Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Theologians and their imaginary client

Oliver Kamm argues:

theology is not a discipline, because it isn't a branch of intellectual inquiry. How can it be, when the truth is already "known" by revelation?

I think there’s something in this, but the way he puts that first bit is contentious. And, indeed, Norm Geras contends:

As one meaning for 'discipline' the New Shorter Oxford gives 'A branch of learning or scholarly instruction'; Merriam-Webster Online gives 'A field of study'. Theology as a branch of learning? As a sphere of scholarly instruction? Of study? I'd say so, yes - all three.

Fair enough, although I’m not desperately concerned about whether we do or don’t apply this one word.

Unity would clearly agree with Oliver’s sentiment:

Theology is, in intellectual terms, and certainly as an academic field of ‘study’, nothing more than a fraud…
Science is incompatible with religion, and particularly with theology. it is incompatible because science is the search for truth, knowledge and understanding while theology is a wholly sophistic exercise in bending the truth to fit in with a preconceived belief that the ‘truth’ has already been revealed, long ago.

That’s in the territory of being right, but “wholly sophistic” is too strong, methinks.

My take on this: theology is not the same sort of activity as science, history or philosophy (though, as Oliver notes, it may involve these things). The closest analogy I can think of is with a team of defence lawyers.

Theologians may debate with great erudition, impressive command of facts, sparkling insight and logical rigour – but all of these are harnessed in the service of the conclusion that is taken as given: their client’s innocence of the crime of non-existence.


Anonymous said...

Tom, I think this misunderstands the nature of theology as an academic discipline (declaration of interest: I studied theology at postgrad level, and I'm an atheist).

On your analogy with defence lawyers: I think it's simply wrong, because most theologians are not remotely engaged in the exercise of proving God's existence - either because they don't believe in it, or because that's not the point of their work (they might, for example, be academics whose field of study is the origins of the European Reformation, or the translation of 1st-century Aramaic texts, or the internal politics of the current Roman Catholic hierarchy, or death rituals across a range of religions and cultures - all plausible topics for a theologian to focus on, and none either requiring religious belief or involving arguments for it), or both. In my own case, it was both. I think you might be thinking of a small subset of theologians who are doing the rather more narrow discipline of "systematic theology" - but even they are not necessarily believers or defenders of religion, and I'd defend the systematic approach of "If we assume, following orthodox Christian doctrine, that x, y and z are true of God, then p and q must also be true" as a worthwhile philosophical enterprise in its own right as well as a very useful critical resource for atheists. It's not always easy to distinguish systematic theology from philosophy of religion. Dawkins' "The God Delusion" could fairly be characterised, I think, as at least in part a work of systematic theology - I don't mean that as a criticism at all.

To give an analogy to your analogy: an academic in an economics or politics or history department, depending on her specific field of study, might well harness her erudition, command of facts, sparkling insight and logical rigour in the services of a conclusion that is taken as given too (I can think of a few well-known right-wing and left-wing historians who do this, and whose starting point isn't the pure pursuit of truth but the assumption that the British Empire, or Communism, or whatever, were A Good Thing). I don't think that this possibility undermines the worth of economics, politics or history as academic disciplines. I actually don't think that it significantly undermines the worth of those academics either - or, at least, it doesn't stop them making a useful contribution to our understanding of whatever it is they're writing about.

Anonymous said...

The closest analogy I can think of is with all the other humanities that involve philosophy, history et al but - since they are by necessity based on subjective experience are not scientific nor compatible with science, nor involve discovering new truths, despite the efforts of nutters. You should also note that some scientists - I'm thinking of Feynman here - also regard philosophy itself, or much of it, as mere sophistry. On the other hand, Feynman also said 'I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.' - I'd say it depends on whether the nonscientific problem is the meaning of life and the next guy is a philosopher. Or even a theologian.

At any rate, arguing over the definitions isn't the important part - it's what this means even if we all accept the same definitions. That anything that is incompatible with science shouldn't be taught? That you can't be a real scientist and a theologian at the same time?

Tom Freeman said...

As I was writing that post I thought to myself ‘I bet I can tempt a comment out of Tom H by making sweeping statements about theology’…

But you’re basically right, the kind of theology I’m talking about is, for want of a better phrase, the study of God (rather than that of religion) as carried out from within the faith. And a great deal of ingenuity over the centuries has gone into elucidating what p and q might be, given x, y and z. Western philosophy has benefited greatly from the exertions of Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm et al in this enterprise – how do we construe incarnation, the trinity, redemption, the soul… The arguments and concepts that arise from this are certainly of interest to atheists.

I suppose the attitude I’m targeting for criticism is the kind of ‘I believe in order that I may understand’, where intellectual endeavours are intended to devise/discover the most coherent system of beliefs that can be built around a certain core – but where the core itself is taken as given. That’s where my analogy to building a legal case based on the client’s innocence comes in. (I don’t suggest, BTW, that such theology is done insincerely.)

And you’re also right that similar efforts take place all the time in politics.

Chris, what you say about Feynman reminds me of a philosopher’s (I forget who) description of philosophy: “I make a few distinctions, I clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.”

Anonymous said...

Yes, well, just to be clear I was not suggesting that philosophers spend all their time on weighty issues like the meaning of life, but rather that it's not true that for all non-scientific problems one person's answer is as good as another's, something which may be implied in the Feynman quote along with the truth about scientists not being great at answering non-scientific problems.