James K.A. Smith has posted an interesting exchange entitled, "On the State of Contemporary Theology" in which he addresses the concerns of a graduate student seeking to engage others without being quickly pigeonholed as a follower of X who thinks Y, and, since their viewpoint is known (supposedly) before conversation begins, they are quickly dismissed. This is found to be frustrating. Smith's friend asks, "Is there some place where young theologians can engage in honest, forthright dialogue without all the posturing?"
First, it shouldn't be surprising that this type of posturing occurs in graduate school. Graduate school is highly competitive, and many who move on to higher levels of study are concerned with their egos. Thus, one way of securing one's place is to remain cocksure on all questions theological or otherwise, showing no signs of intellectual weakness. I once heard it quipped that if you get a group of professors together in a single room, any point of disagreement is categorized as a failure to understand. "You're reading me wrong," it is often said when a criticism is offered. It is rare to find an academic who will humbly say, "Yes, my position needs to change." Especially once that position has been published.
In addition to commenting on these frustrations specifically, Smith directs his attention to the state of the academy itself, and why the present environment creates the conditions for this student's frustrations. Smith writes:
I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call "churchmen" in any strong sense ("churchwomen" included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.
This strikes me as critically important, for it is a concern I have faced myself. I have been critical of Methodists for honoring Wesley with their lips yet willfully ignoring his writings and practice, having done little to pay him any attention outside of a required seminary course. Thus, I am a Baptist among Methodists who reads Wesley in order to help Methodists remember who they are. But, being a Baptist, there are other concerns I must attend to in order to preserve my own tradition, and to speak from within it in a way that accords with what it actually is. Later on in his commentary, Smith notes that he has located himself within the Reformed tradition because it is a good tradition. It provides him resources to speak logically and consistently in accordance with a history.
In many respects, I consider myself a journalist of religion, as well as an academic. My readings and writings have ranged across many traditions, and have reached across the theological spectrum. I strive to listen to liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Catholics. But I have struggled to speak with consistency as a "churchman", a representative of a specific quadrant of Christianity. I would rather be accountable to a body than to a single theologian or ideology. But in contemporary theology, as Smith notes, the latter is more common than the former.
My challenge here, of course, is to myself, but it is also to others who call themselves Christian. I hope to see a return to denominationalism, to the solidifying and strengthening of traditions. This does not mean that I wish to downplay ecumenism, or see an end to denominational cooperation. I rather hope to see partnerships that are more honest concerning who we are in our particularities, for it is in our particularities that our treasures are found. They are important. They should be honored. And we should love one another enough to wrestle with the fact that we may disagree, rather than trying to dismiss those disagreements as superfluities to the essence of Christian faithfulness.