Theology and Philosophy: Can They Survive in the Modern University?

Originally at:

by John Haldane

John Haldane is J. Newton Rayzor, Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Texas, and Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney.

There is a general sense that it is not only intellectually rewarding but culturally enriching and socially valuable to engage in public discussion of fundamental questions of natural science, philosophy and theology.

Between them these three fields presume to cover the most basic and extensive sets of issues into which the human mind could enquire: the nature and origin of the cosmos, the nature of reality more generally, and the issue of whether there is a transcendent source of these, and if so what it is and what, if any, is its interest in human beings.

The claims of science properly understood do not extend beyond the exploration of nature, and when they are advanced as if they did reach into the domains of philosophy and theology, that is because they have been reinterpreted (sometimes knowingly but more often unwittingly) as metaphysical.

This is a common mistake on either side of ongoing debates about science and religion, with both atheists and theists maintaining that science can resolve the question of the existence of God.

What then of the nature and relationship between philosophy and theology so far as concerns fundamental enquiry? I want to consider that somewhat indirectly by discussing the nature of these as academic disciplines and their place within universities and higher studies more broadly.

Before embarking on some conceptual reflections, however, let me begin with a brief story. It is anecdotal, but broader experience over four decades in universities in Europe, the United States, and less extensively in Australia, gives me reason to think that it testifies to a broader truth.

Has religion an inferiority complex?

Some years ago I was a member of a national funding council responsible for making large grants to scholars and researchers working in the arts and humanities. The organisation of this grouped disciplines and subject areas, sometimes on the basis of obvious affiliation, such as Modern Languages, and sometimes more loosely as in the case of Law, Philosophy and Religious studies, which is the panel of which I was a member.

We received large numbers of applications, variously prepared and documented. Those from law academics were relatively brief and to the point, often relating to developments in other jurisdictions which might be applied domestically. Those from philosophers were often rather abstract and sometimes technical but were self-assured in maintaining the intrinsic value of the proposed enquiries. Those in the area of religious studies, by contrast, generally began by explaining why the proposed project would be of interest to people in other fields.

Why so? In brief, because of an inferiority complex or something related to it. This is not necessarily related to low academic self-esteem but to the expectation that others will not regard work in the field as being of equivalent value or interest, and so it is necessary if not to present is as something else, at least to suggest that it could be regarded from another academic perspective.

This is not a good policy, in part because it raises a question as to whether such proposals should be submitted elsewhere, but also because it is unlikely to encourage confidence and respect. On the contrary, it may encourage the very attitude it fears. Better to stand up for theology as something distinctive and important.

Interestingly, some philosophers are beginning to take an analogous attitude to their discipline in relation to science but that is a story for another day.

A shared conversation

It is easy to draw parallels between philosophy and theology as fields of study concerned with fundamental questions about the nature of reality and that of human persons, and about meaning in human experience, values and the conduct of life.

Some of these parallels extend to the divisional structure of the two disciplines: thus we can make a broad comparison between metaphysics and systematic theology, and narrower ones between philosophical and theological anthropology, moral philosophy and moral theology, philosophical and theological aesthetics, and one or two other areas.

Switching to the historical mode we may also note the foundational role in the two disciplines of Greek and Latin thinkers: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Epictetus, for philosophy; Clement, Ignatius, Athanasius, Ambrose and Augustine, for theology; and then the expansion and intermingling of both disciplines in the Latin middle ages in such figures as Anselm, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Aquinas and Scotus. Finally, we can point to areas where enquiries are clearly convergent and sometimes conjoined: specifically natural and philosophical theology, exploring evidence for and against the existence of God, and analysing theological concepts such as those of salvation, worship, miracles, and so on.

Given these parallels and commonalities it is not difficult to think of subjects of shared conversation, and even of joint inquiry; but in the present condition of the Western academy theology is contained and even threatened by two kinds of challenges versions of which may owe something to (bad) philosophy.

It might be, therefore, that philosophy’s first task in engaging with theology is in considering those challenges. I will return to this issue. First, however, I want to place philosophy and theology within the table of offerings in the modern university.

Disciplines, sciences, subjects and studies

I described philosophy and theology as “fields of study” but thereafter referred to them as “disciplines.” This is not a merely stylistic variation. There are four regions on the broad spectrum of academic enquiry: disciplines,sciences, subjects and studies.

A discipline is marked by three features: (1) an enduring, if periodically changing, menu of questions or problems, (2) a canon of great texts and (3) a broad methodology. I am inclined to add a fourth feature which is intelligibly, if not logically, related to the other three – namely, that a discipline admits of genius.

There may be developments and disagreements with respect to (1) to (3). Some questions lead into other fields – for instance, the issue of matter which was important in early philosophical and theological cosmology was reassigned in the modern period to natural science – and there are debates as to what is fundamental in a discipline. There is also coming and going in the canon both of authors and of texts, and methodologies likewise emerge, depart and return.

The point remains, however, that throughout the histories of disciplines there are these three elements, and if one looks at the work of the figures mentioned previously it is striking how early on these features emerge. (See, for example, Aristotle on the origins of philosophy and its early phases: Metaphysics, Book I, and Nicomachean Ethics, Book I). Contest regarding them and their specifics confirms rather than undermines the point.

Sciences overlap with, but also are distinguishable from these in several ways. First, sciences originate in and remain answerable to common observation and its inquisitive relative experiment. Second, they seek to account for what is observed in broadly causal and material terms – that is, referring to objects, properties, forces and fields that are spatio-temporal and quantitative. Third, they are cumulative and progressive: in general in a science the latest is the best, this being explicable by the process of observation and experiment serving as filters on and test of hypotheses.

Like disciplines, sciences have a broad menu of questions or problems to deal with (again subject to modification and specification) and they have enduring methodologies, but the counterpart to a canon is barely historical – which is to say, the latest, best-integrated theory

While disciplines and sciences are defined, conceptually, by their subject matter, an academic subject may not itself be a discipline or a science, though typically it will operate in a given place or time in relation to one or more disciplines or sciences. Subjects emerged in the nineteenth century within the context of organised education and the conscious development of curricula and syllabi and may be quite general or highly specific: languages, literature, anthropology, geology and hydraulics are examples of subjects.

With studies there is a broadening out and also an overlapping of subjects and patron disciplines. There are also weaker and more evidently interest-relative principles of collection of contents (and of unification, where it exists). Communication, Cultural, Environmental, Family, Gender, Regional and Women’s studies are familiar examples, and what they also suggest is the orientation of studies to practice and policy, often with a political aspect.

There are, of course, sceptics about the idea of disciplines who see in the very idea the intrusion of elite and sectional interest in securing and maintaining social control. One such was Michel Foucault, who wrote: “The disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate.” While this is evidently intended to be a critical observation it might in fact be accepted as part of the responsibility, or consequence of the exercise of the responsibility of a discipline as I characterised it.

It is clear, I suggest that philosophy and theology are disciplines. In the case of the latter, however, it has also given rise to religious studies, for which there is no counterpart in the case of the former: philosophical studies isphilosophy, though perhaps at an introductory and general level. Why religious studies exists is a significant question having to do, I think, with a withdrawal from the assumptions of theology, and the rise of a certain conception of the relationship between knowledge and practice. I will return to this shortly.

The nature of theology

The institutionalisation of philosophy and theology have taken different forms. Notwithstanding the antiquity of philosophy, in the English-speaking world professional practitioners are late arrivals to the academic staff of colleges and universities.

Traditionally philosophy was taught by theologians, or at least by ministers of religion. That, however, was a matter of institutional history and organisation, and it was recognised that the discipline itself was ancient with most of its great figures practising outside the academy, such as Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Butler and Mill.

While Christian theology in the period from the Church Fathers to Luther and Calvin saw plenty of argument it was conducted within the context of ecclesial magisteria, or teaching authorities, exercised through episcopal offices. Protestantism officially democratised the idea of authority through the reading of scripture, but also generated diverse “confessions.” The result was denominational multiplication and then sectarianism, in the technical sense of schismatism.

Given the need to train and catechise in particular churches, this led to the creation of religious colleges in which, by stages, theology became less secure on account of an inbuilt tension: on the one hand teaching the error of prior presumed authority (that of the “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church”) while also seeking to assert its own religious governance.

Little surprise that the long-term effect was a loss of confidence in theology, because theology per se is intrinsically authority invoking and the claims to doctrinal authority of divided sects began to look like mere assertions.

The subject matter of theology in its broadest interpretation is the nature of God or of gods. Narrowing it to monotheism there are no significant natural religions: esoteric theosophies don’t count, being either adaptations of existing faiths, or invented gnostic cults; and Spinozism or pantheism is really a kind of spiritualised philosophical naturalism. Monotheistic religions are rooted in proclaimed revelation of the One, the Lord.

Philosophy may converge with natural theology, but it is bound – save in its role as analyst and critic – to diverge methodologically from revealed religion. Revelation, however, as the self-giving of knowledge of the existence, nature and providence of the One, first received as faith and then developed ecclesially as doctrine, is thereafter recollected and interpreted by theology which adds its own speculations. This involves abstraction and to that extent leads to intellectual distance between the plain believer and the theologian; but the content of what each holds remains answerable to something that serves as a guarantee, or an assurance or a guide to what is to be believed.

Religious studies stands in no such relation to anything in the category of revelation and in that respect is best viewed as anthropology, or history, or literature, or psychology or sociology, or some combination of these and other interpretative studies.

This is why, in an era when aggregative fields have become common in education, there is no special reason to query the inclusion of religious studies in a secular curriculum. No doubt some who oppose its presence do so on the grounds that “God is dead” and religion is dying though still contagious; while others are against it on grounds of general opposition to what they see as the dilution associated with “studies” in general. It has also served, however, as an additional form of employment for trained theologians; and as a half-way house or a new home for those who can no longer practice theology because they no longer believe in the revelation of the One or even perhaps in the One itself.

There is a significant possibility, however, for non-believers to engage intellectually with theology, and this is a possibility also for agnostic “theologists” – which, as conditionalised enquiry, treats claims as hypotheticals (for instance, “God is good” becomes “if God exists then God is good”), considering their reasonability, the connections between them and their further (undetached) consequences (if God exists and is good, then God is). This is also part of subject matter of philosophical theology, so here again there is an extensive area for contact between the two disciplines.

The challenge for theology and philosophy

There remain, however, two challenges for theology in the modern university. One of these is peculiar to itself, though the second is shared with philosophy and other deeply normative fields such as critical art history.

To give an exaggerated but topical example of the first, consider the Synod on the Family that took place in Rome in 2015. This was an episcopal council of the Catholic Church concerned with teaching and governance in the area of the family. There were over 250 participants, the largest group of whom were bishops under the presidency of the Bishop of Rome.

Entirely unnoted in press reports, however, was the fact that prior in the official order to other Roman Catholic bishops were leaders of the Oriental Catholic Churches including the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, the Greek-Melkite, Marionite, and Syriac Patriarchs of Antioch, the Armenian and Chaldean Patriarchs, the Archbishops of the Sylo-Malabar and Sylo-Manakar Churches, and the episcopal leaders of the Ethiopian, Greek-Catholic, Romanian, Ruthenian and Slovak Churches.

Why all of these? And why bishops anyhow? The answer is simple: in Catholic ecclesiology this was a gathering of the Churches in communion with Rome, representing the successors of Peter and the Apostles who, in virtue of their office, are the guardians of the revelation of the Lord in and through Jesus Christ. While they may discuss as theologians, their authority with respect to faith and morals is not at heart theological but testimonial. In Roman Catholic understanding, this is also the source of the authority of the Church; the locus of the ordinary and universal magisterium, which is the condition of the possibility of Catholic theology.

Other Christian denominations, and Judaism and Islam, have different conceptions of the source and extent of the authority by which the revelation of the One is inherited and transmitted, but something of the same order of dependence holds – which is to say that theology, insofar as it exists, depends upon something prior to it, to which it is also answerable. Until the Reformation this was not thought problematic among Christian scholars, but since then it has come to seem at odds with the spirit of enquiry and the pursuit of knowledge.

I think that antagonistic view is mistaken and embeds an outlook that may in fact derive from elements of modern philosophy presented in different ways by Descartes and Locke. Anti-religious polemicists have taken up Jonathan Swifts’s remark that, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” but its implied corollary – that there is a prospect of reasoning people out of rational errors – may encourage the attempt to refute the Cartesian/Lockean idea that true enquiry can only begin with lowest common experience, and that may then make space for the legitimacy of the idea of special testimony, and even, so far at least as epistemology is concerned, of its most particular instance: Divine revelation.

There is, however, a more widespread prejudice strongly held among the educated, which is that anything to do with faith, value, commitment and practice, is a matter of belief where this is viewed not as an ingredient of possible knowledge but as something to be contrasted with and even opposed to it.

This is a corrosive notion, and it is eating away at the place of theology in academia. It may seem to be resistable by distinguishing theology from religion, but unless that means engaging only in conditionalised theology – which is really a form of applied philosophy – it amounts to reinterpreting theology as religious studies and confining religion itself to the private sphere, which is to say removing it from the lecture hall and seminar room.

One might think that it is not necessary for philosophy to enter the fray, but since the most common form of this argument against theology’s place in academia rests on ill-thought out prejudices about the essential non-cognitivity of “belief,” it would be citizenly, at least, to play some part in countering them.

There is also a matter of self-interest, for that very prejudice is just as threatening to philosophy, at least in its practical forms. After all, it is easy enough to construct a parallel argument to the effect that the only kind of moral philosophy that may have a place in a university is history of ethics, and theories of ethical discourse conceived of as unconnected with the truth or reasonability of any actual statement of value or requirement.

In a world of narrowed subject areas and enlarged studies, philosophy and theology may find further common cause in recovering the sense of themselves as disciplines and showing how this is connected with the depth and permanence of the intellectual fields in which they mine.

John Haldane is Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney. He is also J. Newton Rayzor, Sr. Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University, Texas and Professor of Philosophy in the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, London.

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