Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An Incarnational Theology: Wendell Berry vs. Paul Griffiths

Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths' plenary lecture at the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America - entitled "Theological Disagreement: What It Is and How To Do It" - generated, and continues to generate, vigorous response (Grant Gallicho live-tweeted the session and so gives a good sense of the tenor and theses of Griffiths' paper as well as reaction to it immediately after; Michael Peppard and Meghan Clark provide more extensive responses).

The session itself was actually very entertaining.  Griffiths' paper was intentionally inflammatory and designed to evoke strong response, which it did, both from Michelle Saracino (the official respondent) and from various prominent members of the CTSA who challenged Griffith in the Q&A afterwards.

But I also found Griffiths' paper deeply disturbing.  It wasn't what he said about Catholic theologians needing to recognize that they work under the authority of the Magisterium that bothered me, though I thought his account lacked nuance and didn't accurately reflect the theologian's relationship to hierarchical authority as described in Donum Veritatis, to which Griffiths pointed again and again.

What disturbed me most about Griffiths' paper was the disembodiedness of his understanding of theology.  Again and again, Griffiths argued that Catholic theology concerned itself only with doctrine, and only with doctrine as it has been gifted to us by 'The Lord' (which is how he continually referred to God) through scripture and the teaching Magisterium.  Don't get me wrong.  As an historical theologian whose research revolves around the development of Trinitarian doctrine during the patristic period, I have a love for doctrine.  It is, quite literally, my bread and butter.  But there was something overly cerebral about Griffiths' understanding of doctrine, almost like he figures that the only job of a theologian is to receive the doctrine given to us by the church and then merely think about it without trying to do too much with it.

There was, moreover, no sense that theology is something messily incarnational, that the doctrines developed over the centuries emerge out of particular contexts, that the doctrines themselves emerged out of believers' experiences of the divine in community, or even that the doctrines themselves may require reformulation and reappropriation to account for the diverse lived experiences of other communities whose voices were not previously heard.  There was, in fact, nothing actually specifically Christian about Griffiths' portrayal of theology, nothing that recognizes the Christian theology begins from the premise that God became flesh and so entered into the messiness of human existence.

There wasn't any recognition that the theological task is one that is ideally lived out in a life of discipleship - here the stark contrast between Anthony Godzieba's wonderful paper on Friday night and Paul Griffiths' paper comes into relief.  Properly theological questions do not simply receive and accept answers from on high; such questions need to be lived out for the answers to have any truth, goodness, and beauty.

The disembodiedness of Griffiths' portrayal of theology led me to think about one of my favourite novels, Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, a text I regularly use in my introductory theology classes.  As those familiar with Berry's work know, he has no truck with a theology that is (only) cerebral and otherworldly, and Jayber Crow is a novel that beautifully describes what it could mean to live out theological questions in such a way that the answers come to have a meaning and beauty they would not otherwise have.

Near the beginning of the book, the narrator recounts his conversation with one of his professors at Pigeonville College, a Bible college Jayber attended thinking that he had the call to ministry.  The problem is that Jayber can't accept the theological answers he's being fed.  His questions are too overwhelming, and he finally seeks the guidance of one of his professors, Dr. Ardmire.  The conversation they have sets the stage for the entire novel, and is particularly significant given what occurs on pages 230-260 of the book (no spoilers!).

Read the conversation below and judge for yourself, but it seems to me that this exchange more fully answers the question - 'What is theology?' - than did Paul Griffiths.  It is, at the very least, a more incarnational view of the theological task:
That I should give up my questioning was good enough advice, which I would have been glad enough to take, except that my questioning would not give me up.  It kept at me.  Sometimes it seemed to me that people I walked by in the street must be able to hear the dingdonging in my head.
And so finally, late one afternoon, I went to the professor I was afraid to go to, old Dr. Ardmire.  I was afraid to go to him because I knew he was going to tell me the truth.  Dr. Ardmire was a feared man.  He was a master  of the Greek New Testament, a hard student and a hard teacher...
I knocked at his open door and waited until he read to a stopping place and looked up from his book.
Customarily, when I came to see him I would be bringing work that he had required me to talk with him about.  That day I was empty-handed.
Seeing that I was, he said, "What have you got in mind?"
"Well," I said, "I've got a lot of questions."
He said, "Perhaps you would like to say what they are?"
"Well, for instance," I said, "if Jesus said for us to love our enemies - and He did say that, didn't He? - how can it ever be right to kill our enemies?  And if He said not to pray in public, how come we're all the time praying in public?  And if Jesus' own prayer in the garden wasn't granted, what is there for us to pray, except 'thy will be done,' which there's no use praying because it will be done anyhow?"
 I sort of ran down.  He didn't say anything.  He was looking straight at me.  And then I realized that he wasn't looking at me the way he usually did.  I seemed to see way back in his eyes a little gleam of light.  It was a light of kindness and (as I now think) of amusement.
He said, "Have you any more?"
"Well, for instance," I said, for it had just occurred to me, "suppose you prayed for something and you got it, how do you know how you got it?  How do you know you didn't get it because you were going to get it whether you prayed for it or not?  So how do you know it does any good to pray?  You would need proof, wouldn't you?"
He nodded.
"But there's no way to get any proof."
He shook his head.  We looked at each other.
He said, "Do you have any answers?"
"No," I said.  I was concentrating so hard, looking at him, you could have nailed my foot to the floor and I wouldn't have felt it.
"So," I said, "I reckon what it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don't have any answers?"
"Yes, Mr. Crow," he said.  "How can you?"  He was not one of your frying-size chickens.
 "I don't believe I can," I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.
He said, "No, I don't believe you can." [...]
I said, "Well," for now I was ashamed, "I had this feeling maybe I had been called."
"And you may have been right.  But not to what you thought.  Not to what you think.  You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers.  You will have to live them out - perhaps a little at a time [my emphasis]."
"And how long is that going to take?"
"I don't know.  As long as you live, perhaps."
"That could be a long time."
"I will tell you a further mystery," he said.  "It may take longer" (pp. 52-54).

Image of Paul Griffiths from

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