posted by Amy on Mar 21
One of my professors maintains, quite stoutly (and rather often), that theology and the wisdom traditions have a great deal to contribute to solving the enormous challenges and difficulties of modern life, but theologians are nowhere to be found in policy making or planning processes. Not only is theology no longer considered the “queen of the sciences,” theologians are routinely mocked and marginalized. Theologians talk only to each other or, sometimes, to our own ecclesial bodies. We suck at demonstrating to anyone outside our inner circle that we know anything useful. This is partly because we are so defensive these days, now that Christendom is crumbling. This professor also thinks, and I agree, that it has a great deal to do with specialization and compartmentalization in education. In order to talk across disciplines a person has to have some understanding of more than one discipline.
It’s been a very long time since anyone trained in theological discourse pulled any weight in the halls of power. Theologians don’t even have a place at the table in their own universities. A major reason for this shift is the neoliberal takeover of education. Listen to any speech, by anybody, about “education reform” or the objectives of education today. They always say it’s so students can “compete” in the “world market” and maintain some sort of exceptionalism or hegemony for the United States. Universities keep talking in terms of “value propositions” and “return on investment.” Both so-called liberals and conservatives see education, even public education, as a commodity, and students as products, but it’s more blatant in conservative circles. Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, recently tried to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin by adding language about workforce preparation and removing language alluding to the common good and “the search for truth.”
Theology is the quest for the good, the true, and the beautiful. This quest is open to anyone, not just religious people or theists. Theology asks questions like, what is the best way to live? What is a good and just society? What’s wrong with us? How do we know what we know? How can we be better? What’s matters? How do we make moral judgments? How do we teach our young right from wrong, good from bad? What are the limits of knowledge? How can be we happy? What is excellence? You won’t get any help wrestling with these questions from pundits or politicians or professors these days. But we’re all fascinated and captivated by them, aren’t we? (At least the people who have the luxury of time to think are captivated.)
The wisdom traditions have a great deal to say about all of these things, and about happiness and virtue, about suffering, about evil, about love, about transcendence. Judging from the kind of pop theology that gets repeated publicly these days, not many people are being exposed to these rich traditions.
If you want to practice thinking theologically, especially if you are turned off by easy answers and black-and-white moralizing, you’d be much better off reading fantasy and science fiction, going to plays, or even watching TV than going to church or even taking a college ethics class. Yesterday after watching a YouTube video of Ursula K. Le Guin accepting a lifetime achievement award, I got The Lathe of Heaven on my Kindle and read it. It’s a short book, but it’s packed with brilliant insights into social ethics and human nature, plus it’s a wonderful story.
I’d love to teach an ethics class based on movies and TV shows, especially shows with morally complex (or dubiously moral) main characters–gangsters, outlaws, outcasts, revolutionaries, or spies. That’s where theology and ethics get interesting–in real-life situations, where people are more often forced to choose the lesser of two evils than presented a clearly delineated good/bad dichotomy. In a class I took on cross-cultural religious ethics at Boston College the curriculum included two novels and a movie, all about clashes of Christianity with indigenous, non-Christian cultures. It was an effective way to engage with ultimate questions contextually and meaningfully.
People think metaphysically all the time. The trouble is, they usually start from thin, fragile, inadequate metaphysics. That is where we find ourselves today, and we keep getting stuck in fruitless and largely pointless arguments among people insisting that they are right and the people who disagree with them are wrong. We’re asking the wrong questions, and we’re drawing the wrong conclusions. We’re measuring the wrong things. We’re beating dead horses. And it’s all because we’re not starting from a sufficiently robust platform. What the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism (among others) can do is provide that robust platform.