Common (intellectual) politeness

The reality is that Lewis is never going to post to this blog. But part of the reason I created it was to talk about some of the theological topics that we have discussed (sometimes at great length and with considerable intensity) over the years. Theological methodology has been one of those broad areas of conversation. Within that more general subject is the question of one’s mode of engagement with sources in constructive theology. I can remember being asked in graduate school, when I dared to wonder about whether John Milbank could possibly have interpreted every single one of his interlocutors with historical accuracy, why it mattered, if the constructive proposal was good. Then, I was surprised by the question, and didn’t have a good answer. Of course it matters, I thought. But can I say WHY? I think my short answer to the question now would be that it’s a matter of common scholarly politeness, which is far more important than it seems. Lewis has rather more to say on the subject, and posted the following to Facebook:

There’s a symposium on Catherine Pickstock’s new book on one of those trendy theology websites. One of the respondents goes on at great lengths to say that her book is a) written in incredibly dense English; b) doesn’t engage with much of the scholarship on the topics she considers. Catherine’s response is basically “well, you are right, I am sort of going where Kierkegaard’s Climacus says I should… but he hardly writes in clear prose or packs himself out with footnotes.” She adds to this “especially when I disagree with all that stuff” (I should say her reviewer wants her to read some “process” stuff; and I agree with her when she says “ain’t wasting my time on that”). Now, I think Catherine is really smart and deeply insightful, but her reviewer has a point. I was just disappointed that he offered no articulation of WHY the things she doesn’t do matter. I am not going to post a comment to that website – it is way too trendy – but I can’t contain myself and will say that there are 5 reasons why Catherine’s reviewer is on the right track:

1) Two of these reasons are simple philosophical ones. striving for clarity in expression is always a good. I still remember Maurice Wiles explaining to me that if I wanted to do Patristics I had to write for those for whom English was a second language. This was a VERY thinly veiled criticism of something he read of mine. He was right. Some ideas certainly require very complex expression, but it is far fewer than most of us who write imagine! We should certainly be ready to see genuine insight in very complex writing, especially that of the genuine genius (and even in writing without footnotes!), but we should not go around imagining that we are in that category. It ain’t good for our clarity of thought.

2) Honing one’s ideas through careful exploration of those who have gone before us on the same tracks is always a good. Often before we do this we simply repeat and/or miss giving our own insights true precision. If everyone before us has read a text differently it is a good to justify our own reading against all those predecessors. This is not the same as simply engaging with existing scholarship; learning to discern what matters and what not is itself something honed through such engagement. (and in this particular case Catherine’s reviewer thinks we need always to interrogate “continental” philosophy with a good dose of “analytical” – I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement and that’s a different point from mine).

3) BUT, there are also 2 good theological reasons why that which Catherine does not do is important. The first is to do with our own attentiveness as Christian readers. Attentiveness is pretty close to being a virtue. And in Christian academic writing attentiveness is in part appropriately performed via care in expression, knowledge of scholarly traditions, and well-formed footnotes!

4) In the same vein, not only is it the case that we should worry about our own formation, but we should worry about ourselves as readers within a community. Especially in the case where we, as Christian writers engage those who are also Christian writers, attentiveness should surely be seen as a virtue for Christian academics.

5) The last reason is a more complex one. I think that serious engagement with modern historical consciousness in its many forms is necessary for Christian intellectuals (see my draft paper on academia.edu) and we are not here talking only about contingent academic performance, but also how to find modes of exploration and expression that reflect a new attention to the complexities of tradition, to the history through which God (in part) speaks.

I am not saying I am any good at this, but I do think this is what we should do and I do occasionally try to do this.

I won’t pretend to be able to sum that up. If I could, I wouldn’t have quoted the whole thing (which Lewis posted under the caveat: ‘my longest Facebook post EVER’). But I will go so far as to say that I think good manners count for a lot. Christian faithfulness, for academics, includes the kind of attention Lewis describes as “a virtue for Christian academics.” Whether an ‘official’ virtue or not, it exhibits patience, kindness, gentleness, and (a form of) self-control–gifts of the Spirit. What we say in print and from the lectern and how we interact with students and colleagues and interlocutors are not somehow separate from our spirituality or devotion. Maybe those folks we think undeserving of our attention, for whatever reason, are ‘the least of these.’ And we know how to behave toward them.

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One thought on “Common (intellectual) politeness

  1. Your concluding paragraph says it just right, in my book. An abiding problem for me though is what “another Lewis” identified in Mere Christianity when he was approached by those who said “theology” was simply too complicated. “Jack” Lewis, who didn’t even know how to begin being obscure and unclear, nevertheless recognized that there were matters, eg modern physics, that were inherently complex, and that one could only be partially successful in trying to simplify them for the uninitiated.

    What Catherine Pickstock attempted in her first book, After Writing, was so radically new and unconventional that she had to be utterly difficult to say things that cut across conventional categories. As for her recent work, perhaps she’s been talking too much inside her own head and has lost a sense of what even educated readers can grasp. I can’t say. What I do know is that seeing one’s scholarship as connected with one’s “spirituality and devotion” is a challenge I want to strive for in my own meager offerings. Thanks for saying it so beautifully and for exhibiting in your own words what you’re exhorting us all to do.

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