In the previous post I began a little experiment in theological method by positing a parallel between the activities of aesthetic judgement — determining how good a work of art is (by asking: Is it well-executed? How does it stack up against other artworks? What effect does it have?) — and theological judgement.
What led me here was the observation that all we often seem to be able to appeal to in favour of one system over against another is more or less subjective preference. At the same time, we can’t shake the sense that there must be something more to say when it comes to theology!
Rather than backing away from this dilemma, I propose to adapt Hume’s guidelines for honing the imagination (the chief organ of judgement) in order to cultivate the necessary character of ‘a true judge in the finer arts’ — namely, ‘Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment’. Transposing these to the challenge of assessing a theological system, let me suggest four habits worth developing:
- Get acquainted with excellent theological systems — learn what makes them so good, try to figure out how they work, determine what they never fail to explain and what they never compromise on.
- Carefully exegete the theological system under scrutiny — even if it appears unaccountably bizarre to you, it’s always worth trying to figure out why someone thinks it makes sense; by the same token, welcome the questions put to your system by its opponents, and take them as an opportunity to think again about why (and how) your system makes sense.
- Don’t neglect the comparative task of historical theology — even if it means relinquishing the cherished notion that orthodoxy is unchanging or an entirely predictable and necessary development of an original deposit prompted by confrontation with instantly recognisable heresy.
- Pay attention to the context into which factors the theological synthesis you’re examining speaks — learning to sympathise with its motivating pastoral concerns in particular will enable you assess its strengths and weaknesses from the inside rather than just rejecting it because it’s unfamiliar.
They’re only a start, I know. I’ll attempt to show where the rubber hits the road next post. But can you at least see their potential for preparing our imaginations to engage in forming theological judgements?