Theology and Unmaking the World

Another report from the trenches

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 32, Issue 2
March – April 2019

Download the PDF version
Order this issue

I finally took the step and significantly modified my Freshman Introduction to Theology. Up until this year I have opened the conversation with students over how we can critically reflect on the ways we converse about the depths of our life together. We begin by slowly recognizing how complex each of us is. Everyone brings enormous and unspoken depths to any experience. At the same time, I remind them that listening to another, trying to understand an ancient text, is no easy assignment. Rather, it is a transgressive act, crossing borders into unknown territories. Thus we need to pay attention and notice whatever emerges in this crossing.

To help us see this complexity, we consider accounts (both real and fictional) that involve the search for meaning. We begin to notice what sort of language is in play. Why were these words, that expression, those symbols used? We see how myth, narrative, and parable play telling roles in the human attempt to make sense of things. At that point we look around to see how other humans on this planet have tried to construct meaning. We delve into the past and examine key texts from the Hebrew writings, then plunge into the sayings of that artisan from Nazareth. At every stage we appreciate how each fragment is “a raid on the inarticulate” (T. S. Eliot). We allow ourselves to be surprised by what our ancestors envisioned as we test past wisdom in the crucible of our experience. What insight has crossed into our lives? This generates a more detailed discussion over contemporary ethical consequences. As you might surmise, the journey is never the same. Questions arise, conversations dangle, conundrums appear. The conversation bobs and weaves, ebbs and wanes. And every so often, a student will show remarkable courage and raise a question or issue that means the world to her.

So, why would I tinker with what appears to be a successful classroom scheme? It has to do with what I consider theology to be, namely our critical reflection on the ways we converse about the depths of our life together. How can we consider the depths of our lives, if we do not consider what life together on this planet means? You see, theology has never been a hot-house game for me, abstracted from time and space. If theology is not about reality, then why do it? I teach theology in order to test the waters, not to put something on a museum shelf. I do not shrink from telling my students that theology can teach us survival skills. At this they usually roll their eyes. But then we talk, we engage in questions, puzzle over texts. They begin to perceive that human beings cannot survive without making persistent stabs at meaning. Without a sense that reality somehow connects us, people’s worlds fall asunder. This doesn’t happen only to French existentialists. If we are alert, we can detect meaning’s rise and fall in the very eyes we encounter on a bus.

What I have added to the syllabus is nothing less than a game-changer. The most recent Government Climate Assessment is more than an enormous download onto students’ laptops. The report wreaks havoc with every theological gambit. It turns apocalyptic scenarios upside down. No longer god-driven, the various scripts for climate change undermine the ways in which we have materially cast our world. We have begun to “see fire and see rain.” Yet we are loath to imagine what the fate of our coastlines will be, how mass internal migrations will transmogrify the cities and towns that remain, how the technologies we so heavily rely upon will be rendered impotent.

Of course there are some who would say that all this horror is not the subject of theology. Content yourselves with “God-talk” (theos/god, logos/talk). Besides, shouldn’t we be concerned with all that transcends such mundane matters? It would be nice to exist in such a rarefied atmosphere. But we are human and have emerged through millions of years of evolution on this planet. Indeed, even from a more traditional sense of being a creature (Gen 1:26–27), we cannot launch ourselves into an angelic realm. In fact, this attempt to stay within the usual realm of theology is actually a way of avoiding the planetary threat. We shudder at what appears to unmake our world.

I can understand this overwhelming fear. I saw it before when we were facing the nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States. I realized then that if I gave into that fear, the bomb would have already gone off—in my heart. I also noticed that there were countless others on the other side of the world who were working for arms reduction and peace. It may well be that this clear and present danger would keep us from realizing that there may be more than Armageddon in our future. Additionally, our denials prevent us from noticing that there already are people around the globe who are engaged in meeting these threats. And, as we slowly admit this monstrous vision in, we begin to see that this is a critter of our own making— but hardly under our control. Can we then begin to imagine and live in ways that sustain our life on this planet? Can we face the “powers that be,” that is, nation states and Theology and Unmaking the World Continued from page 4 international corporations that only see their self-interest in maintaining this doomsday scenario? How can we learn to reimagine the structures necessary for our life together? How can we build a world that has a future for our race? Without facing these questions, I contend that we no longer are engaged in theology. We would forfeit the uncanny and baffling conversation de profundis, that is, from the depths of our lives in this planetary situation. But if we do plumb these menacing questions, we shall begin to notice, take care, and perhaps repair the coming world.

Are you enjoying this article? The Fourth R magazine shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience (6 issues annually).

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

Did you enjoy the article?
Consider ordering this issue of The Fourth R.