In sections 4.1 to 4.8 of On the Way to the Living God, we have seen what it means to search for truth and how it can be done. Let us now consider how we can speak the truth that we have found, insofar as we have found it. To be clear, the distinction between searching and speaking is only a practical one—not everything can be said at the same time—and should not be understood as if there were a strict distinction between theological method and theological rhetoric. We can only focus our search and decide what deserves attention and what can wait if we know how and for whom we are going to speak. And perhaps it only becomes clear in communication what is verily true. So, properly spoken, we have not yet completed our discussion of searching, but will conclude it now with a discussion about speaking the truth. To this end I extend a bipartite invitation: (a) speak the truth modestly, in invitations; (b) speak the truth boldly, if necessary contra Deum aut bonos mores (against God and/or the good morals).
Speaking the Truth Modestly, in Invitations
“The most important moods of theology are not indicative and imperative (although they are practised most), but interrogative, subjunctive and optative.” This sentence in my notes of a lecture about “The Future of Our Field” by the British theologian David F. Ford has been particularly influential for the shape of the first essay of On the Way to the Living God and this study as a whole, as it has triggered me to express my theological thoughts in invitations.
Inviting is an alternative to both describing what has been believed and done, and prescribing what should be believed and done. There is also some difference between advising and inviting, in that the latter is more personal: I can advise people which way to take and I can invite them to go that way together with me.
Speaking in invitations is first of all a way of expressing the results of theological research and reflection. Thus, the choice for an inviting mood influences the genre of a theological publication. However, this is not unrelated to the nature and method of theology. Research on some questions leads to factual answers and research on other questions to clear prescriptions, but there are also big questions to which one cannot likely give such clear-cut answers. If one only practices theology in a descriptive or prescriptive mood, one has to ignore these big, ultimate questions or to concentrate on derived questions that do not yet answer the main question. The choice for an inviting mood opens the way to address the ultimate questions themselves as it allows for answers to which one can be committed but that need not be ultimate themselves.
The question may be raised whether invitation is a scholarly category. In my view, it is or at least can be: speaking in invitations is a scholarly way of speaking insofar as it does justice to the object of theology. That object is too relevant to be ignored but also too much surrounded by epistemological problems to be spoken about in simple descriptive or prescriptive language. Speaking in invitations then expresses scholarly prudence without sliding down into non-committal language.
Speaking the Truth Boldly, if Necessary contra Deum aut bonos mores
Now that we have seen that we should communicate the results of our search for truth modestly, I also want to extend the invitation to speak the truth boldly. Especially because discussions about truth can be sensitive, it is important that church and society create sanctuaries in which truth claims can be discussed openly even though they are seemingly or really at odds with the received truth claims (e.g., articles of faith) of a community. Although universities usually offer such an open atmosphere, VU University Amsterdam, for example, has stipulated one important restriction: the university forbids that theses contain something contra Deum aut bonos mores. However, my final invitation is that, if necessary, we should exactly do this: speaking against God or good morals.
My objection to the stipulation of the university is that it hinders the development of theology to a full-fledged scholarly discipline. It stimulates theologians to limit themselves to questions of secondary importance and to avoid questions that really matter. Who really wants to say something for God, should, as a scholar, also create space for dissenting voices.
The statement is especially fatal for the theological interpretation of Scripture. It stimulates that exegetes collect a lot of information about a text but do not come to a real interaction with the text. For example, doctoral candidates can now mention all kinds of details about Genesis 22 and they can organize the interpretations of others, but in the end they cannot evaluate the contents of the text itself—if they are of the opinion that Abraham did well in sacrificing his son they speak against the good morals, but if they maintain that he should have disobeyed God’s commandment they speak against God, at least in the opinion of many. This is especially a problem for the interpretation of the Psalms. Psalmists often say what they have against God: “Why have you forgotten me?”; “Why have you rejected me?”; “Why are you sleeping?” Sometimes they speak shocking language: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Pss. 42:9; 43:2; 44:23; 137:9 ESV). Are doctoral candidates allowed to defend that these words are contra Deum aut bonos mores but that they are nevertheless rightly spoken, or do the candidates themselves then pass a limit?
The question is also: who determines whether something is contra Deum aut bonos mores? In the case of the thesis, this is probably the examination committee. A century ago it was still relatively easy at VU University Amsterdam: all professors belonged to the same denomination and as a doctoral candidate one knew what one could or could not say. When the university was founded in 1880, it had been said that Muslims and Jews were also welcome, but when in the early twentieth century “both a son of the old Israel and a confessor of the Qur’ān” asked to obtain the doctoral degree from VU University Amsterdam, that request was immediately rejected because “the departure from the [Calvinistic] principles . . . was too obvious” (according to H. H. Kuyper in 1903). Nowadays, the situation is very different and both professors and doctoral candidates from many persuasions are welcome. More and more, doctoral candidates who would like to take a position regarding an important theological issue (for example, whether Jesus is truly God) may meet somebody in the examination committee according to whose tradition the position of the candidate is blasphemous and contra Deum.
One should not try to ban such issues from university in order to avoid that somebody might be offended. A university serves church, state, and society best by fostering a free attitude towards them and upholding its position as a sanctuary. The search for truth is not served when sensitive religious issues are suppressed but when they are made a subject of discussion. Jesus himself made statements that were so blasphemous to the ears of others that they decided that he should be killed (Matt. 26:65–66). A university can choose to silence followers of Jesus or of his opponents with its rules, but it can also choose to take the mutual differences to the level of a scholarly conversation and a communal search for truth.
To be clear, I do not plead to speak contra Deum aut bonos mores rashly. It is not a light thing if one really has something against God. And good morals are good morals not for nothing. However, sometimes the way of truth runs on the edge of blasphemy, and whoever is really a theologian will go even there to search for it.
This post has been adapted from sections 4.9 and 4.10 of Willem J. de Wit, On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2011).