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.