I had a great conversation yesterday with a dear friend about the task, the role, and the importance of “systematic theology” as a discipline in the coming age. We disagreed pretty significantly at points, but we fundamentally agreed on one point: theology as it has been done in the modern period (my terminology), marked by the isolated (white male) individual dropping tomes of knowledge on the world from his lonely office, should come to a swift end.
Of course, this doesn’t mean theology, even “systematic” theology, needs to or even should go away – only that its emphases and orientation must change, drastically – for my money, in such a way that will hopefully produce better theologies, better theologians, and better people who do theology. What should this new (old) orientation be? My buddy Jim McClendon is here to help us out:
Any existing human conviction can be located within a particular community of speech and (other) practice, in which what is said and believed can be assessed according to existing community standards. The theologian, for example, is occupied with fitting particular beliefs into the general web of discerned community beliefs, sometimes trimming, enlarging, or rearranging the particulars in order to achieve maximum correspondence and coherence. The attempt to find a viable, economical statement of the community’s narrative tradition is equivalent to seeking the irreducible current statement of its obligatory beliefs or dogmas. To express the matter in McClendon and Smith terms, doctrinal theology is the quest for those beliefs that deserve to be recognized as the convictions of the community. (Philosophers who fail to see this communal dimension of the theological task are in poor position to correct any of theology’s deliverances.) “‘Convictions’ After Twenty Years”
Put differently: theology should be, will be done from one’s position in a community of conviction. It is second-order. This in no way denigrates the task of systematic (perhaps “coherent” is a better descriptor?) theology, but it should be of a different character than many systematic theologies that have been done thus far. We can learn from them – we should learn from them – but for my money, theology done in this manner is more faithful, more risky, and potentially more interesting than the other.
Of course, all this should be taken with a grain of salt – I am an ethicist, after all.