We live in an age of unprecedented theological production. At no point in church history have so many people written so many books and articles, not to mention blogs, wikis, and e-newsletters, about the Christian faith. Twenty-seven years ago, when I began my college teaching career, publishing a book was a notable accomplishment even for scholars at prestigious universities. Nowadays, it is incumbent on every professor no matter where they teach (or what they have to say) to write for their supper. Not only has the oft-predicted collapse of the academic book market not materialized, but the web has revolutionized the very nature of authorship. The Protestant Reformers wanted every believer to be a priest, but they couldn’t have anticipated that anyone with an Internet connection could be a theologian.
The practical result is that theology is no longer only for professional theologians. Just as ecclesial traditions have lost their hold over the faithful, forcing churches to compete for members, universities and their publishing agents have lost control over theology. The sheer volume of theological discourse beaming through cyberspace flattens the hierarchy of authorities, setting a blog post alongside a scholarly monograph, a user-friendly Bible-commentary site right next to the most respected reference volumes. The web is a great equalizer of persons, and also of genres, methods, and styles. As the process continues, it is hard to imagine that anyone in the future will judge a work of theology by whether it is scholarly or popular, critical or apologetic, objective or passionate.
But does this mean that theology is a creature of the marketplace? And what about the role of churches in distinguishing between a theologian and any old religious writer?
A few people are thinking seriously about the question of who gets to write theology, and one of the sharpest is Robert Saler. His book, Between Magisterium and Marketplace, is a revision of his dissertation for the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, but he writes about writing like an old pro.
Theologians have never been freer to proclaim their originality and ignore ecclesial and academic restraints, but is that such a good thing? Saler answers that question by locating authorship in “specific negotiations with institutions whose own author-izing capabilities are never entirely stable.” The Protestant Reformation turned the question of authorship into a central theological topic, but Saler helps us to see that the ground rules of that debate have shifted from the days of William Tyndale and Thomas More. No one today believes that scripture interprets itself or that Bishops always make the best theologians. The current debate turns on the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace.
The debate, in other words, is between Schleiermacher and Newman. For Schleiermacher, theologians should hover above ossified religious traditions by perching on the precarious edge of daring creativity. For Newman, prudence alone should lead any theologian to conclude that private fancy is not enough to sustain theological discourse. Schleiermacher advocates for virtuosity, Newman for anonymity. For Schleiermacher, the theologian should be the public face of the Church, in the sense of being visibly involved in accepting the challenges of the secular world, while for Newman the theologian should quietly serve to publicize the distinctiveness of the Church’s public presence in the world.
Saler gives the win in this debate to Newman, especially if the goal is a visibly unified and effectively organized Church. Newman is the father of what Saler calls “polis ecclesiology,” which he divides into two camps, a “high magisterial” one dominated by the writers associated with this magazine (Reinhard Hütter, R. R. Reno, and Paul Griffiths) and what we could call a “magisterium by imagination” influenced by Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank. Saler is especially pointed at criticizing the latter group, which longs for united Christian communities but settles for an ideational (and thus optional) exercise of institutional authority. Theologians who drink too deeply of the cup of social disenchantment risk constructing a paper church of their own imagination. Theory, in other words, is not enough to provide an escape from the unfettered and corrosive relativism of the market. Submission to Rome is the only ecclesial reality with enough authority.
In the conclusion to his book, however, Saler makes some virtuoso moves of his own by imagining new terms for this debate. What would it mean for theology, he asks, if we accepted “the fragmentation of the church not as a scandal to be overcome but as a positive good to be celebrated”? In a close reading of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, he proposes a vision of the church as a “diffusively spatialized event.” He suggests that the Church exists in epiphanic spaces that provide only the weakest of authorizations for theological discourse. Indeed, theology must learn to “regard the salutary undermining of its own discourse as a site for hope.” This sounds like an optimistic version of Reno’s In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity, which he wrote just before he left Episcopalianism for Rome.
More positively put, Saler gives us an ecclesiology that takes seriously “the potential of the marketplace as a field of genuine contestation, open to manipulation by forces of repentance as much as forces of exploitation.” The Church as an institution correlates with books, bound and copyrighted, but Saler’s ecclesiological occasionalism is a church for bloggers, too, not just authors. I do not know how long Saler can sustain his heroic hope for a diffused Church“universal,” after all, is another word for diffusebut I do have renewed hope for the future of theology with writers like him leading the next generation.
Stephen H. Webb is a columnist for First Things. He is the author most recently of Mormon Christianity.