Theology and Subjectivity

Except among certain scientific realists, the reality that our rationality comes to the world with baggage is assumed. We live as subjective beings, whose thought structures are subject to a whole history of philosophy, theology, scientific discovery, and cultural understandings. Our own thoughts are mediated through language, and our language simultaneously shapes and is shaped by the context within which we live. We experience in community; we reason in community; we believe in community. The community directs and shapes those discursive treatises we write; however, and more fundamentally, it also molds our non-discursive intuitions. What we hold to be ‘common sense’ is only common because it is part of the cultural ethos.

When Lindbeck writes, “There are numberless thoughts we cannot think, sentiments we cannot have, and realities we cannot perceive unless we learn to use the appropriate symbol systems,”[1] at least part of what is included in this statement is the humbling reality that we cannot get to the coveted God’s-eye-view of the world that scientific realism desires. We cannot escape our own subjectivity, because this subjectivity is part and parcel of human experience qua experience.

How does this epistemological situation affect the theological process? First, it ought to engender humility. Because we argue and reason according to contextually pre-determined limits of rationality, there are certain conclusions and lines of argumentation which we would find unreasonable, although in another context they are not only reasonable but true. That we as Protestants cannot find any good reason to believe the doctrine of Transubstantiation does not in itself argue against the conclusion. Part of the rationale behind Transubstantiation is a history of Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics that Protestants, for the most part, have not inherited. What the doctrine accomplishes is a sanctity and unity-with-Christ in the Communion. Although one ought not suggest that the power of a doctrine lies solely in what it may accomplish, where the effect of two versions of the same doctrine is not dissimilar, perhaps an open-handed discussion with the Catholic is more appropriate than a closefisted intellectual brawl. The intellectual history of Protestantism (accepting the broad brush strokes and loss of detail such a description entails) is an inheritance of different symbols and customs than the Catholic, although not wholly different because of their Western context. And neither of these are entirely different from the Orthodox Church with its history of ancient Christian symbols.

Second, the theological process must be understood as necessarily tentative. Among other things, one of the main thrusts of Olson’s book Reformed and Always Reforming is the idea that doctrines are perpetually in a state of discovery and formulation.[2] Language and culture are always changing. Because language is the means by which theological ideas are both articulated and created (both within the individual and the community), there can be no static, final form of a doctrine. Doctrinal perfection is not merely a matter of translating orthodox thought into other languages, because languages do not stand alone but exist in a community, summoning a catena of symbols within the mind of the hearer. At the very least, translating a doctrine from one culture to another entails transforming it into a set of symbols comprehensible and reasonable to the mind foreign to it. Even if one were transmitting a ‘perfected’ doctrine across culture or time, the static of the transmission means something is distorted — or, perhaps, actually perfected.

Theology is the organic fruit of men and women in community reflecting on Scripture, the history of theology, and the history of the church according to the acceptable bounds of intellectual work established by their context. The task is never finished, but the work of the theologian humbles her and draws her into the security of a living relationship in the Church and Trinity.

[1] Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. 34.

[2] Olson, Roger. Reformed and Always Reforming: the Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology. Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.


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