I have never really made New Year’s resolutions and certainly not academic ones. This year I am making one, although the timing probably has more to do with the time I have on my hands now that have a semester off of teaching rather than it actually being a new year. Ideally one of the benefits of course work is the variety of readings and topics that one gets to (or is forced to) engage. There is less variety in the candidacy exam year but, at least here at Notre Dame, the topics are chosen by the student. Obviously things become much more focused as the dissertation comes around. What I found last semester as I was teaching, applying for jobs, and writing the dissertation was that I had little time or energy left over to pursue topics of interest beyond what was immediately on my plate. I read a great deal of liberation theology but not much beyond that.
My academic resolution is quite simple: read more journal articles. I often search for articles on particular topics and skim the pdfs online but I want to make a commitment to reading on topics beyond what I would generally search for. Thus, I am going to try to read through each issue of a couple of journals (more or less) cover to cover this year. I started with the latest issue of Horizons (mainly because I have it free as a member of the College Theology Society). Laurie Cassidy’s article on moral questions regarding pictures of suffering is exactly the type of piece I am looking for. It is not something I would probably come across when searching around and it engages a field of studies (visual cultural studies) with which I am unfamiliar. Her analysis of the nature of photographs, assumed objectivity, and the role of the viewer is clear and challenging. Theologically she draws upon the imago Dei as a call for dignity and radical sociality and Metz’s notion of a mysticism of open eyes as a call for Christians to question the practical impact of images of the suffering of others in contemporary culture. Another essay critical of William Cavanaugh’s treatment of the modern state was perceptive and a “theological roundtable” on teaching Catholic Theology was quite interesting. Pieces here from Matt Ashley, Anne Clifford, and Brian Robinette were instructive in diagnosing challenges in teaching, providing some historical background in Catholic education, and giving helpful advice for the classroom. One brief reflection from Robinette resonated strongly with my experience last semester: “As you are all no doubt aware, when stepping into the undergraduate classroom, it is rarely the expertise you have honed over the years that is most relevant. It is your role as a generalist that most often comes into play. This is all the more crucial now, since, as Anne [Clifford] pointed out, our students come into our classrooms with less and less ‘background knowledge’ than previous generations of students might have taken for granted” (322). Finding a balance between the narrow speciality needed for a research agenda and the general background need for teaching is not easy (individually or in terms of a graduate curriculum), but it is necessary.
In the book reviews I learned that Gerald O’Collins has somehow written over 55 books. Creation, Grace, and Redemption by Neil Ormerod and Lawrence Cunningham’s new An Introduction to Catholicism both look good. I also agree that The Ignatian Tradition: Spirituality in History from Liturgical Press was well worth the read (but maybe skip the Lonergan part which is not particularly Ignatian).
I am still trying to figure out what other journals are worth committing to. Horizons is nice because it is free and only comes twice a year. Right now I am thinking of Theological Studies and Modern Theology as well.
I’ve only just now, twenty years and many thick layers of satire after the fact, come around to reading Theology and Social Theory cover to cover. It’s always interesting to read a book for the first time that it seems you’ve ‘known’ forever, just by virtue of its being so integral to the academy’s collective consciousness. In these cases I almost always end up feeling sorry for the author. The book is usually so much better than the caricatures or isolated nostrums that get remembered. But once the simplified version has cemented, it is extremely difficult to see anything else even when the book is right in front of you. (This fact both confirms and complicates Harman’s advice to avoid reading much secondary work on an author that really matters to you until you’ve worked out what she’s saying all on your own. Secondary work is a seedbed of clichés, but when dealing with someone as ubiquitous as Milbank, the clichés take root without needing to be attached to any text at all. In those cases, a few carefully-chosen secondary works can open up interpretive space rather than covering it over.)
Still, in my experience, one or two features of the book usually stand out to you as completely misrepresented or unaccounted for by the caricatures. One of the things that struck me most about Milbank’s book is how little theology it actually contains. It’s often said that one of the book’s main contentions is the absolute superiority of theology over all ‘secular’ disciplines, a re-enthroning of theology as the queen of the sciences. That idea is certainly not foreign to Milbank, but to the extent that it’s argued at all, it’s confined to the book’s final chapter. The vast majority of the book is better read as a work in the philosophy of religion than in theology strictly speaking, arguing simply that ‘secular’ attempts of whatever kind (political, sociological, philosophical, or historical) to ‘position’ or explain religion by reference to a broader, supposedly self-evident whole, all fail. They fail because they are unable to recognize that their own view of the whole is just as controvertible, just as rationally contingent, as any ‘religious’ view. And none of this is argued by appeal to specifically Christian sources taken as normative. It’s presented as a philosophical ‘metacritique,’ depending for its substance on Hamann and Herder above all (who represent, he says, a “phantom Christian modernity which has never been” [p. 151, 2nd ed.]) and for its method on the same Nietzschean genealogical tradition he’s trying to overturn. What the metacritique really aims to establish is not the intrinsic superiority of theology, but on the contrary, the essential equivalence of theology with other discourses that have tried to claim their own ‘scientific’ superiority.
What’s particularly interesting to me is not the claim for theology’s superiority (which, in his metacritical idiom, amounts to not much more than that a view of the whole ‘positions’ the view of the parts), but the source and status of this metacritique, and the relation between this metacritique and Milbank’s actual preference for Christianity.