Thursday, April 12, 2012

Transmission of the Transcendent

Theology, in the sense of attempting to comprehend and, potentially, communicate the transcendent   has been seen as an exercise of another era, proper to a time and place in which the conception of reality was substantially different from our own. Critical studies, be it in the Bible or early Christian history, has largely prohibited such a theological enterprise. There is, then, a necessity for theology to come to terms with the results of critical scholarship. Persons seeking to do theological work, in any area, cannot legitimately ignore critical scholarship.

Recently I was involved in a discussion over the quality of Latin utilized in the Roman liturgy on a blog that shall remain nameless. The author was adamant in defending the proposition is necessarily hieratic based upon an analysis of Latin liturgical text that has hardly acquired mainstream consensus among Latin scholars. Indeed, the position is largely the purview of ecclesiastics of a particular ideological bent. After discussing the problems inherit in the position based upon examples drawn from the Latin language itself, the author promptly replied that, nevertheless, the argument can be made and has been made and then closed all comments for his post.

I am, to a degree, somewhat sympathetic towards the author in question. He desperately desires to find the source of the transcendent in one's life and believes the liturgy is the arena in which such contact takes place. Nevertheless, when critical scholarship seriously disputed his claims, the response was to immediately disengage from the discussion and close himself off to further inquiry.

This example, I believe, demonstrates a tendency I have seen among many persons interested in rediscovering a theology capable of dialogue with the transcendent and the eternal, a reality beyond our own. Critical scholarship is greeted with suspicion and rather than learning the complexities of critical scholarship, the decision is made to disengage and retreat into a posture of intellectual isolation.

I advocate post-critical theology on account of my own experience. While most critical scholarship can be disputed, it is not necessarily refutable. Critical scholarship largely impinges upon certain accretions to the Christian narrative, it does not, nor is ever able, to dismiss the transcendent. It is possible to engage the transcendent while fully integrating the consequences of critical scholarship. The debate, after getting over a certain amount of narrative shock, centers upon to what degree post-critical theology follows the trail of critical scholarship.

A few weeks back I reviewed a journal article in which, towards the conclusion, the author had, ultimately, obscured the Christian kergyma to the extent that one could not identify a deposit of faith transmittable to subsequent generations. This analysis would undoubtedly trouble said author given that her desire was to propose a deposit of faith that was "relevant" to our current sociological situation. Theologians of the university, especially biblical scholars, are often shocked at how irrelevant their models are outside of the university. They are forced to reckon with a criteria for which the university rarely trains its academic theologians to fulfill - namely, relevance to the praxis of daily life. Theology is only worth the effort if, in the end, it has something to transmit to another about the nature of God and our relationship to the Deity and, more importantly, how we can access said Deity. In both my undergraduate and graduate education I met numerous "theologians", more of whom were tenure tracked, who could not understand the appeal of John Paul II or Benedict XVI to a recent wave of theologians my age and younger. Granted, I'm not often persuaded by most papal arguments and I find Ratzinger's finest theology to be years behind him, however, I am well aware of the allure the last two pontiffs have had for young theologians. Both men offer a theology capable of transmitting a divine communication relevant to the praxis of daily life. One may disagree with the content of that communication, however, one cannot dispute its effectiveness.

The relevance of theology, what makes a theology work, is its ability to provide a man or a woman with a narrative capable of providing structure, meaning, and transcendence to his or her lives. The challenge for theologians in the aftermath of critical scholarship is to utilize said scholarship in a matter that provides the same structure, meaning, and transcendence.