An anti-culture

What theology must be if it is to be healthy and fruitful as a field.

Assumed audience: Theologically-orthodox Christians, or folks interested in things that theologically-orthodox Christians think.

…the capacity of Christian theology to sustain lively conversations with what lies outside its culture, as well as to engage in serious self-criticism, is dependent upon its grasp of its own proper object: the gift of the presence of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Because that object is what (who) it is — the living God among us with sheerly intrusive force — the culture of Christian faith and theology is at the same time an anti-culture. It is the site of a struggle against the domestic idolatry of Christendom, against the creation and establishment and defense of settled representations of God. And if this is so, then the cultivation of Christian culture, far from isolating theology from subversion through critique, is in fact the essential precondition for a theological practice characterized above all by repentance.

 — John Webster, The Culture of Theology, p. 47

Webster makes an interesting move here: he (rightly) calls out that the essential character of theological work is reflection on and encounter with the living God, which necessarily produces repentance — and says therefore that only such a repentant and genuinely theo-logical frame provides any basis for theology speaking meaningfully to, or engaging profitably with, other fields. In other words, theology cannot define itself or operate first of all in terms of what the contemporary academy — of philosophy or sociology or religious studies” or literary analysis — takes as norms. It must instead be shaped by the living word of the living God. Otherwise, it has nothing to offer!

It occurred to me in writing that summary that there is a connection to Alan Jacobs’ 2016 essay The Watchmen, which asked What happened to the idea of the Christian intellectual” — that is, of public theologians?1 Jacobs gestures at this same theme there as does Webster here. To be sure, there are reasons in American culture at large that Christians are taken less seriously today than they were 60 years ago — but Christian public theologizing itself is much to blame. It has borne less and less the stamp of repentant awe before the triune God as it has become more parochially political, in the sense of thumping for one or another political party. At the same time, the discipline has become less confident in what it has to say and how it has to say it — which is to say, less confident in its Subject! — as its practitioners try to prove themselves to the rest of the academy, groveling before suspicious or hostile audiences.

The result is a field largely void of anything unique to say. Neither repetition of libertarian or leftist political platforms nor regurgitation of decades-old fads in literary theory exactly recommend this field as a source for insight or wisdom. Perhaps our public theology would gain more of a hearing if it were captive less to human opinion and more to worship of God.


  1. I’m obliged to Brad East’s essay Public Theology in Retreat, which I reread over the last couple evenings, for reminding me of Jacobs’ essay! ↩︎