Archive for theology

The Ignorance of Some Scientists

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

evolution religionOk, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.

Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.

Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.

Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.

I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit.  So we may agree on that point.

The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.

I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.

Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).

The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:

Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

And this is where I get really worked up!

I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.

While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”

It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales  ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.

Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.

Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.

To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.

This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.

Photo: Stock

Burke, The Media, and the Development of Theology

Posted in Pope Francis, Vatican II with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

816242-raymond-burkeIt is difficult to discern which public-relations spin is correct when it comes to the public and well-publicized disagreements among the college of cardinals about the nature, scope, hopes, and fears of the upcoming Synod on the Family. Some commentators have suggested that this is an example of infighting and ecclesiastical politics playing out, while others have suggested that this is an important dialogue reminiscent of the early church debates among bishops on matters of doctrine and morality.

While I would like to believe that the latter scenario is true, thereby evoking a time and experience of serious debate in theological reflection  along the lines of Nicaea or even the Council of Trent (in which theologians debated at the request of participating bishops to help shape the doctrinal and disciplinary pronouncements), I fear that a great deal of what is currently unfolding fits the bill of the former scenario — some cardinals just cannot accept the truth that fides quaerens intellectum means that we come to a fuller understanding of the so-called “content of the faith” over time and with serious and faithful research, reflection, and dialogue.

Case in point: Cardinal Raymond Burke’s latest rantings.

I don’t like to use such unfavorable descriptors as “ranting” to describe what my brother Christians and priests are doing, but there is really no other way around it in this particular case. Clearly unhappy with the change in pontificate, something about which he’s has not remained shy, and ostensibly threatened by the possibility that scripturally based mercy and social justice might inform the forthcoming proceedings of the October Synod, Burke has lately suggested that “the media” is responsible for “hijacking” the discussion in preparation for the Synod. Originally reported by the Catholic News Agency and picked up elsewhere, the Cardinal is reported to have said:

I don’t think you have to be brilliant to see that the media has, for months, been trying to hijack this Synod…he media has created a situation in which people expect that there are going to be these major changes which would, in fact, constitute a change in Church teaching, which is impossible. That’s why it’s very important for those who are in charge to be very clear.

So, what’s the problem? “Church teaching,” in the broad sense in which Burke evokes it here, does in fact change and change more regularly than one in his reactionary shoes might imagine.

Unfortunately, the good cardinal and canonist makes for a very inaccurate theologian and historian: changes in “church teaching” are in fact very possible and recognizable.

There are the classic examples of usury, slavery, interfaith marriage, and the like. But there are also more subtle ways in which “church teaching” has changed even within my admittedly short lifetime. Teaching pertaining to morality of all things. Take, for example, the way that magisterial teaching on capital punishment has shifted over the last thirty years, but in the exercise of papal teaching authority as well as on the more regional and local levels with bishops conferences and synodal statements. Also, the Code of Canon Law, that governing document so precious to Burke personally, continues to be a living document that is amended (Benedict XVI made changes, to the status of authority for the order of deacons, for example) and had in 1983 after the mandate of Vatican II significantly revised the Code.

On the more pertinent topic of the Sacrament of Marriage, both Vatican II (see Gaudium et Spes) and subsequent encyclicals (e.g., Humanae Vitae) significantly changed the “Church’s Teaching” on the natural “ends” of marriage, expanding that category from just procreative ends to include the role of mutuality and love between the spouses.

Unfortunately for Cardinal Burke, his personal opinion (which is what is expressed here) is not supported by the tradition, neither historically nor theologically. In truth, even his canonical field has to admit to change and with good reason. Regarding questions of the family, the meaning and practice of marriage in particular, these are things that certainly fall within (to put it simply) the extended category of church teaching and are not, as the Creed is for example, “impossible to change.” So much of what is billed by Burke and his likeminded fellows as essential to the faith is really a reliant, not simply on teaching constituting dogma (e.g., Scripture, the Creed, etc.) but the result of centuries of theological reflection and growing in the understanding of our shared faith. Additionally, so much of what is perceived as “unchangeable,” is reliant on medieval fundamental theology that does not always hold up to the natural and social scientific and philosophical discoveries we’ve made over the last millennium.

It is indeed time for conversation, and people like Burke are certainly welcome to oppose the work of other bishops and theologians, but don’t blame this on the “bogeymen” of “the media” and “culture.” Each should take responsibility for their own views and enter the dialogue with respect.

Photo: File

Congratulations to Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I am taking a short break from my vacation to share this NCR story about Professor Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s acceptance speech at this week’s LCWR annual assembly on the occasion of her having received this year’s Outstanding Leadership Award. Her remarks (those made public in new reports, the full text has not yet been made available) are courageous and honest. Not only does Prof. Johnson deserve this recognition in light of her academic work, but her steadfast yet respectful engagement with the USCCB committee on doctrine in the wake of its treatment of her writing remains a model of faithful response. I wish to extend my congratulations to Prof. Johnson and to my sisters in the LCWR here. To read more, see Religion News Service story or the NCR report by Dan Stockman here:

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The Vatican and women religious are caught up in a tension with historical, sociological and ecclesiastical roots, but a solution could be found, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson said.

The Fordham University theologian praised the sisters for their commitment to “meaningful, honest dialogue” and urged them to stay the course.

Johnson was honored Friday with the Outstanding Leadership Award by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest group of women religious leaders in the nation, representing about 80 percent of the 51,600 sisters in the United States.

Both Johnson and LCWR have been criticized by the church, and Johnson told the nearly 800 sisters gathered here for LCWR’s annual assembly that the criticisms of her writing and of LCWR are intertwined.

Johnson is widely admired by LCWR members, and she urged them to hang on despite an ongoing investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“I think both of us are caught in a situation not of our own making,” she said.

Johnson, a Sister of St. Joseph from Brentwood, N.Y., is considered one of the architects of feminist theology. She has published nine books and more than 100 essays in scholarly journals, book reviews, book chapters and articles; her work has been translated into 13 languages. She holds a doctorate in theology from The Catholic University of America and is a distinguished professor of theology at Fordham.

Johnson is a former president of both the Catholic Theological Society and the ecumenical American Theological Society, was a consultant to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Women in Society and the Church. She was featured in a Library of Congress calendar called “Women Who Dare.”

She is also controversial. In April, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ordered that after this assembly, speakers at the group’s events must be approved by Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, who heads the congregation’s five-year reform agenda for LCWR. Müller cited LCWR’s selection of Johnson for the Outstanding Leadership Award as one reason for the mandate, noting that Johnson has been “criticized by the Bishops of the United States because of the gravity of the doctrinal errors in [her] writings.” Sartain attended each of the public events during the LCWR assembly except for Johnson’s presentation, as he was traveling Friday night.

LCWR communications director Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Annmarie Sanders said the assembly directed the board members to respond to the mandate but would not say what that response would be.

“They told the board to take the next steps,” Sanders said.

A statement on the action to be taken is expected sometime after the board finishes meeting Monday.

In 2011, the doctrinal committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Johnson’s 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, is not in accordance with official Catholic teaching.

Johnson’s selection as a speaker, Müller said in April, “will be seen as a rather open provocation against the Holy See and the Doctrinal Assessment” and further alienates the LCWR from the bishops.

“It was clear from his statement that Cardinal Müller neither read the book or my response, but simply echoed the criticisms of the panel,” Johnson told LCWR members. “But the committee’s assessment of Quest is itself theologically flawed.”

Johnson reiterated her stance that the book does not say the things the panel claims it does and that she does not believe the things they say she wrote.

“It criticizes positions I take that are in accord with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and in several instances, it reports the opposite of what the book actually says in order to find fault,” she said. “In my judgment, and this is difficult to say, but I do believe such carelessness with the truth is unworthy of the teaching office of bishop.”

Johnson said the doctrinal congregation’s criticisms of LCWR are similar.

“The investigation’s statements express a vague, overall dissatisfaction and distrust on certain topics, and judgments are rendered in such a way that they cannot be addressed,” she said. “But your willingness to stay at the table and offer meaningful, honest dialogue is a powerful witness.”

Johnson said historically, there has always been tensions between religious communities and the hierarchy because one is based on a radical living of the Gospel and the other is based on administration, which requires order.

The issue is also sociological, she said.

“The church did not start out this way, but as an institution, it has evolved a patriarchal structure where authority is executed in a top-down fashion and obedience and loyalty to the system are the greatest of virtues,” Johnson said.

Finally, she said, the tensions are ecclesiastical because women religious have undergone the renewal called for by the Second Vatican Council and the hierarchy has not.

“Certainly, the LCWR and the sisters they lead are far from perfect, but they have got the smell of the sheep on them,” she said to heavy applause. “Post-Vatican II renewal has not taken place at the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith].”

LCWR said Johnson was chosen for her distinguished academic achievements and scholarly contributions and for her consistent focus on those suffering and in need.

“Through her engagement of the most difficult questions of our day and her attention to violations of God’s beloved creation,” the LCWR statement regarding the award said, “she works tirelessly for change in our world that is in accord with Jesus’ vision of the reign of God.”

Franciscan Sr. Nancy Schreck, who delivered this year’s keynote address, said Johnson’s speech was “fabulous.”

“She names things so clearly, but at the same time, her commitment to the faith is unquestionable,” Schreck said.

Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler praised Johnson’s assessment of the situation.

“Her analysis of the difficulties between the hierarchy and where religious communities are was right on, and she did it on so many levels,” she said. “What do you do when you’ve gone ahead and implemented Vatican II and they haven’t?”

Following her speech, Johnson received a long standing ovation, and afterward, dozens of sisters waited in line to speak with her while dozens more waited outside the hall to order audio recordings of the speech.

Johnson closed her talk by sharing an Apartheid-era photo of a wall in South Africa where someone had written “Hang Mandela!” Someone else had come and penciled in “on” to make it “Hang on, Mandela!”, completely changing the meaning of what had been a statement against anti-Apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, who was still in prison at the time.

That creativity, she said, subverted a slur into an inspiration, a curse into a blessing, and that same creativity can be used to change the present situation.

And so, to LCWR members, she urged, “On!”

Photo: NCR

John D. Caputo Interview with New York Times

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 12, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

JohnCaputoThere is an interesting discussion posted on the website of the New York Times between John D. Caputo and Gary Gutting titled “Deconstructing God.” Longtime readers of DatingGod.org will know of my appreciation for and interest in the work of Caputo in the field of continental philosophy of religion. Whether you are a fan of Deconstruction or not, whether you’re a fan of Caputo or not, these interviews with him are always interesting and worth considering. Here’s an excerpt from the discussion, you can visit the NYT website to read it in its entirety.

Gary Gutting: You approach religion through Jacques Derrida’s notion of deconstruction, which involves questioning and undermining the sorts of sharp distinctions traditionally so important for philosophy. What, then, do you think of the distinction between theism, atheism and agnosticism?

John Caputo: I would begin with a plea not to force deconstruction into one of these boxes. I consider these competing views as beliefs, creedal positions, that are inside our head by virtue of an accident of birth. There are the people who “believe” things from the religious traditions they’ve inherited; there are the people who deny them (the atheism you get is pegged to the god under denial); and there are the people who say, “Who could possibly know anything about all of that?” To that I oppose an underlying form of life, not the beliefs inside our head but the desires inside our heart, an underlying faith, a desire beyond desire, a hope against hope, something which these inherited beliefs contain without being able to contain.

If you cease to “believe” in a particular religious creed, like Calvinism or Catholicism, you have changed your mind and adopted a new position, for which you will require new propositions. Imagine a debate in which a theist and an atheist actually convince each other. Then they trade positions and their lives go on. But if you lose “faith,” in the sense this word is used in deconstruction, everything is lost. You have lost your faith in life, lost hope in the future, lost heart, and you cannot go on.

G.G.: I’m having some trouble with your use of “deconstruction.” On the one hand, it seems to be a matter of undermining sharp distinctions, like that between atheism and theism. On the other hand, your own analysis seems to introduce a sharp distinction between beliefs and ways of life — even though beliefs are surely part of religious ways of life.

J.C.: After making a distinction in deconstruction, the first thing to do is to deconstruct it, to show that it leaks, that its terms are porous and intersecting, one side bleeding into the other, these leaks being the most interesting thing of all about the distinction. I am distinguishing particular beliefs from an underlying faith and hope in life itself, which takes different forms in different places and traditions, by which the particular traditions are both inhabited and disturbed.

I agree they are both forms of life, but on different levels or strata. The particular beliefs are more local, more stabilized, more codified, while this underlying faith and hope in life is more restless, open-ended, disturbing, inchoate, unpredictable, destabilizing, less confinable.

G.G.: O.K., I guess you might say that all thinking involves making distinctions, but deconstructive thinking always turns on itself, using further distinctions to show how any given distinction is misleading. But using this sort of language leads to paradoxical claims as, for example, when you say, as you just did, that beliefs contain a faith that they can’t contain. Paradox is fine as long as we have some way of understanding that it’s not an outright contradiction. So why isn’t it a contradiction to say that there’s a faith that beliefs both contain and can’t contain?

J.C.: The traditions contain (in the sense of “possess”) these events, but they cannot contain (in the sense of “confine” or “limit”) them, hold them captive by building a wall of doctrine, administrative rule, orthodoxy, propositional rectitude around them.

G.G.: So the distinction that saves you from contradiction is this: Beliefs contain faith in the sense that, in the world, beliefs are where we find faith concretely expressed; but any given faith can be expressed by quite different beliefs in quite different historical contexts. In this sense, the faith is not contained by the beliefs. That makes sense.

Presumably, then, deconstructive theology is the effort to isolate this “common core” of faith that’s found in different historical periods — or maybe even the differing beliefs of different contemporary churches.

J.C.: No! I am not resurrecting the old comparative-religion thesis that there is an underlying transcendental form or essence or universal that we can cull from differing empirical religious beliefs, that can be approached only asymptotically by empirical cases. I am saying that the inherited religious traditions contain something deeper, which is why they are important. I don’t marginalize religious traditions; they are our indispensable inheritance. Without them, human experience would be impoverished, its horizon narrowed. We would be deprived of their resources, not know the name of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, the startling notion of the “kingdom of God,” the idea of the messianic and so on.

As a philosopher I am, of course, interested in what happens, but always in terms of what is going on in what happens. The particular religious traditions are what happen, and they are precious, but my interest lies in what is going on in these traditions, in the memory of Jesus, say. But different traditions contain different desires, promises, memories, dreams, futures, a different sense of time and space. Nothing says that underneath they are all the same.

G.G.: That doesn’t seem to me what typically goes on in deconstructive theology. The deconstructive analysis of any religious concept — the Christian Trinity, the Muslim oneness of God, Buddhist nirvana — always turns out to be the same: an endless play of mutually undermining differences.

J.C.: There is no such thing as deconstructive theology, in the singular, or “religion,” in the singular. There are only deconstructive versions of concrete religious traditions, inflections, repetitions, rereadings, reinventions, which open them up to a future for which they are not prepared, to dangerous memories of a past they try not to recall, since their tendency is to consolidate and to stabilize. Accordingly, you would always be able to detect the genealogy, reconstruct the line of descent, figure out the pedigree of a deconstructive theology. It would always bear the mark of the tradition it inflects.

A lot of the “Derrida and theology” work, for example, has been following the wrong scent, looking for links between Derrida’s ideas and Christian negative theology, while missing his irregular and heretical messianic Judaism. I like to joke that Derrida is a slightly atheistic quasi-Jewish Augustinian, but I am also serious…

Read the rest of the interview here: Deconstructing God.”

Photo: File

Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of (so-called) Heretics

Posted in Theologians That Rock, Uncategorized, Vatican II with tags , , , , , on January 28, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

stthomas2Today is usually a pretty big deal for students of theology. When I was doing some philosophy studies as a Franciscan postulant, the seminary where my classes were held was closed on this feast day. Thomas Aquinas, who today is remembered for his genius, theological acumen, and universal orthodoxy, wasn’t always received with such illustrious acclaim. Those familiar with the contentious debates about the place of theology among other arts and sciences during the early years of the nascent University of Paris will know well that Thomas was essentially “silenced” and viewed as a suspect theologian within three years of his life.

The angelic doctor died in 1274 and by 1277 the Parisian Condemnations, round two, which focused mainly on Aristotelian postulates and other increasingly influential ideas, focused on twenty of the angelic doctor’s doctrines and indirectly targeted a number of Thomas’s other ideas, essentially condemning his method in the process (the correlative engagement of the theological tradition with the metaphysical and epistemological work of Aristotle and his arabic commentators). In fact, for a time even the Dominican Order forbade his work from being read — my, how times have changed! It was thanks to a number of later Dominicans and other theologians seeking to highlight the genuine and important insights of Thomas that eventually led to his acceptance and canonization.

While this is simply a quick snapshot of the complicated beginnings of Thomistic theology — there are plenty of books and articles about these matters if you’d like to learn more — I mention it with good reason today.

I’m frequently amazed by the ironic embrace of Thomas Aquinas by some theologians and other Christians who see him as the bastion of orthodoxy and the intellectual center of the authentic vita evangelica. I actually don’t dispute this, for I believe he was both an intellectual giant, rightly deserving the title “Doctor of the Church” alongside Bonaventure and Augustine, and a holy individual. However, quickly do many of these same people forget the troubled past of this man from Aquino County in modern-day Italy. Similarly, many of those who hail Thomas as the icon of methodological orthopraxis and theological orthodoxy conveniently forget to recall his term served, largely posthumously, as a heretic.

Thomas engaged the “modern” philosophy and sciences of his day, arguing by means of his theological method that such insight — “pagan” though it was — was nevertheless a bearer of truth that could helpfully inform the Christian theological enterprise.

How many people today are viewed, judged, and written off as “heretical” or “unorthodox” theologians because of their own contemporary following in the footprints of Thomas Aquinas?

There are the big names, particularly those pre-conciliar theologians who were suspect or condemned and then called upon for guidance during Vatican II. But there are also many others, including women and men today, who are similarly dismissed or viewed with askance glances of doubt and suspicion.

Last fall I was talking with a gentleman who, interestingly enough, was a former student of René Girard. An intelligent and faithful man, our conversation stumbled into so-called “postmodern philosophy,” particularly the contemporary continental schools of thought tied to thinkers like Foucault and Derrida. When I expressed my appreciation for their insights, noting too that I was less amiable to certain aspects of each thinker’s work, and that I believed each had something to contribute to Christian theology, he was taken aback. These men were “atheists,” “nonbelievers,” “hostile to religion,” etc. etc., which was simply a modern way to talk about how Aristotle and the Muslim Aristotelians Thomas Aquinas drew insights were viewed by many in the thirteenth century!

The Second Vatican Council affirmed that truth is found in many places, traditions, cultures, and faiths. And that we should be open to these insights, particularly as they are beneficial in our quest to know the living God through the Spirit that continues to move in our world and intellectual history.

On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, may we remember that so-called heresy not pertaining to direct refutation of creedal dogmas is generally in the eyes of the beholder. Don’t rule out the possibility that we can indeed learn from others and remember that theology is not simply a repetition of catechetics or the reinvention of the wheel-of-faith. The practice of theology, as demonstrated by Thomas, is a faithful journey into understanding better who God is and who we are.

Photo: Stock

The Prologue for All Theology

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

booksAnother school year is upon us. Students and scholars alike are getting back into the routine of the academic cycle, preparing courses, reading texts, plotting research trajectories, and so on. This is certainly the case for me as I begin my second year at Boston College. I’m in the process of transitioning into the daily work that accompanies the excitement of a new semester, while also finishing up some revisions for journal articles after review and working on book manuscripts due at the end of the year. As I work on both the material for my coursework and the theological research and writing outside the classroom, I find myself reflecting on the prologue to the Sentences of Peter Lombard.

There is perhaps no more-important medieval text than Lombard’s Sentences, even if you’ve never heard of it. This particularly influential collection of authoritative theological opinions relate the early university study of scripture to the pressing doctrinal questions of the day. It became the blueprint for students studying to be theology masters in the high-middle ages, it was the structure that framed the commentaries of the theological masters. It also inspired others to consider alternative framings for a theological treatise of central Christian doctrine — think Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, to name two.

While reading Lombard’s prologue for a class earlier this week, I was struck by how the opening paragraph could — or maybe should — rightly serve as the “prologue for all theology” and stand as something like the motto or mission statement that each theologian should hold in view of her or his work. It could be something of an implied preface to the task at hand, a task that is truly intimidating, a task that is important and necessary, a task that should always be seen as ministry as much as scholarship.

And so, with that, I share the opening paragraph of Lombard’s Prologue to the Sentences:

Wishing, with the poor widow, to give something to the Lord’s treasury out of our penury and poverty, we have dared to scale the difficult heights and to undertake a work beyond our strength. We have grounded out confidence of completion and the reward for our labour in the Good Samaritan, who, after giving two silver pieces for the care of the man left half-dead, promised to repay all the expenses of the caregiver, who might have to spend more. The truthfulness of the one making that promise delights us, but the immensity of the work terrifies us; the desire to make progress spurs us on, but the weakness of failure discourages us, and only the zeal for the house of God overcomes it.

Happy New Academic Year!

Photo: Stock

On Why (Most) Academic Writing is so Terrible

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

writing“Academic research is often driven by real passion, but by the time it turns into scholarly prose, the heat has long since dissipated,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education columnist, former academic-press editor, and writing professor Rachel Toor in her latest column, “Writing with Soul.” For years I have appreciated Toor’s direct and honest advice. As someone who espouses the principle of “professional tough love,” meaning that I believe it better to give and receive hard truths than offer empty praise, I think Toor’s work generally promotes a sense of straightforward advice that most graduate students and junior faculty would prefer to otherwise ignore. I often hear in her years of experience a voice given to views or intuitions I already have, but have found difficult to express due to the absence of the examples and illustrations from which she draws in her columns. Such is yet again the case in her recent piece.

I have been frustrated with the generally poor quality of academic writing for years — and here I’m referring primarily to theology, my own field, but recognize this is a much broader phenomenon. As Toor points out, oftentimes the motivation for a given article, conference paper, or monograph originates from a place of passion and commitment for a topic, thinker, or cause. However, the finished product turns out to be frequently dry, convoluted, arcane, pretentious, long-winded, jargon-laden, or just poorly written. Toor summarizes what is missing in a word: soul.

Far too much “academic writing” lacks soul, Toor insists. I agree. She explains that in the case when writing lacks soul, it can appear as though the text was written by some machine or generic producer of “academese” nonsense that aims to be “objective” and ultimately occludes the author entirely. Toor explains: “Indeed, one of the problems with much scholarly writing it that we can’t see the men and women—with sweaty hands and occasionally overfull stomachs or caffeine-buzzed nervous systems—who compose it. It seems, often, to come straight from central processors, with formatted bullet points, weak verbs, and multisyllabic Latinate phrases.”

She explains what is meant by writing with soul.

Writing with soul doesn’t have to be personal, confessional, or raw, but it can’t be pretentious or inflated. Most of the great essayists knew that a plain style didn’t hurt. Sit down with Montaigne, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt, Goldsmith, Bacon, and Lamb and you’ll feel like you’re in a tavern or a book-lined private study, chatting with a smart, wise, and often witty friend. Academics learn to dress their ideas in bulletproof, jargon-ridden suits, to parry attacks before they are launched, to make small and careful points rather than allowing themselves to be vulnerable by pitching big and strange ideas in direct and forceful sentences. But that is not the path to making yourself compelling as a writer.

I remember when I was an undergrad simultaneously studying theology and journalism. At one point one of my theology professors gave me what I came to later realize was very bad advice. The concern was that my writing style in theological essays seemed too concise and “journalistically” and that my style in writing for theology should be more elaborate, lengthier and, essentially, filled with more jargon. The implication was that this is what a “theological essay” should look and feel like, this is what is makes a scholarly essay. And that is simply wrong.

It is not some scholarly platonic idea of a “scholarly essay” in which your essay participates or according to which it should be modeled that makes it legitimate. It is your ideas, research, cogency, and ability to intelligently convey those ideas that makes it legitimate. Yet, like my well-meaning professor a decade ago and so many grad students, people continue to think this is the case and that they need to emulate what is essentially bad writing in order to “be taken seriously” or to “sound scholarly.” What makes something scholarly is its original contribution according to good research and a good argument. And, counterintuitively, crappy writing according to some preconceived “academic style” can actually obscure and ultimately undercut that intended goal.

Rachel Toor warmed my heart with the following paragraph.

The moves that academics tend to make in their prose are often antithetical to “soulful” writing. Long, windy, semicolon-flecked sentences with recycled and ready-made phrases can create barriers that establish distance between writer and subject, author and reader. Often when I’m reading academic work not only do I feel like there’s no soul, I feel like it’s not even written by humans. Or for humans.

One reason I love this paragraph so much, as my former students and many of current colleagues know, is that I believe that semi-colons are a gateway drug to terrible writing. There is almost never a reason that one needs to use a semi-colon (the one exception is in a complicated series in which several commas are already in use, but even then one could technically rework it to avoid using semi-colons). Unlike periods, commas, and colons, the semi-colon is almost entirely elective. And, quite unfortunately, like commas and colons (to name but two), the semi-colon is almost always misused or at least imprudently used. When tempted to use a semi-colon, consider writing two tighter independent sentences. Your ideas will be more concisely and clearly expressed, thereby strengthening your argument and presentation.

In these summer months when so many students and scholars are working on this or that project, it might be a good time to take Toor’s comments to heart and reconsider how one appropriates good and bad writing habits. If you’re the type of person who thinks that she or he “needs to sound a certain way” and struggles to replicate an “academic style” of a platonic sort — stop right now. Focus on the content of what you’re saying and say it in the way that comes naturally to you. Work on it so it is technically correct (grammar, punctuation use, vocabulary, etc.), but please do not perpetuate the bad habits of academic-writing mythology.

There is no such thing as “good academic writing.” Good writing is good writing. Period.

If we all do our part to write with soul, maybe academic writing won’t always be so terrible.

Photo: Stock
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