One of the greatest challenges I faced as a seminarian and grad student in theology was the fearful prospect of having to make a skilled judgment about what I was reading. It was not uncommon for me to encounter a theological text and have absolutely no clue what to make of it. There was often a certain strangeness to it, and it was not always obvious how I could profit from it. So, I sometimes found myself frustrated: with my professor for assigning such difficult and “unclear” readings, with the writer for being obscure or “unbiblical,” and with myself for being dull and “missing something.”
My situation is not unique. I once gave brief lecture on liberation theology to upper-year Bible and theology majors at my evangelical institution. At various points in the lecture, students would repeatedly ask, “So what?” They were trying to figure out how these Black, feminist, or Latin-American theologians could possibly be helpful to them, particularly considering that (in the students’ view) there was nothing discernibly biblical, or at least exegetical, in their formulations. What do we make of my students’ concerns?
On the one hand, the students were correct to assume that some writers are better guides into Scripture and the knowledge of God than others. On the other hand, there was the false assumption that if the text’s value was not immediately self-evident or its reasoning was not explicitly biblical, the theology had little worth. In light of these challenges, how are we to engage theology profitably?
It has become clear to me that I, my students, and others face several barriers to understanding and assessing theologies well. Some of these barriers are skills-related, while others are more tied to our dispositions. What I mean is that there are indeed things one needs to know and practices in which one needs to be skilled in order to be able to read theology with understanding. Yet there are also attitudes that we embody that can be productive for or prohibitive to reading theology well, and for our purposes that means reading theology with wisdom and love, or critically and charitably. In this brief article, I would like to reflect on some of the dispositional obstacles to this kind of reading and suggest a way forward.
When asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus responds with the famous twofold love command: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. What might it look like to apply Jesus’s love command to the reading of theology? Some contemporary philosophers have attempted to formulate a “principle of charity” for reading philosophy, which consists of tenets that encourage us to, for example, understand a point of view in its strongest form, assume coherence, and attempt to resolve apparent contradictions (see George Hunsinger, Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutical Proposal [Baker Academic, 2015], xii–xiv). While quite helpful, these principles may not be radical enough. The love of neighbor Jesus calls us to is a reflection of God’s love for us, revealed in the self-offering of Christ himself. This love has to do with giving oneself for another, intentionally pursuing their good with no expectation of reciprocation. We, however, too often pursue the path of anti-love. In what follows, I want to explore two anti-love paths we often tread that hinder our reading of theology. These enemies of love are pride and suspicion.
Love does not boast and is not proud (1 Cor 13:4). According to Augustine, pride is “an appetite for a perverse kind of elevation,” a “perverted imitation of God.” He observes that “pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and wishes to impose its own dominion upon its equals, in place of God’s rule” (City of God against the Pagans [Cambridge University Press, 2013], XIV, 13; XIX, 12). Pride delights in exaltation over others, even God. It wants to be greater than. It is the opposite of humility. Jonathan Edwards helpfully defines humility as a sense of one’s “comparative meanness” when measured up against God and fellow creatures (“Charity and Its Fruits,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8 [Yale University Press, 1989], 233–34). He writes: “He who has a right sense of himself with respect to God will open his eyes to see himself aright in all respects” (235). Thus, humility begins with a sense of our lowliness before God. But what Edwards is further suggesting is that humility before God sharpens our eyesight, lifting the veil that prevents fallen people from seeing things rightly. Pride, however, inflicts a kind of blindness – a blindness to ourselves, others, and ultimately, all reality.
Pride’s characteristic disdain for equality has a corrupting influence on reading theology. It tells us that we don’t need anyone, and that there is nothing anyone can tell us that we don’t already know. Pride makes us less likely to listen to the voices of others, at least not attentively, since they are our inferiors – and what could we possibly learn from our inferiors? Speaking of hermeneutical pride, Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Pride neglects the voice of the other in favor of its own” (Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge [Zondervan, 1998], 463). This posture sometimes results in interpreting things with a foregone conclusion in mind. We can tend to pigeonhole theologians, so that there is no amount of reading that will change our opinion.
This sin occurs on all sides of the theological spectrum: liberals have nothing to learn from conservatives, and vice versa, because the other is not viewed as an equal. As Vanhoozer rightly notes, pride is “non-partisan.” In the process of reading theology this way, however, we become delusional and self-deceived, only seeing what we want to see. But humility, pride’s archenemy, drives us to properly estimate our meanness before God and others, so that we are able to recognize our limits and shortcomings, thus opening the door to the influence of others.
“Humility,” Vanhoozer writes, “is the virtue that constantly reminds interpreters that we can get it wrong” (464). Medieval theologian Peter Abelard, speaking about how we should humbly approach past theologians, offers this helpful counsel: “Let us not presume to denounce them as liars, or disparage them as erroneous …. [L]et us believe it is due more to our lack of understanding, than to their failure in writing” (Yes and No: The Complete Translation of Peter Abelard’s Sic et Non [MedievalMS, 2008], 11). Humility recognizes that we do not have the market cornered on theological truth; it embraces the fact that we are in constant need of the correction and corroboration that comes from other, diverse voices. In the end, how can we learn from someone if we assume we have nothing to learn from him? Pride is the death of learning, but humility is a path to theological maturity.
Love is kind and always trusts (1 Cor 13:4, 7), does no harm to its neighbor (Rom 13:10), and covers over a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). Love thinks the best of others. This is the very opposite of suspicion. A suspicious person, according to Edwards, tends to think evil of others in three areas: their religious state, their qualities, and their actions. Concerning the first, he argues that some people are eager to think ill of others. They may treat others as hypocrites or false believers on the basis of slender evidence. Most noteworthy, for our purposes, he adds that there are some who “will condemn others as those who must needs be carnal men for differing from them in opinion in some points which are not fundamental” (“Charity and Its Fruits,” 284). Such denunciations come easy to the suspicious spirit for whom “different” translates as “suspect.” Suspicion is not kind and does not trust.
Second, a suspicious spirit is blind to the good qualities of others. Suspicion is a form of prejudice, rendering one incapable of seeing others rightly. It tends to magnify the bad qualities of others, while minimizing the good.
Third, a suspicious person tends to impute bad motives to another’s actions. Even though we often have little access to the prevailing motives driving someone’s actions, some of us are quick to assume bad motives for actions that, as far as any levelheaded person could tell, are good. This disposition is contrary to Christian love.
Suspicion distorts our reading of theology in a number of ways. First, if in one precious area of theology I find myself disagreeing with an author, it is not uncommon to question the genuineness of the author’s Christian faith. We sometimes seem to have no category for being able to disagree with a key premise or point, yet still find goodness, sincerity, or truth in the proposal. Second, sometimes suspicion takes the form of concluding prematurely, in fear, that the author has an agenda to disrupt or undermine one’s faith. We distance ourselves immediately, almost reflexively, by ascribing a label to the theologian, so that ultimately fear dominates our reading. We are afraid of being deceived, so we mount a preemptive strike against the potential deceiver. But in the process, we lose the gift the other theologian might confer because suspicion is degenerative, while loving trust is generative; one closes the door to understanding and growth, while the other opens it. As C. S. Lewis writes: “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open” (An Experiment in Criticism [Cambridge University Press, 2012], 116). He later adds: “The armed and suspicious approach which may save you from being bamboozled by a bad author may also blind and deafen you to the shy and elusive merits – especially if they are unfashionable – of a good one” (128).
Lastly, an encounter with a new theology or theologian may produce a certain kind a theological xenophobia. New theologians are foreigners; as such they arouse suspicion. We may think that these foreigners and their way of thinking is going to disrupt our way of life, our values, our beliefs. Thus, we keep them at arm’s length and lose out on the possibility of understanding because we do not want to enter their world or have them enter ours. Yet, distance makes understanding difficult.
While I have focused on reading with charity, I don’t want us to see reading charitably as altogether disconnected from reading critically. For example, we saw that pride and suspicion can blind us from seeing goodness and truth in another’s work. They prevent understanding. Morality affects cognition, for good or bad. What this suggests is that love can contribute to knowledge. This is a deeply Christian notion; it is a variation of the principle of “faith seeking understanding.” It was Anselm who famously prayed: “But I do desire to understand Your truth a little, that truth that my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand.” (Proslogion, The Major Works [Oxford University Press, 2008], 87). Faith and love lead to knowledge. This principle applies to our knowledge of others, including the works of authors. Reading with love is about respecting an author and extends to what the author has crafted. Alan Jacobs observes that “without love one may achieve ‘notional’ assent to some proposition but remain disabled from any ‘real’ assent to the proposition’s truth” (A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love [Westview, 2001], 50). Without love one can know the truth of something in the abstract, but not by experience or as an insider. A depth of knowledge is opened up only to the lover. Hence, love is not a naiveté that reduces the lover, but that which expands the person’s capacities to see beyond his own horizon. As Lewis noted, to expand ourselves, we must empty ourselves (Experiment in Criticism, 138). To grow in knowledge, we must hold loosely to our knowledge. In doing so, we imitate on some level the self-emptying, the “kenosis,” of our Savior (see Phil 2:1-15).
Again, all this talk about love does not remove the need to develop skills for assessing theologies thoughtfully. We need continual growth in our ability to evaluate how theologians interact with Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience (the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral). For example, we must become sensitive to the various ways theologians use Scripture and conceive of its authority, so that we have the proper categories for concluding whether a theologian or theology is “biblical.” This is just one skill to be developed among other skills, but as we develop it we become better readers of theology. However, a proper orientation of heart and mind better positions us to use these skills or interpretative tools as aids to understanding rather than as weapons of hermeneutical destruction.
[The preceding is a modified excerpt from my book, How to Read Theology: Engaging Doctrine Critically and Charitably (Baker Academic, 2018). There, I expand on the theme of reading charitably by exploring other enemies of love (favoritism and impatience). I also expand on how to assess theologies vis-à-vis Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, with the aim of helping readers engage theological texts critically.]