Hanna Reichel: Theology as a Technology

| Managing editor Stephen Waldron interviewed Hanna Reichel, Associate Professor of Reformed Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, for a profile of their work as a theologian.

People have many opinions about what theology is. Theologian Hanna Reichel wants us to reflect on what theology does. They “think of theology as a technology,” one that intervenes in the world to make the world something other than it would have been.

If theology is a technology, it would potentially be quite destructive. It may even be too dangerous to leave in the hands of theologians. That’s one reason why Reichel has collaborated with others in calling for “citizen theology.” The concept of citizen theology draws on citizen science, which uses the efforts of non-experts to do scientific work, ranging from collecting data to revealing unexamined topics for research. But citizen theology is also related to Reichel’s experience of becoming a theologian.

Their earliest experiences of theology were through their parents, who were both Lutheran pastors working in non-parish settings like nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). After dreaming of being an experimental physicist or an actor or a writer, Reichel ended up doing a year of social service in Argentina at the age of 18. Learning from base communities that were self-advocating and self-organizing, often fueled by a Liberationist spirituality and formation while at the same time denouncing the colonial and patriarchal structures of the church, Reichel felt compelled to study issues raised by this community work.

Back in Germany, they studied economics and theology for a more comprehensive vision of questions about global injustice and visions for a different world. At the end of their undergraduate work, Reichel spent 2007-2008 at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon, joining a group of Christian students from diverse ethnic and church backgrounds that Reichel now describes as “a miracle of community.” In Lebanon’s volatile interreligious context, “doctrinal notions came to life,” as religious and political identities were continually shaped by differing commitments about doctrines of God and Christology.

With the insight that all theology is contextual and theological differences matter on the ground, Reichel began their historical and systematic-theological work on the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Their 2015 book Theologie als Bekenntnis. Karl Barths kontextuelle Lektüre des Heidelberger Katechismus (“Theology as Confession: Karl Barth’s Contextual Reading of the Heidelberg Catechism”) won both the Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise and the Ernst Wolf Award. Reichel has continued to draw on the prophetic potential of Barth’s theology.

In an article published in 2020, they had argued that theology is confronted by two main issues: God and the human. Today, Reichel has slightly modified this: still arguing that these are “very stubborn” realities that ultimately refuse our efforts to systematize them, Reichel has become cautious about the category of “humanity.” In a more recent contribution, they “wonder whether it picks out the best calibration of the not-being-God,” both because it has been used to deny that some people are as human as others are and because it has obscured and othered the non-human creation. Much like Barth, Reichel has invoked the theme of “creatureliness,” of learning how to be a creature in relation to the rest of creation, as well as in relation to that other stubborn reality: God.

Reichel doesn’t think that God is only of concern to religious believers, or that the use of theology as a technology only belongs to religious communities. They are currently writing a book on how theologies of divine omniscience relate to digital surveillance. While theologians had spent centuries debating whether and how God could know everything, or could have the power to do anything (omnipotence), corporations and governments are increasingly able to become imitators of what theologians sometimes call “the omni- God.” For Reichel, this raises questions about whether believers in God should “superhumanize” the divine being. Perhaps this has been a terrible mistake. As we see theologies of omniscience play out in harmful ways, theologians might want to find different ways to think about God and God’s knowledge.

But how?

This connects to citizen theology and to Reichel’s other current book project, which tries to “reconceive theology as a technology that we design and redesign.” That book is to be a sort of anti-method argument because “method cannot save us.” Our efforts to redesign theology can never achieve perfection, because of human sin, but we need to admit that such sin impacts our theologizing.

Reichel has opinions about sin. Specifically, they point out that the Christian concept of sin should not be a moralizing concept. When sin is invoked to point out that “someone did something wrong, and this is clearly wrong,” the concept becomes redundant: “we don’t need a notion like ‘sin’ for that.” Reichel points to a deeper phenomenon of “messed-up-ness” in human life, to the fact that “we always already find ourselves in situations that are partially messed up, and in which we only have partial agency to do better.” They find that academic fields like history, psychology, and sociology confirm and amplify theological insights about human alienation and complicity even in the best attempts to “do better.” In this condition, marked by “alienation between ourselves, God, and the world,” we are unable to actually create a different world. Only God can do so.

In the meantime, maybe we can at least do citizen theology. Citizen theology responds to the fact that theology has historically been done by a limited group of people, mainly academic specialists. But Reichel argues that the creation of knowledge can “benefit from drawing on as large an expertise and conversation as possible.” Much like citizen scientists expand the reach of scientific work and even raise new questions that a small group of experts wouldn’t have noticed, citizen theologians can make theology broader in scope while surfacing overlooked issues and topics. Reichel envisions the regular use of “feedback loop structures” to inform theologians who specialize in theological reflection.

But this call doesn’t romanticize “inclusion.” It involves commitments to justice that also mark boundaries for the conversation. Still, Reichel “want[s] to preserve a certain measure of idealism,” the hope that more bottom-up processes in theological work can “create a more robust intellectual process” and make “what counts as good academic practice more complex rather than less right.” They view the role of a theologian as similar to the role of a Protestant pastor: it’s a particular set of tasks that some take on as a vocation, but there is a general “priesthood of all believers” in the sense that there isn’t a massive gap between different kinds of person, just a specialization to take the lead in an activity in which all participate. Vocational theologians devote education, formation, and time to theological reflection, but that doesn’t make them lofty authority figures, and it certainly doesn’t mean that others are not to be involved in the overall tasks of theology.

I asked Reichel whether their work as a founder of the open access theology journal Cursor_Zeitschrift für explorative Theologie is building a type of citizen theology. It’s a fascinating project that aims to do theology that engages with digital formats and digital topics, pushing for more dialogical and networked theological production. Over the last several years, it has opened new approaches to how theology can be done online, soliciting reader feedback on theological articles written in both German and English, even updating earlier drafts of articles in response to reader comments. Reichel, without hesitation, says that the journal is not citizen theology, since it is a collective project by academic theologians, even though they aim for a more participatory and interactive culture.

Instead, they point to “churches, congregations… communities where people contribute a variety of different experiences” as sites for citizen theology. They point to “critical theologies” such as “feminist theology, Black theology, womanist theology, queer theology, crip theology” as some of the places where citizen theology has begun to break into academic discourse. They point back to their experiences in Argentina as formative in learning how theologies of liberation work in practice.

At this point, Reichel aims to join the systematic mode of theological reflection in which they did earlier work on Barth with these critical and liberationist forms of theology. Princeton Seminary, they observe, is familiar with systematic approaches to theology. It’s a long-established center for systematic theology in the U.S., going back to influential 19th century theologians like Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge and now recognized as a major center for the study of Karl Barth.

But, like many seminaries in the U.S. today, Princeton Seminary is undergoing dramatic change: “the demographics are rapidly transforming… people are interested in social justice.” The kinds of theological reflection that thousands of Princeton Seminary graduates brought to pulpits across the U.S. in the 19th century are not quite what most seminarians seek in the 21st century. Many of them aren’t even looking to be in a pulpit. Like they have been for two centuries now, seminary faculties are divided among subdisciplines and among perspectives on what theological education is and what it should be doing as the ground shifts beneath seminaries. Reichel finds that “there’s so many different sides all the time trying to negotiate the turf,” but also that this gives them “the unique opportunity to reconcile [their] own different trajectories.”

This has meant complementing their background in the conceptual and philosophical worlds of systematic theology with resources from critical theory, as well as queering their own experience of the world. It has meant bringing systematic reflection on the God confessed by Christian churches into conversation with our growing understandings of what it means to be creatures. For Reichel, doing theology means developing updates to existing theological technologies with “attention to feedback processes” and acknowledging “the need for redesign as actually a faithful practice rather than a very revolutionary one.” Charles Hodge, who taught at Princeton Seminary from 1822 to 1878, repeatedly boasted that “a new idea never originated in this Seminary.” Maybe the best way of being more faithful and more rigorous in the work of theology isn’t to avoid having new ideas. If Reichel is correct, then it certainly isn’t.

Stephen Waldron

Managing editor Stephen Waldron is a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.