Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Theologians talking to one another about themselves

There have been a number of discussions recently about the status of theologians and theology in the academy. I don't know what the trigger of all this was (perhaps Ben's discussion on theology as research a little while back), but some fruitful dialogue has resulted. Halden spoke a bit about moral failures of theologians, but also suggested that the disconnect between theology and piety can be worthwhile. Adam, I think, offers a helpful response on Halden's "ecclesiological Stockholm Syndrome".

Also worth noting is Samuel's discussion of the academic marginalization of theology, and his suggestion that in many ways this marginalization might be quite deserved:
I’m always astounded by astronomy, how vast the scale of their material is. It’s incredibly relativing [sic], and I think theologically healthy, to be reminded of the contours and scope of the universe. It also gives me some doubt about the parity between the contributions scientists and theologians in recent times have made. Could anyone claim that theology in the past hundred years has even helped and improved the church (never mind the “world”) on anything like the scale that science has improved our lives? I say this as one of the most anti-postivistic, die-hard-defender-of-the-humanities types around. Generally speaking, I tend to find that many theologians are actually not doing anything in their work that is recognizably knowledge-giving, insight-enhancing.

On the other hand, Jason offers some quotes from Barth on doing theology in the university, and I think the critique of the status of theology and religious studies is especially helpful (this quote is Jason's quote of Barth):
A faculty in the science of religion has no reason for existence whatsoever; for though it is true that knowledge of religious phenomena is indispensable to the historian, the psychologist, and the philosopher, it is also true that these scholars are all capable of acquiring and applying this knowledge themselves, without theological assistance. Or is the so-called ‘religious insight’ the property only of that rare historian or psychologist who is also a theologian? Is the secular scientist incapable of studying the documents of religion with the same love and the same wisdom? Palpably not.

I don't know if I have too much to say on all this, but the posts are worth reading through. I resonate with both the critique of theology amongst the sciences offered by Samuel, as well as the critique of certain sciences from the vantage point of theology offered by Jason. Barth's point on what today is known as "religious studies" is worth making- but it also needs to be recognized that we can't exactly implement his critique without a massive overhaul of numerous university disciplines... not only religious studies, but any that are defined by the phenomenon they claim to study rather than by their unique right and ability to study it. And I just don't see how something like that is really needed, as long as we recognize the relative status of the identity of something like "religious studies". It should also be remembered that Barth elsewhere discusses theology in terms of its object/subject of study, so he is willing to frame theology in terms of its reference as well as its methodological ability. But as a caution and a qualifier, I think, Barth's points are worthwhile. And they are certainly helpful in defending the place of theology in the university, if not for doing away with religious studies departments.

Samuel's discussion of theology in terms of its relative failure when compared to other sciences is worth reading as a goad to better work (and theology is not the only discipline he has criticized). The point pretty obviously isn't, I think, to offer a critique of the sort that K.L. Noll did this past summer. Theology certainly can present knowledge, and arguments against this claim are simply the other side of the Barthian coin- the scientist of religion that sees a science of religion as de-legitimizing theological work. Samuel's point, in contrast, is that theology often doesn't live up to its potential. And on this point, Barth would certainly have been in agreement.


  1. Everything we say is in one way or another a description of ourselves. A projection of our uninspected presumptions about what we presume to be. Most of which we inherit from the culture in which we live.

    The collective trance which is held in place by all the clones of AGENT SMITH. This is especially the case with theologians.

    This includes everything that we say about The Divine

  2. If you count Mr Luther King Jr as a theologian, then theology has had more of a practical impact on the lives of millions in the 20th century than a good number of the sciences. Of course, he wasn't holed up in an academy ... then again, the scientists who make differences in daily life aren't all necessarily in academies either.

    Take care & God bless

  3. Please tell me why people keep referring to theology or religious studies as a ‘science’. It is likely that I am ignorant of some discourse surrounding a specific construal of the word ‘science’ which can be applied to theology/religious studies. But the commonsense modern view of ‘science’ cannot by any stretch be applied to theology/religious studies. There is a significant body of debate concerning whether even sociology and economics can be considered sciences and these two disciplines at least involve analysis of empirical data and in some cases, experimentation.

    Am I missing something here?

  4. That's a fair enough question, anonymous. The commonsense understanding of "science" (at least in an English-speaking context), certainly wouldn't include theology... maybe certain religious studies scholars insofar as they fall into the "soft" side of the sciences that you mention in sociology and economics.

    I'm sure a lot of theologians wouldn't call theology a science. I'd personally call it a science in some senses and not others.

    The question deserves a post in itself, and maybe I'll get to it one day. For the purposes of this conversation, though, I think that one shouldn't read too far into the claim of theology being a "science". It still surely interacts with the sciences, stands alongside them in a disciplinary sense, and gives and receives important questions with the sciences, whatever one wants to call theology itself. I don't know that the thoughts here would be materially different if we insisted that theology was a non-scientific humanities discipline, or a practical discipline.

  5. From Anonymous 3:17

    Thanks Evan. I guess I just react harshly to the attribution of theology as "science" because it seems a perhaps pretentious effort to associate theological debate with the (in the view of many) more rigorous/concrete/legitimate discipline of science. I also wonder whether the ‘hard’ sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, etc should ever be informed or affected by theological discourse, even if the claims of theology must be limited by the discoveries of science.

    The precise relation of religious studies to the ‘soft’ sciences such as sociology and economics is an interesting issue. Some seem confronted by the possibility that religious studies could be entirely subsumed under anthropology/sociology/economics/history, etc. and any conclusion which is not arrived at via the methods of one of these disciplines is therefore not legitimate or justifiable. A problem with this is that it eliminates discussion concerning the possible truth of the theological claims made by the movements analyzed by religious studies. Some interesting questions:
    How should the conclusions reached at by religious studies affect theology?
    What exactly is theology? Perhaps it could be seen as a type of applied philosophy; eg. one which adopts certain presumptions in order to proceed, maybe in the same way that meta-ethical presumptions must be made before one can begin to debate applied ethics?
    If the latter is the case, then theology could potentially be a rigorous as philosophy, and one can only attack theology via undermining its presumptions, not its method?

    Any thoughts?