Last night, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel of distinguished scholars and bishops who are all, I can assure you, much more distinguished than me. The Living Church hosted a discussion, “Defining Marriage,” and other than me we had:

  • John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee
  • Ruth Meyers, Church Divinity School of the Pacific professor and liturgical guru extraordinaire
  • Cameron Partridge, Episcopal chaplain at Boston University
  • Thomas Breidenthal, Bishop of Southern Ohio
  • The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh

If I do say so myself, it was a great success. Perhaps the best thing someone said to me afterwards was, “I wish we had been doing this kind of thing for the past 30 years. I think it would have really been good for the church.”

Why would it have been a good thing? I haven’t been around for the past 30 years, but I can say this: It was refreshing to talk to people in a room where Robert’s Rules of Order did not apply, and where no laws or decisions hung in the balance. I also came away feeling like there was a spirit of charitable, mutual truth-seeking in the room (e.g., this is really a hard thing to think about, and I don’t know if I have it all figured out, but here are my best thoughts so far, and what do you think about them?).

It can help, I find, when such conversations are theocentric. That is, when people are trying their darndest to wrap their minds around the heights and depths of the Lord of heaven and earth, it becomes easier to be undefended. If it’s not “your position” that you’re defending, but God’s truth that you’re all seeking, you’re usefully decentered from the self so that you can be recentered in God.


So too, it can help when the conversation is theological. By which I mean, not logical or rational as opposed to from the heart or personal (there isn’t really a disconnect between those at bottom), but open to the exchange of reasons in search of greater understanding of God, open to the possibility of saying, “Huh! That’s a good point. Well, what about if…?” There is, I’ve found, something incredibly empowering and equalizing about theological reasoning. Reason is no respecter of persons. No matter who you are, you can make a good point. No matter how powerful or rich you are, you can say something stupid. Authoritarian power does not like to respond to reasons. It would rather not take the risk.

Not that any of this is a guarantee of charitable, mutual truth-seeking. See, for instance, one of my personal favorite theological time-wasting devices, the Martin Luther Insult Generator, featuring lines from such all-time theological classics as Against Hanswurst and Against the Roman Papacy, the Institution of the Devil.

One thing I would have liked to hear more about: Thomas Breidenthal and John Bauerschmidt are both Oxford DPhil’s with dissertations written under the eminence grise floating in our panel’s room, Oliver O’Donovan. But they seem now to relate covenant and creation, or Resurrection and Moral Order, in different ways. Since I still have my theological training wheels on, I spent a fair time quoting other people, and Bishop Breidenthal’s excellent book Christian Households in particular. I suspect that the two scholar-bishops could have had an interesting conversation about precisely why and how they now differ.

Anyhow, no one threw tomatoes and I at least came away with a lot to ponder. It led to a good and honest conversation with an old friend afterwards. And I’m thankful for that.

Gentle reader, I have more thoughts on marriage and the church, but they shall have to wait until the morrow. As a highly placed source in the church told me a few days back, General Convention is a soul-crushing, death-dealing march of doom. A guy’s gotta sleep sometime.

The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by firemedic58. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hylden is associate rector at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana, where he also serves as a chaplain at Ascension Episcopal School.

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2 Responses

  1. Benjamin Guyer

    This piece brings to mind something that I have been musing over recently: the ambiguity of so-called theological reasoning. I can’t help but think that this lovely-sounding but vague phrase is to the church what the phrase “critical thinking” is to the academy (and I write as one who is professionally part of the latter). Every instructor wants to help his or her students develop something called “critical thinking” – but what does this really mean? I suspect that it means helping one’s students to develop a set of skills that, at the very least, reflect the influence of the instructor’s own discipline; at most, it means having students adopt a particular method of reasoning as the best way to analyze a given set of problems. (Thus I, as a historian, want to develop not just “critical thinking” skills as such, but want my students to value and use historical methods.) It would therefore be more fair for instructors to advocate not “critical thinking” but “disciplinary thinking,” as each instructor defines “critical” according to the metric of their own discipline. There is no “critical thinking” as such.

    Is not the same therefore true of “theological reasoning” in the church? Every Christian values the idea of being theological. Even those who proudly proclaim Christianity irrational (e.g., “I believe because it is absurd”) attempt to defend their claims in a coherent and rational fashion. But how can there be any kind of universal “theological reasoning” in a church that is deeply – incommensurably – divided? Whether we are talking about the division between particular churches (e.g., Episcopalian vs. Roman Catholic), or the divides within particular churches (e.g., Progressives vs. Traditionalists), there does not seem to be a way of answering this question – “what is theological reasoning?” – to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather, we all use the metric of our own convictions as defining “theological reasoning.” Insofar as this is the case, we might therefore ask whether or not theological reasoning is really an achievable goal for a divided community? What is more, if there is no method for distinguishing valid from invalid conclusions (which is not the same as distinguishing correct from incorrect conclusions), can any discourse really be theological?

    Logic – in the traditional sense – is about method and thus validity, but very few people study logic today, and quite sadly this includes seminarians, bishops, and theologians (the very groups who are tasked with a considerable amount of leadership!). Logic is not merely about explaining why we think what we think, and in fact, a commitment to logic would obviate the needs for certain kinds of explanation (e.g., we wouldn’t have to explain why certain fallacies are fallacies – we just recognize that logically they are, and thus we try not to use them). At the very least, logic enables us to use a set of criteria for both reaching conclusions and distinguishing between them. But if we aren’t concerned with logic, how can any conversation really be theological? Why not replace the word “theological” with “theothoughtful” or “theoconsiderate” or “theo-not-a-jerk” since these seem to be what most people are really aiming at in these conversations?

    In other words, “theological reasoning” is not the same as being “theological” since the latter pertains to method while the former has no qualifications whatsoever (other than the convictions of the person wielding the term). Since we Episcopalians have no real interest in logic (in this we are like most other Christians – some Catholics and some Presbyterians are probably the only exceptions), it is certainly preferable that we embrace and even advocate theological reasoning, even though it can’t really help us determine anything since it lacks criteria. (No doubt, some well intentioned minimalist will come along and say that we do have criteria such as a belief in God, or the incarnation, or whatever, but I would propose that such broad universals are really not enough to get the job of reasoning done, especially when it operates under extreme pressures such as declining membership and intractable moral debate.)

    In a kiddie pool, there is little to no threat of drowning; the water is not deep enough, and thus there is also no need for swimming. In a pool, however, there is both the threat of drowning and a need for swimming; in and of oneself, there is no single correct way to swim, but there are many valid ways of staying afloat. I mean nothing unkind when I say congrats to TLC for sponsoring a kiddie pool for “theological reasoning” – someone has to do it, and since most Episcopalians would rather rail against one another (ah, the love of Christians!), it is especially important that such a thing exist at General Convention. But at some point, something more serious needs to be done; either we sink as a church or we swim as a church. There problem is not whether TLC is capable of encouraging theological discourse – it is, and some within its ambit are capable of having such conversations. The problem is whether Episcopalians as a whole can be theological rather than merely reasonable (re: civil?) with one another on one evening each triennium.

    When theological reasoning retires for the evening, the work of theology remains to be done.


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