jamie smith is pretty sharp

Here’s what he has to say about contemporary theological discussion.

Of course, he needs to emphasize a bit more strongly the connection between his grad school friend’s dilemma and the prevalence of ecumenical theological education. I’m familiar with such conversational pitfalls, but that’s because I went to Yale Divinity School. I suspect someone who didn’t receive such an education (and didn’t frequently engage in debates with others who did as well) might not encounter the same struggle.

Indeed, observing the fallout of the whole Rob-Bell-is-a-heretic movement, it seems non-ecumenically-trained theologians are far too prone to drawing lines in the sand of orthodoxy, hushing their opponents with cries of “false teacher.” (What is more, these lines are usually arbitrary and concocted to garner support from unlikely bedfellows simply to alienate someone from the camp.)

It seems the bigger problem facing young theologians is a combination of factors: (a) the sheer volume of opinions offered in the current theological marketplace, and (b) a lack of consensus as to what constitutes orthodoxy. I’m sympathetic to Jamie’s (admittedly partial) solution–to place oneself in a particular theological tradition–but I also want to believe that ecumenical and interdenominational theological education is a primary good.

I learned a lot from my time at YDS. Sure, at times I grew more cynical and impatient with some of my conversation partners, but I think ultimately I’m a more robust thinker on account of those encounters.

If the “soundbyte” tendency in theological debate is a result of the factors named above, then our only hope is to continue democratizing theological education to the point where (we must pray) a consensus on orthodoxy emerges from the bottom-up. This means more ecumenical seminaries and a better-educated laity. It also means that instead of identifying either as a “[insert ideological loyalty here] theologian” or as a “Reformed/Catholic/anabaptist/etc. theologian” my generation must be willing to identify simply as “Christian theologians.” The distinctiveness of our faith (contra the wisdom of the nations) and an apologetic concern ought to be primary to our identity as thinkers.

Two theologians stand out in my mind as exemplars of this style: Miroslav Volf and William Cavanaugh. Sure, you can label them “postliberal” and “Hauerwasian” and a lot of other things to boot, but they make it clear that their audience is not narrow, but global. They have different words to say to Church and world, but each party is equally important–and their words strive to be true to the reality of both.


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