Recently I was asked by my department at Xavier University to write a white paper on the state of theology. I noted that Xavier had moved beyond the parochial blinders of a pre-Vatican II world, where the only task of theologians was to transmit “unchanging” doctrine in order to maintain an informed and obedient laity, devoted churchgoers and virtuous citizens. Then in the late 1970s a radical transformation occurred. Under the impetus of the Second Vatican Council, the curriculum now featured a critical approach to theology, taught by faculty emerging from a variety of professional theological programs. Experience became the focus of the endeavor, deepened by both the historical-critical reading of sacred texts and an abiding respect and openness to interfaith dialogue. We hoped that students would begin to see the complexity of their relation to their past and apply their nuanced understanding to their present ethical concerns.
But new and persistent forces are at work. In fact, precisely due to these impinging pressures, I have become more aware of the social and economic conditions under which even the post-Vatican II reforms were made. A structure that had essentially been that of a medieval guild morphed into an industrial age model. The various theological disciplines reflected the specialized labor conditions of the Germanic academic model that had not been sufficiently critiqued. At present the acid rain of corporate thinking (“University Inc.”) is dissolving academic structures (both medieval and industrial) with a constant shock of demands for rebranding, repeated quantitative assessments, and competitive realignment among areas of the university. Where does theology stand in the battle for Brand? Has the value of theology been discounted so as to make such specialized labor obsolete?
The current strategies by which educators attempt to justify the academic enterprise and its outcomes ironically create faculty and administrators who are anxious, ashamed, resentful, and exhausted. The inherent logic of this system compels people to make choices that can only fall short, eventuating in an ever-increasing downward spiral.
In the face of corporate pressure, maintaining the status quo is not only a losing proposition but a telling indication of our inability to detect the limits of the educational situation. There is a crucial need to take a walk outside this academic hothouse. We cannot continue to produce, insouciantly, ever more recondite and isolated articles while the planet burns; nor can the usual habits of thought and behavior that reinforce the educational status quo (as well as confining academics to further irrelevancy) any longer be sustained. The depths and complexity of life on this planet cannot simply be reduced to the algorithms of abstract quantification. And the conversation can no longer turn on an assumption of economic scarcity, where parties merely compete for ever dwindling resources. Lastly, we need to see how this competitive behavior emerges from the lingering assumption that “we” are at odds, at war, with whatever opposes us. None of this can be maintained as, all the while, the planetary crisis overarches the enterprise of the university.
How can we begin to argue for the endeavor of theology given the fraught atmosphere engulfing us? Let us begin by remembering what the task has been and continues to be: an unrestricted quest for meaning. Genuine theological education is not simply training, or, as James Carse so well puts it, “preparation against surprise.” Rather theological education prepares us (teacher and student) to be surprised. Deep theological inquiry discloses an increasing richness of the past because it both sees the past as unfinished and looks at the future in expectation to be surprised. People can be trained to anticipate the future in order to control it. On the other hand, engagement in theology makes one vulnerable to new possibilities and transformation.
Let us then keep focused on what we have been doing well for some time. We already are adept at detecting strategies for discovering meaning. Our work, when it is successful, is characterized by its improvisation, surprise, and creativity. Our task is not to maintain the present (actually the past as finished) into the future, where only catastrophe or crisis can break through. Nor is it to service an educational Ponzi scheme, where we keep doubting our competence and where students never get a foothold in life.
Rather, because we can think outside the box, we can and should transgress in order to see that our conversation with our students entails a fundamental relationality with the planet. Nothing will change if we do not see that everything is related. And if we are concerned about our planet, we must do more than worry over carbon data. We must become passionate about our evolutionary habitat. We cannot stand off to one side and hypocritically proclaim our expertise and innocence, while all the rest goes to hell. We need to realize that fundamental lies underpin the imaginative landscape of scarcity and apocalypse: that we are separate from everything else, that we are exceptional in the divine sight, and that there is nothing to be concerned about on this woebegone planet. Instead, let us acknowledge that we cannot begin to deal with life on this planet if we do not see the interconnectedness of all things. Beauty and suffering undermine the algorithms of the age.
Theology thus becomes a continuing conversation for the worth and survival of our life together on this planet. We can begin to see that theology today is more than its traditional definition. Theology is the critical reflection of the ways in which we talk of the depths of our life together on this planet. Compassion and love (without which the concern for social justice becomes a dry hypocrisy) are not extraneous to the way we teach. They are the essential core of theological education for the planet. 4R