October 27, 2008
The Global Dictionary of Theology and the Future of Global Theology, Part I
The following is an adaptation of a talk I gave at The Future of Global Theology colloquium at Fuller Seminary, October 23, 2008. I was asked to give an introduction to the Global Dictionary of Theology. (The main plenary speakers were Ogbu Kalu of McCormick and Simon Chan of Trinity, Singapore, and both were very interesting.) I will publish it in two parts. So here goes: The Global Dictionary of Theology and the Future of Global Theology, Part 1.
It’s a pleasure to participate in this event at Fuller, where as a student I sat in awe of a great reference book editor and translator of such works, Geoffrey Bromiley, as well as Colin Brown, Everett Harrison and William La Sor. The danger of inviting a reference book editor like me to speak on this topic is that I might dive into topics of intense interest to only a handful of editors of my ilk and of no interest to anyone else. Things could get very geeky very quickly! Pray that they don’t.
But first, a bit of terminological ground clearing. What is meant by dictionary in the title Global Dictionary of Theology? In the case of theological dictionaries, we don’t mean a simple American Heritage, look-it-up book that defines terms. For publishers and scholars, it is a term of the trade that overlaps with encyclopedia. But whereas the term encyclopedia typically signals a work of several to many volumes, a dictionary usually (but not always) indicates a work of one or two volumes. And, of course, it also signals that it will present its topics (or most of them) in an A-to-Z topical fashion. It may be written by one individual or several, or more frequently, edited by one or more scholars along with numerous contributors, each bringing to the project their expertise in particular subjects.
A theological dictionary, broadly speaking, covers all the loci/topics of theology in addition to many terms, aspects of historical theology and perhaps major theologians or schools of theology, contemporary movements and so forth. I could go on qualifying this, but I don’t want to bore you. I should note, however, that in the realm of theological dictionaries, we also have those that devote themselves to specialized areas. Some explore the past (church history, historical theology, early church, Reformation), others organize our knowledge of the past and present, others explore particular fields, whether old and tested or new and burgeoning (ethics, mission theology, apologetics, biblical theology). And others range widely over church history, theology, ethics, missions, contemporary religious thought and much else! An exploration of the books on the south wall of the reference room of Fuller’s library will introduce you to more works than I have time to describe—or you have patience to bear!
The Mind of the Encyclopedist
By encyclopedia MacIntyre means in particular a nineteenth-century worldview, summed up in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which holds a “unitary conception of reason” and a “single view of a developing world within which each part of the enquiry contributes to an overall progress and whose supreme achievement is an account of the progress of mankind.”
By genealogy he means the deconstruction of knowledge initiated by Nietzsche and carried through by postmodernists such as Foucault. The encyclopedists’ “knowledge” is exposed by its “genealogy” as the disguised product of power, interests, a lack of self-knowledge and awareness, “a blindness to the fact that there is a multiplicity of perspectives and idioms, but no single world which they are of or about” (MacIntyre, 36).
Finally, by tradition MacIntyre has in mind the approach epitomized in a Socrates or Thomas Aquinas. Productive moral inquiry is a craft that requires certain virtues, and a teacher, who is part of a community, and under whose authority we learn in order to be participants in this inquiry.
We will not delve into MacIntyre’s project, as fascinating as it is and as many other resonances as it sets up with our thinking about a project such as the GDT. I primarily want to pull out some of MacIntyre’s comments on the encyclopedia as a foil for our discussion of how the GDT fits into the genre of encyclopedias/dictionaries in the West.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th Edition (1875-1889)
MacIntyre argues that the traditional dictionary or encyclopedia article, much like its cousin the lecture, gives the appearance of authority, of comprehensively embracing its subject from A to Z and thus offering “a unified secular vision of the world” or “a work of universal reference” (MacIntyre, 216) and having the last word. It does not admit dialogue—no talking back. And it makes no apologies for its own perspective, which in fact it does not regard as its “own.” It is the dispassionate and objective arbiter of universal truth.
MacIntyre speaks of the EB9’s practice of not fully identifying the contributors of articles—only their initials are given at the end of articles—until the publication of the final index volume. “For the encyclopedia both truth and rationality are independent of our apprehensions of or strivings towards them. . . . truth and rationality are both independent of the particularities of the personal” (MacIntyre, 203). And, we might add, they are independent of the particularities of culture.
The gist of the EB9, says MacIntyre, is “how man, having been originally and still being in remote colonial parts of the globe a biologically evolved savage, had risen to the height of being a Scottish professor in the 1880s.” And the canonical books of these folks were “the volumes of the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. The encyclopedia article was the genre whose form perfectly matched that particular content” (MacIntyre, 32).
Thus the EB9’s posture is a finely tuned conceit. Yet returning to its articles some 120 years after its publication, we find gross errors and misunderstandings of science and history as well as instances of racism, sexism and Eurocentrism that will appall many today. And, like any work of this magnitude, there are inaccuracies. As for garden-variety errors, William Smellie, editor of the first edition of the EB, wrote in the Preface to that edition:
With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever. Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce.
Any reference book editor would concur!
I take all of this as a humbling and chastening reminder that, in the history of theology, and of theological dictionaries, we too will find our place in an ongoing story. In fact, stepping back I’m compelled to think of the GDT as a chastened encyclopedic response—chastened by the critique of postmodernity and by postcolonialism—to the nineteenth-century encyclopedists’ project and its heirs in theological reference works. The A-to-Z shape is retained, the articles are laid out in a typical format—outline, introduction, key points enumerated, bibliography, etc. But there are different forces at work in the GDT. Here the so-called “native” now talks back to the Scottish professor. It is self-consciously not definitive but a cooperative project that explores a burgeoning new awareness of the global dimensions of theology and captures it in a sort of theological album of a particular generation of theologians at work in a global context. On the spectrum of theological dictionaries, we can call it a revisionist work. It is assumed that it will be superseded as the future of global theology unfolds. But it is also assumed that it fills the needs of the present generation.
[To be continued]