It’s not unusual these days to find people questioning whether we should be doing systematic theology at all. Isn’t that an outmoded way of thinking, one that was effectively killed off by postmodern concerns about “metanarratives” and “totalizing discourses”?
That’s the issue Sarah Coakley tackles in the first chapter of her new book God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’ (Cambridge, 2013). Since this is the first volume in her projected new systematic theology, which promises to be one of the more interesting and creative systematic endeavors in quite some time, it makes sense for her to take some time to explain why she thinks that systematic theology is still worth doing. Along the way, she offers a fascinating overview of several objections to systematic theology, the state of systematic theology today, and why she thinks that a renewed emphasis on ascetic practice can and should lead systematic theology forward from here.
Let’s see what she means.
The “Death” of Systematic Theology
People often critique “systematic” theology as an outmoded way of thinking that is inherently dangerous. Although they may affirm the need to think theologically about important issues, they reject the attempt to encompass the complexity of Christian theology in a single, synthetic whole.
The three most common concerns, according to Coakley, are that systematic theology is…
1. Idolatrous: Many see systematic theology as an attempt to understand and control God, to penetrate the depths of divine mystery and walk away with clearly understood statements about who he is, even who he must be. Such “onto-theological” thinking turns God into just another being in the knowable universe, more complex and transcendent than human persons maybe, but still something we can capture with our rational powers. And ultimately this means that systematic theology leads us into idolatry in that we create a “concept” that we then worship as God, failing to appreciate how far short it falls from the true God in his transcendent mystery.
2. Hegemonic: Here we run into the problem that systematic theology tried to develop comprehensive perspectives on theology. They strive to be “systematic” in the sense of including all things in their systematic reach. But it’s impossible for finite theologians to be truly comprehensive, so the systematic task involves “falsely generalizing strategies of power.” In other words, I pretend to be comprehensive when I’m actually just using my power and privilege as a (white, male) theologian to exclude voices and perspectives that don’t fit my neatly constructed system.
3. Phallocentric: The problem with theology is that it’s mostly done by men, which means that it’s done in an exclusively “masculine” mode, driven by overly rationalized methodologies, a desire to master the world through knowledge, and a competitive drive to “win” theologically. And the issue here isn’t just that we need to balance this with a more “feminine” approach to systematic theology, but we need to realize that the “systematic” task is inherently marred by this one-sidedness. So let’s drop it and come up with something else entirely.
It wasn’t too long ago, then, that some modern thinkers were pointing to the death of “systematic” theology, celebrating the rise of a newer approach to theology that was more humble, fragmented, and occasional.
A Resurgent Systematic Theology
Interestingly, though, despite these strong objections and the frequency with which they are voiced in modern theology, Coakley points out that we’re actually in the middle of a resurgence of interest in systematic theology:
“Today, despite—and perhaps partly because of—the manifold objections to its very continuance in postmodern critique, systematic theology is in a remarkable state of regeneration. In some cases it takes the form of a careful, newly formulated Protestant scholasticism, albeit one heavily under the shadow of Barth; in other cases (and here one must locate the current endeavor) it is undertaken with a felt freedom to recast the central categories of thought at its disposal and to sit light to the burden of the traditional loci, even as the classic appeals to Bible, tradition, and reason are re-embraced and recast.” (41)
And I think she is entirely correct. Critiques like those above have led to a more chastened form of systematic theology, one with greater self-awareness and sensitivity to the dangers that have ambushed theology in the past. If anything, then, the chastening of theology has simply increased its popularity and reach.
A New Way Forward: The Théologie Totale
For her part, Coakley responds by arguing for a more apophatic approach to systematic theology that emphasizes (1) that theological truths must be expressed in various modes (not just the rationalized discourse of traditional theology), (2) that this must include the expression of theological truths in intentional practices (i.e. saying theology isn’t good enough; theology must also be lived), and (3) that this diversity of theological expression means that although systematic theology strives to incorporate as many voices as possible, it also recognizes its limitations and seeks only to be one voice among many. She refers to this methodology throughout the books as the théologie totale.
Applied to the three objections above, then, Coakley thinks that this kind of systematic theology can embrace the legitimacy of the concerns without abandoning the systematic task entirely. To the concern about idolatry, Coakley responds with apophaticism and an emphasis on ascetic practice. A theologian with “appropriately apophatic sensibilities” will always recognize that her concepts of God fall short of the reality of God’s mysterious being. Apophaticism doesn’t mean that we fail to say anything about God–he has, after all, revealed himself to us. But it does mean that we realize that God’s being always transcends our knowing. Even this is not enough, though, because a mere intellectual assertion of divine transcendence alone doesn’t necessarily protect us from creating a new idol out of this new, intellectual concept of God. So she argues that “systematic theology without contemplative and ascetic practice comes with the danger of rendering itself void.” We need “the actual practice of contemplation” to push beyond the intellectual mode of knowing into a kind of knowing that Coakley describes as “knowing in unknowing” (45).
To the concern about hegemony, Coakley points again to the benefits of her théologie totale. Rather than just affirming the need for multiple voices out of some kind of superficial commitment to diversity or political correctness, Coakley contends that aescetic practice itself shapes the theologian to be the kind of person who approaches theology differently:
“The moral and epistemic stripping that is endemic to the act of contemplation is a vital key here: its practised self-emptying inculcates an attentiveness that is beyond merely good political intentions.” (48)
Such a theologian seeks “to do justice to every level, and type, of religious apprehension and its appropriate mode of expression,” rather than merely privileging the academic mode most commonly accepted by theologians in positions of influence. And this means that even as theology strives to be systematic, it is constantly open to the disruption and disorder that comes from seeking out new and neglected voices.
The phallocentric concern gets the longest response from Coakley, largely because it leads her into the issue of desire, which will serve as an important theme through the rest of the book. Coakley’s first response is to warn against the danger of creating a false disjunction that reifies male/female differences and positions them as completely different approaches to theology. Instead, she spends the rest of the chapter explaining that “gender” is really about “desire,” and problematic approaches to theology are fundamentally about dis-oriented desires rather than reified gender differences.
For the three objections to the task of systematic theology turn out to have a shared, or at least tangled, root. Each presumes that the systematician idolatrously desires mastery: a complete understanding of God, a regnant position in society, or a domination of the gendered ‘other’; and each presumes that the same systematician will thereby abuse his knowledge, his power, or his ‘male’ mode of thinking, for purpose of intellectual, social, or sexual dominance. The deeper issues, then, involve the insidious entanglement of knowledge, power, and gender. But their shared root, let me know suggest, is the yet deeper problem of desire. It is the idolatrous desire to know all that fueled ‘onto-theology’; it is the imperious desire to dominate that inspires ‘hegemony’; it is the ‘phallocentric’ desire to conquer that represses the ‘feminine’.” (51-2)
As with the other concerns, Coakley thinks that the théologie totale with its contemplative focus helps address the problem. By leading us into the life of the triune God, ascetic practice takes the desires that are properly ours as embodied, gendered beings, and reorients them to find their ultimate fulfilment in God himself.
In the coming weeks, I hope to comment on some of the other chapters in this challenging work. Although we’ve seen how Coakley uses her théologie totale to respond to these three concerns, there’s plenty of room left for exploring exactly what this methodology entails and what it really contributes to systematic theology today. At the very least, though, I think we can appreciate her argument for the inseparability of reflection and practice in the life of the theologian. An overly intellectual/propositional approach to theology often leaves the impression that the lived life is irrelevant to the theological task. Coakely pushes back, suggesting that contemplative practices necessarily shape the theologian and the resulting theology.
To see exactly what this means, we’ll have to dig more deeply into the back. So stay tuned.