The Theologia Class Culture

My Theologia class started at Highland last night. I blogged about it here. We are starting off with Heim's Saved from Sacrifice.

Most of the class was about the kind of culture I want to establish in the class. It was kind of my description of the class I had always wanted to have at church. I don't know if Theologia can create that culture, but I'm going to try. I'll let you know how it goes. Below are the five points I made to the class with expanded descriptions. I plan to give this to all new members and class visitors. I'd like to post it here for some of you to react/respond to as I respect your opinions. You've become my intellectual conversation partners (which is great as I freak out most of my ACU colleagues). Any feedback is appreciated.

The Theologia Class Culture

The Egalitarianism of Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
The two pillars of Christianity are the notions of orthodoxy (“right belief”) and orthopraxy (“right practice”). Generally, orthodoxy has tended to trump orthopraxy. That is, being Christian has been largely defined by what you believed rather than how you behaved. But, interestingly, Jesus tended to see orthopraxy as the test of orthodoxy, and of faith generally (“By their fruits you shall know them,” “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven but he who does the will of my Father.”) In this class, we will place orthodoxy and orthopraxy on equal footing. Class agreement will be based on practicing the Way of Jesus and less concerned with conceptual unanimity and intellectual agreement. Simply stated, we might not always agree but we are committed to being good people, conforming to the Imago Christi ("the image of Christ"). And that commitment unites us in Christ.

A High View of Doubt
There are more lament songs than praise songs in the book of Psalms. Thus, we are committed to allowing lament, complaint, and doubt to be legitimate ways with God. Walter Brueggemann may have said it best: “It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented…It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the larger number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about an incoherence that is experienced in the world…I believe that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity” (The Message of the Psalms, 1984, pp. 51-52).

God as an essentially contested concept
An essentially contested concept, first described by philosopher W.B. Gallie, is a concept that all parties accept but where there is endless disagreement, argument, and conversation as to the proper understanding, realization, or application of the concept. In this class, God will be our essentially contested concept. We start the conversation with the notion of God, but what do we mean exactly? Who is God? What is God doing?

But some people are frustrated by theological debate and conversation. It can seem pointless and is often frustrating. But we must argue about God because if the conversation about God is ever allowed to end we would have created an idol (a human product—linguistic in this case—meant to represent God). Only endless conversation about God protects us from idolatry and gives the prophets among us—those experts at idol smashing—the room to operate.

Xenia is the Greek word for hospitality and love of strangers. We want Theologia to be a friendly and hospitable place, both interpersonally and intellectually. More specifically, we want to be hospitable to people who believe things that are different from us. In addition, the conversations in Theologia will get pretty “deep” and jargon will be deployed joyously. But jargon can be inhospitable, marking “insiders” and “outsiders.” Thus, to commit to xenia, all our class members will work hard to translate and communicate so that everyone can get “inside” the conversation and vigorously participate.

Epistemic Virtue
Epistemic means “pertaining to knowing.” Thus, epistemic virtues are the good mental habits of the very best learners and conversation partners. Epistemic virtues are the mental attributes that create a great atmosphere for exploring and thinking. Obviously, being a mean-spirited, close-minded, know-it-all is symptomatic of epistemic vice (i.e., you really shouldn’t be that way). But being a warm-hearted, open-minded, curious person marks you as epistemically virtuous! Epistemic virtue is a requirement for the class. And, we should add, for all good conversation.

Costly Fideism
Fideism is the notion that human reason is dumbfounded by the transcendence of God. This makes some fall silent while others grow chatty. In Theologia, we’ll be chatty.

This does not mean we deny the mystery of God. All of us know that human reason will, at some point along the faith journey, fail us. The final step, whenever that comes, will be taken with “fear and trembling.” But too often people deploy the word “mystery” as a way of shutting down the conversation. This often happens just when the conversation gets difficult or is making demands of us (like to change our mind). Saying “Mystery” in these cases is simply an excuse to stop talking or to avoid a challenging conclusion (which, we might add, is not epistemically virtuous). We’ll call this cheap fideism, or perhaps fearful fideism is a better term.

In Theologia, because we have a high view of doubt, we do recognize the limits of reason and we do believe in mystery. But we also believe that mystery is not an intellectual escape hatch or a way to avoid the difficult question. Mystery must be costly, and the product of theological fatigue. Mystery is what you say at day's end, when you are very tired, and when you have pushed reason courageously to its very limit. We are fideists, but we are costly fideists. Mystery comes with an intellectual and spiritual price-tag.

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5 thoughts on “The Theologia Class Culture”

  1. Richard,

    May your Theologia participants somewhere along their way say with Dante as he exited Hell: (Inferno, Canto 34, Line 139: "E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle." ("And we came forth to again behold the stars.")

    You speak of mystery. The best I've read lately about mystery is the closing paragraph in Cormac McCarthy's latest book, THE ROAD. It is a liminal and luminal book about a father-son pilgrimage. Mysteriously, I was reading it as my own father died. McCarthy concludes: "Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."


    George C.

  2. When I read your stuff and then try to place it at ACU, I'm really amazed. So, not surprised you blow your colleagues away!!!

    Love these points! I hope this group does well -- It sounds as if you have a group that's committed to going deep. That is rare in the church.

  3. Regarding your commitment to concurrent orthodoxy/praxy, you might be in interested in Ellen Charry's work calling for a rejuvenation of sapiential theology. she prophetically criticizes the trend in theology towards theology that doesn't pertain to virtuous living.


  4. I'm intrigued by the idea of a 'linguistic' idol. The idea sounds very Barthian, which of course makes me a bit predisposed to it, but I'm not entirely convinced that this sort of idolatry would be comparable to those condemned in scripture.

  5. George,
    That's a beautiful passage. Mystery strikes me as well when I contemplate nature and how such beauty can exist at all.

    Luckily, ACU is not TOO homogeneous, theologically speaking. I have a few really great conversation partners/kindred spirits on campus. But we are in the minority. So, this blog is a haven for me. I'm just amazed at how I've found people here who like to think about things experimentally the way I do.

    Thanks. I've found some of Charry papers and have started to read them. You're correct, I really like her take. More to come as I digest them.

    I should have noted that I'm borrowing the "linguistic idolatry" formulation (which, as you note, is a wee bit different than how we typically think of it) from Peter Rollins's excellent book How (Not) to Speak of God. See that book for a fuller defense/argument for the notion of a "linguistic idolatry."


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