The Future (or Death) of Theology

By | Tagged: beliefs

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.

Posted on June 18, 2007

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