Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sources vs. Critiques

I was struck by a section from this post by Jana Bennett at Catholic Moral Theology on the "theological generation gap":

The “older guys” in my department all went through seminary training, even if they are not priests – and they learned a particular kind of Thomism and a broad and deep swath of theology that I, even six years out from earning a PhD do not know. They read a lot. My doktorvater, Stanley Hauerwas, writes extensively of all the books he read as an undergraduate, and while in seminary and doctoral work at Yale University (in his book, Hannah’s Child).

If I were to come up with such a list it would not be quite so extensive, and I think with this current generation of students I teach, it would be even less so. I don’t remember most of what I read (which is probably telling – though I was a biochemistry major for much of my college career and the books were 50 pound tomes that would now be out of date). I do remember that I read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, not just once, but four times. And I find it interesting that as a medieval history major, I read a lot of saints’ lives and Jacques LeGoff’s work on purgatory but never once cracked open Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, nor knew it was there. I credit my great advisor with the fact that I read Augustine’s Confessions, a book that my students now say is too hard – and trully, they don’t have the skills to read it in the way I think even my own generation could do.

In seminary, there was more engagement with primary texts: I read scripture, Calvin, Barth, Wesley. But those were far outweighed by reading critiques – feminist, post-modern and otherwise. In doctoral work, I did far more reading of “the tradition” but by then, I had already been formed by my Foucauldian upbringing to be suspicious and critical, not to read broadly and widely.

This is not to criticize the amazing and brilliant people I studied with, but is rather to point out that my education was almost the reverse of what other previous generations, including Fr. Weinandy, did: I began with the critiques, in an academic system that was peopled by those who had critiques – and added in the works people were critiquing only later. I didn’t see that this was what was happening till I was in doctoral work myself, and now I’m trying to catch up, as fast as I can. So when Weinandy discusses that theologians are not grounded in church teaching – I’d wonder if what it really is, is this loss of Catholic intellectual life that supported church teaching in ways that intellectual life no longer does.

I've taken all of two college level theology classes in my life, so I'm not in any position to say how well this describes that discipline, but it does ring true with my experiences in the humanities. However incisive critiques may be, it strikes me that an education based primarily on critiques and not on the works that are being critiqued will often become very narrow, and also so specialized as drift away from any contact with the wider intellectual life.


Paul Zummo said...

In any setting - academia or not - as a general rule get the primary source. Never trust a source, credentialed or not, to accurately depict what another has said. Once you've confirmed the accuracy of the reading, then use the secondary source to buttress your work. That's how I have tried to operate, though not without my own failings.

Kate said...

I'm still shaking my head at the thought of 'Confessions' being too difficult to read. I read it - mostly on my own time - repeatedly as an undergrad. It divides rather well into two or three page bites and I can't say it was difficult to read. I really miss my Loeb edition which fit so well in a pocket. :-(

Darwin said...

Yeah, I too am kind of floored by that.

Darwin said...

And that you could major in Medieval History and not be _aware of_ the Summa?

Gail F said...

I minored in medieval history and never read Thomas Aquinas, although I was certainly aware of him. A textbook for my English history class had a slim companion book that included excerpts from primary sources; those are the only ones I remember reading -- although I did read a lot of poetry for English literature classes and some miscellanious primary sources for medieval Latin that were also mostly poetry.

But now that I think of it, I am in a graduate theology program right now and we don't read many primary sources there either; mostly textbooks. And the only theology BOOKS we have read have been modern ones -- although by "modern" I also count early 20th century. Hmmmm.

I am trying to pick up Thomas Aquinas but finding it very difficult. I think you really need a teacher to help you.

Brandon said...

I am trying to pick up Thomas Aquinas but finding it very difficult. I think you really need a teacher to help you.

Jumping into any of the scholastics feet first is definitely difficult. Thomas is the easiest of them to get into, but most people start in the wrong place. I always recommend that people start either with the catechetical writings (on the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Ten Commandments), which are actually notes taken from various series of sermons Aquinas gave, or the scriptural commentaries. The commentary on the Gospel of John is stunningly good, although very long, as are the commentaries on Job and on Hebrews; those looking for smaller bites might try the commentary on Colossians (which is fairly short, but full of good things) or the smaller commentaries on the Pauline epistles.From then, one can go on to his catechetical works (or start with them and move to the Scriptural commentaries) on the Hail Mary, the Lord's Prayer, and the like. For reading the more systematic works, I usually recommend people start first with Gilson's The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas to get an overall view.

Anonymous said...

International Theological Institute.

Really. It's not as cheesy as it looks.

Lee Faber said...

Desire or inclination to the intellectual life may play a role as well... I was a music major and then a classics major, but I read Aquinas extensively. I had heard about him from friends in other colleges.

Banshee said...

I read widely in college, but not hardly at all in my major. This probably should have been a clue....

It's funny, though. I read the Confessions twice in college, and I just never was struck by it. I mean, yes, good autobio, interesting stuff happened, but it didn't strike me to the heart. The linguistics part of the book is what I found really exciting. I really like City of God, and On Teaching the Unlearned, and a bunch of others, and his ADHD way of hitting all kinds of topics with non-obvious connections to the matter at hand. The contemporary biography of his later life and death had me enthralled, too. But Confessions is just a book to me. One of those weird things.

Maybe I just read lots of stuff as long as it's not for academic credit. :)