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“Falling into the Holes in Their Own Thought”

July 13, 2014

Fred Clark at Slacktivist this week has contributed more to the blogosphere conversation we also contributed to in the Noting Abusive Theologians post.  Clark’s post is in response to Roger Olson’s 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 (that 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 been trying 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.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2014 8:11 pm

    ” 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.”

    yes. And at the same but opposite end of comparison, if a person’s life is devoted primarily to prayer, researching the Scriptures, and living the truths one finds, that certainly should be taken into consideration before dismissing their “theology” even when it disagrees with one’s own.

  2. July 14, 2014 11:18 am

    We are all a mixture of bad and good acting and thinking…. Wise people don’t usually leave their actions unjustified by their thinking, because they are thinkers and they can’t function that way.

    Kristen, Thank you very very much for your wisdom here! And thank you for linking, so wisely, to Victoria’s earlier post on this matter.

    Since she’s passed away, I’ve thought a lot more about Maya Angelou and read a little more of things she’d said about her mix of bad and good acting and thinking, while she was alive. Here’s a bit where she says things wise, in my humble opinion:

    Linda: You’ve done a lot of things in your life that most people would judge as wrong. You’ve smoked pot, taken drugs, you were a madam for lesbian prostitutes, a teenage mom, a table dancer – you didn’t follow the straight and narrow. All these experiences gave you a rich life?

    Dr. Angelou: Yes, but I wouldn’t suggest it for anybody. I mean, if you happen to fall into that sort of experience, what you have to do is forgive yourself. If you’re in the very gutter, see where you are and admit it. As soon as you admit it, you can be like the prodigal son, the prodigal daughter. Get up and go home – wherever home is. Get up and go to a safe place, someplace where your spirit is not kicked and brutalized and your body not misused and abused. Get up. But you can’t get up unless you see where you are and admit it. I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks, “I never did anything wrong. Who, Moi? – never I. I have no skeletons in my closet. In fact, I have no closet.” They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think, “Damn I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.” They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives. So I wrote the book Gather Together in My Name. Meaning that all those grown people, all those adults, all those parents and grandparents and teachers and preachers and rabbis and priests who lie to the children can gather together in my name and I will tell them the truth. Wherever you are, you have got to admit it and set about to make a change. That’s why I wrote that book. It’s the most painful book I’ve ever written.

    Even if we think of the most saintly, like Mother Teresa, or the most sinless, like Jesus Christ, then we may want to concede that we ourselves are not so very different with respect to their need to forgive who they are or at least to accept what they had done that was offensive or regrettable in some way. The former, as we all know, had long and devastating secret bouts of depression or faithlessness. And the latter, as the gospels portray him, was not always an especially good son or brother to his parents and his siblings. I don’t really want to distract from the questions of justice and of mix of bad and good by bringing up the stereotypical or prototypical “good” only and “only” good people. But I do think that there’s this sense that enough goodness – in the case of Yoder or Jefferson or Luther or Whitefield – somehow impacts or mitigates their badness.

    (Have we blogged here at BLT about the questions of faith-and-failure with respect to Timothy Keller’s teaching (as here and here) or Bill Gothard‘s? I think it would be interesting to look at how public men who are dogmatic with their doctrines and teachings for others not like them would view the hypocrisies of Yoder, Jefferson, Tillich, Whitefield, and Luther, who in some respects may be more like them.)

  3. July 14, 2014 8:26 pm

    This is an excellent point. I read a book recently called From Enemy to Brother about German Catholic thought about the Jews evolved between the years 1933 to 1965. There were theologians such as Karl Adam (still very popular today) who taught that the state had a divine role in preserving the “blood purity of the German volk.” On the other hand, there were theologians like Dietrich von Hildebrand who actually had Jewish family members and they rejected this kind of theology and politics, and worked to carve out a more positive space for Jews in Catholic theology. I think it’s essential to keep the personal and historical contexts in mind when studying a theologian’s work, irrespective of whether we agree with them or not. If I was talking about Dietrich von Hildebrand’s theology of the Jews, I would mention the fact that he had Jewish ancestors. This does not make him wrong, it just helps to explain why he went against the tide.

  4. July 17, 2014 8:14 am

    “The board [i.e., the Board of Directors of the Institute in Basic Life Principles] does not believe that Mr. Gothard’s shortcomings [his denied sexual harassment of many young women who worked for him, his kissing them, holding their hands, touching their feet and their hair in private] discredit the truths of God’s Word that were taught through him.”

    “In 1984, Ronald Allen, now a professor of Bible exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary, observed that Gothard’s teachings were “a parody of patriarchalism” and “the basest form of male chauvinism I have ever heard in a Christian context.” He added, “Gothard has lost the biblical balance of the relationship between women and men as equals in relationship. His view is basically anti-woman.””

  5. krwordgazer permalink
    July 18, 2014 1:04 am

    Thanks for your input, everyone! Kurk, though I’m a little uncomfortable ascribing anything negative to Jesus, I agree that He might have regretted that His mission sometimes came into conflict with His family life. I do think you’re right that transparency like Angelou’s is much better than when authors don’t acknowledge their offenses and regrets. As for Gothard, he’s a perfect example of Fred Clark’s point that our views affect our actions and our actions affect our views. Amazing that the first article you linked calls what he did “shortcomings” as though he just had a habit of being late, or forgetting people’s birthdays or something.

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