Monday, April 26, 2010

Lack of Big Name Theologians: Catholic Style

The other day I posed the question, "Why aren't there theological giants anymore on the cover of Time?" The most likely reason I thought caused this was that an increase in postmodern values in the church and our society shifted the focus from detached systematic theology (and the leaders of that) to cultural movements in the church and the behavior of believers (and the pastors and clergy that drive that).

Here's an article that asks a similar question, a bit more broad than mine, "Where have the dominant theologians gone?" This is from a 2005 issue of National Catholic Reporter so it's focused on Catholic theologians (ironically, the writer of the article is a professor at a Methodist university). The article is here.

Here are a few quotes highlighting his position:
"First, there are exponentially many more professional theologians working and writing today than there were 50 years ago. As a result, it will be more difficult for one or two people to dominate the field."

"The complexity of Catholic theology today means that no one can claim expertise in all areas of theology. People have to specialize in specific areas such as Christology, eschatology, ecclesiology or anthropology."

"Now and in the future we need many different Catholic theologies emerging in different cultures and contexts and diverse areas of specialization. No one person or small group of theologians of one station in life, or one sex, or one color will ever again dominate Catholic theology."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Theology Important?

Someone older than me may remember Time Magazine's April 20th, 1962 cover featuring Karl Barth.  Someone even older may remember March 16th, 1959 when Paul Tillich was on the cover.  You would not expect to find the face of theologians in today's newsstands.  In fact, most people probably could not name a modern day theologian.  We can name preachers, famous pastors and televangelists, but how many theologians do we talk about in public life?

Why is this the case?  I think trying to explain this away as increasing secularism or bias on the media is insufficient.  Christianity is still the majority religion in America and most media outlets pander to their consumers regardless of their personal beliefs (the blog Marginal Revolution summarizes and links to a study about this here).  Another explanation is that there are no smart Christians anymore, or that theology is an intellectual practice and the intellectual community has expelled Christianity.  This doesn't seem to be the case in Philosophy, where there is a developing Christian presence (article from William Lane Craig here, the Time article Craig mentions is here).

Here are some reasons I think are more likely:
1. The ecumenical nature of the evangelical movement has made theology seem like a waste of time.  We are supposed to stick to the most basic, Biblical form of Christianity and theology muddies the waters.
2. Postmodern Christianity is driving believers to act on their faith without bothering to articulate it in detail.  Theology is mostly an in-house activity and its adherents fully admit to its link to culture and society.  Outsiders have no reason to be interested in it, therefore periodicals targeting mass appeal avoid it.
3. The focus of Christian academics has moved from theology to apologetics given the loud clamor of modern skeptics.  Still, not too many Christian apologists appear on the cover of Time or are mentioned by anyone outside the debate.

If I could somehow verify this I would bet money on number 2.  Postmodernism isn't just a strong element in our society but is growing among and influencing Christians.  If theology is a function of culture then the real leaders are not those who confine themselves to theology but those who represent the cultural aspects of their religion.  These real leaders would be the pastors and clergy who motivate the actions and trends of the believers and not the stuffy academics who sit at a desk writing "if A, then B."  I know that Postmodernism has had its day among philosophers and scientists, but it's still alive in the humanities (art, language arts and anthropology especially) and seems to have left a strong imprint in the public mind.

Is this a bad thing?  I'm not sure.  Different cultures and times have had different ways of expressing their faith in God.  This doesn't mean God changes, but that we do.  On the other hand, articulating the particulars of your faith help get a better understanding of the logical coherence of God's plan.  Wouldn't believers benefit from having that?

Have we lost anything significant now that theologians are no longer media superstars?

Update 2010/05/03: I should say that many popular pastors and preachers are theologians as I would understand theologians (that is, philosophy of religion from inside the religion) but their theology takes a background role to their influence on cultural movements they lead within their religion. No one can preach or lead a religious movement without at least dabbling in the philosophical nature of their belief system. The reason why I still think that theology is not seen as important today is because their theology is not what makes them popular.

Rivalry Among Apostles

We already know that there was a rivalry between Paul and Peter over Christians continuing Jewish practices (Galatians 2) but could there have been rivalries among other Apostles (or at least their disciples)?  I posit that there was a rivalry between the disciples of Peter and the disciples of John.  (Note: This is not a thorough, academic opinion.  This is an impression I get from reading the Gospels based understanding them as they are presented by church tradition.)

The contents of the Gospel of Mark are traditionally traced to Peter (meaning he was Mark's source).  John is attributed to, well, John.  Because of this I'll sometimes refer to Mark as Peter's gospel (not to be confused with The Gospel of Peter, a non-canonical gospel of the 2nd century with a talking cross) and John as John's gospel.  I'm not suggesting that Peter wrote Mark, but because of Peter's relationship to Mark I'll consider his perspective similar to Peter's or at least favoring Peter.  I also consider it a strong possibility that the Gospel of John was not penned by John himself but by his disciples either from his notes or teachings but because the rivalry could have been between the Apostles' disciples and not the Apostles themselves I do not consider this threatening to my point.  My Bible quotes are from the New American Standard Bible by way of

Peter and John were the big-shot disciples.  They were part of Jesus' inner group of special revelation.  It was them along with James who were present at The Transfiguration and the resurrection of Jairus' daughter; they were also the ones Jesus requested to stay awake with him to pray in Gethsemane.  James, being John's brother, may have simply been John's tag-along and not a big contender for top Apostle.  Also, he was killed before any of the gospels were written (Acts 12:2), probably in the 40s, and therefore out of the running among the disciples of the Apostles for top Apostle status.  Because of these facts, I doubt he had a significant following of disciples and I won't consider him a part of Apostolic rivalry.  Whenever he is mentioned in any event in the gospels that has relevance to this possible rivalry I will only analyze it in its significance to Peter and John.

The following is a comparison between the two gospels.  I will analyze how they each present information in a way that seems to favor the Apostle to whom the disciple(s) who wrote each gospel had an allegiance to.

Let's start with the obvious.  The Gospel of John is very careful to mention that John (mentioned as "the other disciple") beat Peter to the tomb in their foot race. 

John 20:3-4 says, "So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb.  The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first"

What is the point of mentioning this other than showing off that your mentor Apostle is a more athletic dude than the other guys' mentor Apostle?  On to the next comparison:

Mark mentions a considerably embarrassing moment for John where he and his brother ask to sit at Jesus right and left hand (Mark 10:35-45).  At first they try to get Jesus to agree to their request before they tell him what it is "'Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.'"  Jesus makes this into a teaching moment at the expense of John's pride.  This section is left out of John.  I should note that it makes sense that this passage didn't make the cut for other reasons than Apostolic rivalry.  Each gospel has its own priority and its own axe to grind in what information it presents and John's motif of signs being given and the importance of belief does not need this section.  Still, the fact remains that Peter's gospel mentions a particularly embarrassing detail about John that is omitted in his gospel.

The next topic for my comparison is the details provided by each Gospel about Christ's arrest.  Peter's gospel does not name the Apostle who draws his sword and strikes the high priest's slave (Mark 14:47).  John is sure to mention that this Apostle who acted so rashly and against the wishes of his master was none other than Peter (John 18:10).  Also, John does not mention Peter's remorse at having denied being one of his disciples.  It transitions immediately from mentioning a crowing rooster to Jesus entering the Praetorium (John 18:27-28).  Mark lets us know that once Peter heard the rooster crow (reminding him of Jesus' prophecy) he began to weep (Mark 14:72).

It is possible that John was merely postponing showing Peter's remorse until his epilogue in chapter 21.  The very touching interaction between Peter and the resurrected Jesus where Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep does show us Jesus mending his relationship with Peter.  We also get to read about Peter grieving when Jesus asks him if he loves him three times (the same number of times he denied knowing Jesus).  While this does show us Peter and Jesus' reconciliation it is much less dramatic than what Peter presents through Mark.  Peter is not shown to cry, but to grieve.  Also, Peter does not use the same word for love that Jesus requests of him, offering a phileo love to Jesus' question of agape (that is, the words commonly translated as "love" for both Peter and Jesus are actually "agape" for Jesus, self-sacrificial love, and "phileo" for Peter, the love of deep friendship) until Jesus finally gives up and settles on phileo (Jesus third use of "love" is phileo).  So the dialogue actually goes...

Jesus: Do you love me with a self sacrificial love more than these?
Peter: Yes lord, I love you like my best friend.
Jesus: Do you love me with a self sacrificial love?
Peter: Yes lord, you know I love you like a great friend.
Jesus: Simon, son of John, do you love me like a friend?
Peter (grieved): You know all things.  You know I love you like a friend.

I understand that some Bible translations have Jesus say "love" and Peter say "regard you highly."

Because of the difference in what details of gospel events are included or omitted in Mark and John it seems clear to me that there was a rivalry between the Apostle Peter and John (or at least their disciples).  Mark tends to include information that embarrasses John and omits details that embarrass Peter (which would make sense if Mark is a disciple of Peter) and John includes details that embarrass Peter and omits details that embarrass John.  This opinion is based on my reading of the scriptures as a layman and a conglomeration of information about the Apostles and the gospels I have gathered from taking undergraduate Bible classes and doing various research on my own here and there.

The information to do this blog post came out of my head and was collected over the years of studying for Sunday school lessons and my own personal interest, so I'm afraid I cannot provide a bibliography of sources but I doubt I included anything that wouldn't be considered common knowledge and anything outside of that is my opinion.  Because of this I think there is a strong possibility that someone with a more formal education than me could point out how understanding the theology each gospel is trying to present is a better explanation of what details are omitted or included than Apostolic rivalry.  Until that happens, though, I'm going with this.  It's way more interesting to me, a product of an age with tabloid magazines and celebrity gossip shows.