Beyond Theory: Bringing Theology To Life
By Ed Watson
Go back to just about any time you want and you'll be able to find someone inveighing against abstract theology and the spiritual atrophy it can invite. We still, I believe, carry with us a stereotype of dry scholasticism, according to which theologians are more likely to debate how many angels could fit on a pinhead than they are to feed the hungry. It is also easy, in my experience, to find those for whom an overt focus on the specific details of Church doctrine merely reinforces a dead orthodoxy.
Now, I tend to be naturally drawn to the abstract and the (pseudo-)technical, at least when it comes to philosophical theology. For whatever reason, I can imagine myself being quite interested in the various arguments one could put forward regarding angels on pinheads, and whilst I used to be scathing about the importance of specific doctrine, I now find it to be an absolutely fascinating confluence of faith and language. My purpose here, however, is not immediately to try and argue against this idea of abstract theology. It is instead to give a personal account of how my philosophical and theological reading has informed and been informed by my life in St. Hilda's, then try to draw from this a sense in which a focus on such disciplines can both properly invigorate and be properly invigorated by Christian living. (I'm trying to write this as accessibly as I can, so apologies if it's either a) not rigorous enough, or b) still completely inaccessible.)
First, how has my time at St. Hilda's been informed by my reading? First, it has been a spiritual practise, a bit like prayer. I might disagree with him about a couple of things (which, on balance of probability, I'm almost certainly wrong about), but I think my old tutor Bill Wood is absolutely right when he writes about how Analytic theology can be understood as spiritual practise in and of itself. It has certainly served this function for me, and in doing so has kept me feeling spiritually refreshed over the last couple of years.
There are, however, more specific ways in which philosophy and theology have affected the last couple of years. For example, I have found that reading around the history of philosophical arguments regarding the nature of essence (or what it is to be a given thing, whether this thing be a zebra, a chair, or an example of knowledge) has had a major impact on the manner in which I have approached community living. It is easy to think of the essence of a given thing as being immutable, necessary, absolute, definite; as that which cannot be changed if that given thing is to continue in its existence. It can be referred to as the 'pure' core of what we are, or what we find when we strip away everything in us that is inessential*. Whether or not this essence is conceived of in terms of instantiating universals or in terms of specific particularity is not hugely important, as far as I can see: what matters is that we carry with us a view that what something is essentially is what it is in and of itself, apart from any extrinsic relationships. This is, very broadly speaking, the view of essence we have inherited from Plato and (in a significantly more complicated fashion) Aristotle, and which still carries weight in both contemporary philosophy and wider society.
There is a another way of thinking about essence, however (I am here trying to refer to the thought of Wittgenstein). It does not deny that the word 'essence' has an important use: it does, however, deny that this use is to refer to a specific set of qualities in virtue of which a given thing necessarily is what it is. This is first because there is no such specific set of qualities: this notion of essence refers to something which doesn't exist*. It is second because what we are, both in and of ourselves and at any given time, is a far more contingent business: we are not primarily defined by our intrinsic qualities but by our contexts, by our relationships, by what we do and why. As those contexts change, meanwhile, they can change us. By this I don't mean that they can just make us behave differently; I mean that it can change the very thing it is to be ourselves.
These arguments have shaped the way I've approached community. Is my purpose in community to hunker down and learn who and what I am in and of myself, irrespective of my situation, apart from those with whom I live and who I love? My reading has told me that the answer is no. In trying to apply this, I have sought to allow myself to be shaped by my community; to be less concerned with asking who I am as opposed to asking who I can be. Of course, a part of what has emerged from this is that there are certain qualities of mine which I cannot seem to alter (I'll leave those to your imagination); the effect of this, however, has merely been to suggest that these qualities do not define me.
My reading has also changed the way that I have sought to interact with others (though missteps are of course always possible). I have, I hope, been far less concerned with trying to discern who and what my housemates are in and of themselves, then holding them to an essential measure of quality. I hope I have been able to apply the philosophy I've been reading and approach them without the presupposition that to know them I must be able to isolate their essential qualities (which, alien as it might sound expressed like this, is I think a tendency many of us have!).
As to how living in community has informed my reading, well, I believe that it has quite literally given it life. If you've made it this far (and my deepest thanks if you have), I would guess you might been a bit frustrated with two lengthy paragraphs about philosophical views on essence, paragraphs which in themselves seem to have little to say to anything outside of a pop-philosophy journal. I would agree with this: and I would then say that it is since I have lived in community that the words have come alive and started speaking to my situation. The same is true of my work with Saint Martin's, and especially of my students, who have taught me more about my books than my books could ever teach me about them.
There is a reason for this. One of Wittgenstein's most powerful images is of philosophers dissecting (analysing) dead words: for having removed them from the context of their use, from their actual application, the philosophers have ensured that they won't be able to find the very thing they're looking to find, namely, the life of the word, its meaning(s). I believe that living in community has effected a reverse of this situation: it has given the words a use in context, and so it has brought them to life. This, I believe, is why I have read more in community than at any other time I can remember: because all the otherwise dusty tomes filled with potentially dry scholasticism have, when read in this context, been instead energised and energising.
All this is so much philosophy: what about theology? Well, I believe that some stance on the above is already implicit in the different ways we believe in God, approach Scripture, and understand the Church and its creeds. Through all this, some stance is also implicit in what we believe God wills us to do in the world and how he wills us to do it.
We express these beliefs, meanwhile, in the form of Church doctrine; in the shared beliefs we regularly proclaim about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The form of expression, the content of these beliefs, and their practical implications (including the nitty-gritty work of comforting those who mourn and trying to shelter those who are vulnerable) is, I think, the subject matter of theology. As such, some stance on philosophy is often already presumed in both the manner in which we make theological assertions and the lives we live on the basis of them. This philosophy, then, is relevant to both theology and to Christian living.
This is not, of course, to say that one must read Wittgenstein to be a Christian. It is, however, to say that these figures can be important for giving life to the whole. To use a crude (and probably misguided) analogy to illustrate this: engineering works according to the principles of physics, and physics is expressed using the tools of mathematics. A change in mathematical principles can lead to a change in the principles of physics: sometimes these changes will be of obvious practical relevance when it comes to engineering, sometimes they might look like only so much reshuffling. Either way, though one doesn't have to be a mathematician to be a skilled engineer, our societal understanding of physics (thanks to a very few) improves our society's ability to construct, and our societal understanding of mathematics (thanks to even fewer) improves our ability to understand physics.
It seems to me, that Christian living, theology, and philosophy stand in a similar relationship. One doesn't need to be a theologian to live a Christian life, and one doesn't have to be a philosopher to be a theologian. However, Christian life and Christian service is still informed by theology on a societal level; and the expression of that theology is itself premised upon an (often implicit) philosophy. Exploring the connections between these three thus seems to me to be of great importance, not because everyone should be a philosophical theologian, but because it is a good thing to have a clear(ish) communal sense of what we're doing and why.
Which brings me in a roundabout fashion back to my first paragraph. Is all this just dry scholasticism, which in belatedly pointing towards church doctrine merely inspires a dead orthodoxy? It can be: it absolutely can be. If philosophical theology loses sight of its end, which is love of God and neighbour, then it surely dies: it cuts itself off from the institution of its use. This end, however, can give philosophical theology purpose. It can inform this abstract work, so that this abstract work might then inform the concrete situations within which love is commanded. And this, I hope and pray, is what living in community has done for me: it has focussed my philosophical and theological reading around the command to love God and neighbour, and in doing so has quite literally brought this theology to life.
*at the recent convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, on of the poems on the table made this point by comparing human beings to pineapples.
*N.b. I'm not trying to deny that most species of things entail within them certain necessary qualities: rocks are necessarily inanimate, for example. I would deny, however, that in a large number of cases, the necessary qualities are not themselves sufficient for being.