Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.





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 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.