On the Need for a Critical Theology

Religion as an Accident of Birth

The German existentialist Martin Heidegger used the term Geworfenheit – literally, “thrown-ness” – to refer to the fact that we do not choose to exist, but unavoidably find ourselves already existing, as if we were “thrown” into existence. And what is true of human existence in general is true of religious existence in particular: most of us who are Christians, for example, did not initially choose to be Christians – at some point we just found ourselves that way.

A lot of Christians seem to be okay with this. The simple fact that they were raised to believe the things they believe is, for them, evidence enough that these things are true.

In most cases, people are aware of belief systems other than their own. Insofar as this is true, their religion does not remain “unchosen.” We can choose to assume that our beliefs are correct, or we can choose to critically examine (and possibly change) them, but we cannot avoid making a choice. For those of us who are not content to assume that our childhood beliefs are correct simply because we were raised to believe them, this means undertaking the long, difficult process of critically examining the structure of our belief system. In this way we take responsibility for our belief system.

Finding the Basic Foundation

If you ask a typical Christian why they believe, for example, that Jesus was virginally conceived, they will likely point out that it says so in the Bible. And so it does. But they’ve explained their belief in one doctrine by pointing to another doctrine. Ask them why they believe the Bible is true, and they will give another doctrine – e.g., because the leaders of the church say so, etc.

No doctrine, however, can serve as the foundation of a person’s belief system. This is because there would always be the question of why they believe that doctrine. The basic foundation is never a doctrine, but is comprised of the basic criteria by which we make judgments of fact and judgments of value.

The Implications for Theology

A lot of people are reluctant to affirm this, but the foundation of our belief system is always our self. The starting point for theology is not a set of doctrines as defined by some external authority, but a set of beliefs held by the theologian, as determined by the theologian’s basic criteria of judgment. Of course, these might happen to coincide with the doctrines defined by the authority, but only if the theologian understands his or her beliefs the way the authority means for them to be understood.

Historically, most theology has been strictly speculative: that is, it began with doctrines as its premises, presuppositions that were simply taken for granted. The premises were the “articles of faith,” as understood by the theologian (although this was not usually explicitly acknowledged). The conclusions, in a sense, were always determined in advance. Theology was simply about joining the dots, filling in the blanks, systematising what was unsystematic, making explicit what was already implicit. It worked within a given doctrinal framework, and the framework itself was not questioned.

Various historical factors have led to the recognition that there is a need for a more critical theology. Beliefs can no longer be taken for granted. Some people will insist that Christian theology has to begin with explicitly Christian beliefs, but I don’t think this is necessarily the case.

Quentin Quesnell, describing this kind of theology, suggests that

The role of the past is not to provide objective norms outside the theologian and the community to whom the theologian speaks. The past fulfills its role when it has formed the theologian and the community to be what they are. (132)

"Christian theology" starts from any background that calls itself "Christian" and that sees its own work in terms of loyalty to what it considers "the Christian message" (133).

Obviously there are a lot of Christians who would disagree with this. So in a sense, critical theology, as defined here, has a limited audience. Personally, I don’t write with a conservative audience in mind. I’m not doing “liberal apologetics,” because I don’t particularly care if people agree with me or not. I am, then, writing for a small segment of the Christian community, and anyone else who might happen to be interested.

Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1927. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.

Quesnell, Quentin. "On Not Neglecting the Self in the Structure of Theological Revolutions." Religion and Culture: Essays in Honor of Bernard Lonergan, S.J. Timothy P. Fallon and Philip Boo Riley (eds.). Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1987: 125-133.



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