Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Being a Young Theologian Today

In November, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, Ireland, are hosting a conference called "Interface: Being a Young Theologian in the World," from the 6 - 7th. Here's a bit of blurb: "The conference is aimed at young theologians and has two objectives - to explore the role of the young theologian and to explore the role of theology in contemporary society." That really is a bit of blurb. The only other information I can find about this conference is that abstracts (of no more than 25o words) are to be submitted to (along with applicant's educational status: Institution, course, year, etc.) by September 7th, and papers should be 20 minutes in length.

I'm thinking of submitting an abstract but, due to its subject matter, it may well not get accepted. It stems from my supervisors persistence that she thinks what I am doing is theology. Maybe it is. But I don't want it to be. And I don't want to be a theologian... Why is that? I thought I'd interrogate my thoughts about theology and being a theologian today a bit more and see where they got me. The reason that such a discussion may not get accepted is because its more about not wanting to be a young theologian in the world than being one! But maybe this perspective would be of use to others... Maybe not.

But how does one "be" a theologian? Am I one? Do I even know what I am, in order to say I am, or I am not, a theologian? There are clear parallels here with Jacques Derrida's thoughts on "being" an atheist. He tells us he "rightly passes" for one. But "is" he one? Does he know whether or not he is "one"? Is he "one" of anything? Are we not radically plural in our selves? Is there both atheist and theist (and more besides) within him? Is there both a theologian in me and another self, or even other selves, that are not, that do not want to be, and that hate the theologian in me? Maybe I "pass" for a theologian? But that is up to other people, not me!

Maybe the problem I have with being a theologian has to do with the status, or nature, or interpretation of theology itself? Jack Caputo used to refuse the label of theology and of being a theologian, because (in his Derrideanicity) he equated it with "onto-theology" (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, pp.288-289), with a project that "takes God as an object of conceptual analysis - rather than the addressee of a prayer - and is awash in institutional power" (The Weakness of God, p.301, footnote 1). Now, however, Caputo equates such dreams of a "calm and objectifying" discipline with Religious Studies, whereas Theology is a "disturbing passiong for God" which he loves madly (The Weakness of God, p.301, footnote 2). So maybe I do want to be a theologian? Afterall, Jack Caputo is my kind of theologian.

But, then again, the kind of theologian that Jack Caputo is, is an a/theologian. His theology exists on the slash of undecidability between atheism and theism; his is a theology, for sure. It names God within a determinate tradition - Christianity. But it never forgets that names are subject to endless translatability and substitutability (differance, Derrida would say) such that his theology remembers that it can be determined otherwise. Caputo does not say that he has named God once and for all; damn those who disagree to hell. Instead, he recognizes that what goes under the name of God also goes under other names. So maybe I want to be a/Theologian? (I reflect further on the nature of theology itself in my thesis, particularly on theology as fiction; its also something I cover in my paper for the Towards a Philosophy of Life Conference, which I haven't finished yet!)

Maybe I assume theology lacks humility about itself, about its status as theology, and maybe my presumption of theology as dogmatic is what makes me nervous about it, and about being one. In the West's pluralistic context, is this not how theology is viewed in the world today? Is this not how young theologians are viewed in the world today? As having "the truth" all sown up; damn everyone else's truth?

I don't know. But I thought it would be interesting to interrogate this presumptions a bit further, and to try and get a paper on it accepted to a conference on being a young theologian today. I think I'll call it "On (Not) Wanting to be a/Theologian."

I thought about doing an informal survey of undergrads starting theology and religious studies courses next year, asking about their preconceptions about the disciplines, the boundaries between them, and how they are/how they think they are perceived by "the public." Some useful resources on these topics from the Higher Education Academy's Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies includes Angela Quartermaine's "Theology and/or Religious Studies? A Response from Graduate Students."

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