Theology: What Is It? Who Does It? How Is It Done?

by Harvey Cox

Dr. Cox is Victor S. Thomas professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of such books as The Secular City, The Feast of Fools, The Seduction of the Spirit and Turning East.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 24, 1980, pp.874-878. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


How can theologians — members of a privileged elite — be the interpreters of a Message which so ringingly challenges all established power and all elites? The answer lies in their recognizing for whom they are doing their theology. The coming of the Kingdom of God through the poor and the disinherited, both inside and outside the church, must provide the theologian’s frame of reference. This means that human life in society constitutes the absolute value, and that all religious institutions, all dogmas, all the sacraments and all ecclesiastical authorities have only a relative, that is, a functional value.

I wondered then [1966] why theologians can be so aware of the institutional and historical setting of other people’s theology and so uncritical about their own. I thought that what we really need to learn from the Marxists . . . [was] how the theologian’s locus in the class structure and power fabric of his society influences his theology. The trouble is that I still think that’s true, and that when your readers see that they’ll think my mind has not changed. And everybody knows a theologian’s mind must change every ten years. Otherwise, why the series?

The citation above is taken from my contribution to the 1970 version of this series, in which I recalled what I had written for an interim series in 1966. In rereading both of these previous articles, I was surprised at the constancy, maybe even doggedness, of my theological preoccupations. Perhaps that is only to be expected. Still, my invitation to contribute to the 1980-81 series has for some reason made me vaguely suspicious, not just of my own previous forays but also of the series itself and what it has meant for theology.

That Sniff of Suspicion

I could, of course, simply repress my uneasiness and just barge ahead and write. It wouldn’t be the first time. Still, "the hermeneutics of suspicion" suggests another course: not to bury my queasiness but to explore its significance. Truly critical theology always begins with that sniff of suspicion. One feels disquieted about the way a question is asked, the unspoken assumptions of any intellectual enterprise.

Maybe this series is an example of something about which we ought to be at least a little suspicious. It is, after all, an integral part of the history it records. The editors, by deciding who will be invited to write (and who will not be invited), delineate the limits of the permissible. The contributors in turn, taking their signals from the history of the series as well as from the kind of writing that has produced the invitation, will then demonstrate what theology is and how it is produced. Little of this will happen through explicit argument. But since implicit messages are usually more important than manifest ones (they communicate "deep structures" rather than transient content), and since they are the part of the message that is least often subjected to critical examination, it seems doubly important to examine them in the case of this series.

Good. Already my sniffing has turned up something worth further pursuit. Although so far it may all sound grippingly commonsensical, please stay with me. The most formative ideas of any age are the ones viewed as commonsensical or self-evident, so the chances are that we have already blundered into the hiding place of three of the most influential assumptions present in the world of theology today: namely, what theology is, how it is done and who does it. It is about these questions that my mind may be changing. Let us see.

A Theology of the Elite

Who then does theology? By now it has become tiresome to keep pointing out that "theologians," including the ones who have made this series so influential, have been preponderantly white, male, Euro-American, etc. Indeed, the Century’s present editors, as aware as anyone of this criticism, will undoubtedly include red, black, brown, female and non-Euro-American figures on this year’s invitation list. It will be much harder, however, to avoid the characterization made a few years back by Philip Scharper that "most of the theologians -- Protestant and Catholic -- who have had such a heavy influence on American theologians and American theology have tended to be, almost by definition, members of tile upper-middle class, indeed forming something of an intellectual elite" (Catholic Mind, April 1976, p. 18). This is a problem that even the most skillful editorial selection cannot avoid. Why?

The reason this class bias is so stubborn is clear. The minimal conditions (could we even call them "means of production"?) for doing theology, even for writing such an article as this, include the ability to read and write in at least one language, some familiarity with the received tradition of concepts and categories, sufficient leisure to think, and the power to get one’s ideas published or otherwise heard. But these conditions are available only to people who have benefited from privileged educational opportunities and whose present position in life frees them from a daily struggle against hunger and cold. These minimal "class" conditions exclude the vast majority of people from ever being considered theologians, at least in this respect.

I am not interested in scolding. Theology has always been produced by an elite, and although the voices of blacks, feminists and other previously excluded groups have undercut some established perspectives, they have not done much to challenge the class bias. What I am asking is whether the conditions that automatically exclude all but middle-class people from doing theology make a significant difference in the theology itself, including my theology. Or is it something one can safely ignore? This consideration moves us on to the question of how theology is done.

A New Blade

In the past two centuries Christian theologians have become increasingly self-critical about how theology is done, especially about sources and procedures. This capacity for self-criticism has often been regarded as the most important single theological development of that period. The question I keep asking myself now, however, is whether theologians are prepared to take the next step, that of moving from a historical-critical to a sociocritical method. This step would move us beyond the sharp awareness we now have, for example, of how the rhetorical conventions and cultural symbols of any period shape even, its most original theology, to a recognition of how the pervasive ideology of the dominant class in any society influences the theology it produces. As the Jesuit theologian Alfred T. Hennelly says, we now need a new "Ockham’s razor" to be used for "the careful dissection of the manifold relationships that exist between the ideology of the Western ruling elites and the development of western theology."

A new Ockham’s razor? Yes, I think we need one. The first one, it will be recalled, was invented by the 14th century Franciscan theologian William of Ockham to pare away the superfluous from the essential. Ockham believed that an "overloaded" concept inevitably suffered distortion. Likewise, because of the class position of those who write it, most theology today is freighted with an overload of the dominant class ideology. The trouble is that while most theologians are trained to watch out for historical biases and logical non sequiturs, we are rarely taught how to recognize the distortion a dominant ideological perspective imposes on our own or other people’s theological work. The Christian Century’s series, by example and not by intent, continues by and large to hold up this truncated model of a less-than-critical theology which proceeds without much awareness of its own class bias.

Since this dominant model of how theology should be done is perpetuated by implicit example, a counterproposal needs to be made explicit. My thesis here is that no theology that claims to be "critical" can continue to ignore this ideological-critical dimension. Understanding how the dominant ideology of any society, including our own, becomes a latent but potent element in the production of theology should be an integral, not just an ancillary, part of the theological enterprise itself. Ockham’s razor needs a new blade. This moves us on to the next question to which the Century’s series supplies an implicit answer: the question of what theology is.

In the Western intellectual tradition, a serious hiatus has developed over the past few centuries between the study of religious and theological ideas as such, including their internal relations to each other, on the one hand, and the study of the historical and political significance of theological formulations in human societies on the other. The first task is usually thought of as "theology," while the second -- with its parallel or "dialectical" concern for how social reality influences theological ideas -- is generally turned over to other disciplines. Again, by and large, the Century’s series reproduces this hiatus.

I believe that this separation is a serious mistake. It arose historically along with the modern fragmentation of the disciplines, the overspecialization of intellectual labor, and the separation of church and state. But its danger is that it leads to just that ethereal view of theology which obscures its social sources and thereby disguises its ideological significance. If a strong sociocritical element were built into theology, this separation would not be possible. The integration of this dimension into our theological work, as a part of what theology is, constitutes an urgent need. To put it another way, theology must be its own most informed critic. It must constantly expand its awareness not just of its own internal processes but of how it influences and is influenced by its milieu.

Idealogy and Ideas

So far I have not gone much beyond what I said in 1970. In that article I also wrote: "All thinking, including theological thinking, arises in part as ideology; that is, in defense of this or that institution’s power and privilege."

The idea is not new. I wonder, then, why most theologians have been so hesitant to enter into the next phase, the sociocritical phase, of theological history. Could it be because most of us suspect that it would confront us with some embarrassing contradictions which other fields could more easily avoid? How can members of a privileged elite be the interpreters of a Message which so ringingly challenges all established power and all elites? The question is a serious one, and it requires me to go beyond my 1970 thoughts on the subject.

Despite the obvious difficulties middle-class theologians face in this regard, I do not believe that middle-classness as such necessarily prevents anyone from doing Christian theology. The notion that class automatically "determines" ideas is not defended by any serious class analyst today. It is as dead as that equally quaint notion that ideas appear by inspiration or insight and without reference to the impinging social reality. But the ghost of the mechanical-determinist idea still haunts the intellectual world, functioning as a favorite straw man to be pummeled by those who need a horrible example of reductionism to warn us against the dire peril of investigating the relationship among class, ideology and ideas.

The fact is, however, that the relationship between ideology and ideas (and vice versa) can be laid open -- and with a scalpel (or a razor), not with a meat cleaver. A fecund tradition of Marxist literary criticism -- including such figures as Lucien Goldmann, Walter Benjamin and Georg Lukács -- can help us see how. But no theologian can even begin to slice through the ideological gristle of a text or to prevent her or his own work from being ideologically "overdetermined" without passing through one indispensable first step: the recognition that such ideological distortion does occur. Only after this initial recognition can one go on to learn how it occurs and how to minimize it in one’s own case.

The inventor of Muzak once claimed that the great success of his invention lay in the simple fact that one never notices it until it is turned off. The same is true of ideology. What is needed, as Karl Mannheim pointed out years ago in Ideology and Utopia, is a knowledge of how to spot and deal with something which by its very nature eludes most forms of detection. Although we can easily discern someone else’s ideology if it is different from ours (liberation theologians, for example, are constantly accused of being "too ideological"), we have a desperately difficult time recognizing our own. "Theirs" is patent and obtuse. Our own ideology, however, passes itself off as the obvious or even as "standards of scholarly excellence." But as the literary critics I have just mentioned lucidly demonstrate, the task of recognizing and analyzing ideology is not impossible. It can be done.

Resign from the Middle Class?

The first step is to lay aside any possibility of simply jumping out of one’s class skin. Intellectuals gain absolutely nothing by lamenting the fact that they were not born with a different gender or pigmentation or into a different social stratum. Worse, the pious lamentation itself can often become a symbolic substitute for an effective critical method. Class bias is not dissolved by religious ecstasy or heroic imagination. This is why I believe that the well-intentioned phrase "identifying with the poor" is misleading in two ways.

First, "identification" is too psychologistic and can easily pass over into a neo-Franciscan romanticism. Whatever the values of voluntary poverty, the most salient characteristic of real poverty is that it is not voluntary. Poverty is not just penury. It is also powerlessness. Education, social skills, "contacts" and experience in the dominant culture are all part of what it means to be "nonpoor," and since none of these can simply be shed, even someone who has embraced voluntary poverty or some kind of simpler life style remains middle class in the most important respects.

Second, as anyone who has lived among the poor for any length of time knows, the dominant ideology has also impressed itself on the consciousness of poor people. They often follow it with a vengeance. Middle-class theologians only deceive themselves if they think they can just resign from the middle class. Still, class is not fate. Classes come into existence in history and they exist only in conflict with each other. Therefore, "class" is a political and social category, not an ontological one. This means that middle-class theologians (including black and feminist and Third World theologians) can learn how to uncover and deal with the dominant ideological component of theology, but the strategy for doing so must be a political-social strategy commensurate with the nature of class itself. How can this be done?

Encountering the ‘Rival Sibling’

In my view, the problem the theologian faces in this respect is not essentially different from the one faced by any other intellectual who is interested in becoming critically aware of her or his own class perspective. The method for dealing with the problem is similar also. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist whose writings have undergone such a remarkable renaissance in recent years, especially as we search for a more "Western" and democratic form of socialism, was fascinated with this issue. Gramsci kept asking himself throughout his life how so many intellectuals both in past historical periods and in his own time, people who were not an integral part of the poor or working classes, could nonetheless give essential leadership to people’s liberation movements. How did these intellectuals come to understand and neutralize their own bondage to dominant class ideologies?

Gramsci’s answer, put very simply, is that the issue of how one does intellectual work eventually comes down to the question of for whom one does it. For Gramsci, this was a matter not of goodwill but of social location.

Intellectuals, Gramsci suggested, occupy a kind of no-man’s land between the principal classes. As mental workers who live off what they write or teach, they sell the product of their own labor. They are not capitalists. But the style and pace of the work they do as artisans (their "work process," a central category in Marxist analysis) is still largely in their own hands, which is not the case for factory workers, For Gramsci, this contradictory position of intellectuals has both advantages and disadvantages. Not totally ensconced in any single class, the intellectual artisan-worker is in a better position to choose where her or his loyalties will be invested.

But there is a trap to be avoided. Since in capitalist society the intellectual is not structurally part of the working class, and since nearly all opportunities for intellectual employment are within institutions directed by the ruling classes, the tendency to allow oneself to be molded by the dominant ideology and to become one of its -- albeit unconscious -- perpetuators is very powerful. How, then, do critical intellectuals become aware of this danger and exercise the choice they have to avoid perpetuating the dominant-pervasive ideology? (Note that I am not dealing here with those intellectuals who consciously decide to champion the dominant ideology.) How does the dominant ideology become visible to someone who might well remain unconsciously under its sway?

The English literary critic Terry Eagleton, who stands in the tradition of Goldmann and Lukács, answers this question eloquently:

Ideology, seen from within, has no outside; in this sense one does not transgress its outer limits as one crosses a geographical boundary . . . It is impossible to come to its frontiers from within . . . in discovering its demarcations, ideology discovers its self-dissolution; it cannot survive the "culture shock" consequent on its stumbling into alien territory adjacent to itself. . . . It cannot survive the traumatic recognition of its own repressed parentage -- the truth that it is not after all self-reproductive but was historically brought to birth. . . . Such a recognition may be forced upon ideology by the unwelcome discovery of a rival sibling, an antagonistic ideology which reveals to it the secret of its own birth [Criticism and Ideology, pp. 95-96].

Put more prosaically, the only way to become aware of one’s own ideology is to see one’s work through the mirror of another ideology. For theologians working in institutions dominated by the prevailing ideology of careerism, individualism, scholarly objectivity and the rest, this "encounter with the rival sibling" is essential. It requires us to look at our work from the perspective of those who are oppressed by that ideology and who are therefore actively trying to expose it and to transform the society of which it is a part.

The German theologian F. W. Marquardt suggests that whatever other value Marxist thought may have, for the theologian who works in a capitalist milieu it provides an indispensable heuristic device with which to expose her or his unreflective "bourgeois" assumptions. I think Marquardt is right as far as he goes. Today, Marxism is the rival sibling. But his suggestion still depends on the continuing personal goodwill of the individual theologian. For Gramsci, on the other hand, the matter was not one of goodwill but of accountability. It is a question not in the first instance of what one reads (though that is obviously important) but of for whom one works -- as distinguished from by whom one is remunerated. All intellectuals need an accountability network since thinking is by its nature a social process. The question for Gramsci was this: Which accountability community will it be?

The ‘OK’ Agenda

Gramsci’s formula provides an effective antidote to the way the dominant ideology actually influences intellectual work. As the French critic Pierre Macherey has observed (Pour une Théorie de la Production Littéraire), ideology shapes a text more in what is not said than in what is said. It makes itself felt in what is left out, in what the feminist writer Tillie Olsen calls "the silences."

Ideology also makes its impact at the level of agendas and priorities. The dominant classes have certain questions they would like to have addressed and other questions they would prefer not to have aired. The "OK" questions are the ones around which conferences are organized and for which research grants and travel fellowships are made available. The approved agenda also influences what counts as "careful," "thoughtful" and, most of all, "responsible" work. Not even the best-intentioned intellectual can avoid this agenda because of the imbalance between the way its pressures are felt (as subtle, reasonable and built into the fabric of institutional relations) and the way those of an alternative agenda are felt (as "outside," diversionary, professionally unproductive).

Accountability does not come naturally. True, in a capitalist society, accountability to the dominant ideology appears to be spontaneous, but it appears so because that ideology informs the mechanisms by which accountability is institutionalized. This means that an alternative form of accountability must be a matter of self-conscious selection. It must be self-imposed.

This question of accountability structures is an especially important one for feminists, Third World people, blacks and other minority students who are learning theology at institutions directed by the dominant classes. It is critical for such students to understand that they already have -- at least in principle an alternative accountability structure. The latent but powerful influence of theological education, however, can often move them out of that community and into forms of accountability provided by the dominant culture. If this pressure is not resisted, such students will soon find themselves reproducing dominant ideologies along with everyone else.

For the practicing theologian the task is even more difficult. To place oneself in an alternative accountability structure runs counter to many of the career patterns and associational forms of academic intellectuals. Also, as I have already mentioned, since the dominant ideology permeates not only the middle classes but -- through the device Gramsci called "cultural hegemony" -- the working and poor classes as well, the intellectual cannot settle for some kind of "identification with the poor." Rather than "identification" I prefer the more political term "alliance." Rather than with "the poor," these alliances should link us to those groups that are actively opposing the dominant society and its ideology. And this can become both personally and professionally risky. Still, it is not impossible. It involves discovering those newly emergent social locations, forums, problems and "standards of scholarship" within which many intellectuals and some theologians are already working. It raises the question of "for whom" one does theology.

In his own way, Karl Barth sensed the priority of the question of "for whom" one does theology -- what we have called accountability. Barth rejected the idea that one does theology for the guild, or for the profession, or for the academy. He saw that it was crucial for him to declare as unequivocally as possible that he was accountable first of all to the church. He was a "church theologian" and was careful to inscribe this reminder in the title of his major opus. Friedrich Schleiermacher, on the other hand, declared in his most widely read work that he considered those for whom he wrote to be the "cultured despisers of religion."

New Interlocutors

I appreciate the fact that both Barth and Schleiermacher were so explicit about their intended "interlocutors" -- that is, the people to whom they listened, for whom they wrote and from whom they wanted a response. In this respect, they both did much better than many present-day theologians who are never quite clear on this, perhaps the most critical methodological issue of all. Still, I think we must move beyond both Barth and Schleiermacher on this question of accountability.

In a passing reference to Jesus’ statement that "the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath," Juan Luis Segundo puts the question with characteristic bluntness. Does not this statement, he asks, mean today "that human life in society, liberated as far as possible from alienations, constitutes the absolute value, and that all religious institutions, all dogmas, all the sacraments and all ecclesiastical authorities have only a relative, that is, a functional value?"

I think Segundo is right, and this means that we can no longer be merely church theologians in any institutional sense. The coming of the Kingdom of God through the angry poor and the disinherited, both inside and outside the church, must provide our accountability structure. It also means that we cannot address our theology to the questions and concerns of the "cultured despisers" of religion, since to converse mainly with them does nothing to crack open the dominant ideology we share with them or to change the society which that ideology helps perpetuate.

Whenever my ideas have changed over the past ten years, it has been because new conversation partners, new critics, have raised new questions. Maybe what we all need most in theology today is a new Ockham’s razor and new interlocutors to help us learn how to use it.