Interview: Matthew Robinson on Theology, Culture, and our Digital World

Matthew Robinson leads the Department of Intercultural Theology in the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Bonn. Managing Editor Kyle Trowbridge interviewed him about intercultural theology, the usefulness of the theologies of Schleiermacher and Troeltsch, digital humanities work, and research in digital religious communication.

Kyle: First, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. This theme is on Digital and Information Technologies. You’re currently working at Bonn as the director of Intercultural Theology. How has technology changed or challenged the way you approach teaching theology?

Matthew: Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on these questions. The short answer to this first question is that digital technologies and platforms support greater mutuality among theologians globally and enable meaningful transcultural comparative analysis of local responses to global challenges. This leads in result to a more genuinely ecumenical approach to teaching in Intercultural Theology.

As you mentioned, I am working on developing a new Department of Intercultural Theology (IcT) in the Protestant Theological Faculty in Bonn, where I also teach in our Master of Ecumenical Studies program. IcT is understood and practiced in diverse ways—for example, as Religious Studies, Mission Studies, Interreligious Studies, and Comparative Theology, to name a few.

Common to all of these, however, is that it has often been institutionalized in higher education in Western countries, particularly in Western Europe, as a theological subdiscipline that focuses on non-Western Christianities alongside the other currently used subdisciplinary categories—OT [Old Testament], NT [New Testament], History of Christianity, ST [systematic theology], PT [practical theology]. (Currently, IcT remains predominantly a Western category; after all, biblical scholars or systematic theologians, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America or in Southeast Asia do not describe themselves as “intercultural theologians,” but rather as simply “theologians.”)

When work on non-Western Christianity is conduited, so-to-speak, via individual IcT professors in a department or faculty, its spectrum of visibility is correspondingly narrowed to that scholar’s particular expertise, with the result that all of non-Western Christianity (i.e., the vast majority of Christianity) is represented in theological departments and faculties with extreme selectivity. This is a major structural-systemic challenge.

But the digital changes everything. Thanks to the connection with one another made possible by digital communication and social media platforms (all of their problematic sides notwithstanding), it is now possible to practice a more genuinely cooperative, ecumenical approach to theological education. I have actively pursued such an approach in several recent projects, and I am of course by no means the only person working in IcT or ecumenics doing this. We all do it now.

But just to share one personal example: I organized and co-taught a seminar via Zoom in 2020 on the topic of “The Neighbor” with a Christian theologian in India, a Muslim scholar from Egypt, a scholar of African Traditional Religions in Ghana, and Christian ethicist from the USA working in Ethiopia, each of whom could also bring their own students. We had about forty students participate, and in this way students and scholars from all over the world could learn with and from one another.

For theological departments in Europe, creating opportunities to learn directly under the tutelage of non-Western scholars is an area in need of further development. For even though intercultural theologians in the West have taken pains to avoid reproducing colonial power structures in their own research partnerships, still, aside from the occasional travel excursion with students (which I also enthusiastically offer but which are very expensive and thus a privilege of the rich), the students themselves only rarely have the chance to study under scholars and theologians of the majority world.

My own vision for IcT in Bonn—although, to be clear, this is what I propose; the decision concerning its actual shape lies above my paygrade!—is that IcT be a kind of ecumenical hub that can facilitate partnerships in common learning and research among theologians around the world working in their own contexts, with the symbolic and conceptual resources of their particular traditions, but also working together on challenges they face in common. Digital formats and technologies provide tremendous support in pursuing realization of that vision.

Kyle: Your work has focused on modern Protestant theologians such as Schleiermacher (on sociality) and Troeltsch (on compromise). How can thinking with Schleiermacher and Troeltsch help us think through how technology shapes and challenges theology as a discipline? Where might we need to go beyond both?

Matthew: Schleiermacher was a pioneer in, among other things, trying to describe theologies empirically. He gave a series of lectures on “church geography and statistics” (in 1826/27!) in which he tried to document things like how many churches and theological institutes there were in various countries from Prussia to America to Ethiopia. And his understanding of dogmatic theology was that dogmatics are really only a crystallization of religious self-understandings that become habituated and, in that way, normative for a particular group of people at a particular place and time. Theology comes after life, as a way of describing the ways we experience ourselves as in relation to the world around us and to God. And so taking stock empirically of how Christian groups draw on the language and symbols of Christian faith to plot themselves in relation to God and world—this empirical, descriptive work is the starting point.

Troeltsch was one of the first theologians to my knowledge to really interpret theology as a societal discourse or semantic or, in other words, a way that the whole society speaks to itself about itself. (I take it he was very influenced in this by his friendship with Max Weber.) But this was still in the early days of the formation of sociology as an academic discipline and at a time when the concepts of “society” and the functional differentiation of societal systems (like “science,” “law,” “education,” or “religion”) were at an early stage of being theorized scientifically. Troeltsch’s important contribution to these discussions was that theologies, too, were social discourses that reflect and reproduce broader trends in societal transformation.

The methodological point drawn from Schleiermacher—i.e., that theological systematization begins with empirical description—and the hermeneutic point drawn from Troeltsch—i.e., that theological communication is an important key to understanding both religious and societal transformation—have directed my attention to the importance of digital theology as an incredibly important and largely unexplored “future field” for theological research.

There is so much theological communication taking place daily on social media platforms. Search “#theology” on TikTok and you’ll get around 230 million views. Even if 99% of that is not what theologians might regard as theology, this volume of usage indicates that the terminology of the theological has wide societal resonance, apparently. Empirically documenting and describing this communication holds the potential to teach us a lot about the mutual significance of Christian theological self-understandings (about what “God” means, about what prayer is actually used for, about ecclesiological networks) and social cohesion, for example.

As for going beyond both: Schleiermacher and Troeltsch both held somewhat pluralistic theological views that were ahead of their time. Schleiermacher’s model of sociability or conviviality was extremely openminded and tolerant of divergent points of view. Troeltsch proposed a model of multiple universalisms, in which Christians could confess the universal validity and truth of Christianity but also accept that, of course, other religious perspectives would do the same and that those other universalisms might well be the best ones for those who confessed them.

However, despite their theoretical creativity and dexterity, what they both lacked, it seems to me, was an ability to say why the strongly held convictions of others might also be good for oneself. They lack what Krister Stendahl called a holy envy, a deep appreciation for the religious other and understanding of oneself as being in an interdependent relationship with that other. Their pluralisms, I fear, often lead to the kind of tolerant indifference focused on individual preference that has become enshrined as a prized element on the periodic table of Western values. At its core this is highly ambivalent and unstable. But I may be reading them unfairly.

Kyle: Your work also focuses theology and its relationship to social ethics. First, how does theological ethics relate to digital humanities? And second, what are some unhelpful ways theologians usually approach questions about qualitative research and the digital humanities? What’s going on that has you excited?

Matthew: I can answer here only with the important caveat that I am speaking as a non-expert outside observer. Technology is certainly expanding the kinds of questions that can be asked and how they are answered. Early on, digital humanities in exegesis and history of Christianity meant work on digital editions of historical works. However, people have also started using digitized sources, e.g., to reconstruct the ways the take up and engage with wider social discourses.

Though not a church historian per se, I would mention as just one example the incredible work of Lincoln Mullen, a historian of American religion and his “America’s Public Bible” project. In Bonn, people in OT and NT studies are using digital tools to better understand how trade routes and urbanization pressures might have shaped the religious imaginations of the communities whose lives are preserved for us in the biblical texts.

Kyle: For the past few years you have been working on “What Does Theology Do, Actually?” [WDTD], a conference and book series that conducts transcultural comparisons of the ways the theological subdisciplines are institutionalized and practiced. So far, in addition to the kickoff event and volume, the conference on the exegetical disciplines and on the one on Church History have taken place. If you would, could you reflect on what sort of pressures technology and information place on these areas of theological work?

Matthew: The main “pressure” that I would highlight here is that, as digitalization encourages specialization, it can also widen the already existing privilege gap as those with the capital for and access to the most advanced resources will hold or gain a totally monopoly on winning grant money, achieving professorships, and so on.

Kyle: How has social media usage shaped and re-shaped the current ecumenical movement in Germany? How did the pandemic reshape how the ecumenical movement in Germany approached social media and digital technologies?

Matthew: I believe that ecumenical change will come from below, organically and maybe only accidentally. I have not observed much change in the way formal projects or institutionalized ecumenism has changed as a result of the pandemic per se. I have also observed that students do not show a strong interest in “ecumenism.”

This, at first, dispiriting observation is perhaps too simplistic, however. For I have also observed over the course of the last two years that a number of student-led initiatives (within Germany) focused on “diversity” and issues of race, gender, sexuality and (de)coloniality have popped up on Instagram. They share in common a strong interest that their respective institutions should “diversify the curriculum” and include more authors and theories from non-white and non-Western perspectives. And these issues tend to be somewhat ecumenical in practice.

So it could be that the future of ecumenism is not so bleak, actually, but that its contours will develop along new semantic lines. It remains to be see how these first steps proceed further, whether they organize among themselves and to what extent they intentionally cultivate a genuine diversity of Christian perspectives and experiences, with all of the tensions and discomforts that come with it.

Kyle: What are you working on now?

Matthew: Right now, I am working with a team of doctoral and masters students on the question of what significance “digital religious communication” might have for social resilience. We are using both qualitative digital-ethnographic and quantitative data-scientific methods in conducting a few projects focused on the digital experience of various Christian groups during the pandemic.

One of our team members just finished a project in which she did a network mapping of youth-organized and -led ecumenical organizations and projects who use Instagram as their primary outlet for public-facing messaging and organizing. She manually analyzed around 500 of their Instagram posts and used a Grounded Theory approach to code them, identify recurring themes, and plot key actors. This helped her construct interview questions for going back to the groups and asking them about how they see themselves as having used the language and symbols of Christian faith to process their experience of the pandemic.

Another team member and I scraped the tweets of 126 ecumenical and social-justice oriented Twitter accounts during the pandemic (around 300,000 [tweets]) and analyzed these thematically and for their overall sentiment, again, to see how they used religious language to interpret themselves during the pandemic. Turns out, they used almost no religious language at all, other than to talk a bit in terms of prayer. So now we’re going back and scraping from the whole of Twitter any language (limited to English) of “pray-” (prayer, prayers, praying, prays, etc.) as well as all language of hope (hopeful, hoping, hopes, etc.) and will see what we can observe comparatively in what Twitter users pray for and what they hope for. This will, in turn, help us advance our work on relating digital religious communication to social resilience.

Beyond these projects focused on theology and the digital, I am finishing vol. 2 of the WDTD project (“Exegeting Exegesis”), starting vol. 3 (“The Unity of the Church and its Histories”), and also working on an edited volume on the theo-logics of protest. And then, I have a long-term hobby project that I’m plugging away on for a two-volume handbook on empirical research methodologies in systematic-theological research—you know, because I have nothing else to do!

Matthew Robinson

Matthew Robinson leads the area of Intercultural Theology in the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Bonn.

Kyle Trowbridge

Managing Editor Kyle Trowbridge is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh.