What kind of theology is worth doing?

Wondering this in the context of being involved in the selection (from an enormous array of the good, the bad and the altogether strange) of papers to be presented in the Christian Systematic Theology section of the American Academy of Religion. I do quite like the three criteria used in the REF (though needless to say I hate with a passion the spurious conversion of them into numerical values that, when fed through the number-crunching machines, randomly destroy careers and departments). Originality, significance and rigour. Has it been done before, is it worth doing, and is it being done well?

It’s the middle one I’m having trouble with; what’s worth doing. There are easy wins, of course, that work in all fields of study. Lots of people in your academic discipline or subdiscipline, and/or the wider contexts that draw on it, are consistently wrong about something, let’s say the assumptions they make about what a canonical/historically significant text means or implies; you show them that they’re wrong; they mend their ways (or don’t, but at least they now have no excuse); you did a useful thing. If the consistent wrongness was causing other consistent wrongnesses, or more widespread confusion, you did a very useful thing.

Or there’s a pointless argument going on, you show that it’s pointless; you did a useful thing. If lots of people were having the argument, you did a very useful thing. In either case, you’re the friendly gnome of the academic world. You potter around fixing broken things. If you fix them so that they stay fixed, your rigour is demonstrated along with your significance and (we presume) your originality.

I haven’t seen many paper proposals that look like that. Most papers and articles don’t fix broken stuff, they make new stuff. That’s good. So what’s worth making?

I start by observing that a line – perhaps not a fine line, but a line – has to be trodden in theological writing between the trite and the crazy. Some people, admittedly, manage to be both.


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