To Tell or Not to Tell?: Autobiography and its Role in Theology in “Theologians In Their Own Words”

(Review: Theologians in Their Own Words. Edited by Derek R. Nelson, Joshua M Moritz, and Ted Peters.)

[1] Teacher, social activist and womanist author bell hooks writes, “When professors bring narratives of their experiences into classroom discussions it eliminates the possibility that we can function as all-knowing, silent interrogators. It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material.”[1] When I read the compelling book Theologians in Their Own Words, I kept thinking of this profound passage from hooks that tackles head-on the messy and disputed role of experience and personal narrative in the academic classroom in the same manner that this book grapples with personal experience’s place within theology. With just a couple word substitutions, my mind rewrote hooks’ quote to apply directly to the purpose of Theologians in Their Own Words: “When theologians bring narrative of their own experiences into discussions of theology, it eliminates the possibility that they can function as all-knowing, silent interrogatories. It is often productive if theologians take the first risk, linking confessional, autobiographical narratives to theological discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of theology.” Theologians in Their Own Words is a compilation of theological autobiographies written by brilliant theologians who are challenged by the innovative editors Derek Nelson, Joshua Moritz, and Ted Peters to take the first risk and move beyond the merely academic into the autobiographical.

Bussie_Review_Cover_Image.jpg[2] I love the way this book creates a space for the theologians to overcome academic resistance to self-disclosure and allows each author to bring her whole self to the table. As a result, the text allows us as readers to peek behind the mask of the academic persona of an impressive list of contributors, including such greats as Harvey Cox, Marilyn McCord Adams, Alister McGrath, Ernst Kasemann, Martin Marty, Huston Smith, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Letty Russell, among others. Many of the volume’s contributors wholeheartedly embrace the book’s project, and their chapters are some of the most moving and authentic theological pieces I have read of late. Letty Russell, in particular, seamlessly interweaves her life-story into her theology. Reflecting upon the painful fact that her father once told her she would always be a misfit, Russell concludes, “My feminist tendencies are connected to the fact that I was born a misfit. As a child, I wanted to play active games and I was what they used to call a ‘tomboy’… In God’s sight no one is a misfit, and…It is our call to join God in practicing hospitality for all persons” (208,211). Chapters written in the same spirit as Russell’s made those theologians come to life for me in ways that reading their academic texts had never quite achieved.

[3] There is no better example of this than Reverend Dr. Marilyn McCord Adams. I had Adams—the first contributor to the volume—as a professor at Yale for a class on suffering and evil. As a class we read her philosophical theology book, The Problem of Evil. Adam’s text, though brilliant, felt brittle and lifeless compared to the very-much-alive Adams of our classroom. Still, Adams brought next to none of her personal narrative into the classroom, never explaining to us as her students that semester what drove her to wrestle with the problem of evil so aggressively. But I remember one day hearing from classmates who had been in a Bible study with Adams that Adams had confessed to them her personal childhood experiences of sexual and physical abuse. Though I myself never heard her say it but longed to, as many of us in the class were grappling with similar issues from our pasts, from that day forward I hung on every word spoken by Adams with a newfound soul-deep respect, for I understood at last how hard-won her hope really was. Yet this always left me with the lingering question, why hadn’t she told us the truth in the classroom as well as in the bible study? After all, she taught our class every day wearing her clerical collar. Does academic theology deem it a weakness or ‘lacking in academic rigor’ to allow the theologian’s full humanity into the conversation?

[4] I think of Dr. Adams a lot because now I teach my own Problem of Evil class to undergraduates. I have always wanted to teach one of her essays, but worried they spoke in a detached academ-ese too far over the heads (and hearts) of my students. At last I have found a piece of hers I can’t wait to teach my students: her chapter from this volume. In the chapter aptly entitled, “Truth and Reconciliation,” unlike in most of her academic texts, Adams lays bare her soul and discusses with gritty openness the horrors of her own childhood as well as her own fury with God. With every page, I couldn’t fight back the thought, “I wish she had told us all this, I wish she had told us all this.” Adam’s essay is not only one of the most moving pieces in the entire anthology, it is also one of the best pieces of hers I have ever read. Though this essay is intensely personal, Adams never loses sight of the theological goal, and extrapolates the following marvelous more universal theological implication out of her own wounding experience: “Theology is something you do with your whole self, but – in the rough and tumble of this world – you cannot wait to do it until your self is whole” (24).

[5] I suspect many people approach a book like this hoping to get some access to the person behind the theological writing (I know that I did!). However, all of the essays in the text do not deliver in this regard. In all likelihood this cannot be attributed to any fault of the editors, but rather exhibits the aforementioned problem of interpretation of what is appropriate disclosure for the academic theologian and what is not. One wonders what was the exact wording and the specific prompt that editors delivered to each respective author. Were they asked to write a theological autobiography or intellectual autobiography, or both? Were they simply asked to write an autobiography and interpret that word for themselves? Nelson’s brief preface does not clarify this issue, as he interchanges and even collapses the terms theological autobiography and intellectual autobiography. The text’s inviting introduction begins, “Who are you, dear reader? How would you tell a stranger the story of your life and your life’s work?… This book compiles intellectual autobiographies, which in every case are also theological autobiographies…The editors of this book believe that narrative is important not just for interpreting theology, but also for interpreting theologians…The reader can eavesdrop as autobiography takes on the form of theo–graphy” (7-8). If all of the authors had perceived an intellectual autobiography as the exact same thing as theological autobiography, then why do some of these chapters read so differently from one another, almost as if they are different genres?

[6] For in stark contrast to Russell and Adams, other contributors to the volume openly express discomfort with the book’s premise and project. Wolfhart Pannenberg, for example, ultimately rewrites the editors’ request, “I confess that it was not without hesitation that I accepted an invitation to prepare an autobiographical account of my theological thought. I feel rather skeptical about autobiographical books or reports.… It is better to speak on the substantial issues a human life has been devoted to. But it is undeniable that there is also a personal aspect of it and maybe a legitimate interest in that aspect. Thus I decided to overcome my hesitations and offer an account of my intellectual pilgrimage” (151). In this troubling disclaimer, Pannenberg comes dangerously close to suggesting that personal experience has little real legitimacy within theology, and that theology at its best can function as a purely intellectual enterprise. It is surprising that Pannenberg, a Lutheran through and through, would take such a position that appears antithetical to the role that Martin Luther himself allowed for tumultuous raw experience of all kinds—including doubt, angst, the loss of a child, feelings of unworthiness with regard to God’s grace, active resistance to church corruption—to shape his theology.

[7] It is a fascinating experience to read Pannenberg’s chapter immediately followed by editor Ted Peters’ contribution, which the book alphabetically juxtaposes. It is as if the two authors were given entirely different prompts for this writing task. Pannenberg’s dry and tedious chapter appropriately entitled “The Intellectual Pilgrimage” jumps from text to text and methodology to methodology like a written narration of intellectual-influence hopscotch. Pannenberg’s traditionally academic approach to the task at hand leaves the reader feeling lifeless and as if nothing was gleaned about the theologian-author that could not have been discovered by a cursory read about him on Wikipedia.

[8] Peters, in stark contrast, however, speaks candidly of a miserable, abusive, and violent childhood and is unafraid even to use humor in the retelling, citing his hilarious repeated childhood practice of passing gas in church as a mode of resistance to not only his Sunday School teacher’s public spanking of him but also his church’s practice of creating no meaningful space for children during the worship service other than submissive silence. In other words, Peters courageously takes the ‘first risk’ cited by hooks of sharing with the reader/listener something about the gritty truth of his own experience, whereas Pannenberg as theologian rejects any such form of vulnerability as being a ‘substantial issue’ within theology.

[9] In the juxtaposition of the Pannenberg/Peters chapters, the book unwittingly unveils a vigorous tension that exists within the discipline of theology and the greater academy as a whole. Does personal experience and personal narrative have a place within theology? If so, how much of a place is appropriate? How much vulnerability is fitting? How do we guard against our personal story trumping someone else’s story a broader, more communal story or the gospel story—God’s greater story—itself? Does autobiography slide into sheer individualism? The gospel, after all, is not just about us; healthily, the gospel de-centers us from such egoism. A real gift of this book is that by placing twenty-three well esteemed theologians side-by-side, the editors provide us with the opportunity to reflect upon not only just the words on the page but also the diverse methodologies with which each author approaches the autobiographical task at hand. We can discern how each one of these figures has answered this question regarding the role of autobiographical experience within theology for themselves, simply by remarking how much or how little of their real life beyond the academy they are willing to bring to bear on the discussion. The book therefore constructively unveils the polyphonic definitions of ‘autobiography’ circulating within the theological world, as well as the wildly divergent accompanying attitudes towards its role and legitimacy.

[10] While all of these questions raised in the above paragraph are worthy of concern on the academic level, reading Theologians in Their Own Words made me wonder if many of them (like too many academic questions, woefully) aren’t merely esoteric, abstract questions that most people of faith abandoned long, long ago in favor of just living them out in all their messiness. Are academic theologians still struggling to catch up with the lived theologies of everyday theologians? I’m not sure I know anyone in the pews who would say that their experiences in life—the suffering, the joy, the child’s birth, the parent’s Alzheimer’s disease, the feelings of God’s presence and even God’s absence—are in any way disconnected from their theologies, from the way that they see God and the world in relationship. I have been teaching theology to 18-22 year olds for a decade, and I can tell you, a massive majority of them find any such claims to disconnection to be absurd.

[11] Indeed, in my religion classes, spiritual autobiographies are such efficacious teaching tools that I have added them to the syllabus as a means of introducing or elaborating upon a particular type of theology or tradition. Theological autobiographies bring my students to life and evoke engaged discussion in a way that a merely theoretical reading on its own seems never quite able to achieve. A case in point: ironically, one of the theologians in this book was recently invited to our campus to give a lecture to all students taking a required religion course. One of our students, during the question-and-answer period following this scholar’s difficult, discourse-laden lecture that was completely devoid of autobiographical material or self-vulnerability, asked, “So what made you, personally, want to become a theologian?” The speaker—who normally teaches graduate students and not undergrads—seemed taken aback by the question and, seemingly deeming it inappropriate for an academic setting, avoided answering it, instead offering an abstract response about theology’s general importance to the world. Shockingly but impressively, about five minutes later another student approached the microphone and said, “A question was asked earlier that did not get an answer, so I’m going to ask it again. What made you want to become a theologian and do theology every day?” To everyone’s disappointment, the scholar skillfully circumvented the question again.

[12] For days afterward in my classes, my students expressed bewilderment at this blatant eschewing of what they considered to be a crucial vocational question. The students were seeking a point of connection with the speaker, an insight into her passions, into her life-story. By asking the scholar about his life, the young people were seeking an answer to the question, “So, theology says x, y and z, but what does that mean for my life?” The great disconnect came when that theologian ostensibly revealed to all present that (s)he did not consider experience or personal narrative to be relevant to theology. I side, however, with this text’s editors’ (and my students’) implicit thesis. I would contend that if theology does not honestly and critically incorporate autobiography into its God-in-relationship talk, it dooms itself to irrelevance as insider-speak. Outside the ivory cupola, people living out their theologies not only want to be able to connect theological thought to real life experiences of suffering and celebration, they have been doing so most of their lives.

[13] We are storied beings. Theologies are thus contextual. Liberationist theologies have bequeathed all theologies with this invaluable insight. Whether we like it or not, human contextuality is a given and an aspect of theological reality that many of the authors in this volume demonstrate can function as enlightening grace rather than constricting liability. Personal experience teaches the same lesson. For example, when my best friend was dying of colo-rectal cancer, she taught me things about God and how God accompanies the dying in ways I could never have discovered on my own. The exact same thing could be said for my friends in the South African township of Khayelitsha, where my students and I learned from the women who opened their homes to us that God accompanies those who live in poverty and oppression in astounding ways that we the privileged cannot understand if left to rely only on our own limited experiences. Kathryn Tanner, in her essay in this volume, creatively names this reality of human situatedness the ‘scandal of particularity.’ She writes, “Judgments in the natural and human sciences cannot be exempted from the scandal of particularity so often lodged against theology; any general outlook on the world in human life, is shaped by contextually specific perspectives, topics of interest, and normative orientations” (270).

[14] Wouldn’t it be liberating for all of us to embrace our own particularity and that of others as gift rather than scandal? What I appreciate about this book is that the editors, in conceiving of the project, beckon us to just this sort of embrace. Writes Nelson in the book’s introduction, “No one writes or thinks without starting somewhere. No theology or philosophy can absent itself from the claims of particularity… The best that we can hope for, then, is for a theology that speaks from somewhere to as wide and elsewhere as possible, and from one time to as many times as imaginable” (9).

[15] As a final point, and while we are on the subject of particularity, I would like to raise the issue of canonicity for this volume. The text contains contributions from 23 theologians, only five of whom are women, all of whom are white, and of whom over half—twelve—are Lutherans, two are Catholic, and all the rest are Protestant. Many of the theologians included are also senior theologians, as evidenced by the fact that six of the contributors are no longer living at the time of publication. The introduction contains only the following sentence that gestures at the rationale for inclusion in the anthology: “All of the writers who have been asked to contribute are major thinkers in theology, biblical studies, and religion from the second half of the 20th century up to the present day.” Given the preponderance of men, senior scholars, white folks, and Lutherans within the volume this dissatisfying sentence does not really leave the reader with a clear sense of how the editors decided upon the contributors. While readers well understand that no volume can contain representatives from all traditions and social locations, readers are generally more accepting of such a fact when the text’s editors openly confess the limitations of the volume, and are simply transparent and up-front with readers about the criteria for selection.

[16] First, the issue of gender. Ironically, just a few months ago, I was asked by several journals, including the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, to do a book review of Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist and Mujerista Perspectives edited by Mary Streufert, which contains chapters from sixteen of the finest and most well-respected Lutheran women in theological education today. In my review, I raise the question of canonicity, and press these unsettling questions, “When will the day come that essays written by these women do not belong to a separate volume all of its own, but instead are simply interwoven into any text which professes to address Lutheran theology? Why are this book’s contributors not more included in the Lutheran canon? When will women in our tradition not be considered ‘specialty’ theologians, but just theologians, the way virtually every male theologian is and always has been?”[2] Disappointingly, Theologians in their Own Words, which contains not one single contribution from a Lutheran woman—let alone one of the sixteen in Streufert’s volume—exacerbates these concerns rather than alleviates them. I worry that one could read Theologians and mistakenly perceive one or all of the following: that mostly men do public and academic theology, that most of said men are Lutheran, that no Lutheran women are doing theology that is worth talking about, and finally and most disturbing, that the ‘last half of the 20-century up to the present day’ has not had any theologians of color….all conclusions I feel certain that the well-intentioned authors do not intend to imply.

[17] Second, the issue of Lutheranism. As a Lutheran, I was of course delighted by the inordinate number of Lutherans in the volume. My heart leapt when I opened the table of contents and realized that the text was bookended by people I know and care for personally—the first contributor was my professor at Yale, and the last contributor was a friend and colleague with whom I had worked for years on the Lutheran Academy of Scholars at Harvard. As if that were not enough, in another section I found myself underlining in excitement when I realized that one of the other authors had attended my home church of Redeemer in Columbus, Ohio, and that we even had a friend in common whom the author mentions by name. The text is, after all, published by Fortress Press. All of this raises the question again, though, if the main focus of the volume is on Lutheran theologians—certainly nothing to be ashamed of in my book!—why not simply state this by way of preface?

[18] In conclusion, Theologians in Their Own Words contributes to theology in the 21st century by functioning as a constructive conversation starter about our life-stories and their relationship to God’s story. Best of all, the text creates a hospitable space for the role of personal narrative and experience within theology and thus clears a path to help academic theology turn away from pure theory to the inclusion of everyday application and praxis. The book manifests the very real possibility that theological discourse is not diluted by reflection on personal experience, but instead can be profoundly enriched by it. The book thus offers us an important take-away; but the question remains, will academic theology heed its insight?

[1] bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 21.

[2] See Jacqueline Bussie, “Review: Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010),” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 12, 6 (Nov/Dec 2012),

Jacqueline Bussie

Dr. Jacqueline Bussie is the Director of the Forum on Faith and Life and Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.