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Relationship status: “It’s complicated”. Digital Humanities-Methods and Systematic Theology

Even within the concert of theological disciplines, systematic theology seems to be particularly disinclined to engage in the usage of methods stemming from the realm of digital humanities. The paper asks if this hesitation has structural reasons or not.

Published onJul 06, 2021
Relationship status: “It’s complicated”. Digital Humanities-Methods and Systematic Theology
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Knut V.M. Wormstädt

1. “What Does God Need with a Starship?” – Engaging with the Problem

As a part of the family of academic disciplines, theology depends on the usage of specific methods to gain new insights. This statement holds true for all of her sub disciplines whether their main area of interest are biblical texts, historic documents, practices of faith, normative assessments, or lines of thought about the divine. With this wide variety of topics an equally wide variety of methods comes along, some seemingly more appropriate to benefit from computer-based methods than others. Best practices can be found within Biblical Studies, Church History and Practical Theology, for example in projects such as the Scholastic Commentaries and Texts Archive1 or Automatic Authorship Attribution in the Hebrew Bible and Other Literary Texts2 at Berkeley. Systematic theology, however, seems substantially less engaged in the endeavour of working not just on themes of the digital but with digital methods to create theological meaningful results as Matthew Robinson has pointed out:

“It remains the case that systematic theology has found little use for digital humanities in its teaching and research beyond the use of e-learning platforms and electronic library resources common to many humanities disciplines. […] Thus far systematic theology has seen only very limited use for digital humanities tools in its teaching or research methods even though it has recognized significant questions the digital revolution poses for systematic theological reflection.”3

Truly, understanding the role of systematic theology primarily as reflecting the engagement of humanity with God (and vice versa) does not seem to provide many leverage points to apply digital methods. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that there might be at least some possible applications.

This paper aims to tackle the question as to whether it is justified for systematic theology to remain hesitant in engaging with methods which stem from the realm of the digital humanities (DH). The main hypothesis, this undertaking is building on, is that systematic theology is using a variety of hermeneutical methods as well as practices of deduction and creativity. To examine this question, the paper will, firstly, assess what constitutes systematic-theological inquiry. This will be followed by a second step searching for intersections of these constituents with existing DH-methods.

Before we dive into this endeavour, it is necessary to clarify the term ‘systematic theology’. One may find systematic theology in the context of different religions but for this paper, I shall only talk about Christian systematic theology. In addition, even within Christianity what constitutes systematic theology varies depending on the different denominational traditions. Having the German context prominently in view, I am most familiar with systematic theology as an academic discipline with Lutheran or Roman Catholic imprint. From a Lutheran point of view, one may divide contemporary systematic theology into three different sub-disciplines:4 There is the philosophy of religion, which asks questions concerning the relationship between (the Christian) God and humanity as well as the constitutive characteristics of religion. Oftentimes these questions are also addressed as prolegomena of theology. Furthermore, there is the area of dogmatics, which deals with the concrete beliefs and Christian teachings and how they translate into the circumstances of present-day life. Finally, there is the area of theological ethics, which asks as to whether certain actions are morally good and why we think so. The Roman Catholic division of systematic theology works quite similar but swaps the philosophy of religion, now becoming an independent part, for the sub-discipline of fundamental theology.5 In fundamental theology, the main goal is the rational reconstruction of the Christian faith in order to make the Christian assertion of truth plausible.6 In both instances, there are a couple of more sub-disciplines, such as ecumenics which transverse this threefold division. For the purposes of this paper, conduct systematic theology can be defined within these sub-disciplines and wrestling with the questions which are lined out above.

2. Servo-Skulls – Basic Operations of Systematic Theology

Having established the field of systematic theology, the next step should be to ask what constitutes the work within systematic theology. The German protestant systematic theologian Martin Leiner has offered the following definition of the term ‘systematic theology’, that may prove useful as a starting point:

“Systematic theology is an academic discipline, that aims – through certain, methodically performed acts of perceiving, imagining and thinking about statements of faith – to assist in orienting oneself better in life (ethics) and in faith (dogmatics) on the basis of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It [systematic theology] works primarily with texts and fulfils critical and creative functions.”7

Without engaging into the dogmatic issue of revelation, one can derive certain ideas from this definition concerning the work of (Christian) systematic theology. Conducting systematic theology is, according to Leiner, to methodically(!) perform certain acts of perceiving, imagining, and thinking about statements of faith. These acts are, furthermore, performed on and within texts in which critical and creative ideas are discussed. Working from here, two basic operations of conducting systematic theology can be defined: (1) the analysis of faith statements and (2) the analysis of theological relevant texts. The term ‘theological relevant text’ is deliberately broad for it may include tracts as well as poems or graphic novels.

At first glance, both of these basic operations gesture towards a hermeneutical approach, the latter even more than the former. It is, therefore, plausible to assume – and well-grounded in the everyday perception of systematic theologians – that systematic theology utilises hermeneutical methods such as close reading to unveil new knowledge. Here, systematic theologians interrogate texts from other, oftentimes elder systematic theologians, or from Scripture, or from ‘the World’, e.g. cultural relevant books, films, or plays. To gather meaningful information, they have to contextualise the text in hand and add information about the author, or locate this particular text within the overall corpus. They may look for trends within the work of a given author or their dependency from other authors, thus, conceiving a network of thought and mapping continuities as well as disruptions within it. In this context, German theologians Gerhard Sauter and Alex Stock highlighted that thinking hermeneutically means to be

“particularly interested in the question of validity – not, however, in such a way that historical norms are to be established and historically reflected upon, but rather through verbal reproduction, through a bringing-into-speech of the essential, reasserting what is significant. At the same time, the hermeneutic processes of thinking and speaking (both are basically identical) itself acts as a speech that aims at approval.”8

Following this argument, the hermeneutical analysis of theological texts and stances not only takes place in the reading of the text and application of knowledge but also in the specific phrasing of the gained insights. Paying close attention to linguistic details appears to be imperative, not only for the deconstructive part of the hermeneutic circle but for the reconstructive part as well. What can be understood about a complex of knowledge may be governed by that, “what is significant”. However, when it is represented in scientific output this representation cannot be detached from the specific theologian who constructed that output.

Sauter and Stock have proposed a second mode of systematic theological thought, called the “analytical type”. To characterise this type, they state:

“Overall, the constitution of an object or an object field is to be recorded. Thus, analytical thinking is a perception directed towards an overview of contexts and their breakdown, for which it is important to measure the exact extension of facts, i.e. to show, for example, where a problem arises, how it can be determined and how it comes to its solution.”9

Looking back at the two so far determined basic operations, this argument points – at least etymologically – more towards the analysis-part. As it has been elucidated by Sauter and Stock, part of conducting systematic theology is to deconstruct an object of theological thought and try to understand its inner workings and connections to other thought objects. While hermeneutical approaches understand the entanglements of theologoumena oftentimes in terms of the genealogy of said entanglements, analytical approaches focus instead more on the functional dependencies that may be implied by the connections between these theologoumena. Analytical understandings of theology also tend to stress the plasticity of theological teachings more when they try to investigate changes in theological objects and the following cascade of changes along the dependencies between them, e.g. how a high or low Christology influences ecclesiological or soteriological questions.

Looking in a next step explicitly more in the direction of theological ethics, one might find the first two basic operations necessary but not sufficient. As Sauter and Stock have written about the analytical type, theological thinking may be concerned with the question “where a problem arises, how it can be determined and how it comes to its solution.”10 With the first two basic operations these questions might be solved, as long as problem and especially solution are situated within the field of theology. If a problem is not theological at its core, there seem to be two possible courses of action: On the one hand, one might declare this as not a problem of theology and theological scholarship and may look for something else interesting to tackle. On the other hand, one might try to point out a theological interesting layer within the problem which may has been hidden beforehand. In this second case, the basic operation (2) would apply as the problem would be situated within a (now) theological relevant text. Not covered yet, however, is the side of the solution. This is unfortunate for it is a common practice in material ethics, descriptive and normative alike, to assess competing solutions for all kind of problems of the society, such as digitalisation, genetically modified crops, or just war/peace. In these assessments, theological perspectives, stemming from aforementioned analyses, shape the judgements that are reached. Therefore, a third basic operation in systematic theology may be (3) the application of theological insights to non-theological problems.

Furthermore, the basic operation (2) and, to a lesser degree, also the basic operations (1) and (3) imply yet another basic operation. (2) says that a systematic theologian has to read and analyse theological (relevant) texts and faith statements as well as applications which are often also codified in the form of text. These texts have to emerge from somewhere, notoriously, from the desks and desktops of systematic theologians. Hence, as the fourth basic operation it might be considered (4) the writing of text. This operation concerned with the writing of text could be perceived to be a bit too basic. As philosophers, systematic theologians sometimes joke that all they do is read books, know stuff, and write it down again.

But the objection of elementariness may not catch. Instead, it is to argue that writing text is in itself part of the theological thought process, so that the entangled, complex and sometimes convoluted idea clusters become serialised and therefore accessible. Furthermore, in a research field, such as systematic theology, it is not only important what is said, but equally how something is said, differentiating it from fields like, for example, biology. In (4) is enfolded how arguments are crafted, which metaphors are used, and on which traditions the author is compelled to draw from. They may use a more analytical or narrative approach, be more or less bible focussed, reliant on prior theologians, or striving for intellectual independence. Therefore, the basic operation (4) is a quite constructive and creative one that enlisted rigour and playfulness to its ends alike.

One last basic operation might be determined from the name of the discipline: Systematic theology. The idea of a sub discipline of theology, considered with its systematicity, at first emerged within the Early Modern Age and is, consequently, to be considered relatively new in the canon of theological multiplicity.11 What is to be meant by this idea of systematicity can be described and normatively set in different ways. Two statements might be illuminating. The first stems from the German Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg:

“Theology cannot only be historical; for it is not only concerned with religious experiences, convictions and institutions of past times, but with the question of their truth, that is, with the question of the reality of God. [...] The question of truth is systematic by its very nature, for it necessarily inquires into the harmonisation of the various contents of tradition with one another and with the respective present experience of reality. Thinking that strives for truth must be systematic in order to correspond to the unity of truth, the agreement of all that is true with one another.”12

Pannenberg argues that there is a notion of truth to which the systematic theologian should be working towards. This truth is connected to all parts of theological insight and needs careful description, grounded in reason, in order to be adequately conceived. Mentioning the necessity for harmonisation, “Zusammenstimmung” in the German text, Pannenberg hints towards the active part of this description of what the systematic theologian has to do in order to conduct systematic theology. This aspect becomes more pronounced in the second statement, contributed by the Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley:

“In short, it is an integrated presentation of Christian truth, however perceived, that ‘system’ connotes here: wherever one chooses to start has implications for the whole, and the parts must fit together. However briefly, or lengthly, it is explicated [...] ‘systematic theology’ must attempt to provide a coherent, and alluring, vision of the Christian faith.”13

Coakley stresses the idea that the systematic theologians work is one of constructing a coherent description of the Christian faith. Truth is not absent from her assertion but it becomes more or less identified with consistency, departing from an idea of an essentialist notion of truth. Both statements point out that the specific creative work of systematic theology lies in (5) the construction of a consistent theological system.14 These constructed theological systems might assume different forms. They could be constructed as a whole or just in part, rooting in revelation, a certain perception of nature, or in everyday experience.15

As the last basic operation (5) introduced here might be considered as an extension of (4), such as (2) could be interpreted as an extension of (1), it seems, however, important to point out that the theological system does not have to be written down entirely for it is first and foremost a guarantor for sound and intersubjective intelligible theology. The assumption of coherence in the theological statements is what leads the hermeneutical contextualisation systematic theologians provide while performing the basic operation (2) on the texts (and, indeed, systems) of other (prior) systematic theologians.

To summarise this part and build a bridge to the next one, the five identified basic operations shall once again be lined up:

On the side of deconstruction and understanding

  1. the analysis of faith statements

  2. the analysis of theological relevant texts

On the side of creating and communication

  1. the application of theological insights to non-theological problems

  2. the writing of text

  3. the construction of a consistent theological system

3. Deep Thought – Digital Humanities-Methods for Systematic Theology

With these five basic operations written down, it becomes clear that Robinson’s observation is accurate to a certain degree. (1), (3), and (5) are all operations that indeed have “only very limited use for digital humanities tools”16. Furthermore, looking at these (?) methods from a pragmatic point of view, it could be argued that (1) may be a suboperation of (2) and (3) may be a suboperation of (4).

In case of (5) it might be fruitful to investigate as to whether computer-based tools might prove to be helpful. One might envision a translation of a theological system into a formal language of logic. In this case computers could be helpful in proving the consistency of this theological system of logical propositions, axioms, and inference rules. This, however, has two possible drawbacks: Firstly, one has to assume that a theological system is indeed one which possesses that quality of consistency. Consistency might be demanded but could collide with the fuzziness and over-complexity of the plethora of life situations a theology is speaking to. Secondly, the construction of a theological system is oftentimes deeply entangled with ambiguities and aporiae rooting in the metaphors used in that construction. This artistic element might not be able to be translated into a logic set and is, therefore, then to be considered lost.

But this still leaves the basic operations (2) and (4), the analysis of text and the writing of text. The easier case is surely the one of basic operation (2): The analysis of text is one of the standard tasks in digital humanities and tools for its accomplishment are well established.17 They vary from simple word count analyses or the analysis and visualisation of topics in a given work to more sophisticated ones like sentiment analysis or word embeddings. In this regard theological relevant texts are nothing different than, for example, literary corpora and might very well be analysed in a similar fashion. For example, it might be quite useful to know, whether a systematic theologian is inspired by prior texts which they do not mention. In keeping of distant reading approaches, analyses of an author’s oeuvre with regard to typical theological phrases or already identified ones, which proved to be typical for them, could reveal patterns, theoretical/dogmatical emphases, or changes over time within these. Both might further strengthen hermeneutical findings stemming from close reading research or revealing new leads. Given a well performed hermeneutical research basis, and ever more digitally accessible bodies of text, one might even want to compare bigger corpora, looking for example for trends in German systematic theology compared to those in Scandinavia, US-America, or Nigeria. In this regard things seem to look good for the engagement of systematic theology with digital humanities methods. Systematic theological (relevant) texts are, looking at them from a DH-methodological perspective, not particularly anomalous for they are typical written as non-fictional texts with a typically quite well-established special dictionary.18 It should, however, be stressed that DH-methods have a potential to broadening the palette of systematic theological enquiry. Such as in any other text-oriented DH discipline, a DHed systematic theology works in its analyses in the form of interpretation. Digital humanities tools can provide new roads to interesting interpretations or strengthen existing ones but they cannot replace them. Therefore, computer based systematic theological analysis of text will always be hybrid, with maybe some systematic theologians who specialise in perceiving dogmatics and ethics from a digital humanities perspective.

Still to consider is the basic operation (4): the writing of text. Writing text in a computer-aided fashion seem a little trivial at first, for what comes to mind at first is surely the production of theological literature – such as this one – on a computer, using a text processing program instead of a typewriter. It is certainly interesting to look beyond this perceived triviality to recognise the quite severe changes in writing practices due to the new medium of text production. This, however, seems to be more a question of media studies than of digital humanities which is why it will be excluded here. But there is another way to interpret the interconnection between (4) and DH-methodology taking the creative side more into account. The American theologian and librarian Clifford Anderson has proposed the following:

“What if we seek not to understand a corpus but to explore its potential? In a brief survey of emerging forms of ‘data-driven literature,’ Chris Rodley and Andrew Burrell remark that ‘a sense of playfulness often pervades’ such experiments. Might the generative exercises of the OuLiPo and the ALAMO provide us with a model, if not a roadmap, for such playful engagement with theological texts? Could we consider our algorithms as collaborators in the act of reinterpretation or re-production of new literature from old corpora?”19

It might be quite intriguing for systematic theologians not just to analyse texts but to augment and sample them and, thus, produce a new fashion of text, which then in itself may lay ground for interesting interpretation. Algorithmic text production will most certainly be thought-sparking if it manages to bring together different pieces from a convolute which are in tension to one another. It could take, for example, the form of added footnotes or the interweaving of paragraphs of different sources, not unlike the practice of brought together bible quotes provided by the Moravians. It is important to stress that the collage has to bear some meaning. This would most certainly imply some kind of rule to enforce over the trained algorithmic structure in order to avoid abject gibberish.

Another possible route for utilising computer-based structures for creative operations in systematic theology could be seen in projects that tried to emulate a well-known theologian utilising neuronal networks in order to produce ‘new’ texts in their fashion. This has been achieved for other fields, most notably with the DeepBach project which was able to train an AI now composing original cantatas in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach.20 It could prove quite insightful to emulate something similar, say, DeepBarth.21 However, systematic theologians would need to evaluate the rank of such texts. Could they be considered as a genuine reflection on theological problems? At least, one could argue, they would be a good object to better understand the inner workings of systematic theological inquiry.

As it become obvious due to the increased use of subjunctive phrasing, the ideas on how DH-tools might interact with the basic operation (4) are in a quite speculative vein. Nevertheless, it gestures towards highly creative possible applications worth a try in order to disrupt the well-known ways of systematic theology.

4. Technomancy – Outro

The starting point was the assumption that systematic theology would have little use for computer-based augmentation in its variety of methods. Instead, it would primarily engage with questions of the digital on the level of content. This could mean proposals for an ethics of accessibility and distribution of digital infrastructure22 as well as analyses of digitality as a possible new root metaphor23 for all possible theological purposes and topics, trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, and many more.

To engage with this assumption, it seemed necessary to getting a clearer picture what a systematic theologian is doing when they are conducting systematic theology. This resulted in the description of five different basic operations of systematic theology: The analysis of faith statements, the analysis of theological relevant texts, the application of theological insights to non-theological problems, the writing of text, and the construction of a consistent theological system. These rather humble basic operations might be improved or augmented by the use of certain methods, for example close reading, but also methods of empirical social research.

Having developed these basic operations, it was argued that two of them, the analysis of theological relevant texts and the writing of texts, are inclined to go well together with methods stemming from the digital humanities. This was very clear for the part of the analysis of texts, and at least hinted for the part of creating new text. The strong argument for the former is that the texts, systematic theology is typically concerned with, are in no way special compared to those texts other DH-related humanities disciplines are dealing with. Therefore, it can indeed be promising for systematic theology to engage in the use, adaption, and development of certain strains of DH-Methods, in addition to all the necessary content-related reflections. They might, however, not be useful in every setting systematic theology provides. In the end, it seems that the relationship between systematic theology and DH-methods remains complicated but is far from hopeless.

Bibliography

Anderson, Clifford. “Digital Humanities and the Future of Theology.” Cursor_: Zeitschrift für explorative Theologie no. 1 (2018). https://doi.org/10.21428/47f01edf.

Coakley, Sarah. God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, Cambridge: University Press, 2013.

Danz, Christian. Systematische Theologie, Tübingen: A. Francke, 2016.

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Hoogstraten, Marius van. Theopoetics and Religious Difference: The Unruliness of the Interreligious: A Dialogue with Richard Kearney, John D. Caputo and Catherine Keller, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2020.

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Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Wissenschaftstheorie und Theologie, Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1973.

Reichel, Hannar. “Conceptual Design, Sin and the Affordances of Doctrine.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 22 no. 4 (2020): 538–561. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijst.12442.

Sauter, Gerhard, and Alex Stock. Arbeitsweisen Systematischer Theologie: Eine Anleitung, München & Mainz: Chr. Kaiser, and Grünewald, 1976.

Sauter, Gerhard. “Theologie als Wissenschaft: Historisch-Systematische Einleitung.” In Theologie als Wissenschaft, edited by Gerhard Sauter, 9–72. München: Chr. Kaiser, 1971.

Stosch, Klaus von. Einführung in die Systematische Theologie, Paderborn: Schöningh, 2014 (6. Ed.).

Robinson, Matthew Ryan. “Embedded, not Plugged-In: Digital Humanities and Fair Participation in Systematic Theological Research.” Open Theology no. 1 (2019): 66–7. https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2019-0005.

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