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13189RE: [XTalk] When Historians do Theology

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  • Davis, Robert C.
    Apr 9, 2003
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      Zeb:

      To answer your specific question, the answer [about English teachers and the like] is, of course they can. And so too can I--provided we stay within your particular definition of what it means to do "theological reflection."

      Your very helpful posting enabled me to finally clarify to myself what evidently is being referred to when theological reflection is brought up here: that being "what it means to me in my life (or faith)." I don't want to speak for Clive on this, but for myself that particular definition of theological reflection is perhaps the most superficial of all the potential definitions, in that it really goes to an activity often called "faith witness." The problem is that faith witness itself may or may not be "theological" in its form and/or content. Too often, in fact, it is more a reflexive form of doctrinalizing which has little to do with true theological reflection at all.


      So perhaps what we need to do is to redefine the term "theological reflection." For our purposes here, I would like to suggest that it be defined as the recognition that the materials currently under academic study were generated for a particular purpose, and aimed at eliciting some particular response from its audience. Both the purpose and the desired response had to do with the assumption (faith) that God was active in the events chronicled and articulated in the documents' reporting, and that the appropriate response on the part of the audience was one of belief that such assumptions were true. To put it another way, to reflect theologically on these documents (or the sources behind them) is to understand--and respect--the fact that their origin and transmission were not neutral, but that they were intended to convey something important about the way in which their authors believed the cosmos worked--and who the players really were!

      Now, I certainly do not have to share in the same exact faith-stance in order to be able to recognize and even analyze the faith-claims of either author or audience. But what I must do is to understand the fact that they held to such claims as belief. Indeed, my own argument is that if we are not willing to do at least this, then I do not see how we can claim to have analyzed these documents as thoroughly as we say we have, since there will always be this one important element left out: why did the authors do all this in the first place?

      [By the way, this author-audience intention-event is one which applies equally well to your examples of Shakespearean and Renaissance literature: here, there are as well reasons why particular authors wrote and artists painted or sculpted or composers composed. Those instructors who are tasked with teaching in these areas have, I think, a similar responsibility to make such intention-events clear to their own students, which, as you are aware in many of those cases, were themselves religious in nature. Again, those teachers do not have to have appropriated the same form of religious faith in order to be able to do this--but including such material in their teaching is necessary if comprehensive understanding is to be achieved.]

      This much, let me suggest, any and all of us can do, regardless of our respective academic contexts. Where things get a bit more sticky is when we move to that level of theological reflection where the faith-claims of the original author-audience event is now said to be universal, and thus relevant for all generations. Here, a decision presents itself to the individual scholar: do I accept these original claims to be universal, and/or do I accept them to be relevant to me? And, if I do, then does my particular teaching context allow for the expression of those beliefs? For teachers in a public university venue, the answer is often no, legitimately so. But it may not be automatically the case, as my reference to one of my own teachers at the University of Arizona attempted to point out. For me, however, in the academic context within which I currently find myself, the situation is different. While the mission statement of Pikeville College affirms respect for the diversity of beliefs among our students and faculty, it also mandates ongoing conversation concerning the spiritual and ethical lives of those who come to study here. Given this, a larger level of explicit theological reflection in various classes is not only desired, but expected.

      There are a couple of limitations, however. One is that respect for the diversity of religious (and other) beliefs among our campus community requires that whatever theological reflection any of us attempts to do is to be of the non-coercive variety--that is, it must be of the kind which does not proceed to proselytizing. Room must always be left for the individual student to make up her/her own mind on the subject at hand. The other limitation has to do with the prior decision of any particular potential instructor to actually come and work here. Those who believe, as most public university professors evidently do, that this second level of theological reflection is inappropriate will in all probability not want to come to a place like this. Those who do come, however, are apt to be those for whom this second level of reflection is thought not only to be a legitimate but also a necessary element of their own academic pursuit. The context itself, in other words, tends to act as a filter, in and of itself.

      I don't know if this is helpful or not, but perhaps it will serve to clarify a couple of previous points.

      Respects,

      Robert Davis


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