A plea for a polemical pedagogy OR why theology isn’t about being nice

 This book is making my life miserable. Besides entirely lacking any aesthetic appeal, it’s leading me to an existential crisis. Why? Because it’s a reader in Christian Theology.  More specifically, I take issue with the way it is set up.  William C. Placher has organized the chapters into different aspects of theology and/or Christian belief.  Within each chapter he offers a general overview of the topic and introduces two essays on the topic by different theologians, usually contradictory is some way (but not often explicitly contrasting each other’s arguments).  His introduction sets up various questions around the topic but he keeps his own opinions and leanings to himself.   The way the book is set up facilitates a sympathetic reading of each author’s argument and the validation or legitimization of their contribution to Christian theology (even if you, the reader, happen to disagree with some of the arguments, or parts of their arguments).  The problem with this twofold, practical and philosophical, if you will grant me those distinctions (this is only a heuristic dualism, obviously). First, the practical problem with this is that if you simply present a student of theology, or a Christian believer, or even someone exploring the Christian faith, a series of arguments on a topic without taking any positions then the student has no idea what to believe!  Christian theology is not about laying out the various arguments that exist and then picking and choosing which ones you like. And this relates to the philosophical problem: one can see how this kind of approach to belief echoes a Cartesian justified-true-belief.  But this is not the grammar of belief in Christianity.  Christian belief is not constituted by a propositional list of what we do and do not know about the nature of God and so on.  Christian belief is something that is formed within a believing-community that practices/lives out its belief(s) and in turn also forms belief(s) through its various practices.  Another word for beliefs could be character.  And the process of coming-to-know and believe certain things could be called character-formation.  Fergus Kerr summarizes this phenomenon, this grammar of belief, lucidly: “It is because people exult and lament, sing for joy, who wail their sins and so on, that they are able, eventually, to have thoughts about God. Worship is not the result, but the precondition of believing in God.”

Theology is a practice of persuasion in two related senses: a) Christians are persuaded by something (what they believe/what they believe to be true) and b) Christians seek to persuade others (of what they believe/what they believe to be true).  Therefore, when you set up Christian theology as a buffet of equally legitimate beliefs, you facilitate a process of belief-formation that is itself incoherent with the Christian grammar of belief.  So, instead of trying to be nice, in a pluralistic and relativist world, and giving everyone’s argument due objective consideration and at least some credence (to the detriment of persuasion, in both senses!), please take a position and argue for it. Polemics is by no means necessarily violent or coercive.  I assume that people who pursue Christian theology are persuaded by something in Christian theology – but not by everything!  Christian theologians must tell each other what they are persuaded by and why others should also be persuaded by that.  Polemical discussions are imperative because they highlight what is at stake in contrasting arguments and move and develop Christian thought. So please, if you are a teacher of theology and are using this book in order to introduce your students to various streams of thought, please, do not replicate Placher’s approach and keep your persuasion at bay; your job is character-formation of your students and to withhold that from them is a great disservice.


24 comments on “A plea for a polemical pedagogy OR why theology isn’t about being nice

  1. Melanie,

    Thanks for a fascinating post! I love what you are calling “polemical theology” but I find I am not persuaded by the thrust of your argument, even though I agree with both of your assumptions. Why is this?

    First: Polemics, is either a) the art of engaging in controversy; or b) a strong verbal or written attack upon a position which is designed to correct error. I agree that the first definition is a skill sorely needed in the Church (and indeed my entire doctorate will be a polemic in the first sense. The basic posture of the second sense is, “You are wrong, and I am going to persuade you that you are wrong.” It is a primarily defensive posture. Irenic theology, on the other hand, engages with one’s opponent constructively, attempting to simply persuade of a stronger position and recognizing the merits of the position one is critiquing. Irenics is willing to eventually conclude that there is a legitimate difference at stake in the discussion, but not an error.

    I hear very little room for irenic dialogue in your post; indeed, I think starting from a position that “this is a polemical discussion” in the second sense can cut off dialogue before it actually starts. I think there is a great deal of latitude within the Christian tradition for a great many doctrinal positions and even ethical differences, precisely because there are communities of people, empowered by the Spirit, who seek to live the Gospel and proclaim it in varying contexts. I take the apostles’ speaking with tongues in Acts 2 as a paradigm for what I’m saying–legitimate differences (not always fully understood at the time by everyone) nevertheless resulting in the net effect: “We hear them proclaiming the wonderful works of God!”

    I take the Nicene Creed as a baseline, a “centred set” of affirmations that, if true, result in explosive effective and beautiful theology and practice for all Christians who adhere and trust this amazing God. But within the basic framework (under-girded by the inspired voices of Scripture), there is a great deal of latitude for wide variety. I, as a student of theology, may not be persuaded by a Zwinglian (symbolic) view of the Communion versus Cranmerian/Anglican “Real Presence, but does it really matter now in any wide sense? Does the Holy Spirit even care? Isn’t there room for the ancient Christian dictum, “Love God and do as you please?”

    If someone steps outside of Creedal Orthodoxy, that doesn’t mean that Jesus is not her friend–but I would never want that person in a pulpit expounding her heretical belief, because I would be deeply concerned that it would truncate the average Christian’s experience of the God revealed to us in Jesus and thus in Scripture. (On the other hand, the voices in Scripture do not always agree with each other, so is it reasonable to demand that every Christian believe and practice exactly the same things?) Perhaps faithfulness emerges just as much from the conversation as from knowing what to believe (which to many people implies mere [!] acceptance of intellectual propositions).

    Thanks again for your encouragement to engage in polemics in the broad sense. I would want the Church to be extremely cautious about what it considers error, and also to admit that in many cases, breadth of conviction is allowed–for “whatever does not come from faith is sin” (Romans).

    • Kampen says:

      Hey Rob, I understand your concerns and mostly agree with them, though I am not willing to back down from the intensity of my argument for polemic theology considering the book above, and various classroom, church, interfaith dialogue settings, etc. However, could we think of polemical-irenic dialogue or irenic-polemics? Because what you’re submitting is that we can have irenic theology that is also not loaded with sympathy and tolerance, if I understand you correctly.

      • I think that’s right. And faithful Christian tradition is very broad; not “the broad road that leads to destruction” broad, but a broadness that celebrates the diversity which is necessary to be faithful to such an amazing God.

        I would hope there’s some sympathy in theology–or better, compassion. But if tolerance means, “I don’t really like you, but you’re here so you might as well stay,” – puh-leeze! Let’s not go there.

  2. Oh, for clarity – this is Rob Walker – I graduated from CMU in May of 1999.

  3. Gerald Ens says:

    Fantastic post. I think you are right on all counts. As far as Rob’s concern goes, I think that the polemical theology you point towards is (or at least can be) precisely the manner in which we can most constructively engage others. That is, polemical theology would actually take the views of others (and others themselves) seriously. If I am reading you right, what you are not saying is that we should exclude those that we have decided are wrong, but that part of inclusivity of the church is engaging others in actual conversation. In other words, “both you and your ideas matter, so let’s hash this out; we may not end up agreeing, but working through this promises to be fun.”

    • Sign me up for this – especially the playfulness bit!

    • Kampen says:

      Yes. And not only that it would be fun: I imagine that it could be deeply offensive at times. However, I don’t a priori exclude that kind of process or conflictual result from a notion of theological fruitfulness. Or, to put it differently, I don’t think fruitfulness here is limited by our ideas of harmony.
      More generally, this post is also kind of an affirmative nod to the sorts of classrooms I “grew up” in.

      • Kampen says:

        And that maybe I’m a little bit “homesick.”

      • Gerald Ens says:

        Agreed. Theological fruitfulness, and even truth, shouldn’t be separated from the conversation itself. As Agamben says, “pure mediality without end [is] the field of human action and of human thought.”

      • I think there’s a difference between taking a strong stand (and being offensive to people who think that strong stands equal fundamentalism) and doing violence and harm (but calling it “being faithful to the Gospel at all costs”. There’s also the sort of love that needs to let someone say something how they know to say it, without reading to much into it. (“Don’t pacifists just let other people do all the dirty work?” “So, Rob, you’re gay, right? Are you the girl if you’re in a relationship?”) That sort of thing.

  4. Gerald Ens says:

    Also, did the neat division into different aspects of Christian belief also bother you? I think that book would drive me crazy…

    • Kampen says:

      Yes, that also bothered me. Basically everything about this book bothers me except a few of the individual essays and the fact that I have been introduced to process theology through it. And I think that Mennonites and process theologians could have some really interesting discussions on a few particular points of resonance. But that is another blog post coming post AAR, where I hope to sharpen some of my initial mere associative thoughts.

      • Gerald Ens says:

        Sounds interesting. I haven’t read anything explicitly connecting Mennonite theology (if there is such a thing…just to remind you of home) with process theology. A number of Mennonite and believers’ church theologians do enter into dialogue with Moltmann, though it probably isn’t quite accurate to call him a process theologian. Miroslav Volf, for example, is heavily influenced by Moltmann…but Volf kind of sucks, so I wouldn’t read him just for that. Besides having a number of essays worth reading for their own sake, New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology has some essays that come fairly close to process stuff; in particular there’s quite a bit of focus on the social Trinity and that sort of thing.

    • Please fill me in: Why does Miroslav Volf suck? Admittedly I haven’t engaged with him much (and he’s a bit weak on the bodily resurrection of Jesus), but I do like some of his stuff.

      • Gerald Ens says:

        Rob, I didn’t see your comment here. I would have replied sooner had I.
        Reasons why I do not like Volf.
        1. He strikes me as sort of a slimy character. Perhaps my judgement is off, but I find that his writing oozes with a sort of forced earnestness disguising a much greater desire to become famous. He has a number of videos on Youtube and in the ones that I’ve watched he puts on this pastoral act, only it seems completely fake.
        2. In *After Our Likeness* he is obsessed with naming precisely where and how church happens. Put bluntly, I have problems with that sort of project. It is not that I don’t think that identity and boundaries are important, but that it is a dangerous mistake to think that visibility and identity require establishment and clarity, a clear knowledge of what is Christian and what is not.
        3. He grounds truth in the subject; he denies that he does this, but these denials are a blatant contradiction of his other claims.
        4. Point three, in turn, implies a self-caused deliverance. (It is probably not a coincidence that John Smyth, the one free church figure he uses to construct his project of an ecumenical free church, baptized himself.
        5. He oddly holds up the need for what he calls “external laws” in the church without saying how or why these laws receive their authority. For Volf, it would seem that, alongside the liberal nation-state, in is not necessary to have a community of Christ-like people for the church to be the church, but only the right Christ-like laws (to which we must subjectively-cognitively assent and save ourselves).

  5. Zac says:

    I like this, it makes me think of a random conversation I had with a lady in my small town recently. She, knowing I was a Christian, asked me: “Zac, what do you do with people of other faiths?” By which I assumed that she meant to say, “are you confident with believing what you believe when there are people who believe differently?”.

    While perhaps an odd answer I told her that i saw the problem as being about how to reconcile what philosophers and theologians call the universal and the particular in our relationships. I told her that I think we face the potential of making two errors when trying to have constructive discourse with people of other beliefs:

    1. We can completely undermine the particularity of their person and ours by assuming that really what they believe is what we believe, just said differently. In this instance, the goal is to try to come to a realization that we are really on the “same universal journey” and may as well just learn to tolerate each others differences as variations on the same theme. no need for polemics here, just tolerance. However, in this case the particularity of both people is lost (or at best watered down) under one big umbrella of a universal “journey”.

    and 2. that we can completely undermine the universality of their person by assuming from the outset that what they believe, that is their particularity, must be completely conquered by our particularity, thereby enslaving them under our particularity. In this instance, the goal is not to engage in dialogue in such a way as to challenge, correct, and perhaps discover traces of the universal within the particularity of persons, but instead to make one dominant particular (that of the conqueror) the universal by violent force. Universality, in other words, is lost within a single particularity.

    I summed it up by saying something to the effect of: “At the end of the day, I need the difference of another person to stand as a word of challenge over against me because this helps me to sharpen my own beliefs. However, I am not about to stop believing what I believe just because there are “other options”. That would make my belief pretty shallow. The difference that stands over against me need not be an absolute threat against my beliefs but neither must it be simply a reassurance that we are really after is the same thing.

    Anyhow, I think that when you point to beliefs as being about character formation rather than accepting propositions it sheds light on a question such as was asked of me. The point isn’t that people of other faiths need to be challenged solely on the particular propositions of their belief system (as if that was what faith were really all about) but also or more fundamentally about the way in which faith makes us live and forms us as people. Thanks for the engaging blog post. I enjoyed it a lot.

    • Kampen says:

      “The point isn’t that people of other faiths need to be challenged solely on the particular propositions of their belief system.” And more broadly I would add that a notion of ecumenism is deeply impoverished if we limit it to an informational sharing about beliefs. Ecumenical encounters, more often than not, occur outside formal round table dialogues or panel discussions.

      • Absolutely. I think it’s important to retain a difference in nomenclature here, as well. “Interfaith” discussions occur between practitioners of different world religions. Ecumenical discussions occur within the Christian tradition. Thought I’d state what I consider obvious just so that you can adjust my understanding as needed. 🙂

  6. Kampen says:

    Somehow I can’t reply to your most recent comment above, Gerald. Anyhow, just wanted to add that my main interest in process theology is Catherine Keller and Sallie McFague to an extent.

    • Why/how do you find process theology persuasive?

      • Kampen says:

        I don’t know yet. At the very least I like the emphasis on becoming rather than being. There will be more posts on that as I begin to articulate and clarify what it is that I find persuasive. Good enough for now?

        • Absolutely. I look forward to hearing your perspectives. 🙂 (I have to admit, based on my admittedly limited understanding of process theology, that I find it dangerous/destructive to basic Christian orthodoxy. I am willing to be persuaded otherwise, however.)

  7. Tripp says:

    This is basically why I didn’t land a job at a certain college (with something of a pretentious name) in PA. They were offended when I suggested that professors should actually ‘profess’ something–other than the Enlightenment ‘profession’ that suggests education is a ‘buffet’, as a you say, of unadulterated choice.

    You’d like my classes. I indoctrinate the shit out of my students.

    • Kampen says:

      I do like your classes. I attend them via the pages of your books. Tuition is exponentially lower and the debates are great. The only downside is that no one else can see the snarky remarks I make in the margins.

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