Matt Croasmun: It's time to ask more from theologians

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Theology must return to answering the big questions of flourishing and the meaning of a good life, says a scholar and pastor.

What are we here for? What makes this life worth living? The questions of meaning are pressing in a contested, divided world, but it’s rare to see theologians make the connection to how their work helps people answer them.

To begin to recover the connection between theologians and these life questions, scholar-pastor Matt Croasmun and theologian Miroslav Volf co-wrote a book -- or a manifesto, as they have described it -- issuing a clarion call to theology to think bigger about its own role in the world.

“Theology should make a difference, because God cares about the world,” Croasmun said. “We say in the book that God does not need theology. If anyone needs theology, we do -- that is, we human beings.”

Theology is a uniquely qualified discipline, Croasmun argues, to convene the conversation about meaning with other religious and philosophical traditions. Theology can help us define questions of meaning and talk about firm answers that are not just a matter of personal preference.

Croasmun

Croasmun is an associate research scholar at Yale University and directs the Life Worth Living Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. His research focuses primarily on the Pauline Epistles, and his first book, “The Emergence of Sin: The Cosmic Tyrant in Romans,” was published in 2017.

Croasmun spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about what theologians and Christian leaders can learn from his and Volf’s book, “For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference.” The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You say that theology should make a difference in the world. Can theology make a unique difference in the life of the world? Why is it so important versus, say, hard sciences?

Matt Croasmun: This is really what animates the book for us. Our sense is that theology does have a unique role to play in contemporary society.

Our world is struggling with what we call the question of the good life in new ways.

Under Christendom, as it were, the question of the good life maybe didn’t need to be answered in some Western spaces. But in our post-secular pluralistic moment, the question of what actually constitutes a good life -- the sort of life that we ought to want for ourselves and others -- is contested.

That requires us to adjudicate a set of questions that perhaps we’ve collectively lost the ability to adjudicate, questions that aren’t simply about describing the world as it actually is -- which is really important work -- but questions that require us to say something about how the world ought to be.

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These normative questions are perhaps questions with which we’re collectively unfamiliar in our modern moment, but there are disciplines -- namely, theology and philosophy -- that are precisely for answering these sorts of questions.

The analogy I’ll use with students is to say that imagine we were in a far-off kingdom where there were once dragons. Back when dragons were around a lot, there was a guild of folks that tended the dragon-slaying tools -- many apologies for the violent analogy. But after many years and centuries of not many dragons coming around, the guild has transformed itself into a sort of historical guild celebrating the memory of those who slay the dragons and a taxonomy of the various sorts of dragons that existed. And then all of a sudden, a dragon pops up, and someone sounds the alarm. The caretakers of the guild go to fight the dragon, but they find the dragon-slaying tools lying in a corner dusty and neglected.

That is maybe a little bit more dramatic and violent than it needs to be, but I think something like that is the situation we find ourselves in this post-secular moment, where all of a sudden the dragon -- the question of what the good life is -- can become sinister. If I just happen to prefer this sort of life and you just happen to prefer that sort of life, the arbitrariness can start to feel menacing.

It’s at this moment that theology’s tools need to be dusted off, brought back into working condition and deployed again for the benefit of all.

F&L: How do you encourage theology to enter into the conversation on the good life but not dominate the conversation?

MC: This is a question we take up explicitly in the book when we wrestle with the question of universality and particularity. We offer this category that we call contending particular universalisms.

This is a phrase that perhaps only an academic theologian could love, but we think that we’re describing something really important: a self-understanding for Christian theology in a post-secular pluralistic context.

First, Christian theology does make, as we understand it, universal claims. It makes claims about what it takes to be true about God, about human beings, about the world.

We see that as a feature of Christian theology across the ages. Christian theology has always been making these sorts of universal claims, and we think that Christianity is not unique in that feature.

Second, it’s particular. Most religious and philosophical visions of the good life are making universal claims. Christianity is a universalism, but it’s one among many universalisms.

The Christian faith from the beginning is attached to the life of a particular human being, Jesus of Nazareth, and a particular God, the God of Israel.

Finally, it’s contested. We say in the book, Christianity isn’t a vision of the good life; it’s a family of quarrelsome visions of the good life.

These are contending particular universalisms, and I think Christian theologians ought to understand themselves to be participating in a broad cultural conversation, and indeed contestation, about the good life.

We can be living our lives oriented around that which is ultimately true, or we can live our lives oriented toward things that are less true.

We think those are the stakes of theology.

We don’t want to be apologetic about the truth claims that we make, but of course, we want to cultivate intellectual humility, a humility that’s required for one who regularly makes claims about God.

F&L: I can hear passion in your answer, and you describe the book as like a manifesto. Why call it that?

MC: We think that this question is pressing. I direct a teaching program at the university called Life Worth Living, and it’s my privilege to meet with Yale undergraduates twice, three times a week and talk with them about what makes for a good life, about what makes life truly most worth living.

That question is really hard for students to answer. That question is hard for me to answer.

We have convictions as Christian theologians that we have an important role to play as participants in a cultural conversation about this question -- but also, again, alongside others, as conveners of this conversation.

Even before we get down to the business of answering this question, there’s a lot of cultural work to be done simply to convince people that the question exists, first of all, and that it’s not merely a matter of opinion.

But in our world these days, it’s really hard to even answer the question because -- to quote David Foster Wallace -- it’s not just that we don’t know how to answer the question; we don’t even know how to focus on it for very long.

We really think that theology has not just answers but in fact an appreciation for the question and therefore a responsibility to be calling us collectively to take up this question and be convening this broader conversation about the nature of the good life.

F&L: How do leaders of Christian institutions create an environment for academic theologians to do theology as a way of life-seeking understanding?

MC: I think one step would be to ask more of us as theologians.

I don’t mean ask us to teach more classes or publish more articles. I mean ask more of us in terms of inviting us to rediscover our own vocation as theologians.

I don’t think that’s as simple as the “relevance” of our work. I mean give us space and call us to articulate the relevance for the life of the church and the life of the world, of what it is that we do every day.

The second thing I would say is that we need to imagine our institutions in more integrated ways, and I think this is already happening in many theological institutions. The question of the good life is not one that can be answered by systematic theologians alone or by ethicists alone or by Bible scholars, like me, alone.

F&L: Flipping to the other end, how do you want pastors who read this book to respond or act differently toward theologians?

MC: Well, from the standpoint of someone who is both a pastor and a theologian, I can’t resist but say that for the pastors, it’s the same as for the seminary leaders. I want pastors to demand more from theologians.

I want them to ask us their questions and to have patience with us. There’s a difference between theological fast food and theological slow food.

Theology that’s fast food can be done quickly, cheaply, and it’s easily distributed to mass global audiences. But often, it’s not very nourishing, precisely because it appeals to our basest desires.

Theological slow food, on the other hand, takes longer to produce; it has to be more indigenous to the particular communities that it’s addressing. But it ends up being more nourishing, and for those who have the taste for it, it tastes better.

When we recognize the role of theology -- and not just academic theology -- as a crucial component of the Christian life itself, we might take one another seriously as co-laborers to try to answer these urgent questions alongside our neighbors who may follow a different religion or may not identify as religious at all.

I would hope that we, as pastors, would understand that our goal is not merely to adjudicate particular behavioral questions for our communities but rather to help our communities learn to think theologically. In the pews or around the small group Bible study, we’re learning what it is to think theologically, learning to think about every component of our lives in light of the true life revealed to us in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

F&L: I noticed that this is the first book in a series. What do you hope to do with the series?

MC: We are hopeful that this book serves to just begin a conversation. The book is not intended as a final word at all.

This is, by and large, a methodological book; that is, it’s describing a way of doing theology rather than just doing theology.

Both Miroslav and I are much more interested in showing than telling, and so we’re excited to get down to the work of trying to do theology the way that we’re describing, and do it in conversation with colleagues, colleagues around the world.