Theologians and Philosophers at Play

... by which I mean, at work in each other's bailiwicks. "Play" in the Heideggerian sense; "games" in the Wittgensteinian sense. What am I talking about? "Analytic Theology." David just posted about Notre Dame's Templeton fellowships and grants under the Analytic Theology Project. Which reminds me just how much I like that particular playground. And yet how oddly I fit into the usual games there.

I've taken to calling myself a "theological diagnostician." Basically for two reasons: I find the description apt to what I do, and it's just unusual enough to be a conversation opener. What I mean is that I use a form of analytic theology within the framework of theological dogmatics. But I keep discovering the ways that this does not make me into an analytic theologian -- because I do not actually do analytic theology. I do theology. But the distinction isn't intuitive -- those two statements suggest that I must therefore do some non-analytic form of theology.

It seems obvious that "analytic theology" means one of a few possible things. Theologians playing theological games with the tools of analytic philosophy. Philosophers playing theological games with the tools of analytic philosophy. Theologians playing analytic philosophical games with the tools of theology. And, it seems to me far more rarely, philosophers playing analytic philosophical games with the tools of theology. Because another two options are perfectly normal: analytic philosophy is philosophers playing their own games with their own tools, and systematic theology is theologians playing their own games with their own tools. And the remaining two are simply theologians enlisting as philosophers and philosophers enlisting as theologians.

In other words, "analytic theology" seems like it should always be some form of interdisciplinary work. The questions for the discipline are therefore: who is doing it, under the auspices of what discipline, and with what equipment? And the real, evaluative question is: with what qualifications of proficiency?

Whenever I come into contact with modern "atheism," it is inevitably the bastard offspring of analytic theology. Which is to say that it derives from a particular game in analytic philosophy of religion played against a particular form of orthodox Christian theology. But most of the time it hasn't met these parents, or looked very closely at them. And it is likewise ignorant of the cousins of both parents, and their wider families. And even apart from its rage at those it takes to be its parents -- the church in some present and historical form -- it is not a healthy child. It does not know who it truly is.

Which is to say that analytic theology, whichever of the four categories it falls into, is something else. It knows that it is playing in a space between two well-established games with long and diverse histories. William Abraham's keynote from this last LOGOS conference at Notre Dame pushes this point. And I think he's saying nothing that good theologians don't already know -- the speech seems to aim at the good philosophers who aim to play theological games on philosophical grounds.

Yes, that is the "no true Scotsman" defense. Yes, I mean it prescriptively. We can't do theology today without some level of philosophical rigor about how we know what we know, and how we structure what it is we say. (Even if, as Barthians, we subvert the tools of philosophy to properly theological causes and ends.) And we can't do analytic philosophy of religion, vis-a-vis Christianity, without some level of theological and exegetical and practical and historical rigor about the genuine nature and function of that religion. And we must stay reasonably current in both fields!

But it is my experience that, however much I may do analytic theology from "my" discipline with "their" tools, I do it as analytic theology, and never as analytic philosophy of religion. That is, there seems to be a qualitative difference between my use of philosophy of religion for the sake of theology, and a philosopher's performance of the same nominal task. What makes me a theologian is precisely what makes someone else a philosopher: the games we play, whatever the pieces and players in them. Abraham suggests that philosophers of religion are finding themselves drawn into the theology field, as though by irresistible compulsion to fix the problems with theological business-as-usual. And if that's the case, they should be finding quite a number of theologians on precisely the same mission, with very similar analytical tools! But in that case the game should be theology -- should it not?

The difference between us, as I began to realize in dealing with actualist ontology, has a great deal to do with something Quine pointed out: not the tools, or the subjects, but the systems of presuppositions and goals. The difference is metaphysics; the difference is in worldviews. As Abraham cites from Michael Rea's account, “As I see it, analytic theology is just the activity of approaching theological topics with the ambitions of an analytic philosopher and in style that conforms to the prescriptions that are distinctive of analytic discourse.” (emphasis mine) In other words, analytic theology is a subdiscipline of analytic philosophy of religion, performed within its games and with its tools, acting upon the propositions of Christian religion. It is none of the four interdisciplinary options at all! It is the reception and analysis of the product of one discipline wholly under the auspices of another, absent the presuppositions and goals of the originating discipline. And as Abraham goes on, he describes how the theologian takes a "back seat" from the very beginning of Rea's account of analytic theology.

Now, Abraham goes about finding problems with this, and the problems are properly metaphysical. That is, they are problems with Rea's choice of presuppositions -- if not his goals. Let us pick, he suggests, a better school of analytic philosophy. Better in what respect? As I watch him compare the Plantinga "Reformed Epistemology" line with his preferred Oxbridge school, this theologian hears one thing very clearly: the differences have more to do with faithfulness to the "originating discipline," theology as a Christian and autonomous tradition. The concern is that the analytic philosopher of religion who works on theology should engage the whole concern of theology, and not merely isolated topics. Covering and doing justice to the entire gamut of structured theological material. And yet: "Within analytic theology, it is crucial that we not just permit but that we aggressively cultivate the full range of resources, skills, and dispositions that have emerged within analytic philosophy and the competing canons of excellence that it has produced." (emphasis mine)

He has a solid point, within his own terms as a philosopher: doing science requires a solid grasp of one's object as it actually is, in its own existence. But I can't help but see that Abraham's improvements in what he calls "analytic theology" merely improve the discipline's ability to perform autopsies and dissections. It remains analytic biology, and not diagnostic medicine. I still do not see in what way it earns the title "theology" as a discipline. "Theological philosophy," perhaps. "Analytic philosophy of theology." And yet it is a discipline that is so close, in practice, to playing our games, and not just using our boards and pieces under its own rules.

Abraham pushes it that much closer to this possibility of being theology. It becomes that much more useful to me as a theologian, if it does what Abraham proposes that it should. But I remain an improper "analytic theologian" by the measures so established. I do dogmatics. I work for the sake of the life of the church. My metaphysical constraints are those of a self-aware, believing practitioner of religion, operating within the religion. I aim for that reason to be a diagnostic theologian. And while I am a journeyman at the task, I call myself a theological diagnostician. A user of philosophical analysis of religion, and all sorts of other analyses. But I use those tools to play theology.

I don't mean to say that no analytic theologians are believing practitioners of religion -- that would be patently false. Nor do I mean to suggest that no analytic theologians are actually doing theology -- because they do seem to be trying. What I do mean to suggest is that the discipline that calls itself "analytic theology" has not yet reached a point where it can be considered as a proper subdiscipline of theology. It remains poorly-named, declaring the wrong constitutive noun to go with its methodological adjective. It is not, as it might first appear, a discipline officially populated by theologians -- we are merely squatters on philosophical land. It remains, for those reasons, a disappointment to me, no matter how interesting a game it actually is. An entertaining vacation, but never home.

[Ed. note: Bill Abraham's speech is down, so the link returns a 404. I'll see what I can do about that -- I have a copy. Sadly, the rest of the papers are also down.]


  1. Jesus of course was not in any sense a theologian.

    Nor is the Bible a theological text.

    As is the case with all of the Sacred Texts/Scriptures of the entire Great Tradition of humankind. Which is also to say that none of these Texts were written by theologians too.

    So what are theologians really doing?

    They are making second hand commentaries on sources of profound Wisdom. More often than not their speculations and opinions are "informed" by the same second hand opinions and speculations of other theologians - and for many generations now.

    Of course none of these theologians ever met Jesus up close and personal in a living-breathing-feeling human form to receive his personal detailed instructions about the nature of the Kingdom of God and how to live Right Life in a fully comprehensive way.

  2. Believe it or not, that wasn't the least-relevant comment I've seen today. You're mistaken, of course.

    Who was Jesus? He had no need to be a theologian, because he had no need to speculate. And yet he trusted in the Father precisely because being God he knew the one who received his trust.

    But the Bible is a theological text, in the most basic sense. In every one of its texts, it witnesses to the faithfulness of God, and tries to reason out why the world is the way it is. It tries to understand life, the world and all things because of God. Because it trusts in God as the surest reality.

    Every text of scripture -- and I will speak of no scriptures but my own, as a Christian -- is written by a human being who sees and trusts in God, and therefore must deal with everything else on that ground.

    What are theologians doing? They rely on the witness of faith. But not as though God were absent! We rely on the witness of those who trusted in God before us, who experienced God acting for them in the midst of the world. And we who share their trust look for God's actions today, and find them by faith, and speak out of that faith.

    And if you think Jesus wrote a manual for perfect living, you haven't read the parables very well.


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