Leithart’s Challege: Conclusion

See the original post to see what this is about.

Leithart says that the Bible speaks not only of spiritual things, but also hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation, and genital emissions. Theologians on the other hand (except for perhaps Augustine) rarely make any mention of these. It’s a blanket statement intended to shock, of course, but is it true nonetheless? Are theologians from another planet? Let’s find out…

Photo of Winchester Cathederal by Flickr User shemacgo. Used via Creative Commons License.

I want to make it clear up front this this is NOT a piece, (not even a little piece) of serious scholarship. I counted things by hand, eyeballed references, and often did not compare apples to oranges. This was nothing more than a fun exercise to satisfy my curiosity. If you were very interesting in biblical linguistics (I’m not), you might consider this a quick, informal, initial investigation into the subject to see if it might warrant further attention.

Anyway, after all my word counting and writing samples, here is what I came up with for the challenge:

Hair Sweat Entrails Menstruation Genitals
Barth 64 19 0 1 11
Origen 3 14 5 1 2
Niebuhr 7 10 1 0 0
Calvin 58 95 9 6 40
Borg 5 6 0 1 2
Kung 6 5 1 3 3
Augustine 68 25 13 4 45
The Bible 135 3 20 16 11

Now, using my secret and entirely unscientific analysis, I came up with the following “language similarity” scores, sorted in ascending order, including links to their original post:

This ranking actually makes quite a bit of sense.

  • Augustine really does score the highest, just as Leithart said he would.
  • Calvin’s writing is often an extension of further development of Augustine, so it winds up being remarkably similar.
  • Barth is off by himself, but the scope of his writing was grand. He didn’t pass over much.
  • Kung is mostly a popular theologian who likely didn’t feel it appropriate to spend much time on topics that included these words.
  • Borg is a gnostic who denies the bodily resurrection of Christ. It’s fitting he would see God as not particularly interested in anatomy.
  • Niebuhr wrote a lot on ethics, justice and war (in the abstract). Sex, blood, and guts wasn’t on his radar.
  • I was a little disappointed in Origen. I guess (having not read him before) I had assumed he would be a bit more like his closest historical peer, Augustine.

To finally restate Leithart’s challenge:

9. Theology is a “Victorian” enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place. Wheras the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.

10. Here’s an experiment you can do at any theological library. You even have my permission to try this at home.

Step 1: Check the indexes of any theologian you choose for any of the words mentioned in section 9 above. (Augustine does not count. Augustine’s theology is as big reality, or bigger.)

Step 2: Check the Bible concordance for the same words.

Step 3: Ponder these questions: Do theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does? Do theologians talk about the same WORLD the Bible does?

So do these theologians talk about the world the same way the Bible does?

(My) Answer: Sometimes they do. Some more than others. Frequently though, theologians have chosen the language of philosophy, which the Bible rarely employs. By doing so, they have gained some powerful vocabulary and put it to good use. I believe they have also been inadvertently trapped by it – right where the world wants them. God’s special revelation of himself didn’t have much use for this language. It is more coarse, like God himself perhaps?

Do theologians talk about the same WORLD the Bible does?

(My) Answer: Well, most of the time, but they are frequently enough on another planet to warrant the accusation. Know what I’m talking about?

Methodologically the result of this shift in starting point from doctrine to data, from metaphysical system to narrative, is a reordering of trinitarian theology that points to a radical revision of the whole ordo doctrinae of Latin Catholic theology. Such a revision is arguably more appropriate to contemporary more empirically-oriented culture and sensibilities.

-Anne Hunt, The Trinity and the Paschal Mystery, Ch.6:Methodological Shifts and Their Meta-Methodological Significance

What’s ironic is that this article is actually advocating a shift AWAY from talking theology like this and appreciating the Bible more for it’s large-scale story.

As for out-of-the-world experiences, look no further:

Having styled ‘limited atonement’ as a key determinative doctrine in a subsequent ‘distortion’ of Calvin’s theology into the ‘rigid’ and ‘legalising’ system of the experimental predestinarians, we now find that te doctrine of universal redemption could be firmly embraced by one of Kendall’s own experimental predestinarian case studies without, it seems, any alteration to the doctrine of conversion and assurance in that tradition.

-Jonathan D. Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism, p.222

Nice, eh? I’m sure he THINKS he’s talking about Jesus, but really folks…

OK. OK. It’s easy to make fun of academics. “I is one” if you pick the right topic.

Back to the point. I think Leithart’s real point is found in this earlier passage:

All that remains within the realm of theology are (perhaps) ecstatic and “timeless” encounters of the soul with God, God with the soul. Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen.

Theology ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.

-Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, Ch.2 Sec. 4

The “word challenge” I’ve been exploring here is to support this larger point. It’s a case of, “Here, you don’t believe me that Christians have been stuffed in the closet when it comes to talking about the real world? Well I’ll prove it. Take a look at this!” And of course it’s hyperbole, but it proves the point well.

I have a bit more to say about this, but it belongs in another post. It’s been fun!