Outsider Theology Reconsidered

I’ve argued that religious outsiders can write theology and be theologians. I still believe this to be true. But I was recently on a panel at a con that explored the intersection of science fiction/fantasy and religion. One of the other panelists identified as a polytheist. He and/or his family and ancestors had been negatively impacted by the Mexican Catholic Church and this was at least part of the reason for his non-Catholic religious identity. He took the position that it’s sometimes appropriate for religious outsiders to criticize other peoples’ religion as oppressive. I maintained that it’s only the business of religious outsiders to criticize particular people, actions, or institutions as oppressive. In hindsight, I was on the other end of the “can outsiders do theology” debate at least when it comes to certain kinds of theological work, like religious reform.

My interlocutor used the example of Mexican Catholicism because the Catholic Church in Mexico was complicit in a brutal colonial regime for centuries. My point was that a religious tradition spanning centuries, even one as commonly identified with institutions as Catholicism or the Catholic Church in a particular nation, is almost never just an institution. Mexican Catholicism isn’t just how sixteenth-century conquistadors represented it. It isn’t just the ecclesiastical hierarchy at the time, even when that hierarchy was occasionally self-critical regarding its own oppressive activities. Then, as now, Catholicism is also everyday people, sometimes living very difficult lives or oppressed lives, who find great comfort and stability in the Catholic Church and the worldview it provides them. Is an outsider—as someone who doesn’t identify as Catholic—going to tell those people that the problem isn’t just bishops, militants, certain heinous acts, etc. but Catholicism itself. That could well be tantamount to telling these people that the root of their eternal salvation is corrupt.

So Religious Outsiders Can’t Do Theology?

Outsider theology is grounded in an outsider seeking deep and sympathetic understanding of a tradition that isn’t theirs. An outsider that does this sincerely and thoroughly will realize that oppression isn’t a problem with whole traditions spanning centuries and many walks of life. It’s with the people on the ground causing harm or doing too little to prevent it.

Conversely insiders are sometimes positioned to criticize their whole tradition because the problem, as they understand it, might be that their tradition has grown corrupt. This can lead to introspection, a “dark night of the soul,” but it can also lead to political action and agitation for reform. This kind of self-criticism is healthy in a dynamic religious tradition, but when outsiders seek to reform another tradition—and not just specific people or institutions—it comes off as exteriorly motivated, heavy-handed, and colonialist.

We can’t help but wonder—or in my case worry—if every kind of outsider theology is like this. Presumably some is not if we admit that philosophy, history, etc. grounded in the sources of authority of a tradition is theology. I also have to think apologists appreciate good arguments for their tradition, even when those arguments come from outsiders. The apologist is only doing their job well if their arguments give reasons an outsider ought to respect, if they aren’t just “preaching to the choir.” An outsider is positioned to construct those arguments, even if they doesn’t find them compelling enough to become an insider.

But as soon as theology becomes prescriptive—as it does in so many areas such as systematic theology, dogmatics, moral theology, Biblical hermeneutics, ecumenical theology, and other areas—we must worry if the same spirit of heavy-handedness and colonialism is present. Would any outsider theologian, operating in “good faith,” shy back from doing most of what we call theology and thus become something of a contradiction in terms?

Outsiders Can Do Theology

I am resistant to the conclusion that they can’t, partially for personal reasons. I like doing theology, and I’m not an insider of any religious tradition. But more broadly, I’m suspicious of the idea that any area of inquiry is tribal, that research or truth-seeking is broken into discrete domains that are the property of people with certain identities or backgrounds and forbidden to others. Healthy inquiry is collaborative. Understanding the other isn’t impossible—it’s just difficult. Religion is astonishingly complex, and we aren’t managing that complexity as best we can unless we synthesize a variety of perspectives. Theology done only by insiders risks an echo chamber.

The primary difficulty with outsiders doing most kinds of theological work isn’t that they’re colonialists, but that often their perspective is impoverished. In the case of many religious traditions, it takes years of immersion in the tradition to really be fluent in it. Being an insider isn’t always just the result of an act of will or simple ritual, like the shahada or baptism; not every insider is a good theologian of their tradition.

What matters most in theology isn’t whether you’re an insider or an outsider but the quality of the contributions you make to the discipline. An outsider who criticizes a religion as a whole is almost always offering a poor contribution. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Without pointing fingers, there are occasionally religions that aren’t nice, that are so insular and so closely associated with a particular institution that’s caused significant harm (think stereotypical cults), that it’s appropriate for outside political entities to reform them. If an outsider attempted reform through theological discourse it would be no less appropriate.

Outsiders Contributing to Religious Authority

Consider another theological task that outsiders can rarely do well: deciding what sources of authority a tradition should use. How a tradition constructs its scripture or other authority is so foundational to how it operates that most any outsider will be abandoning good theological practice if she doesn’t at least make the same foundational assumptions about authoritative texts as insiders. Insiders have more latitude to negotiate new authority. Consider the rabbinic tradition that composed the Mishnah and Talmud in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple.

But this doesn’t mean that outsiders have nothing to contribute. Consider that Jude quotes 1 Enoch at length. 1 Enoch isn’t part of the New Testament as most Christian churches conceive of it today, even though some Church Fathers thought it scripture. I have a Christian friend that thought this might be reason for Jude not to be scripture. Other Christians might go the other way and scripturalize 1 Enoch, as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church does. Others will continue as they have.

Or consider that most New Testament scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, agree that Paul didn’t write the Pastoral epistles (Tidus, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy) even though the epistles name him as their author. Considering this, a Christian might reasonably demote these letters in their view of scripture, which has the advantage of sidelining some of the more difficult verses in the New Testament. Other Christians might maintain that the true human authorship of these epistles has no bearing on their being scripture.

The point here isn’t that outsiders are positioned to decide foundational questions, like what scripture is, for insiders. The point is that they can still bring important contributions to the table.