A Conversation on Theology Learning From Philosophy

Fellow blogger Kevin Davis and I recently had a stimulating conversation on the Facebook on the very broad issue of theology learning from philosophy – here’s the edited version, with my words in bold:

There’s some tentative steps being taken towards integrating some aspects of Philosophy of mind with theology, with regard to the Incarnation – how, for example would we fit in Jesus and classical two-natures christology into a contemporary understanding of mind – but right now its baby steps. Part of the problem is that PoM is a very, very technical field (and I’m definitely no expert), and the sub-fields can be even more obscure and dense. Especially once to get into the continental stuff, which is just (at times) ridiculous. Even still, granting some work towards getting theology and PoM to talk to each other, its usually not very integrative. It ends up being X theory of mind poured over Y theory of Incarnation – like chocolate syrup poured over vanilla ice cream, instead of integrating the two together or even coming up with an entirely new theory or framework.  I guess, in short, what theologians need to do is actually be able to converse with it in a way that isn’t just theological supremacism, and try to develop, in fluent conversation with PoM, a theological understanding of mind that could be set within the context of Christian doctrine.

The specialization of which you speak is really the culprit for why the two disciplines ignore each other. I had an email exchange with a philosophy of religion guy who was bashing systematic theology guys for ignoring what’s happening in philosophy. That’s a worthwhile criticism, of course, but I basically told him that until philosophy can move beyond its dozen or so impasses and give us a cohesive vision (Hegel and Kant being the last examples of this) then theologians have no compelling reason to move beyond their own confines. Even the recent resurgence of scholasticism is only a historical retrieval, by and large, and not a seriously constructive endeavor in our time.

I think part of the issue there turns on just whether or not theology, or to what extent, theology can be or should be informed by other disciplines. A philosopher of religion may want a theologian to pay attention to developments in philosophy of religion , but most theologians, almost by definition, are going to argue against that kind of interaction. Lots of contemporary Protestant theology is like that. There are exceptions, though. James KA Smith has done some work along these lines, but even he tends to just put out a ‘Christian pragmatism’, which, like I mentioned earlier, isn’t really a method to write home about. 

Are you arguing that philosophy ought to be a more Systematic endeavor than it currently is? I generally tend towards the opposite nowadays. I’m not sure if philosophy is the kind of thing that’s meant to be systematic.

Yes, I think philosophy should be more systematic and wide in scope. As such, it would be far more interesting. Yes, theologians for the last two centuries have worked hard to secure the independence of theology as a science in its own right and with its own objective ground and with its own criteria for making truth claims. So, as for whether theology should be “informed by other disciplines” I would want to know what the object and criteria are for the discipline in question. If it is linguistics, for example, it can be very useful for theology, even while theology maintains perfect fidelity to its object. I would say the same for much of science and perhaps for much of philosophy of mind.

Hm. I guess it would depend on how we mean ‘systematic’ here. If we mean a body of work that is largely consistent in theme, content, method, etc, then I agree. I’m not much for the idea of systematic philosophy in the style of systematic theology, though. I think the two have different subject matter (however this may cash out). Theology has a much more determinate set of answers, whereas in philosophy and metaphysics its a question as to whether or not determinate answers can even be had.

That’s a good point about “determinate set of answers” and, of course, the means by which those answers are given or acquired. It’s true that when it comes to metaphysics, which would surely be a fundamental feature of any systematic philosophy, the theologian has plenty of reasons to worry — especially if that theologian has any gravity toward Barth. Nonetheless, it is surely an impoverishment today that we do not have a Plato, that is, someone who can speak of the “transcendentals” of our being, even if the theologian must come along and revise the material.

To give you another example, Iris Murdoch was very influential for me in my philosophy courses at UNC-Charlotte, especially her book ‘The Sovereignty of Good’, though she is best-known for her novels. Murdoch was an atheist, but she strenuously sought for a credible account of reality. And even under Barth’s majestic spell, I am free to use Dame Iris in my theology, and Barth would approve.

I see part of the issue as being just exactly what we mean by ‘use’ or ‘revise’. Pelikan gives a good account of this kind of revising in ‘Christianity and Classical Culture’, where he examines the Capposicians use, modification and rejection of the philosophy of their day (not entirely dissimilar from what Barth did). I tend to feel that it ends up cashing out to a mostly conceptual use, which is vulnerable to charges of just being linguistic, in which case, I wonder, can we really say we are ‘using’ said ideas?

That’s an interesting question, but I don’t think it reduces to concepts or language. There is “material” in Plato or Murdoch’s concept of the Good that is retained (or, better yet, grounded) in the Christian concept. As I see it, this is what Balthasar was doing with all three divisions of his “trilogy.”

True enough. My objection is overstated. Another significant aspect is that not only does theology have necessarily determinate answers, its answers are also normative and binding in a way that metaphysics and philosophy isn’t (or perhaps even can’t be). The theological judgments of Niceae and Chalcedon are normative and determinative – a theory of the mind or a theory of substance isn’t, at least not in the same way. If it is, then we’ve simply replaced theology with philosophy.

This is the really difficult part of this whole discussion, and I don’t have a ready answer. It relates to my master’s thesis at Aberdeen, where I tried to discern Newman’s claim that dogmatic “certainty” is unique in regard to its object but similar in regard to broader epistemic certainty (e.g., “Great Britain is an island” — Newman’s example) in how the mind is settled or satisfied. Or else, how would we know it is certainty? Or how would we know what “certainty” or “knowledge” (vs. “opinion”) even means? This is still a quagmire for theologians.
A quagmire indeed. One wonders of there isn’t a bit of Cartesian-ism floating about here in the sense if being preoccupied with method (as Francesca Murphy noted in ‘God is Not a Story’).
Both Francesca and Webster — my two professors at Aberdeen — would tell me that. But I still can’t shake it. We do not need to be interested in method as a Cartesian (the self is the basis of truth) in order to be interested in method (knowledge needs subject-critical criteria). How can the object provide the method for this criteria? That’s where theologians are stumbling. Catholics have the advantage of having the church (a magisterial institution) as part of the object; Protestants do not. This is why Gnosticism or something like “radical” “actualism” is always a danger for Protestantism.
As far as contemporary theologians go, this is something that irks me – a failure to actually engage in these distinct fields (I’m not directing this at you or Murphy or Webster). There’s lots of talk about ‘radical metaphysics’, ‘evangelized metaphysics’ and the like. But no one wants to do metaphysics, or epistemology in the way that such radical-ness would require. Because most radical things end up looking suspiciously like ideas that already are common coin, they just come with a side of ‘accept it or your not in line with (my interpretation, usually Hegelian/apocalyptic, of the) Gospel. And that’s not revisionary, its just lazy.
Somebody asked a similar question recently on whether ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ is a legitimate task. I had roughly the same answer:

(1) No, because ‘evangelizing metaphysics’ = accept how I interpret the Bible or you’re an idolator, as evidenced here. Jenson is just as bad. (2) For all the talk about evangelizing metaphysics, no one actually wants to evangelize metaphysics. They want to talk about vague ‘natures’ or why ‘substance’ is the devil. If theology is to evangelize metaphysics, it needs to start by engaging with metaphysics, actual metaphysics, not what theologians think metaphysics is. This means that an evangelized metaphysics would need to be able to answer specific metaphysical questions and problems – for example, what would an ‘evangelized metaphysics’ say about Quines rejection of the a priori? Or identity theory? Or whether metaphysics is a discipline that has determinate answers? Or the ontology of abstract objects? Or problems in modal logic? Answers to these questions have to be more than standard answers with ‘God’ tacked onto them to be deserving of being called ‘evangelized metaphysics’. (3) I’ve yet to see an actual argument for why we need ‘evangelized metaphysics’ that doesn’t turn on prior assumptions that typically aren’t questioned.

I would, however, want to lay some blame on the philosophers, as I did above. You rightly say: if theologians want to “evangelize” metaphysics, they need “to start by engaging with metaphysics, actual metaphysics” — but this is where the theologian is left questioning. Whose metaphysics? (to quip on MacIntyre) Is there such a thing today? Is it coherent and worthwhile or just a flash in the pan? Does it command a following and a school of serious disciples? If philosophy is not a wasteland of reductive strategies to “unmask” power, then what is it in the academy today? There are contrary voices, of course, but the theologian finds it exceedingly difficult to hear amidst the cacophony.
That’s a good corrective. And, of course, there is no shortage of debate as to whether or not metaphysics is worthwhile. And, given dramatic changes in just what metaphysics means over the last hundred years, this makes it even more difficult. There really isn’t an easy answer.

2 thoughts on “A Conversation on Theology Learning From Philosophy

  1. Kevin Davis January 9, 2016 / 1:03 pm

    It’s a good discussion. I’m glad you blogged this, so I can refer to it or revisit it in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

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