The Future (or Death) of Theology

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The other day, Meredith blogged about Elliot Cosgrove’s Forward op-ed about the unfortunate decline of Jewish theology. But I’d like to add my two cents because, though I agree with much of what Cosgrove wrote, I think there are additional factors worth noting.

Cosgrove asks “Where have all the theologians gone?” — and continues:

There are many reasons for the dearth of theological thinking, but there is one reason that is particularly worrisome: Maybe there are no fresh Jewish theological voices because Jews are no longer interested in listening.

We are so focused on Israel, antisemitism and intermarriage that we have come to ignore the linchpin for all discussions on Jewish continuity — namely, a compelling case for Jewish belief.

Here’s what I think Cosgrove missed: Theology isn’t really about belief — that’s dogma; theology is about narrative, the stories that articulate our religious visions and values. (For example, the 13 Principles of Faith were Maimonides’ beliefs/dogmas; his Aristotelian view of the purpose of life: a perpetual apprehension of God and the intelligibles, a state of constant intellectual perfection — with all the language that goes with it — that’s his theology.)

Why does this distinction between belief and narrative matter?

Because the last several decades has seen the decline of all (meta)narratives, not just Jewish ones. In other words, I’m not sure the decline in Jewish theology is a distinctly Jewish problem. Postmodernism ushered in a self-consciousness about truth — be it religious or academic — that introduced a modicum of skepticism about the stories we tell ourselves.

Cosgrove nostalgically points to the community of theologians who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s.

So what’s changed since then? Well, consider this: Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy was published in 1967; Clifford Geertz’s “Religion as a Cultural System” was published a year earlier. These two masterpieces both highlighted the social (i.e. human) construction of religious truth. Any potential theologian writing in the 1970s would have been aware of these works and would have felt severely challenged by them in trying to write a (meta)narrative of Judaism.

Why do I keep saying “(meta)narrative”?

Because while postmodernism sensitized us to the ways social perspectives/conditions influence our perceptions of reality and our creation of knowledge, it also empowered previously marginalized groups to become more active in the production of knowledge, hence the rise of university Feminist Studies, African American Studies, and Queer Studies.

And this leads me to the most important omission in Cosgrove’s analysis: the fact that there has been significant Jewish theology done in the past few decades by previously marginalized Jews. The last two decades has seen the publication of seminal works of feminist Jewish theology: Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai; Rachel Adler’s Engendering Judaism; Tamar Ross’ Expanding the Palace of Torah — to name a few.

We’ve also seen the first attempts at creating gay Jewish theologies (like Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wresting with God and Man and this article by Jay Michaelson).

So while I agree with Cosgrove that we ought to spend more time talking about the meaning and purpose of our Jewish lives, I think he somewhat misdiagnoses the problem at hand.

In the Jewish world and beyond, grand theological narratives are dead. They’ve been replaced by limited ones, told from self-consciously specific perspectives. And many of those Jewish theologies have been written — and have already contributed to Jewish life and learning.

Posted on June 18, 2007

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3 thoughts on “The Future (or Death) of Theology

  1. rachel

    I agree with Cosgrove that we’re hyperfocused on antisemitism, Israel, and intermarriage in a way that’s detrimental to Judaism as a whole. That said, I also agree with you that theology is a matter of narrative, not belief — and I like your point about the exciting work being done now that postmodernism has empowered previously-marginalized groups to speak their own truths. Viva!

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