38 thoughts on “A warning to all theologians

  1. If you think that the key entities studied in theology don’t exist, I don’t see why it’s controversial to claim that theology doesn’t produce knowledge except in the ways that the study of religion produces knowledge (tells us things about ourselves, helps us work out the implications of our concepts, etc.).

  2. The same criteria for what is capable of advancing knowledge would, presumably, elude most comparative lit. departments as well. Continental philosophy, too, need not apply. The only instances that would count are secondary sources evaluating and reevaluating the non-advancing primary literature. Peculiar dynamic, that.

  3. Of course, Jared. Having worked with physics professors I found that some of them didn’t think any other discipline but their own would lead to an advance in knowledge. Not to mention, and I quote from one professor I was close with, “whatever crazy thing the humanities departments are cooking up this week” having any effect on the sum total of the societal hive mind.

  4. I don’t like paranoia among humanities people any more than either of you do. Which is why I agree that religion departments and complit and etc. advance knowledge – they tell us primarily about their subject matter and also about what humans are like and so on.

    But, from the point of view of someone who isn’t a theist, what is the primary subject matter of theology?

  5. Bruno Latour:
    “Are you saying that the rationalist idea of epistemological ruptures is itself an archaic idea?

    Michel Serres:
    “Let me say a word on the idea of progress. We conceive of time as an irreversible line, whether interrupted or continuous, of acquisitions and inventions. We go from generalizations to discoveries, leaving behind us a trail of errors finally corrected – like a cloud of ink from a squid. ‘Whew! We’ve finally arrived at the truth.’ It can never be demonstrated whether this idea of time is true or false….
    “The hypothesis that before a given generation there was no science denies all temporality, all history. On the other hand, tradition often gives us ideas still filled with vitality.”

    (Serres/Latour, _Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time_)

  6. As Dawnkins’ argument against religion begins by defining away the inoffensive-to-him aspects of religion as “not religion,” he doesn’t advance knowledge, either. At least not in this sphere. In any event:

    If you are uncertain with whom you are speaking, just inject the name of Richard Dawkins into the conversation. The theologian will be dismissive of him; the religion researcher will not.

    This is preposterous as a criterion for smoking out theologians. I affirm, often, that Richard Dawkins is a tiresome crank, and yet, I am not a theologian.

  7. It would seem to me, an atheist, that Western European, North American, Middle Eastern, Latin American and North African civilization is primarily based upon the revelation of the Old and New Testaments and the Koran – including secularized liberal and socialist forms. By “civilization” I mean things including morality, literature, philosophy, politics, economics, culture, and the like. This presents pretty good grounds upon which to study theology. Indeed, the impact of revelation is likely greater over time than the impact of the heathen religions (sometimes called philosophy) – Greek, Roman, and Germanic. Whether revelation is true in a real sense has little bearing upon its influence. Only an idiot (e.g., Dawkins, Dennet, etc) could think it wasn’t worth studying.

  8. So theology advances knowledge qua its work as history and literature and all those other disciplines you mentioned. That seems entirely consistent to me with the account in the linked Chronicle article of how religion advances knowledge.

    But I thought Adam’s objection was that theology – as distinct from religious studies, sociology of religion etc – also produces knowledge. If you tilt towards theism at all, that claim seems reasonable. But I don’t see why any atheist should think that theology produces knowledge except via its participation in other disciplines.

  9. I should add that I’m not a big proponent of theology functioning in anything resembling disciplinary isolation. I rather think of it, like Charlie Winqust, in a Deleuzian vein, as a “minor literature” that infects and fractures a major literature (philosophy, ethics, etc.). The principle advancement, near as I can tell, has been & is its capacity and means to open these discourses beyond themselves. I do this, for example, w/ respect to art & literature; others, like Anthony, might do this by way of continental philosophy. Adam takes an even harder route, I’d say, seeks to do this by way of a theological disposition that considers itself a major literature. (After all, just as there is a sociology of Sociology, a philosophy of Philosophy, there is a theology of Theology.) The “advancement” is principally in exemplifying an ethics & praxis of thinking. That it doesn’t always do such a great job at the production of knowledge-as-object, i.e. as an object of secondary literature that itself becomes the tertiary literature’s primary literature, isn’t such a huge strike against it.

  10. I’m going to say that the premises of the argument are themselves false – education and intellectual research has (and always has) a plurality of functions, only one of which is the production of new knowledge. Physics does do this aspect quite nicely, but usually fails to do anything on the level of praxis and by trying to take this as the unitary goal of education and research we end up destroying the body by driving it to do things it cannot do.

  11. Brad: I know what an ethical question is: it has to do with what I should do. I know that a historical question has to do with whether and how something happened in the past.

    I want to know what an essentially theological question is. I thought it had to do with God or gods; seems we talked about God most of the time when I was getting my master’s degree in this subject. Assume for the sake of argument that people in other departments were quite happy to have their literatures fractured and infected by their own departmental colleagues; would we all be intellectually poorer if that were done by people studying religion within history, literature, and etc. departments? I can see how religious studies works well as a social science. But if we distribute the work of studying religion out to existing disciplines, or to its own discipline a la women’s studies, asian studies, etc, I don’t understand what would be left over that is distinctively “theological.” Theists, I think, have a really robust response to this question. But the only option I’ve heard so far for non-theists depends on the circumstances of organization and attitudes in academia, which seems like an undesirable fallback position for theologians to be in.

  12. Anthony: Right now I just want to know whether or not theology advances knowledge in ways not already covered by religious studies. If you think that theology only advances praxis, then I guess we are in agreement on the point I’m asking about.

  13. I don’t think it only advances praxis though, I was only saying that to name an example of something that education is also there for. What I’m not liking about your questioning is the assumption that theology is necessarily theistic and dogmatic. There are many people who consider themselves theologians who don’t advance dogmatic theology. I think that the methods of theology allow us to uncover what is unconscious and in many ways not human (meaning it isn’t just some kind of thing that we do and once we know we do it we can control it) that determines the way we live our lives. The highest in thought or what have you. I’m not really interested in divorcing theological studies from religious studies (if by that you mean anthropology of religion, sociology of religion, etc as well as other forms of knowledge that aren’t positivist, so literary studies and philosophy of religion) and think it is really wrong headed to posit some hard distinctions between religious studies and theology. I’m in a department that calls itself both and don’t have a problem with either as such.

  14. Even the supposedly distinctive concern of talk about God is covered in philosophy — not so much nowadays, but certainly throughout much of the modern tradition. It’s really not clear to me how a theist as such has a robust answer to the question you’re getting at, as thier concern is or can be taken care of easily elsewhere.

    I view theology as an inherently interdisciplinary discipline. When you’re doing theology, you’re doing history, you’re doing philology, you’re doing philosophy, you’re doing a lot of things — and you never leave off doing those things in order to “only” do theology. And because of that, the entire characterization of theology as being about some made-up person in heaven is extremely limited. Theology is not a discipline where you sit down in a room by yourself and make shit up. It’s a style of thought that draws on a lot of materials that are every bit as empirical as any other humanistic discipline. And theology says a lot of things about humanity and the world, things that you can find convincing or helpful without “believing in God.”

    You may want theology to be able to put itself forward as a clearly-defined discipline with a clear object of study, but I’m in theology because it doesn’t and can’t. If you manage to pare theology down to a solid “mono-disciplinary” core, it’s no longer theology.

  15. Eek, I too am often dismissive of Dawkins.

    Obviously theology (and things like comp lit, philosophy, etc) advance knowledge. But, I think it is also absurd to think the purpose of these different types of work is to advance knowledge of a discrete epistemological object. When I do philosophy, I might also advance knowledge. But the task I undertake is to produce thought capable of responding to the present situation. As Bill Haver always paraphrases Spinoza, “We do not yet know what thinking can do.”

  16. The theist response I had in mind would be that a religious studies approach excludes dogmatic and systematic theology, which seem like special, separate, and important things to be doing if you think there’s a god. I don’t know how that work could be done elsewhere, or who would do it.

    I take your and everyone else’s methodological point. And there’s something really valuable about an interdisciplinary approach to inquiry; it’s difficult to do, and even harder to do well.

    But I’m wondering whether, even for a non-theist, there is more to theology than just this methodological feature.

    I take the “mysterious transcendence” route to be a non-starter, since anyone willing to accept spiritual or otherworldly somethings might as well be a theist at no added cost.

    You say that theology does not have a clear object of study – but I take the “things about humanity and the world” you and others have referred to to be pretty clear objects of study. They’re studied well by scholars of “religion,” using the religion/theology distinction of that article, where I guess religion is like any other social science.

    So is theology then “religious studies + more interdisciplinarity”?

  17. The idea that comp. lit studies words on paper strikes me as implausibly reductionistic. To do comp. lit well you have to be, in a strong sense, immersed in the texts, letting them guide your inquiries. A detached view of a novel just isn’t a view of the novel, it’s a view of a certain sort of dead tree mass. Which is something, but it’s not what anyone would consider study of literature.

    I’m guessing a similar intuition backs a lot of hostility to the idea that theology must only study “the sum total of the words in the text” and so theology must be redundant with philology if it’s anything at all.

    This isn’t even getting into the preposterous idea that theologians are obligated to ritually denounce the possibility of enlightenment, or of divine revelation, or of the existence of the gods of any sectarian religion, but that this doesn’t constitute “telling theologians how to do theology”, or that somehow this is compatible with some fanciful notion of what theology does if it teaches “that a god exists”. Noll just declares a priori that all sectarianism and religiousness is error, and that all must recognize it as The Fact and submit to it if they are to be allowed ethically to do whatever it is they do.

  18. Why, if one accepts something like a spiritual reality (though figuring out what that might mean in a way that accepts it as something real and yet not mysterious transcendence is one of the ways I understand theology), are they essentially a theist at no added cost?

  19. Anthony’s question speaks to something important. Resisting this idea that theism is a natural outgrowth of a “spiritual” reality is precisely the thing that unites most of my otherwise very different theological peers.

  20. Jared: But I thought Adam’s objection was that theology – as distinct from religious studies, sociology of religion etc – also produces knowledge… I don’t see why any atheist should think that theology produces knowledge except via its participation in other disciplines.

    Would it be correct to interpret this as a claim that a discipline doesn’t produce knowledge unless it studies objects with a mind-independent existence? That seems to be the claim of the author of that article, but it’s a complete non-starter; I would mean that, for instance, whether or not you think mathematics produces knowledge depends on whether you’re a Platonist or not.

  21. Noll is actually doing theology himself, if you didn’t notice — he’s claiming that no specific religious tradition can adequately speak to the divine, and he lays down rules that theologians of particular traditions must do their work in light of this fact. What such a claim has to do with religious studies conceived as a social science is beyond me. I was also baffled by his apparent claim that humanistic religious studies could better serve religious communities than their own theologians do — again, he’s taking on the role of the theologians while totally dismissing actual-existing theologians as belonging to a knowledge-free zone. I’m not really convinced that the people in the pews are clamoring for reductionistic accounts of what their practices mean or achieve.

  22. My objection wasn’t necessarily to the claim that theologians don’t contribute to “knowledge” — as he defines “knowledge,” it seems clear they don’t. My main annoyance, expressed in the post, was with his claim to have the utmost respect for theologians and to see the value of their work, while simultaneously dismissing their work as unrespectable and completely valueless.

  23. Anthony & Brad: From a physicalist or materialist perspective, I take it that if one is willing to posit something supernatural to explain worldly phenomena, it doesn’t matter so much whether that something is God or fairies or The Deep.

    voyou: I wouldn’t interpret the claim that way at all. I don’t know if there are mathematical entities, and I really doubt there are ethical ones, but I think both mathematics and ethics have pretty specific topics they’re trying to address.

    Adam: Your objections to that article all seem fair to me.

  24. But not “matter”? Again though, it seems to me you’ve already accepted some kind of account of the world in a largely settled way such that all your terms are already decided. For instance I think one can talk about something like fairies or the deep without lapsing into supernaturalist incoherence ( I think Bergson’s and Whitehead’s philosophies of religion is interesting in this way). Yet I get the impression you would want to hold us to accounts of the universe for which there exist credible critiques in a way that doesn’t allow for much in the way of creative work. This to me seems theological in the bad sense.

  25. I did say “from a materialist perspective,” which I realize probably isn’t the majority view here. If someone tells me that there are fairies, and they aren’t being poetic or metaphorical or something, that sure sounds supernatural to me.

    I don’t understand the second part of your comment.

  26. It seems to me both that Jared’s right to point out that a theologian might see theology’s distiction from ‘religious studies’ as including the unique work done by systematics or ‘dogmatic’ theology, and that Anthony’s right to question Jared’s way of putting this uniqueness in terms of reality construed as ‘theist’ or ‘materialist’.
    As one who attempts to do theology (and attempts to do so from within a ‘religious’ tradition), I have very little invested in ‘theism’ yet much by way of maintaining an operative doctrine of ‘revelation’. This doesn’t mean the work I’m doing is private as opposed to public (that would require a discussion on the nature of revelation). I take part of Anthony’s resistance to Jared’s theist/materialist dichotomy to be that ‘philosophy’ itself has often hinged on the openness to or question of this possibility of revelation. It seems to me that attending seriously to that question, or believing it to be a given, is only ‘supernaturalism’ or ‘theism’ against the backdrop of some kind of modern scientific rationalism.

    ‘On the one hand, there’s the gradual disappearnace of the great authors – those whose ancient culture refers to the archaic age of poetry, which no one needs. On the other hand, scientists, as the only “contemporaries,” speak the truth about the world or the brain, math or physics. Since you know the U.S. well, you know with what delight it consigns Europe to Pompeii or the era of great cathedrals. It’s an excellent way of saying, “Today we are advancing while you are in charge of the museuems.” History lends a certain impression of reality to self-promotion.’ (Serres/Latour, Conversations)

  27. Why? Take away the “God thing,” and theology is a way of working in between philosophy, literary interpretation, and history. Religious studies as Noll is discussing it might do all those things, but also with a social scientific element that seems to me to be completely absent in comp lit — meaning comp lit is actually more analogous to theology on the level of method.

  28. Although — duh! — as someone who’s about to teach a class on liberation theology, I should’ve been more immediately conscious of the fact that there is also often a social scientific angle in theology as well.

  29. But why take away the ‘god’ thing? Comp lit does just that – compares literature. The objects of study are fictional worlds created by authors. One delves into the real world philosophical, social, and historical circumstances of the author, but only to enlighten the reading of the fictional text, and allow comparison between other literary creations. The comp lit professor perhaps offers knowledge in the form of a model for interpreting said literary artefact, and this seems (to me) closer to what the religious studies professor does, insofar as the religion researcher takes the biblical texts to be creative, literary artefacts, and goes about explaining their provenance by bracketing or denying the author’s own explanation of the text’s provenance. Comp lit is analogous to religion research because both approach their objects of study as creative fictions.

    The theologian on the other hand, offers as knowledge an interpretive model for empirical facts –say, immaterial nature of mental qualia, absolute contingency of physical world, resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, etc. In this sense, the formal procedure of comp lit is perhaps similar to the theologian (and this is what I took to be the point of the person who first mentioned comp lit as a form of knowledge not similar to that of physical science), but only in the same trivial sense in which religion research is similar to theology – and that is just what Noll takes issue with. Theology however, at least attempts to form models of knowledge that cohere with really existing states of affairs.

    That’s my two cents. I could waffle on for longer but I’ll leave it there. Thanks for posting the article; it got me thinking.

  30. I suppose that my mental image of comp lit includes a much greater emphasis on theory than what you’re describing here. And certain forms of theory are pretty closely analogous to Christian theology, insofar as they are based on the meaning of certain historical events — Marxism being the most obvious example.

    It may seem tendentious or faith-based to claim that theology responds to history, but I really don’t think it is. You can dispute that Jesus was “raised from the dead” (it’s unclear even to theologians what such a thing would mean or whether it’s a properly “historical” event), but I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that it’s easier to assume that there was an actual guy named Jesus of Nazareth whose life followed the broad outlines of the gospels (ministry among the poor and oppressed, ending in crucifixion) — and it’s certainly hard to dispute that the fact that his followers thought he had been “resurrected” led to some pretty remarkable actions and consequences. And of course, the history of Jesus and his followers is part of the history of the people of Israel. Interpreting all this theologically does not exclude historical criticism — since the rise of historical-critical methods, they have consistently been incorporated into the best of theology. So you don’t have to stake everything on Moses being a real historical person or whatever, or the flood actually taking place. In fact, I think it would be stupid to do so. Fundamentalists disagree with me, but by and large, theologians are not fundamentalists.

  31. I’m not entirely sure what has prompted the remarks about Moses etc, but I am of course in agreement that a theologian must deal with historical events.

    Obviously this thread could run and run, but my basic point was that there is a sense in which Noll is correct. Theologians aren’t searching for new data in the way that, say, paleontologists are. They already have their fundamental data, their ‘depositum fidei’. What theology is in search of is intellectum, understanding of that data.

    This is the sense in which I think Noll is wrong – theology does offer new knowledge but it consists of interpretive models (in a way somewhat similar to modern physics). I suppose I’m thinking of Pannenberg as the theologian exemplar. And in this sense, I think it does require one to believe in ‘god’ if one is to offer a model of reality in which God’s existence is a constitutive datum.

  32. I wasn’t responding directly to you with the Moses remarks — just trying to clarify that the history to which theology responds doesn’t have to be a made-up history (as Noll seems to be implying). Anticipating an objection.

  33. What’s your working definition of ‘knowledge’? If you define knowledge as that which is empirically provable then fine, theology doesn’t advance knowledge. Yet you need to justify that decision. As soon as you accept a more human and less restricted definition of knowledge, theology gets included.

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