Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Falling into the Holes in Their Own Thought"

(Cross-posted from Bible Literature Translation)

I have been following a blogsphere conversation that Bible Literature Translation (among others) has been involved in, particularly in its Noting Abusive Theologians post, where blog contributor GaudeteTheology noted:
In my class on the History of Systematic Theology, my classmates and I were shocked to learn from our professor (not from any of our books) that Paul Tillich had extramarital affairs, including sexual contacts with his students which certainly today would be considered sexual harassment at best, abusive at worst. It generated an important discussion about the extent to which we could rely on the intellectual work of a theologian whose life showed such serious failings in his ability to “walk the talk,” on the one hand; and the extent to which all of us are sinners, and thus all theologians are sinners, so why do we expect anything different, on the other. . . 
(I do not recall whether the discussion broke out along gender lines; I do recall that another woman student and I were among the most vocally horrified, and that our professor, a man, was rather strongly making the case that we shouldn’t be surprised or concerned.)
[M]y immediate response to learning of this theologian’s persistent sinful patterns of behavior was to question whether and how it reflected on the value of his theology. It seems a screamingly obvious question to me.
This last week Fred Clark at Slacktivist contributed more to this discussion.  Clark's post is in response to Roger Olson's recent question, "Should a theologian's life affect how we regard his/her theology?" Leaving aside for now the issue of whether all sins should be viewed in the same light (whether we should, as Clark thinks Olson does, put excessive beer-drinking in the same category as advocating the slaughter of peasants), I found Clark's post very helpful in providing an alternative to either dismissing a person's theology because of his personal life, or dismissing a person's personal life because of her theology.

Clark says:
It is, rather, a vitally important matter of identifying the way these men fell into the holes in their own thought so that we can avoid falling into those holes ourselves. We can’t shrug off Yoder’s sexual abuse or Jefferson’s slave-owning as, in Olson’s compartmentalizing phrase, “sides to their personal lives that we cannot be proud of". . . 
Did Luther’s anti-Semitism “affect” his theology, or did his theology foster his anti-Semitism? Yes, both. Did George Whitefield’s slave-owning shape his otherworldly revivalism or did his otherworldly revivalism rationalize his slave-owning? Yes, both. 
The inability to recognize that cause and effect can flow both ways makes it unlikely that Olson will be able to “use it but highlight those areas” where the taint of this “scandalous action” can be identified as a discrete, separate compartment of thought. That’s not how humans work.
I think it is important to avoid the ad hominem fallacy when considering this question. After all, the truth or falsehood of a statement is not changed by the nature of the person who makes it. But (and this is an important "but") individual statements of truth or falsehood don't exist in a vacuum. They are each one bit of a whole system of thought subscribed to by the person making them. And often, human beings being what they are, inconsistencies and even outright contradictions can exist within a person's system of thought. These inconsistencies and contradictions often come from unexamined assumptions and prejudices within the person who is writing or speaking. The cognitive dissonance thus created is often assuaged by some small cheat, such as an unacknowledged change in the definitions of the words being used. For instance, Thomas Jefferson's idea that all people are equal is one tenet of his thought. The idea that certain kinds of humans aren't really people is another tenet of the same man's thought: the one that justified both slaveholding and the ongoing rape of certain of his female slaves. Both ideas have to be taken into account in order to make proper sense of Jefferson. The fact that equality depends on how "people" are defined is a weakness in his system of thought that needs to be recognized. In fact, it's a weakness that he either introduced or allowed, in order to justify his personal behavior to himself.

We can't ignore Jefferson's weakness relating to who gets defined as fully human, if we want to avoid falling into similar traps in our own thinking.

Roger Olson's reasoning on the subject is as follows:
If we were to discount the value of every theologian whose life was in some way scandalous our library shelves would be much less burdened down. And perhaps our theological thinking poorer. And I didn’t even mention all the German theologians and biblical scholars who supported National Socialism! 
Having said all that, I have to add this. If those German theologians allowed their pro-Nazi sympathies to infect their writings we would all, I suspect, decline to use them in our courses. So, to the extent that a theologian allowed his infidelities, racial prejudices, wrong political views, to affect his scholarship, I believe we must inevitably either 1) discard his scholarship, or 2) use it but highlight those areas where the scandalous parts of his life affected it. 
However, to the extent that the theologian’s scandalous actions did not affect his theology (or biblical scholarship) I see no reason to make much of them. They should probably be mentioned in a biography but there’s no need to reject his whole theology because of them.
Olson's writing here, I think, reveals his tendency to think in just the sort of binaries I have asserted we should try to avoid-- that either a theologian's theology has been affected by his personal life, or it hasn't; and that it's possible for it not to have been. And where it has been so affected, if it's not too pervasive it's possible to cut away those places like a bit of mold on a piece of cheese, leaving the rest good and usable. However, if the taint of the theologian's personal life is too pervasive, the entire theology must be discarded.

But I'm afraid we humans really don't work that way. We are all a mixture of bad and good acting and thinking. Our thinking does affect the way we act, and the way we act does affect our thinking-- and this is particularly true of the kind of people whose words, spoken or written, are wise enough to have been remembered down through the years. Wise people don't usually leave their actions unjustified by their thinking, because they are thinkers and they can't function that way.

Therefore, it's important to take a theologian's private life into account when reading his or her writings, and note where cognitive dissonance may have been compensated for by changes in definitions and other such things. 

If Tillich abused young women at Union Theological Seminary, then his attitude towards women certainly affected what he wrote (or didn't write) about Eve. The key is to keep that in mind when reading his Systematic Theology and other works.

1 comment:

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Very interesting subject, and one that I've been thinking about recently with regard to film makers. I found 2002s The Pianist to be a very moving and important film, but I find Roman Polanski's statutory rape of a 13 year old girl reprehensible.

Politics is another area where I have had similar thoughts. I align with some of President Clinton's politics, but find the Monica Lewinsky affair to be appalling.