What do you do when you find out the theologian you respected is kind of slimy?

August 26, 2013

It happens all the time: I’m reading a beautiful piece of theology, and while the thinker is waxing on elegantly about God and man, he barrels in on the subject of women or Jewish people, and suddenly I’m hit by a barrage of nastiness. 

Or, I'll look up to a living theologian, and then find out how he invited an intern on a vacation without his spouse or cohersed a student back to his hotel room at a conference. When you start listening to women academics in religious fields, you find out that it can often be difficult to make it through a Ph. D. without some sort of unwanted sexual tension. 

I’m observing from an outsider, of course, but I wonder why harassment so prevalent. Is it the meeting of minds that's exciting and stimulating? Is it a field that’s not used to women so men don’t quite know how to act? Is the bad behavior as inherent in theology as it is in philosophy? Is it the power arousal that one gets when he’s got so much sway over another person’s career? Is it just sexism, manipulation and sliminess?

I don’t know what it is, but when I hear stories about men I respect (I haven't heard of any women), I breathe deeply with disappointment. It’s often just gossip. But I’ve been around long enough to know that gossip can be a subversive act—it may be the only defense for someone who is powerless to do anything else. 

So what do you do when you’re read Augustine’s On the Trinity and you learn that he didn’t believe that women were in the image of God unless joined with a man

Or when you read the letters of Hannah Arendt and you learn the extent of Heidegger’s Nazism?

Or when you read Hannah Tillich and find out about Paul Tillich’s sexual addiction? 

What do you do when someone has deeply influenced your thought and you find out about such moral failings?

I know that I would have to throw out all of Christian theology and the Bible itself if I discounted everything on the basis of sexism. But it’s often difficult to separate the thought from the action. When does a philosophical system affect behaviors? What do you do when philosophical argumentation is used to undermine a woman's reality? Do we use the writings and thought, and simply adhere a warning label to the footnote? When we excuse the sexism of the past, are we also giving a wink and a nod to what happens in the present?


What do you do when you find out

Discovering and disappointment are natural reactions which should not necessarily make one to lose faith. Instead, I learned not to put anyone on a 'pedestal', but to realize that the rise and fall of human beings are part of life, and a constant challenge to recognize the banality beneath its excellence. More importantly, through the years, I have learned to see that it is not so much greatness that is exemplary; but faithfulness and the ability to say that despite the banality of humans, people and things, grace abound....and we are saved by grace, not by our own greatness.

What do you do when you find out you are a sinner?

Long ago I discovered the seedy sides of Paul Tillich.  It was very disappointing.  I've certainly discovered that other women and men I've respected were also failing in some embarrassing way.  And then, well, I have actually know about me for a long time.  I take comfort in knowing I have good company - "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" - said Saul of Taursus.  Reading the OT and NT, one "hero" after another proves to be weak of flesh and soul.  I'm just grateful that I am (and others) are forgiven and still useful in caring for God's other sinners.

Then I would say "I am not

Then I would say "I am not holding this person up an a moral, ethical person but on this one topic, he/she proposed/reckoned/ wrote" the folowing, which may be beneficial. OR "I am not minimizing this person's sins but we can learn from" what he/she said.