I’ve always been fascinated by the boundaries. Perhaps I can blame this on my background in practical theology, which emphasizes cross-disciplinary collaboration and learning (especially in the social sciences). Truth be told, my own interests have always bordered somewhere between theology and philosophy. I’ve never wanted to blindly isolate myself into one camp. Of course I still believe that having a clear identity is important, for example I would never call myself a philosopher or a social theorist. I’m a theologian, and will always remain so, yet I’m a theologian on the boundaries. It’s a position I’ve adopted from Paul Tillich, the foremost and most famous boundary theologian. Tillich famously stated in his autobiographical essay On the Boundary:
The boundary is the best place for acquiring knowledge…The boundary might be the fitting symbol for the whole of my personal intellectual development. At almost any point, I have to stand between alternative possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither and to take no definitive stand against either. – On the Boundary, (2011), 13.
Tillich’s affinity for boundary positions, between theology and psychotherapy/depth-psychology, inspired a generation of theologians to think outside the theological box. Tillich’s goal was never to unite theology with psychology or philosophy, but to correlate between them. Tillich’s position was one of mediation, committed to how different positions and worldviews can better interact with one another. Much of Tillich’s theology lays the foundation for practical theology.
So as a practical theologian, I find the divisions between disciplines as perplexing and unfortunate. I’ve never accepted the traditional boundaries between theology and other fields of inquiry (despite John Milbank’s critique). There are no practical reasons to suggest that theologians, philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and so on can’t talk or collaborate with one another. Our audiences don’t live in a vacuum after all, people talk across fields and make connections. Unfortunately academics may wait for others to make these connections. We write hoping (or not caring) that these potential connections will be explored by others.
There is always the need for specialization, being mindful of one’s own limitations. After all, we can’t draw conclusions or make claims in fields outside our own. Specialization creates challenges for all fields, making it hard and downright difficult to see anything beyond our own lenses. We become so comfortable in our own expertise that we seldom (if ever) consider looking at the implications beyond it. Call it a symptom of Ph.D. (piled higher deeper), our years of training inhibiting us from looking beyond the possibilities of our respective expertise. Thus we face a problem of perspective. The further we dig down the harder it is to see beyond where we dig. Our own research can keep us from seeing the bigger picture. We’re all digging but few of us are looking for ways to see out and make connections.
This is especially troubling for theology, which faces a particularly challenging situation. Theology is typically based on a faith commitment of some sort. As is often the case, this element of faith can create animosity on two fronts. Theology faces separation from other fields (not sharing that same faith), and the self-imposed separation of not caring. Facing this isolationist scenario, theologians retreat further and further behind the curtain of faith. Theologians happily dig alone while the wider world passes by.
Are things really this bleak for theology? I don’t want to say that all theologians are isolationists because this is certainly not the case, but the danger exists. Unless theologians make a conscious effort to reach out, to live on the boundary, I believe theology faces a threat of obscurity not faced by other fields. We can’t assume that people will flock to theology because of our grasp on the Trinity and Christology. If our theology is too far removed from the boundaries of life and culture, it becomes nearly impossible for others to see it. That is unless one makes the effort to cross that border into theology. Therefore, as I see it, the work of the theologian is to bring theological concepts closer to those boundaries so that our work can be seen. The theologian should live on the boundaries of life, culture, and experience.
I believe that theologians are called to live on the boundary, but what does it mean to be a boundary theologian? The call to the boundary is a call towards a public theology. A public theology, British theologian Stephen Pattison writes,
[S]hould be transformation and mutative, both for its practitioners and for those with whom they work. That is to say that theological activity should actually make a real difference to the lives and thinking of peoples of all kinds. – The Challenge of Practical Theology, (2007), 221.
Pattison goes on to state that a public theology is a playful theology. A boundary theology is one that is willing to challenge it’s own concepts in new and innovative ways. There is no reason that theology has to be done the same way for all time. Meaning that theology should be attentive the the needs and questions of the surrounding culture. His vision of theology is one that is
playful, imaginative and porous, a zone of experimentation and innovation, rather than a closed domain of orthodoxy and conformity. For too long, theologians have seen themselves as custodians and interpreters of doctrinal ‘truth’ rather than as facilitators of imaginative theological gymnastics…Human beings cannot live without action-influencing world views and faith systems, but they need to have the possibility of testing their boundaries, validity and potential to nurture flourishing. In this context theological activity could become more creative, more fun and more publicly significant. – The Challenge of Practical Theology, (2007), 222.
The boundary should be porous, an area where there is a free exchange of ideas. When living on the boundary, theologians become mediators between culture and Christianity. Theology on the boundary, imaginative and open, functions as a zone where the questions/answers of culture meet the questions/answers of Christianity (see David Tracy’s Blessed Rage for Order).
[C]ontemporary Christian theology is best understood as philosophical reflection upon the meanings present in common human experience and the meanings present in the Christian tradition. – David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order, (1975), 34.
The days of theology being the “Queen of the Sciences” are well beyond us and never coming back. Does this mean that theology is doomed to forever irrelevancy? I don’t believe so. I believe that a renewed purpose for theology can be found on the boundary, thus becoming a model of collaboration for other disciplines. Theology can demonstrate the great reward that comes when academics leave the academy.
A boundary theology attempts to understand and engage with culture and experience, treating both as eyewitnesses to the everyday. A boundary theology discovers new connections between itself and other disciplines (especially STEM), approaching them as allies rather than hostile enemies. A boundary theology weighs all sides of complex issues, seeking better clarity and understanding. Can we achieve a boundary theology today? I certainly hope so, but it will require willingness to embrace ambiguity over neat and tidy systems (systematic theology).