Theology as therapy

The annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion has it all: Karl Barth studies, tantra workshops, papers and working groups on religious end-of-life care, intersectional micro-studies on big questions, and working groups exploring the theological challenges of artificial intelligence. In view of this diversity and after a few workshops, lectures and conversations over coffee and at bars, I start to wonder what theology actually is.

Theology types

There are very different ways in which theology is practiced here in San Antonio (Texas, USA). Of course, many papers and lectures refer to past debates, important thinkers or intellectual authorities. In part, they do this like academic fan groups who honor a particular thinker by wanting to demonstrate their ability to connect with current issues: What does Paul Tillich (1886-1965) have to say to us about queer theology, theology and autism, intersectionality or artificial intelligence? At best, Tillich or, for example, his correlation method is a lens to focus one's own perspective on a factual question. But it's actually more about using a current topic to promote the great thinker, who understandably had no idea about this particular topic.

What does Paul Tillich have to say to us about queer theology, theology and autism, intersectionality or artificial intelligence?

A first element in determining what theology is could therefore be: Theology is a technique of remembrance that visualizes deceased thinkers and their position.

Another type goes the other way round, so to speak: A current problem - for example the extinction of species - is explained and confronted with the corresponding solutions and assessments of the respective reference sciences.

We - theology - are the original of this problem perception and solution!

These philosophical, psychological, economic or scientific insights are then translated theologically in a second step - for example with the biblical mandate to give names to all living beings and things. This is intended, firstly, to recognize the extra-theological commitment, secondly, to generate motivation within the religious community to participate in solving the problem, but then finally, thirdly, to apologetically bring the Bible and the Christian tradition into play as the origin of this whole awareness of the problem. We - theology - are the original of this problem perception and solution! Of course, this approach also exists as an interreligious undertaking: Species conservation, ecology, sustainability in Islam, Judaism and Christianity as an expression of a deity who loves our lives.

A second element to describe theology could be: Theology is a self-assurance technique. By being able to thematize itself as the original context for the discovery of problems and solution strategies, it ensures the relevance of the work of its followers and their audience.

A third type works with a very broad concept of religion and attempts to show that current problems always have a religious dimension that should definitely be taken into account. It is not uncommon for religious world views themselves to exacerbate or even cause problems that require theological, enlightening therapy: Xenophobia? Yes, this also has a religious root. As long as we don't understand and deal with them, there will be no peace! This type of theology seeks coalitions or at least third-party funding in order to collaborate interdisciplinarily with more socially respected sciences.

Xenophobia? Yes, this also has a religious root. As long as we don't understand and deal with them, there will be no peace!

Thirdly, theology is a self-preservation technique that initiates a translation process of topics and partial aspects into religious, transcendental or religious-psychological contexts in order to secure a place at the table of current debates.

A fairly broad field of contemporary theology deals with problems that have arisen through religious life and various, often evangelical or biblical theologies. It is not uncommon for them to try to create free spaces under these conditions in order to think of God in a flexible, empathetic, queer, changeable and sexism-free way despite everything.

Anyone who has not been socialized into the problematic context of a patriarchal, punitive, rigorous image of God can hardly understand these efforts.

Anyone who has not been socialized into the problematic context of a patriarchal, punitive, rigorous image of God can hardly understand these efforts. But there are obviously many theologians who need theology as an act of self-liberation under biblical premises for themselves and their community.

Fourthly, theology is a form of self-therapy under the conditions of an illness that has brought about a similar theology in the first place.

Style and validity

But if it's wrong - and it's wrong because it hurts a lot of people's feelings, what does it matter?

These four types - memory, self-assurance, self-preservation and self-therapy techniques - may be far apart in terms of intention and subject matter. Nevertheless, there is one decisive element that unites them all: The gesture and style of personal involvement is the currency with which the theological explanations can claim validity. It is not so much decisive whether Paul Tillich's method of correlation is suitable for making Judith Butler's Gender Trouble fruitful for the image of God, but above all that I myself, as a person affected, see any sense in it. It is not so important whether there are good reasons to fight biblicist worldviews on the basis of biblicism. What matters is that I have suffered from biblicism and want to liberate others. It is not a specific concept of religion that needs to be discussed in order to check whether a problem really has a relevant religious dimension. It is enough that the speaker feels and expresses this.

The gesture and style of personal involvement is the currency with which the theological explanations can claim validity.

For example, I attended a lecture on Muscular Christianty. The whole movement was portrayed as a perverted form of Christianity, literally even as heresy. After the friendly applause, a seventy-year-old theology professor next to me asked whether this movement, which certainly seems strange to us today, could be viewed in a different way, namely through the perspective of a historical contextualization. For example, as the reaction of a fatherless generation seeking stability within religion. The speaker was visibly horrified and amused and only said very succinctly: "But if it's wrong - and it's wrong because it hurts a lot of people's feelings, what does it matter? When an art historian cautiously asked her to remind her that some of the things we interpret as male or female in the depictions of Jesus today had a different connotation at the time the depictions were created, she countered with the firm assurance that she clearly recognized Rockefeller's facial features in this depiction of Jesus.

What theology can do

I am not claiming that this lecture and the speaker are suitable for getting a picture of contemporary theology. They are perhaps a particularly bad and cautionary example of a direction that theology could take, but does not have to take. Theology can do more and I also experienced that in San Antonio!

Even those who are no longer held in the binary of right/wrong can be sheltered in the idea of loving one's enemy.

A professor of law gave an impressive lecture on the political difference between enemy and criminal, sovereignty and law. Overall, the lecture came down to the thesis that society is always in need of civil war-like conditions in order to secure sovereignty and mark enemies that must be excluded. I was speechless, horrified and could well understand the current references that the professor made to the war in the Gaza Strip and Ukraine. I spontaneously tended to agree with him. One theologian gave a very clever response to this. She has developed what it can mean to love one's enemies: Even those who are no longer held in the binary of right/wrong can be sheltered in the idea of loving one's enemies. She put forward the following counter-thesis: Without love of enemies there is no justice and without justice there is no right. That is why the enemy is not the borderline case of the law that can be contained by the state, police or military, but the litmus test for the rule of law.

Her theological translation had a therapeutic effect by changing the perspective, exploding the lack of alternatives and removing the logic of law from its own laws. Her theological thinking has created a space to see the problem differently and to think differently about law and justice. She presented this with commitment, as someone who has been campaigning for minorities and civil rights for years. But her commitment was not absorbed in consternation and her theology did not just seem like a translation of her own state of mind, but a source of valuable intuition.

This is why theology - and this is the successful case - can, fifthly, also be a technique for breaking open one's own narrowed thinking, making moral intuitions narratable and expanding the discourse space in such a way that understanding and healing become possible in the face of the idea of God's kingdom.

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Stephan Jütte

Stephan Jütte

Dr. theol.

Leiter Theologie und Ethik
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