Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Superiority of the American Graduate School System

I have complained, here and here about what I think is the prevailing lack of respect we receive from the European and Vatican theological community. Of course, this was encapusalted in the quote "what major intellectual contributions have the Americans made?"

So Ed Deluzain's post on comparing the educational process got me thinking. Ed believes that the American graduate system is the crown jewel. That it is unrivaled in quality. I have heard this before and I think it holds for the most part.

I think the plethora of higher level institutions and the relative prosperity of these institutions makes for an unparalled learning community. If in the field of Biology, let's say there are 100 Biology Ph.D's being churned out each year, that means that that much new research was pumped into the field and causing the field of knowledge to expand dramatically. It is hard to see any other place on the face of the planet that can match that. The prosperity is an "unfair" advantage, especially in the sciences where money is everything.

I once asked a PhD in Astronomy about the US v the World in the subject. His reply, "not even close." But I am tempted to believe that money is behind the superiority as opposed to sheer genius. I once read recently that even though the Soviet Union lost the cold war, the former KGB agenst were sparing when it came to praising their American intelligence counterparts. It was widely believed that the American agents were the best because of all the money they had and all the neat gadgets. They argued that if everyone started out at ground zero, no such superiority was guaranteed.

Back to the grad school superiority issue. I would say that the same holds in the social sciences and liberal arts. The sheer volume and quality make the American system hard to compete with. But then again, the issue that has vexed me is not so much intellectual competence or quality, but creativity. I can't even pretend to speak for other disciplines besides theology. It is clear that American creativity is not lacking in the sciences . . . or is it? How much of what goes on at MIT and Cal Tech is by Americans? I don't know.

In theology, specifically, I think the graduate level is top notch and second to none. But the issue is still that we haven't done much by way of creative thought. To be sure, there are constructive and creative American theologians out there, but when the history of the 20th century theology is written, American theologians may get an honorable mention but the major currents remain continental. Even Latin liberation theology owes its beginings to the Germans. (Nonetheless, there is a distinctly emerging Latin theological voice that historians will rightly regard as original).

Now, I'm stepping on Lonergan's turf, but is there a way to structure guaranteed creativity, how do you get people to have original insights? Or is it a crap shoot and one hopes that such thinkers emerge with time? There's also the question of numbers.

I think two thing have to happen for the American Catholic theological voice to emerge with distinction: 1) American theology grad schools have to attract creative people (2) the culture of fidelity in theology as a restatement of the Catechism (rabid application in US) has to change.

In terms of 1), attracting creative types, the excitement in theology has to re-emerge so that it is enticing enough for young men and women who are otherwise drawn to other fields, especially philosophy. The current atmosphere of doom and gloom and theological watchdogs precludes that. Also, young theolgians have to be featured and nurtured, and their horns need to be tooted, so to speak. Making young theologians the face of American theology contributes to the appearance of vibrancy that attracts and inspires new theologians.

In terms of 2), the current culture of fidelity, with the advent of this mandatum thing, things are only going to get worse before they get better. This is one negative legacy, and a costly one at that, of John Paul II. You cannot proscribe the terms of the debate and discussion and then expect anything creative to emerge. Of course, creativity is eschewed by the conservative faction, so they see no loss there. Now, I'm not saying that everything should be acceptable theologically, but that theologians need to be given room to develop ideas without fear of reprisal. cracking down on creative theology is like condemning the sketches that precede the portrait. Theologians are going to explore and expand and stretch concepts, and such intellectual experimentation implies that a fair amount of what is done may be incompatible with the current creedal forms. A theologian's deficiency is not the final word, so there is no need to whip one's self into a frenzy with condemnations.

Anyway, a fundamental question is, "what's so great about creativity anyway?" That's another blog post, but for me, my fundmantal motivation, far as I can tell, is pride.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of quick replies. First, you write: "In terms of 1), attracting creative types, the excitement in theology has to re-emerge so that it is enticing enough for young men and women who are otherwise drawn to other fields, especially philosophy. The current atmosphere of doom and gloom and theological watchdogs precludes that."

In my own case, I was drawn away from theology and into philosophy because I found the theology that was being taught--even at schools that are generally considered very conservative--was extremely flaky stuff. Lots of Heidegger and so forth, and a corresponding lack of intelligibility and rigor.

As to your comments about the doom and gloom, theological watchdogs, and the squelching of creativity by the "conservatives," I have a hard time grasping your view. It seems pretty obvious, for example, that the theological watchdogs were far more powerful, and far less open to new ideas, back in the 30's and 40's. Yet, despite being, by your standards, a time of extreme oppression, some of the most creative and original theology of recent times was done in those days. (To be sure, some of it was suppressed by the Holy Office, and there may very well be grounds for reasonable objections to those decisions.) But your assumption that the presence of "theological watchdogs" prevents interesting theology from getting done just seems obviously false. (Of course, an even better example can be found in the University of Paris, circa the 13th century!)

Last comment: if a theologian knowingly defends a claim that is "incompatible with the current creedal forms," I would think s/he would thereby cease to be a Catholic theologian. The creeds aren't dispensible.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Ono said...

The turn of the century with the Modernists was a doom and gloom era, with little inquisitions popping up everywhere. That's sure to put a damper on things. Even John Henry Newman was kryptonite and was not touched theologically until the mid century mark.

I don't think the 30s and 40s were the same. There was scrutiny, but not to the same degree as perhaps earlier. And the scrutiny curbed a burst of creativity, but wasn't there in that degree prior to it. But even then, there was an attitude of openness and discovery encouraged by Pius XII with his Biblical encyclical and his openness to modern thought . . . I think that period was not as squelching as the decades that started the century, where there was a witch hunt in place.

The present atmosphere, with all the political stuff going around, is far more lethal than the mid 20th century. There is a witch hunt presently in effect and the battle for the soul of theology has been ratcheted up a couple of notches. The stakes are higher now, and there is very little oxygen for creative theology.

As for U of Paris in the 13th century, Aquinas did get condemned and Scotus fled Paris for Germany because his life may have been in danger for suggesting the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Both of their theologies' survival is largely due to their religious orders, especially the Dominicans who worked hard to rehabilitate Aquinas.

That was a different era and hard to compare, but we note that both Aquinas and Scotus were very progressive for their day. Also, news and info traveled much slower and a crack down took longer to enact than it would today.

As for theological study, I agree that there is a lot of flaky Heidegger going on which is part of the problem. Heidegger did his homework, as did Rahner, Lonergan, Yves Congar, etc, they understood what was going on philosophically. That fundamental understanding of the philosophical underpinnings or context for theology is largely absent today. Which is part of the problem I suppose.

With creedal forms, for instance, to say that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," what exactly does that mean? It means little, if anything, to anyone today. No one is suggesting that we change what is recited on Sunday, but theology has to find a way to make the phrase meaningful. We don't use the same linguistic categories that were used in the fourth century and theology should not be limited by them.

I would say that theologians should remain in their ivory tower so that the faithful don't get a wind of this "experimentation" but its got to be done. That's how the great theologians made the strides they did.

12:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. I'm not quite convinced, however, that you've undermined my main point, which was that the presence of "theological watchdogs" doesn't actually prevent interesting and creative theology from getting done. It seems to me that even at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a great deal of very creative theology. One has to think of nobody other than Rousselot for confirmation of that. But if you want further examples, I can give at least a few, though I confess to not being particulary well versed in the theology of this time: Blondel, Marechal and Mercier at least spring to mind. (Of course, I suppose all four of these men are better known as philosophers than as theologians. But I'm not sure how bright that line really is in these cases. Certainly, at any rate, the "Modernist crisis" that precipitated the kind of "inquisitions" you refer to was at least as much a philosophical crisis as a theological one.)

As I've said, I'm not a theologian, so I'm speaking out of school here. But it seems to me perhaps appropriat for you to say there is a "witch hunt" going on in theology today. Indeed, in recent times, we've had theology professors in good standing at Catholic schools who came very close to actually *being* witches (in the silly, "Wicca," sense of "witch," of course). For my own part, I don't believe it is a tremendous leap to say that such folks have no place teaching "theology" in Catholic schools. But--and here's the point--they have been doing so, and continue to do so. Initiatives like the long-overdue Mandatum can help straighten out this kind of obscene and absurd abuse. Presumably, however, the Mandatum doesn't force theologians to cease doing the kind of work you mentioned in your reply. To wit:

"With creedal forms, for instance, to say that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son," what exactly does that mean? It means little, if anything, to anyone today. No one is suggesting that we change what is recited on Sunday, but theology has to find a way to make the phrase meaningful."

That's a fine point. Theologians do have to try to express the unchanging truths of the Faith in language--and language is always changing. As long as the intent of the theologian is to express the unchanging truths of the Faith in ever clearer and more informative language, nobody is (or, at least, it seems to me, nobody ought to) question his or her orthodoxy or right to "experiment." And the Mandatum surely shouldn't be used as a cudgel to keep people from doing this kind of "experimentation." (And I, for my part, don't believe that it will be, at least in most cases.)

There is an important point to make about what I said just above, though. First, a theologian's having the *intent* to more clearly express the unchanging truths of the Faith is no guarantee that the theologian actually will preserve the unchanging truths of the Faith. Sometimes, during "experimentation," heterodoxy creeps in. It is not an instance of "hunting witches" to point out heterodoxy when it does show up. Obviously, the intent there is to protect the faithful from error, as well, presumably, as to help the theologian him or herself to get back on track. I think the absence of any serious training in serious philosophy (particularly, in my view, scholasticism), which you recognizes as a problem, contributes to the increasing inability of some theologians to keep their experimentation in line with basic truths of the Faith. (For one simple example, I read a book awhile ago by a very prominent American Biblical scholar [not Fr. Brown, FWIW] that included some claims that were patently contrary to the Faith. Is this fellow deliberately dissenting? I certainly try to think he's not. I assume, rather, that he just hasn't adequately learned his philosophy, and as such is incapable of making the appropriate distinctions. It's in cases like this that the Magisterium is so essential: to correct this man in a firm, yet loving and paternal way. Certainly, this kind of authority can be--and, I think, has sometimes been--abused. But the authority itself, I think, is necessary and indeed quite wonderful.)

At any rate, I suppose my question for you is the following: do you regard *all* magisterial intervention in theological matters as objectionable?

10:34 AM  
Blogger Ono said...

"At any rate, I suppose my question for you is the following: do you regard *all* magisterial intervention in theological matters as objectionable?"

No. Two things.

1) The magisterium is in no position to discuss current theological advances. It may restate the Church's position and point out problems, but even the magisterium needs time to digest what's going on.

For instance, in Biblical studies, Catholics came to game almost a century late because of magisterial fears. In regard to evolution, we were also late to the game, because of these fears again. The German biblical scholarship that launched the modern critical scholarship was clearly off base, but there were important things that had to be addressed. Ending debate doesn't make a problem go away.

2) I think John XXIII's model is what's needed. You can challenge prevailing theological currents, but you don't want to stop people from doing theology. You don't have to use harsh condmentations,etc. That is so fourteenth century.

As for theological watchdogs, their presence does not necessarily undermine *creativity* in theology. But there are degrees of these inquisitions. My take on the mid 20th century was that the Holy Office and the powers that be were the watch dogs and they tend to be more circumspect because they are theologians themselves.

The danger is when the attitude of watchdog becomes pervasive among the laity and everyone takes it upon themselves to champion the cause of orthodoxy, then we have a witch hunt. That's what's going on now and that's what went on in the early 20th century. There is a fear of the Catholic mob and the mob is trolling looking for blood. For all their good intentions, non-theologians are in no position to judge the useful of theological positions. Even if a theological position is wrong, it could be immensely helpful.

Theology departments are now going to be very careful when hiring new faculty and may end up not hiring very creative theologians for fear of mob retribution. Also, untenured faculty are going to play it safe and not get creative so that their tenure reviews go without a hitch. Tenured faculty, maybe reluctant to bring negative publicity on their program by penning creative works thus stiring the mob. All these factors contribute to stiffling creativity. That's one example of how the current climate negatively impacts theology.

One other thing about the mid 20th century. What was going on there was a resourcement, a return to patristic sources, that's were the "troubles" lay for them. Holy Office watchdogs were simply unaware of patristic theology. I would suggest that condmenations were much slower because it is a lot more difficult to condemn studies clearly within the tradition. Also re-evaluations of the scholastics was going on, so even though all this was happening under the "watchful eye" of the magisterium, the theologians could be much bolder knowing that they were operating within the tradition. So I'm saying that the valid-in-the-eyes-of-the-Holy Office studies coupled with the boldness of the theologians, knowing that they were working firmly within the tradition, may have lessened the severity of the watch dogness going on.

I had a couple more thoughts, but I may have to make this a separate post.

BTW, Wicca and Catholic theology are incompatible.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice reply. I wanted to reply to one particular bit of it, because I think you make an excellent argument in favor of the Mandatum when you say:

"The danger is when the attitude of watchdog becomes pervasive among the laity and everyone takes it upon themselves to champion the cause of orthodoxy, then we have a witch hunt. That's what's going on now and that's what went on in the early 20th century. There is a fear of the Catholic mob and the mob is trolling looking for blood. For all their good intentions, non-theologians are in no position to judge the useful of theological positions."

It seems to me that the central reason the laity, including young orthodox college students, are so quick to, as you put it, champion the cause of orthodoxy--which, as you note, when done by folks without sufficient formal training is likely to quickly get ugly--is that they feel the episcopacy in our country has failed miserably at precisely this task. In effect, I think these folks feel that since there's nobody else who is willing to defend orthdoxy, they'll have to do it themselves.

This is perhaps the single best reason for getting the Mandatum up and running as quickly as possible. Questions about the orthodoxy of a professor can be dealt with at the diocesan level, and the theology faculties, it seems to me, can relax. If the bishops handle the vetting processes, then the ire of the witch hunters (when it is aroused, as it inevitably will be in some cases) will be focussed on the bishops, not on the colleges. So the mandatum actually provides a layer of insulation for theologians. It should help the theologians go ahead and be theologians.

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