As Luke’s first post alludes, theology is—as an academic discipline—in some pretty serious trouble. The general commodification of university discourse, the fideistic reproduction of confessional identity, and the un-rigorous appropriation of other academic disciplines (especially philosophy and social theory) each threaten the credibility of theological work in an academic setting. This situation is not, I think, a new one; in my (extremely cursory) analysis, theology has been hobbled with just this sort of limp ever since the death of any serious traction held by the ontological argument for the existence of God.1 With the severance of any sort of organic linkage between God and the basis for knowledge as such, theology necessarily turns elsewhere for authority. Because this situation is not new, I don’t think we should mistake this limp for a sign that theology’s days are coming to an end; theology has continued to be studied, and I think will continue to be for the forseeable future.2 Luke, as I said, has offered a pretty coherent introduction to these problems in the way theology is done, and while I could expound further I’ll save that for another time. For now, what seems to me to be the more interesting question is: how does a theological discipline perpetuate itself so thoroughly baselessly? In other words, if we examine theological thinking as a certain sort of production, by what means do the relations of production reproduce themselves? How can theology have continued this long without needing to know what it is thinking for?
In his Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci makes a distinction between what he calls “traditional” and “organic” intellectuals. Roughly, traditional intellectuals are those cognitive laborers whose professions imply membership in a kind of distinguished class; the intellectual class is like one giant subject-supposed-to-know, imagined to be, in a sense, ‘unaligned,’ outside and objective with regard to the bourgeoisie and proletariat. “The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the “true” intellectuals.” As one might imagine, the traditional intellectual is, in the last analysis, far from a neutral figure for Gramsci. Because the traditional intellectual is bound to a certain relations of production (the university, etc) that are themselves indebted in feudal Europe to the landed aristocracy and in capitalist societies to the wealth of the urban bourgeois (distributed either directly or by the state), traditional intellectuals are always materially tied to power. That this tie would color the inquiry of the traditional intellectuals is thus, pretty obvious; and we could talk about the rise of economics as a prominent and esteemed discipline as just that sort of obvious effect. What’s less obvious, but also at play, is that it is in the best interest of the hegemonic order to flatter the traditional intellectuals; as subjects supposed to know, they offer an air of legitimacy and necessity to the order that depends on their appearance of freedom and objectivity. If there are no non-functional, or dissenting disciplines and opinions among the traditional intellectuals, the spell of the traditional intellectuals are broken; their freedom to think against an order is, paradoxically, precisely why they never actually do anything to bring down that order.
If Gramsci’s discussion of traditional intellectuals teaches us one thing, it’s that the relations of production (capitalist, marketplace of ideas, etc) have already factored in the fact that many of us attempt to think against them. This is The Matrix Reloaded’s one good idea; (spoilers for a godawful movie) when Neo fulfills the function of the One, it turns out that the function of the One is, in fact, part of the setup of the Matrix; it is a kind of release valve on inevitable dissent. The ‘outside’ of the present set of relations is always already factored into the ‘inside’ or else the system could not have reproduced itself for this fucking long.
What does this have to do with theology specifically? Theology as a discipline depends on material ties to the academic apparatus, on the one hand, and denominational legitimation on the other. Most formal training in theology takes place in institutions (seminaries, divinity schools, etc.) that train pastors alongside researchers, and so, for most students, even work that questions or attacks confessional identities is done in the midst of material practices that are explicitly designed to reproduce those institutions and identities. Note, by the way, how neatly these two institutional demands (academy and denomination) map onto Lucas’ original divide between sets of resources (theoretical and traditional) that students in theology are expected to utilize. Note also that the more comfortably seminarian the learning environment, the less emphasis will be placed on the “theoretical” toolkit, and vice versa. That these two toolsets don’t mesh—don’t come with with a relation that is built into the grounds for theological inquiry itself—is just the kind of inconsistency that should alert us to the presence of ideology. It is precisely these inconsistencies that provide both the tensions and the release valves by which ideology can fully interpellate its subjects.
If we want to understand the material pressures to become certain kinds of theology students without need of a recourse to ‘why,’ we will also need to remember Louis Althusser’s treatment of Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs). To be wantonly brief, ISAs are those institutions and practices which reproduce ideology by interpellating subjects who recognize themselves in ideology; they act (mostly) invisibly, without any explicit threat to those who don’t conform. Althusser’s prime example is, of course, the school; it’s in school that you learn skills to interact in the world that shape your interactions for the ideological order. RSAs, on the other hand, are things like the police, militaries, etc; the hanging threat of force and consequence by which an order disciplines its subjects. To anyone who’s read my other blog posts here or elsewhere, this might come across as harping, but  I think we forget Althusser too often at our own peril, and  what I want to highlight here is what seems like it should be most obvious, but seems to go most unnoticed; when the theological academy’s function as an ISA begins to slip, when ideological interpellation doesn’t work quite correctly, the ISA will become an RSA pretty damned fast.
There are any number of repressive pressures that threaten the theology student who would question the basis for theological inquiry. Any student who gives enough of a shit to be studying theology at the graduate level probably has, or has had, some significant level of confessional investment. Thus, there’s a certain amount of threat inherent involved in probing the basis—or lack thereof—of theology; threat of psychological trauma due to loss of faith, loss of identity, altered relationships with friends, family, peers, and colleagues, all of which are heightened by the amount of time and money that has been poured into study; the student simply has a lot to lose. Additionally, success in the theological academy is contingent upon the approval of professors and other figures. There is a real and manifest power over student thought wielded by professors that shapes the bounds of legitimate inquiry for students. It’s frankly much easier to reproduce variations upon existing lines of thought then it is to question the basis upon which professors think, for fear of rejection.
The Theology Studio facebook exchange around Phillip Blond’s proposal of military academies in the UK is, unfortunately for my purposes, no longer accessible3. Among the choice exchanges in that thread was a peculiar attempt at public shaming executed by a more academically, err, powerful, theologian against Craig Keen, one of my academic mentors. This theologian (I’m sure you can figure it out) used me, Craig’s student, as a sort of built-in audience for the shaming, directing his grand pronouncements about the vapidity of Craig’s thought towards me, as if he was showing me, rhetorically, just how out-of-bounds a thinker can get as a kind service. Craig and I actually found this strange encounter sort of hilarious, and I still remind him of the comical extremity of the insults hurled from time to time, but this was a very real attempt at shaming and thought policing, and one clearly directed at a student in order to keep them from following similar lines of thought.4
Obviously, if you’re buying any of this, it’s pretty debbie-downer. I plan to follow this post up in the next few days with another, detailing possible modes of engagement with these institutional relations and pressures, along with my own working answer to Luke’s question: “why theology?” Since this post is already 1600 words, I’ll leave it for another day.
1 So, probably since about Kant, although it’s certainly not a clean break. I want to be clear, too, that I know there are still people who take the ontological proof seriously; I just think that those people are essentially equivalent to six-day-creationists or flat-earthers; at a certain point, only the most extreme partisans can place any weight on this sort of thinking.
2 By most accounts, affluent Western capitalists are getting less religious, of course, but these numbers aren’t playing out that way much of anywhere else. Why that means academic theology has a long life ahead of it even if it looks patently ridiculous is a long argument I’ll have to make at another time.
3 All those angry posts will be lost in time like tears in rain.
4 “You imagine you are a fallen astral being from the realm of the archons somewhere up in the supernovas. Thus civilisation washes over you from the outside like an earthquake.” Gotta give the guy credit for a robust insult.