Friday, 27 June 2014

Lonergan's Eight-fold Path

In Method in Theology Lonergan describes theology as a discipline with eight functional specialties, organized in two phases. The first phase: research, interpretation, history, and dialectic. The second phase: foundations, doctrines, systematics, and communications. Now, rather than simply define all eight I will offer an example, let's say of a theologian who specializes in communications and wants to communicate a Christian perspective on same-sex marriage. Let us for the sake of convenience use the pronoun "she" to describe this hypothetical theologican. The first task is research: she will want to gather the relevant data. This will include biblical texts that might speak to same-sex relations, relevant official church documents, etc. This will also include the work of establishing which text of the New Testament she will examine, i.e. the work of textual criticism. Next, she will want to interpret this material. What is Paul talking about when he talks about effeminacy, for instance? Next she will want to consider the history of the matter. She might ask, for instance, whether Christianity always been as hostile to same-sex unions as is often thought, by persons on both sides of the debate? When did the very idea of same-sex marriage emerge? Next she will think in a dialectical fashion about this history. What are the deeper psychological, cultural, social, factors involved in these conflicts? How have these unfolded over time? Then comes foundations, wherein she begins to situate herself within these conflicts. Then doctrines, wherein she begins to make affirmations on the various issues involved, and then systematics, wherein she thinks about how these affirmations work together to form a unified Christian perspective. Finally communications, wherein she considers the results of the previous seven functional specialties for the world beyond theology proper, such as, for instance, public policy.

Now, in a perfect world every theologian would have expertise in each of these eight specialties, but of course we do not live in that world and any given scholar can at best hope to master one specialty, maybe two, and have the capacity to interact with the findings and work of others. That is why they are specialties. Our hypothetical theologian need not become a textual critic in order to do her work, and in fact every minute she devotes to become one is one minute less she devotes to becoming an expert in communications. She need only know what experts in the field consider a reliable text. For her purposes it might be sufficient to ask her colleagues in biblical what translation they would think best to use. The point of functional specialties is to make tasks impossible for one person possible for a collective. That of course is the idea behind the university.

As a scholar who works most fully within the functional specialty of history yet works on material that historically has been of greatest interest to theologians this eight-fold division has the salutary advantage of answering some of the interminable questions about the relationship between history and theology. It does so by on the one hand locating the work of history within the work of theology, but also by saying that it is the historian's duty to operate as much as a historian as possible. This allows those historians who are interested in relating their work to the broader enterprise of theology to do so, whilst also permitting those without such an interest the room to completely ignore such matters. Meanwhile, whilst operating as historians, they can both operate in exactly the same fashion. This has the effect of completely obviating the interminable although often implicit turf wars between "believers" and "unbelievers" within biblical studies. The same can be said of those working in the functional specialties of research, interpretation, and dialectics. Putting an end to the banality of territorial struggles will free up a lot of energy for work on matters of actual substance, and I think that a good thing.

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