In a review of "The Present Situation of Catholic Theology,” (1983/1987) Karl Rahner claimed that contemporary theology deserved no higher than a “C” grade. He was concerned especially with a loss of focus in theology, resulting in “a wandering off into other fields” and exchanging theological method for the approaches of other disciplines. Rahner insisted: “theology must serve as a science of proclamation of the gospel and must serve the people of our time.” Is Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Post-modern Theologian a sign of the drift that Rahner feared or the revitalization of theology that he called for? Tom Beaudoin’s readers must take this question seriously. Indeed, he would want the same.
The book is a critique of method. Its thesis is that theology, to remain true to its name, must change its way of truth seeking, in a way that takes seriously the insights of post-modernism—in this case, as articulated by Michel Foucault. The theme and language (discourse) are informed by Foucault’s work and pose the question of theological method in terms of collusion, vocation, and spiritual exercises. The book is divided into four parts: Teaching, Engaging Culture, Vocation, and Christian Life. In the first part, Beaudoin challenges the concept of theological knowledge in an attempt to locate Catholic theology meaningfully in a context of post-modern experience. This section raises the question of collusion and the use of theology in the service of other professional and career interests. It raises questions that teachers need to think through in coming to terms with their own ethical and theological integrity. Here the argument is that theology has become a discourse that, on the one hand, maintains the power relations of authority and expertise between, on the one hand, academics and ecclesiastics, and, on the other, the laity to whom the language has become all but indecipherable. In the second part, Beaudoin uncovers, as he sees it, the cultural hegemonies imported by theology onto the experience of the religious in everyday life and argues for the adoption of Foucauldian exercises to purify this practice. Practical theology is the focus of part three, as the author continues to expand on the concept and process of spiritual exercises. In the final section, Beaudoin locates theology within the life of Christians and the “tragic and seemingly contradictory experiences of faith identity today.” These concluding essays construe theology as a call to leave the control of doctrine and the power structures that have enmeshed the truth of the relations of God and creation with the power interests of both the ecclesiastical and academic institutions. As spiritual exercises, theology can become a movement of the theologian through a reflective process that exposes her relationship with her writing and the self-interests behind it, leading to radical openness or “dispossession.” The language and mood of Beaudoin’s essays are provocative, as evident in the subtitle of his concluding chapter: “On the Way to a Pre-Christian Catholic Theology.”
To respond now to Rahner’s concerns, it may be that theologians, like most inhabitants of a mass-mediated, post-modernity must draw on a new literacy to arrive at and word-craft their theological insights in order to speak to the people of our time. In light of this concern, Beaudoin’s dispossession thesis warrants deeper examination. The first concern, however, is more urgent. The extent to which the insights of one post-modern philosopher can adequately capture the phenomenon referred to (post-modernity) or can be generalized as a comprehensive critique of the theological commitment is itself questionable. Despite Beaudoin’s claim to be interdisciplinary, his essays seem one-directional, applying the Foucauldian critique, almost without mediation or evidence directly to Catholic theology. Beaudoin’s thesis, while an important “propadeutic” for a constructive problematizating of theology that can speak to the discontinuities of faith and practice, makes no room for a substantive connection with the things believed about God-in-the-world that are constitutive of the Christian tradition.
Still, I recommend the book—not for a class text—but for the spiritual reading and professional self-criticism of writers and teachers of theology. While there are few answers in this volume, there are many questions—questions that not only challenge our ability to communicate religious reality, but make us question what we think we know. Hopefully, Witness to Dispossession will contribute to the dialogue Beaudoin desires.