Part 1: Theology and Progress
The Orientation of Theology
Theology is the study of God and of all things in relation to God. As such, theology represents both a particular subject matter and a way of approaching reality as a whole. This theological approach can be summarized in three core assumptions about the world:
- That in God, all things hold together, and can therefore be investigated with courage and tenacity.
- That humans and all created things have dignity, and can therefore be approached with humility and empathy.
- That creation is not yet finished, and can therefore be engaged with openness and creativity.
Theology is, in other words, committed to realism, to inquiry, and to a refusal to set the scope of discovery any narrower than God and all things in relation to God. These commitments create the space and enable the virtues that are necessary for progress through discovery: through what Sir John Templeton calls ‘revelation’. As he puts it in The Humble Approach: ‘While God does not need the universe to be God, the universe may need to be unceasingly supported and enfolded in His presence and power to be what it is. Maybe it can only exist in and through God. The excitement and importance of scientific study of nature and the cosmos are enhanced (not reduced) if we conceive of each discovery as a new revelation of a reality deriving from and grounded in God.’[i]
The theological approach is oriented towards revelation in this sense of the progressive discovery of a reality grounded in God. At the same time, it leaves open the question by what methods such discovery is best achieved. Theology is methodologically pluralistic: It embraces whatever means best serve the study of God and all things in relation to God. Theologians work with and as historians, linguists, psychologists, artists, and scientists to understand their objects of enquiry.
For theologians, in other words, there are no walls within which they safely pursue strictly delimited work. Rather, because theology relates people and fields to each other, it is responsive to their questions, discoveries, and challenges. In seeking to understand not just one narrow subject matter but a shared whole, theology is always accountable for its understanding of the world which it seeks to illuminate. And such understanding can only be achieved by open, critical and constructive conversation with people from a range of disciplines and backgrounds. One such key discipline is philosophy.
Engagement with Philosophy as a Driver of Progress
The endeavour to advance theology through critical dialogue with philosophical sources and methods is called ‘philosophical theology’. Throughout Christian history, philosophical theology in this sense has been an important driver of theological progress. In the early church, philosophical concepts such as participation and personhood became tools of discovery, allowing Christian thought to expand from recapitulation of biblical witness to defensible hypotheses about divine reality. In the Middle Ages, Aristotelian physics and metaphysics enabled theologians to formulate a unified understanding of physical and intellectual realities in their relationship to God and each other. In early modernity, rigorous investigations of the roles of reason, authority, and empirical investigation challenged an unwarranted reliance on unexamined sources of belief.
Such philosophical theology did not and should not aim to incorporate philosophy in its entirety, or to adopt its theories uncritically. It did and should focus on approaches, methods, concepts and discoveries relevant to theological discovery, engaging them critically with the aim of mutual challenge, correction and advance. In the twentieth century, this task has been complicated by the aftermath of the crisis experienced by philosophy in the 1910’s and 1920’s. The perceived complicity of Idealism and other dominant forms of nineteenth-century philosophy in the catastrophe of the First World War led both philosophers and theologians to seek radical repristination. In philosophy, opposing strategies split the discipline into analytic (Anglo-American) and continental (European) streams, which tried to reconstitute philosophy on logical analysis and on rigorously observed experience, respectively.[ii] In theology, leading thinkers repudiated philosophy altogether in the face of a radically alien God. All these discourses shared a profound scepticism of metaphysics, which muted philosophical theology (at least in Protestant circles) in the early and mid-twentieth century.
By the later twentieth century, however, both analytic and continental philosophers began once more to take seriously the possibility that religious and metaphysical questions might arise naturally from philosophical practices, rather than being effectively bracketed by them. This renewed openness to spiritual questions prompted turns towards religion in both fields, led by Richard Swinburne (*1934) and Alvin Plantinga (*1932) in analytic and by Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005), and Jean-Luc Marion (*1946) in continental philosophy.
In the early twenty-first century, a number of theologians and Christian philosophers, including Michael Murray, Michael Rea, and Oliver Crisp made a strong case for analytic philosophy as a particularly useful method for theological discovery, because of its commitment to epistemological realism and methodological clarity, rigour, and transparency. This advocacy has resulted in the emergence of analytic theology as a fruitful and influential strand of philosophical theology. This paper argues that alongside analytic philosophy, continental philosophy is also needed to fulfil theology’s capacity for progress, and to allow philosophical theology to breathe with both lungs.
[i] Sir John Templeton, The Humble Approach (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 1995), 21.
[ii] For a recent discussion of the distinction between analytic and continental philosophy, the features of respective traditions, and the possibility of facilitating conversations between them, see Dan Zahavi, ‘Analytic and Continental Philosophy: From Duality Through Plurality to (Some Kind of) Unity’, in Sonja Rinofner-Kreidl and Harald A. Wiltsche (eds.), Analytical and Continental Philosophy: Methods and Perspectives (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 80–93.