With My Apologies

If studying theology has taught me one thing, then it is always to be prepared with an apology. By apology here, I mean to invoke both its technical and colloquial meanings. When introducing myself as a student of theology, I often am required to offer a defense of theology as a discipline independent of religious practice, to be followed shortly thereafter by a confession of guilt, at least inwardly, for having felt so defensive about being personally associated with religious practice.

For me, it’s not a simple matter of addressing a popular misunderstanding about the work of theology. Being mistaken for someone who may have a doctrinal stake in the ground makes me acutely aware of how uneasy I am about pinpointing my current coordinates on the religion map. My unease certainly comes from a desire to distance myself from dogmatic assertions, but more strongly so, out of a humble acknowledgement of the fragility of the faith project. How is it possible to trace in practice the shape of potential advent without in fact crumpling it in the attempt?

Recently, a friend brought to my attention an article by Jay Bakker[1] that asks similar questions albeit from a distinctly different context than my own. In “Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed,” Bakker laments that in his experience “belief” has become synonymous with preserving dogmatic credibility in the face of doubt. He remarks, “Belief is concerned not with what is believed but the rightness of the one believing.” For Bakker, this undo emphasis on being right hamstrings faith from full functionality,  particularly in enacting justice. He writes, “you end up insisting that you are right instead of insisting on what is right.” His remedy is to preference “hope” over belief in order to defend faith from the knee jerk need to constantly proclaim its infallibility. Hope, Bakker feels, best preserves the tenuousness of his faith while enabling him to interact both with his community and with his faith tradition. While I admire his intent, there seems to me a lack of structure (at least in the article) that threatens Bakker’s hope with the prospect of becoming indistinguishable from other kinds of nonreligious hope. To my mind, the conspicuous character of religious practice is one of the things that make it efficacious in precipitating the cycle of crisis and comfort necessary for spiritual growth. Of course, it’s often this very character that tempts it to make claims about its exclusive effectiveness.

I’ve found another possible take on my apology problem in Christina M. Gschwandtner’s new book, Postmodern Apologetics: Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy. While at the University of Scranton, I had the privilege of studying with Dr. Gschwandtner and her distinctive voice and meticulous approach come through strongly in this latest work. The book considers the emergence of a postmodern apologetic, a phenomenological defense of experiences of the divine. Gschwandtner admits within the book’s opening pages that both terms, postmodern and apologetic, are at risk of being misunderstood and potentially controversial, but she employs them expertly to trace the major thinkers from Heidegger to Levinas to Falque to demonstrate a persistent and rigorous defense of the truth of religious experience. She argues that these projects are in fact more appropriately apologetic precisely because they do not trespass into the territory of Bakker’s problematic belief. She writes,

“They do not compel belief through forceful or totalitarian measures (as apologetics at its worst has occasionally done), but rather they present religious experience or an experience of the divine in a manner that leaves it to the choice of the reader how to respond to the divine appeal: on the one hand, the choice about whether to believe in God and what sort of God to believe in and, on the other hand, choices about ourselves, about who we are and how we are to live. And genuine apologetics at all times has left that choice open.”[2]

The conclusion is that faith is capable of credibility making sense of itself without establishing itself creed.

In reading Gschwandtner’s description, I began to wonder if the postmodern apologetical project went beyond describing religious experience credibly, but also perhaps suggested the possibility that the exercise of description in some way constitutes a religious practice of its own. By this I mean that the diligent adherence to methodology characteristic of phenomenology coupled with a sense of wild creativity (born from the insistence on the excessive quality of religious experience) can be imagined to construct a framework around which doubt can flex while the rigidity necessary to foster faith is retained. In the mix of rigor and openness to advent, the work itself has a kind of religious quality about it. For example, near the end of the book, Gschwandtner includes a survey of interpretations by postmodern apologetical thinkers of Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence. Although each thinker interacts differently with the proof, I was struck by the vigil-like quality in each interpretation. The hermeneutics practiced to speak with the text are a kind of hope, an expectation that reaches beyond seen/heard words, an attitude not unlike those they are describing. Because these philosophies hold the possibility of advent so loosely, but work so hard to do so, they suggest to me the prospect of re-engaging faith in the act of apology without the future need to feel sorry.


[1] Jay Bakker, “Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed.” Huff Post Religion. 2/19/2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-bakker/faith-doubt-and-other-lines-ive-crossed_b_2719657.html?utm_hp_ref=tw

[2] Christina M. Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy, John D. Caputo, series editor. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 219.