Theology in Our Own Voice (The Problem with Tradition Part Three)

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David Wagschal

(“So Wrong for So Long?” Part 3)

Another weakness with traditionalism is that it can introduce a certain evasiveness, obfuscation and even deception into theological discourse.

Traditional theology insists on being in a conversation with past figures. This is not in itself a bad thing. The problem emerges when the next step is taken – which it usually is – and theology begins to be done through the voice of these figures.

The result is a theological discourse in which most authoritative claims are made beginning with phrases like “Martin Luther says….”, “Athanasius says…”, “Thomas Aquinas says…”, or, most commonly, and worse yet, with a traditional collective: “the tradition says…”, “the Fathers say…”, “the Church teaches…”, etc.

What is the problem with this? Well, it’s fourfold.

1) It ends up doing violence to the historical figures themselves. It obscures and disrespects them. How? Because theological discourse, by its very nature, is contemporary – it’s always now, and its voices are always in the present: our ideas, our interpretations. So when we start to transact theology through the voices of the past we inevitably retroject our questions, problems and ideas onto a past era. When we try to make past voices speak authoritatively now we must drag them into the present – to speak to questions and problems they never faced. The result is that we end up creating Martin Luthers, Athanasii and Aquinases – indeed, whole “churches” – that may speak now, but that never really existed. Ostensibly honouring historical figures, we end up inventing something quite new and different. The ironic truth is that, unless we allow “the fathers” to stay in the past – and precisely not speak with authority in the present – we can never hear their actual voices!

2) Second, it means that we covertly cloak our theology and agenda with the authority of past figures; we pass off our theology as the theology of some great historical past father or mother. This is probably the central problem with this type of theology, because it amounts to a power-grab, and a way of shutting down conversation. It’s a way of making one’s own opinion unassailable, and even un-engageable: “my theology is not my theology – it’s [X authoritative figure’s] theology. Case closed.” On the face of it, this is an act of humility (“I’m not doing my theology, I’m simply following [X figure]”), but in reality it is the opposite: it’s the investment of one’s own theology with immense external authority. It’s a tremendous act of theological ego.

Even when not intended in such a way, putting our theology into the mouths of past teachers simply adds an unnecessary level of confusion to theological discourse. If we a address a modern problem through a discussion of, say, a medieval debate, it makes it very difficult to tell what our (contemporary) theological position actually is, its true roots, and its precise implications. It thus makes theological opinions difficult to falsify or critique. It also lends theology a character of artificiality and performance: in effect, theologians only speak through a historical mask. This in turn suggests a theological environment where evasiveness and fear are dominant realities. Apparently people can’t speak as themselves.

3) When theologians don the mask of past figures, they also alienate and distance themselves from each other and from other Christians. It is no longer David, with all his quirks and issues and foibles and strengths and weaknesses, in flesh and blood, speaking about God and the Gospel to Maria, with her quirks and issues and foibles and strengths and weaknesses. It’s David adopting an ancient “authoritative” surrogate, and placing this artificial construct between himself and everyone around him. It’s a depersonalizing of theology. It’s a removing of any vulnerability, connection, immediacy – i.e., any reality and power!

4) Finally, doing theology in this way can make it very easy to evade responsibility for one’s own positions – or the positions of the group one is part of. This dynamic is a complex one, but the habituation of thinking that our theology is actually someone else’s can open up a very dangerous space for ethical double-think. You can justify promoting and adhering to some sort of (potentially repressive or problematic) traditional theology because you can then turn around and claim that your personal theology is quite different. In effect, you and your official corporate/traditional mask can start to espouse very different things. (And I must say that I encounter this a lot with the homosexuality question — I mean, a lot.)

What to do?!

So, does this mean the dismissal of traditional theology?

By no means. I think it’s quite critical that we keep our forefathers and mothers in the theological conversation.

But I would propose a simple formula for how to do this right. Whenever we are tempted to use phrases such as “the Church teaches”, “the Fathers believe”, “[X authority] says”, and we intend what we are going to say to have authority, we stop ourselves, and instead insert “I teach”, “I believe”. If we can’t do this with a good conscience, then we have a problem – and, actually, quite a serious one.

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Comments 1

  1. David,
    Your comments are directly relevant to the response of the Orthodox Church today when confronted with contemporary issues. The fathers could not have envisioned some of the biological, psychological, and sociological issues that we face today as Christians. We must remember that in the Orthodox Church, the creed begins with “I” believe. However, I also think that there is something to be said for “the voice of the people”. When someone is ordained to the priesthood or episcopacy, it is the congregation that proclaims “Axios”. And so a balance of the teachings of “the fathers,” combined with personal conscience, as well as the proclamations of the faithful must be respected. Thank you for your work. Andriy

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