I recently attended a professional workshop led by an expert. There seems to be a suspicious number of these things coming from somewhere like water spots on a popcorn ceiling, but in the humble spirit of a lifelong learner, I continue to put on an brave face in hopes that the next might be the one that finally gets me over the hump of mediocrity. The hour and a half session prefaced as if the primary focus were going to be theology. I like theology and it’s relevant to my profession, so I decided to attend. But besides my newly refreshed coffee, everything that followed was a tour de frustration.
The speaker leading the workshop introduced herself and identified a few notable traits: ethnicity, birthplace, gender identification, sexual orientation, family of origin, and the like. This all seemed warranted. I have a good liberal arts background and am conscious enough of the fact that to not localize one’s own perspective is to imply a sort of universal perspective, which no one should ever do when making claims about God or really anything important. And white guys like me have been doing that for far too long.
Preliminaries adequately observed, perspectives identified, I was then ready to get down to some theology. But as if we were peering through one of those Viewfinder toys with which eighties kids will be familiar, a sort of déjà vu happened. Now about 15 minutes into introductions the speaker was still introducing herself some more, now in greater detail but basically just an elaboration on the already stated family of origin, social stratum, sexual orientation, etc. “My family first came to the US from…” “My father worked as a…” “I came out when I was…”
Perhaps naively, I made an earnest go at linking these increasingly obscure factoids, the main of which had been properly reviewed 14 minutes ago, to the theological content primed to commence, I had to imagine, any second now. The personal identifiers reprised themselves fast and hard, as though the speaker had forgotten and needed reminding herself. “Given that I am a cis-gendered woman…” “I’ll tell you, growing up in Missouri…” About 40 minutes in, I began to fear that time was growing short for any discussion of the main subject matter at all. Then it finally occurred to me, what others in attendance had seemed to know all along: the speaker’s personal characteristics were the main subject matter. Her disclosure of every accident of person and history was both theme and agenda for today’s session.
Were it a performance art piece, I think it would have been a brilliant commentary on the state of postmodern discourse, but I don’t think it was. In another audience, I'm sad to say, it might've been received as bold and transgressive, this young woman simply stating who she is. But looking around the room, I don’t think this was that audience. They seemed, most of them, to have at least minored in gender studies, and no one was resisting the speaker. With no one begrudging her being who she is (and everyone quite nearly applauding her for merely existing), the lecture began to look like an avant-garde stage drama with no antagonist. Monty Python couldn’t do a better reductio ad absurdum of a modern humanities department. It felt weird pretending as if it were taking her a great deal of courage to talk about these traits which were in fact winning over her audience so effectively.
I'd have been quite happy to hear from this speaker, if only she would get started. But I'd come to the workshop under the impression that “theology” would include itself in the content as it had in the title of the lecture. If theology ever made an appearance, it was only in the meta way in which God’s presence pervades even the most mundane conversations. Insofar as the purpose of a seminar workshop is to leave the people with something different than what they brought with them, all I and my other observers would be taking away from this one is “Now here is a person of a sort who existed at one time.”
Theology is an interesting pursuit in this time of endless prologue. The originally true but now tiresome insight that every word is a word spoken from a context can’t help but run amok with a discipline that is inherently absurd. Theology is and has always been the absurd but unavoidable task of making claims about the divine—absurd because God transcends all words about God, and they are rendered blasphemous at the moment of speaking; unavoidable because all of our words and actions are an implicit claim about God, even when we don’t mean them to be, so we might as well be more conscious of the ones we make. So the logic goes of doing theology anyway, in spite of itself. In past times, people erred in not recognizing said absurdity and claimed way too much for God. More recently, people seem to miss the unavoidability of it and attempt to claim nothing at all. In avoiding talk of the God in the sky, they thoroughly examine the one in the navel.
So myself and other hapless workshop goers are left with an unfortunate choice: read old books in which the authors have not laid all of their personal cards on the table or new ones in which the cards have been laid out repeatedly but there is no pot to be won. If we opt for the former, we’re condemned to hear from only a narrow Eurocentric, androcentric, heteronormative…worldview. If we opt for the latter, we’re condemned to hear crickets.
It’s a shame, because people like this woman were severely underrepresented in that bygone era, and it would be nice to hear her thoughts on God. Maybe she’ll be leading that workshop at another time.
Cheers and Peace,
A blog that is too churchy for your drinking buddies and too drinky for your churching buddies.