Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What is theology? A little bit Into the thicket

I'm still circling around the attempt to define theology, or at least to do so for the purposes of this blog.  I'm finding this to be a lot harder to do than I realized at first.   
(Please bear with me, and keep in mind that a lot of what follows is written a little bit from the hip.  This is a blog post, not a journal article.  This is not even one of those blog entries that's a rough draft for a published article.  It's more like a personal journal entry with a few incomplete footnotes.)
In the previous post, I suggest the general definition of theology as "reasoned(?) discourse about God."  Now, on the face of it, this would seem to imply that theology is an attempt to bring some coherent expression to some kind of knowledge.  After all, most of the "ologies" in our lives purport to advance some body of knowledge (so anthropology, for example, discusses the development of human culture -- presumably, as it actually unfolded in time and space).
Given that, what I'm about to say seem pretty peculiar, perhaps even shocking to anyone who hasn't read a bit of modern theology:  A number of modern religious thinkers, including some of the most influential ones, have held that the discipline of theology has nothing to do with "knowledge" about God whatsoever -- or, at least, nothing related to any kind of direct knowledge of God.  In fact, in my view, that's more or less the position of the most influential Protestant thinker in modern history, the German Reformed pastor and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834).  (I'm not an expert on Schleiermacher, and his project is way too complex for me to enter into here, but this is the way I read the opening section of The Christian Faith, published in 1830).  According to such thinkers, theology does not involve knowledge of God because God in Godself is unknowable.  There are a number of interesting variations on this view, but what I would say, in general, is that any thinker who works along these lines faces some formidable challenge in defining what theology means at all.  Some fairly creative definitions of theology have resulted from this basic stance.  Creative can be either good or not so good.
Theologians who dispute this view -- that theology does not deal with knowledge of God -- put forward the counter claim that we in fact can know something of God because God has (in some way) revealed Godself and perhaps continues to do so in the present.  Thus the attempt to answer the Schleiermacher type of reproach typically comes in the form of a doctrine of revelation.
The debates that ensue from these two basic approaches to theology have been extremely contentious and have roiled theologians in the church and academy for more than 200 years.  Understandably, a number of Christian thinkers have become exasperated with the burden of this debate and have decided, as a matter of principle, not to take on this issue too directly in their own work.  They would prefer to focus on the content of Christian theology itself -- and especially on the practical significance of this content for the lives of believers and for the world today -- rather than the endless debate over how we can know and say anything about God at all.  (See, for example, the article by my former teacher and advisor Prof. Kathryn Tanner.  You can read it here, but you'll have to pay for it: www.christiancentury.org/contributor/kathryn-tanner).
Modern debates about theology are pretty intricate.  For my own part, though, I would say (a bit simplistically, no doubt), that the notion of "theology" concerns actual knowledge of God in some form.  It would seem to follow, then, that this discipline also needs to give some sort of account of this knowledge:  What are the sources of this knowledge?  How do we organize and draw conclusions from this material?  By what criteria?  And to what end?  These are the kinds of questions with which theology has to wrestle.
*   *   *
There is a another basic approach to frame the nature of theology that has some resonance today, and it seems to go to the opposite end of the spectrum from the approach I associated with Schleiermacher.  To unpack this, let's go back to my earlier definition and modify it like this:  Theology is (reasoned) discourse about God -- and about all related matters.  Now this parenthetical comment about "all related matters" complicates the picture a bit, for what matter would be unrelated to the question of God's reality if, as Christians and many others presume, God is the Creator of everything that exists, even of the very possibility of existence itself?
In recent years, there has emerged an attempt to reaffirm theology as a field that relates not only to a special type of knowledge but, somehow, to all human knowledge whatsoever.  Sometimes this commitment comes through in a somewhat wistful desire to re-enthrone theology as the "queen of the sciences", meaning that theological claims would have a direct impact on everything else we might say about the world.  So, for example, there would be a specifically Christian approach to the disciplines of history or sociology.  Karl Barth once wrote, “[T]heology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors" (early in his Church Dogmatics, vol. I:1, though I don't have the exact page citation).  The thinkers I'm discussing now would probably take issue with Barth's claim.  This kind of approach is articulated forcefully among thinkers in the "Radical Orthodoxy" movement, whose most famous representative (probably) is the English theologian John Milbank.  In his monumental book Theology and Social Theory, Milbank argues, essentially, that modern social and political science, theory and ethics have been corrupted by underlying secularist presuppositions.  He proposes to radically reframe these disciplines with basic Christian claims about human life and society at the center. The approach is bold and fascinating.
I think Milbank is probably going to far, and I would probably be more in sympathy with Barth's more humble definition of theology.  But I'm not really going to say anything more about Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy here, because this is not really what this blog is going to be about anyway.


  1. Scott, thank you for this update on theology. As you know, I subscribe to the doctrine of revelation. Either one does so or tosses out the Bible altogether.

    Also, I believe that it matters very much what we believe, not only for this life but for the 'next'
    as we understand it.

    And of course as you know also, I don't think we have to know all about God to know God.

    If I can figure out how to subscribe, then I will do so!

  2. Thanks Pat. I'm still a novice with the techie side of this blogging thing.

    I believe in revelation, too, and think it's a necessary category for Christianity to make any sense at all. (And when I say so, sometimes it gets me into trouble). How to articulate that confessional commitment is what I'm still trying to work out.