At a joint meeting of the 2019 ON faculty retreat and three ON-sponsored scholarly colloquia, Miroslav Volf gave a provocative talk on “The Crisis of Theology.” Speaking after dinner on January 2, just before Karam Forum, Volf laid out what he saw as the nature of the crisis – or, rather, two deeply connected crises – and the need it presents to theological education. The talk was drawn from his new book, For the Life of the World.
You can listen to the talk here. Past talks from ON faculty retreats, from Dallas Willard, Amy Sherman and David Miller to Chris Brooks, P.J. Hill and Brian Fikkert, are collected here. Of particular interest related to Volf’s 2019 talk are earlier talks from Paul Williams, Bob Cooley, Greg Jones and Dan Aleshire.
Also check out Kevin Vanhoozer’s address “Learning Christ” at the 2017 inaugural meeting of Karam Forum:
Visions of Flourishing Needed
Volf proposed a unifying goal for theological scholarship: “Theology ought to be about discerning, articulating and commending a vision of flourishing life informed by God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” Flourishing, he said, is “the good life,” “the true life,” “the life truly worth living” or “what is truly life.” It is the absence of this unifying goal that is the underlying cause of the crises of theology.
Volf argues that orienting theological inquiry toward a vision of the flourishing life would be no new goal for it. Jesus and Paul called people to a vision of flourishing, and theology over the centuries did so as well. Academic theology is in crisis, Volf argued, because it has lost this focus.
A renewed focus on a vision of flourishing is badly needed at the present moment because of developments in the cultures around us. “It’s a feature of modern societies as a whole that we have gradually lost the ability to speak in an articulate way about the question of the good life, or even to have that question of the good life profoundly matter to us.” This is because “we have lost the ability to think of the good as a common project….We have privatized the good.” Individualized conceptions of the good life have reduced our power to live the good life, both because of fragmentation (we each have to decide for ourselves) and because the question of the good life is now understood to be a matter of our own arbitrary taste rather than of a fundamental reality to which we must conform.
In the absence of a public vision of the good, public institutions have gone off mission. “Most of our great institutions…have become primarily about gathering or creating resources so each one of us can live the good life as they see fit.” Creation of resources is very good as a means to a proper end, but is deeply dysfunctional as an end in itself. We have more and more easels and brushes, Volf said, but we paint less and less, because we have lost the ability to contemplate the good life – and in particular a binding vision of the good life.
The Two Crises of Theology
Theology isn’t responding well to this need, he said, because theology itself is in deep crsis – or actually in two crises. The “external crisis” is the decreasing viability of the seminary business model, and audience for what it produces. Schools are closing, and few people outside their world read the academic theology they publish. Given high levels of professional specialization, even academic theologians don’t read widely in academic theology.
ever, Volf stressed that the “internal crisis” of theology is worse. The reputation of theology is not what matters. Where theology is internally strong, it meets adverse social conditions head on in a transformative way.
Volf shared a story of his complaint, as a young theological teacher, that serving in a rural area was unrewarding: “Nobody’s interested in what I’m trying to do; when the weekend comes, I have to go and preach to 15 old ladies and get a chicken as a little gift.” His mentor Jurgen Moltmann told him: “a place does not make a theologian, a theologian makes a place.” Good theology will generate a response to its social environment that can’t be ignored. “Wittenberg was nothing before Luther came around,” Volf reminded us, “and then became, suddenly, the center of theological thought and controversy.”
The internal crisis is an inadequate understanding of theology’s mission. “Are we discerning, articulating and commending a vision of the true life?” Some are, Volf said, but if you survey the landscape you’ll find that’s not the dominant mode.
Instead, we study theology on the model of science, which seeks to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. This means the subject matter of theology is not the flourishing life but “description of Christianity in its various forms.” Such description is important work as a means to higher ends. But description that never gets beyond mere description “cannot be the heart of what theology does” because “we lose the unity of theological subject matter.”
Descriptions Don’t Transform
Theology on the model of science faces the problem of purpose. If theological studies are only descriptive, why should people care about them? Why study the New Testament merely to describe a failed preacher who got crucified?
To make connections between our merely descriptive theological studies and the pesent needs of the world, we can use one of two strategies. We can end up repeating outdated formulas from past generations – formulas that were helpful in their time, because theology at that time was seeking a vision of flourishing, but that are not helpful for present situations. Or we can end up adopting the world’s own current descriptions of its problems and solutions, which means captivity.
Evangelicals and mainline churches are both caught in this problem. Evangelicals these days have a more “Dr. Phil” therapeutic approach, whereas mainline churches tend toward “finger wagging.” The underlying problem is the same in both cases – theology has become merely descriptive, and thus lacks effective ways of addressing people’s need for real transformation.
The $4 Million Men and Women
Why are theological scholars worth the cost? Volf points out that educating a theologian through master’s and doctoral programs at his school costs about $1 million – including all sources, not just what the students pay in tuition. With average U.S. earnings for theological scholars currently at $93,000, including benefits, that theologian will cost somebody another $3 million over a career of 30 years.
“For what are we spending $4 million?” Volf asked. “I think this is a very unsettling question to ask theologians. But it is a very necessary question, because it poses the question: What the purpose, what the good, is, which we are seeking to achieve….Why does the world need million-dollar heads working on $93,000 a year?”
Volf summed up: “Is there something of fundamental importance that theology can contribute, that other disciplines cannot?…For myself, the answer to this question is that theology…seeks to discern, to articulate, to study, the purposes of human existence.”
Come back to the fact that institutions are becoming about producing resources (means) without being able to direct them to a purpose (ends). Theological education gives students resources they can use. But what are the means if we don’t know the ends?
What kind of human beings do we aspire to raise? Over the centuries, Volf said, the only way humanity has engaged that question in enduring ways is through religion. That’s why theology and theological education need to have a vision for what politics, economics, education, etc. should aspire to, in the context of a larger vision of God’s purposes.
“When that does not happen, we as theologians fail – we as humans fail.”