reality,” comes from a book of the same title by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann.

In my dissertation, one of the things I am trying to argue academically is: academic theology (theological theory?) is not the primary focus of the debate about the lives and relationships of Queer Christians (though academic theologians, like all theoreticians, tend to over-rate their importance in social discourse). Academic “knowledge” is extremely specialized and not everyone in society has access to it. This is why I am trying to argue that Christian testimony, storytelling about how the life of an individual or community fits into a Christian understanding of what God is doing in the world, becomes much more central. Everyday life and reflection (including, of course, listening to sermons, reading theology, and Bible study) is thus the primary resource from which people draw what they “know” about the world.

The following extended passage strikes me as tremendously useful for my argument. Try replacing “sociology of knowledge” with “the theological task” and you might see what I mean (1967: 14-15):

The sociology of  knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for “knowledge” in society. As soon as one states this, one realizes that the focus on intellectual history is ill-chosen, or rather, is ill-chosen if it becomes the central focus of the sociology of knowledge. Theoretical thought, “ideas,” Weltanschauungen are not that important in society. Although every society contains these phenomena, they are only part of the sum of what passes for “knowledge.” Only a very limited group of people in any society engages in theorizing, in the business of “ideas,” and the construction of Weltanschauungen. But everyone in society participates in its “knowledge” in one way or another. Put differently, only a few are concerned with the theoretical interpretation of the world, but everybody lives in a world of some sort. Not only is the focus on theoretical thought unduly restrictive for the sociology of knowledge, it is also unsatisfactory because even this part of socially available “knowledge” cannot be fully understood if it is not placed in the framework of a more general analysis of language.

To exaggerate the importance of theoretical thout in sociaty and history is a natural failing of theorizers. It is then all the more necessary to correct this intellectualistic misapprehension. The theoretical formulations of reality, whether they be scientific or philosophical or even mythological, do not exhaust what is “real” for the members of a society. Since this is so, the sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people “know” as “reality” in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives. In other words, commonsense “knowledge” rather than “ideas” must be the central focus for the sociology of knowledge. It is precisely this “knowledge” that constitutes the fabric of meanings without which no society could exist.

The sociology of knowledge, therefore, must concern itself with the social construction of reality. …

Don’t get me wrong: I love the beauty that comes from playing respectfully (and sometimes irreverently) with ideas and concepts and doctrines to see how they fit together, especially because I believe the Christian story. But so many Evangelical theologians (especially) want the Church to “solve” the homosexuality or queerness “problem” using only academic analysis of the Bible or by developing a full theological schema that will tell the world exactly how queer lives “fit” into the Christian metanarrative (and if you’re confused by the $10 word I used just now, that’s part of my point!). But such insistence, I think, slights the thousands of queer Christians–whether or not they approve of homosexuality or gender transition or even marriage–who, by being faithful Christians in their everyday lives, arrive at an answer that seems to them to cohere with the Bible, reason, tradition, and so on. They are faithful because they practice their Christian faith with consistency and devotion–they live the story and develop a sense, like a kind of reflex, about when something fits or doesn’t fit.

Of course, Christians disagree about what fits, and so the theoreticians among us, the ones who have calling to study ideas and their histories, can help us find out why the pieces fit together for us the way they do. The shocking thing is, that despite 5000 years of people “knowing” that queerness doesn’t fit (or at least teaching that idea), we have a minority population in the world and (especially!) the Christian churches speaking of how this “queer thing” does fit, because they experience the blessing of God through it. The “real life” experience of being in God’s presence, of doing the stuff as well and graciously as we can, is the much more immediate and important way that we make decisions. And theology should help us reflect well on thatand not just the theories that may or may not be underneath how we read “real life.” I am doing my PhD work with the hope that rampant theorizing can perhaps abate long enough that wise and considered and raw real-life stories can prevent us from being theory snobs , in order to make us attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit of the Living and Faithful God. Because once that happens, things will never be the same, but people will be more fully alive.

To coax God’s people into attention and full life in Jesus is what theology is for. Let’s get to it.


One comment

  1. ghartwell2014

    Rob I like the point you are making which is that what is true is represented in testimony as much as it is in a theological sermon. So a story spoken in simple people straight talk carries as much weight as a large theological thesis with big words.
    That Jesus chose to teach and speak in story, picture and metaphor could be support for your thesis. It means Jesus believed he could convey the truth of his life in these terms as well as or better than in abstract theoretical concepts.
    What part of us really ‘hears’ God’s truth? Is it our intellectual rational mind? Is it the passionate center of our emotional intelligence which the Bible calls the heart? Or is it that inner ‘essence’ – our inner being that is represented in the Biblical record as God’s breath in Adam – the human spirit?
    I remember that the Bible scholars of Jesus day did not ‘see’ him. They did not get it when it came to who Jesus was. The extension of that is that present-day theologians may not understand what God is saying to the churches on the gay issue. What God is saying does not fit their theory. They do not ‘see’ the person in front of them.
    But love sees the person in front of us. God is love. God’s community will have love. That community will see the person in front of them even if they do not ‘fit’ theological teaching. Those who are God’s children and who love will see and will understand what God is saying.


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