Models of Theological Discourse

As part of a project I’m currently working on, I’ve been thinking through the various presently-existing models for thinking about theological (or more ambiguously religious) discourse.  Specifically, what I have in mind here are ways in which theological discourse is positioned with regard to philosophy.  There are, as far as I can imagine, four models:

(1) Philosophy as condition of possibility for theology.  Here I have in mind the approaches of figures such as Heidegger (especially in his “Phenomenology and Theology” essay) or Bergson.  Theological or religious discourse is admitted, but only when it is understood that that such discourse is a specific borrowing or deployment of a more fundamental and generic mode of thought that is properly philosophical.

(2) The cultural-linguistic model.  The common assumption, following in a Wittgensteinian vein, would be that there is a basic incommensurability between various cultures and their respective discourses.  Theology, in its particularity, is thus granted a specific autonomy that does not need to pass through more generic conditions of possibility or thinkability.  Exemplars would include Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Barth (and his followers).

(3) Postmodern Thomism.  Shares with (1) the desire to speak generically—i.e. at the level of the ontological or whatever, but also shares with (2) the desire to make theological discourse primary.  This is accomplished, of course, by claiming that it is only (or it is preeminently) with theology that one finds the proper means of thinking being.  Milbank, of course, is the one who has pursued this project most extensively.

(4) Theology as unthought remainder.  This model is distinctive in its unwillingness to position theological discourse at the level of the generic or the particular (or some combination thereof).  It might be best to say that theology functions as a coefficient that enables a paraphilosophical discourse.  Only by encountering theological discourse more seriously does it become possible for philosophy to fulfill its innovative tasks, which have been hampered by a premature jettisoning or overcoming of such discourse.  While their operations are singular, this model is common to Agamben, Žižek, and Derrida.

What do you think?

33 thoughts on “Models of Theological Discourse

  1. Does it count as “making theological discourse primary” as in #3 to say (with #1) that theology is essentially a philosophical discipline—or that at a structural level the two disciplines are no different—but that in the former, a unique set of sources (canonical texts, certain stories and doctrines, etc.) provide a determining point of departure for philosophical reflection? I’m thinking right now of some 20th-century Catholic theology—Rahner especially—which sounds very much like the “postmodern Thomism” you identify, but definitely doesn’t mean the same thing by “making theology primary” as Milbank does.

  2. My instinct would be to class what you’re talking about with #3, as what is distinctive in #3 is the form or method, rather than any predicates attached to Milbank’s work specifically. The reason I’d put this at #3 is the insistence that theology and philosophy are the same thing, or convergent, or whatever. Whereas with #1 there’s a strict delineation between properly philosophical thought and thought that belongs to theology or religious sources even. In other words with #1, what you’re talking about would look like an attempt to move from the conditioned to the condition, which would not be possible.

    But I may be very crude here — feel free to press me on this, or better inform me, as it has been awhile since I’ve read anything by Rahner.

  3. It seems pretty comprehensive. Charles Winquist (following Deleuze & Guatarri) develops an understanding of theology as a minor literature in his work Desiring Theology that would fall quite nicely into model #4.

  4. I am quite struck by these categories and agree at first glance that they seem exhaustive; I also agree with you on the patristics. But of course the question arises, as soon as you mention Derrida– where are the margins of this schema and what might be getting lost there? No immediate guesses on my part, but I’m curious as to whether you see any figures who are problematically situated between your options, as hybrids of a sort? Where do you see, e.g., Altizer? Goodchild? Or, to be more willful, William Blake? (These three are just off the top of my head examples, I don’t claim that they are especially problematic.).

  5. It’s true there’s something a bit stylized about this schema, as my goal in presenting it is to go beyond it. Nonetheless I do think it’s fairly representative. So Goodchild, for sure (Altizer it’s harder to say), I see as not being adequately expressed in it, which indicates for me the innovative nature of his work. This is as opposed to those who might just be combinations of my models — for instance Marion I don’t think fits into just one of these, but i think you could get at his work by adding some of them together.

    What’s necessary, for me, is to get beyond them, and I have my own thoughts about how to do that, but Goodchild, or Winquist as described by Jeremy, are finding ways to get outside the limits of these models, especially by rethinking the boundaries of philosophical and theological discourse (i.e. what all of these dominant models share is a definition of what counts as philosophy and what counts as theology).

    Not sure about the direction of the question on Derrida, I may be getting a bit obtuse — what do you think might be getting lost?

  6. I think that what the problematic figures mentioned share in particular is an approach to philosophy & theology that is mediated by (at least) a third term: say, economy (Goodchild) or literature (Altizer). What results is a kind of tentative triangulation that gradually gains additional dimensions, connections, and planes on which thinking occurs. This isn’t to suggest that one needs to privilege some third term, or piggyback theology/philosophy. It is, I suppose, something more subtle or experimentally fragile than that. In work such as theirs, there is more a dynamic that the connections created by (at least) a third facilitates an evolutionarily unbalanced & adaptive give-and-take that a duality often seems to resist.

  7. Just as an aside from the main question, I don’t think Barth fits neatly under #2. Partly because he doesn’t have a consistent definition of what counts as philosophy and what counts as theology. But also because most constructive theologians today, for whom Barth is a serious dialogue partner, have a more complex concept of revelation (and thus the perception of ‘truth’) than a Lindbeck-Hauerwas style ecclesiocentrism gives you.

    This may mean he gets moved or combined with other styles, or make no difference at all to your types; I just thought I’d flag up that Barth does not seem to have a coherent “position” on philosophy. (I learned the former from Ken Oakes, whose dissertation was on the topic.)

  8. Laruelle’s schema might be helpful in terms of understanding the “liminal” figures like Goodchild and Altizer. For him the relationship between the two believes itself to be following a schema, we can say one of these four, but this is a pure faith. The reality is that both are relative to the Real and so our discourse about them has to be recognize that relative autonomy which is a kind of equivalence as “material for thought”. Making them speak equivocally in this way allows them to retain their identity, but doesn’t allow what we produce from them to follow their same belief in self-sufficiency, as those productions must always be revisable and and answerable to the Real.

    I’m not sure that Barth has a coherent position on anything, he, like Socrates, shifts whatever is being said so that it beats the implied adversary leading to a whole host of contradictions and confusions.

  9. This typology is completely off-base regarding Barth. The notion that Barth has a “cultural-linguistic” model of theology is a falsehood perpetrated by the postliberals. Barth neither makes philosophy the starting-point for theological inquiry, nor makes theology a separate semiotic world free from any external perspective. He belongs to none of these categories. And, for what it’s worth, I believe wherever Barth falls, Bultmann belongs there as well. He is not part of your first type.

  10. Brad, thanks for the comment. My tendency would be to say that with Goodchild, Altizer, etc, there is something “unthought”, that this is the key, and that maybe this sometimes emerges as a topos of economics, literature, etc, but that properly speaking it is unthought — maybe this loses something, is too indeterminate?

    Ricoeur, Tracy, etc, would be a combination of #1 and #3, i would say

    Regarding Barth — I’m happy to be proven wrong, and am inclined to look further at / hear more about what Scott (and/or Ken) is talking about.

    As for David’s claims, these don’t ring true to me. No doubt Barth is no postliberal (when did everyone get down on them?), and maybe I was too brief in my description, but what is common to cultural-linguistic model and to Barth as I understand him is the making-primary of a theological vantage. Of course the idea of “a separate semiotic world free from any external perspective” is a bit much, and Barth’s not advocating that, however he is advocating a theological interpretation of philosophy that is not itself interpreted by philosophy. That’s what he shares with Lindbeck & co., and that’s why David’s comment does not move me to remove Barth from #3.

  11. I haven’t read a lot of Ricoeur’s more theological work, but I think I’d place him more towards #1 than #3, although he’s rightly associated a bit with #3 as well. My reasoning for this is because of Ricoeur’s “detour and return” method that he adapts from Marcel (among others).

    Do we place Caputo in #4? He seems to willingly blur lines between philosophy/theology.

    I have to say, Dan, that I usually don’t like these ways of charting people up, but this is pretty helpful.

  12. Dan, I happen to be teaching at the moment Schelling’s Essay on the Nature of Human Freedom, and he tackles the relation between philosophy and theology in terms of System and Freedom, though the system/freedom problem is shared by both philosophy and theology, both of which seek for systematicity and both of which run the risk of thereby losing sight of freedom. I tend to think that your division of philosophy and theology may already be assuming a distinction that is not there: both are systematic, and in both systematicity seems to contradict freedom. Is the question about the meaning of system a philosophical question and not a theological question? Why? Why not say it is a primordial question: “what is the ground that holds beings together as a unity?” One might say that philosophy does not start with revelation, but theology does. But that again prejudges the meaning of revelation as a historically specific event in time, recorded in a certain written text (Mt. Sinai, Jesus). What if both philosophy and theology were efforts to systematize revelation (now replacing freedom with revelation as the other term, which leads to the question as to the relation between freedom and revelation, or opens the question about the freedom that reveals itself in history, which sounds awfully familiar as both a (the?) crucial philosophical and theological problem). I guess that what I am suggesting is that the philosophy and theology division that is being schematized conceals the primordial question about the interrelation of freedom, revelation, and the systematicity of the world (God, Man, World). Now if this suggestion falls under your #1 category, then I would say that that category is the category that calls the categories into question. It says: to think philosophically one must begin with revelation in/as history. If theology responds: to begin with revelation is to begin with God having become Man, philosophy agrees. I don’t see where philosophy and theology MUST part company, or why they MUST divide into two distinct “discourses.” What if that parting of company were itself part of the unfolding of revelation in history? Which “discourse” would have the right to claim title to the question as its own? (I am only riffing off of the opening chapter of Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption: is that a book of philosophy or theology?)

  13. Bruce, those are a lot of what ifs! And very good questions, though I’m not sure they’re mine — in other words, the idea that both theology and philosophy are concerned with primordial questions of God, man, world, this is not my own interest (i am closer to Spinozistic or even Heideggerean concerns than to those of that German tradition), but I can see why it would be difficult to place such an aim in my categories. I would, though, claim that it falls under #1, though with hints of #4’s awareness of the exteriority of theology to philosophy. And I would add that any advocate of one of these categories would claim that the category they advocate calls all the categories in question.

    As for whether philosophy and theology must part ways, i don’t think they have to. So I’m not suggesting they are necessarily divided, but rather that contingently this is the case. I would stand by that claim, as an adequate description a posteriori, not as an a priori claim.

  14. Brad, thanks for the comment. My tendency would be to say that with Goodchild, Altizer, etc, there is something “unthought”, that this is the key, and that maybe this sometimes emerges as a topos of economics, literature, etc, but that properly speaking it is unthought — maybe this loses something, is too indeterminate?

    I would agree w/ this, more or less, but am definitely drawn to the idea that the “unthought” is thinkable at all for these thinkers by way of at least a third discourse — i.e., that philosophy & theology alone are not, and perhaps cannot be, up to the task. I’m not dead-set on this, mind. Just something that has struck me in the midst of thinking about this.

  15. Dan, I don’t know why you think that what I am posing is not squarely within your questions or interest. First of all, as you know, the Schelling text is itself a questioning of Spinoza, and it serves Heidegger (and Rosenzweig) as the basis for a rethinking of the basic relationship between philosophy and theology (what Heidegger calls onto-theology). If by using the terms God, Man, and World I seemed to take a different tack, I regret the confusion. My point, if I can rephrase it in your own terms, is to ask whether the right place to begin is the categorization of a contingent parting of the ways. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that Heidegger is not going to fit into any such category in so far as he is interested in the conditions of possibility of “onto-theology” as such? Why is that question able to be placed within an a posteriori historical configuration of onto-theology?

  16. While I’m not as confident as David seems to be that Barth is completely unmappable according to this chart, I’m also not sure that what Barth and the cultural-linguists (CLs) have in common is the “making primary of a theological vantage”, with the related idea of a theological interpretation of philosophy that philosophy itself wouldn’t recognize. I think the former claim about theological primacy is obviously true, at a generic level, but at the same level would also be true of #3 and in some instances #4.

    The question, then, is what this making-primary concretely means – i.e., how it is carried out in the practice of one’s thought – and while it’s obviously the case that Barth and most of the CL crowd share a commitment to a kind of ‘disciplining’ of concepts by or within certain confessional boundaries, Barth’s much more nuanced view of revelation – where the truth of the world shows itself – means both that it is irreducible to ‘Christian’ perception (i.e., thought that appears to line up with conventional doctrinal/confessional traditions), and that the insights of ‘secular’ thought are not in principle less-true than a given instance of ‘theology’.

    Hauerwas and co. are not un-Barthian in thinking that praxis conditions perception, yet the basic eradication of an operative concept of an ongoing divine self-revelation means that ‘the truth’ for CLs is much more stringently identified with a particular tradition’s ‘grammatical rules’, which forces the theology/philosophy divide as a ‘cultural’ impasse in a way that sits quite oddly with Barth. I think Garrett Green’s introducory essay on ‘Karl Barth as Theorist of Religion’, in his re-translation of a section of the Church Dogmatics ‘On Religion’, gets at some of my concerns here in a very helpful way.

    I’ll encourage Ken to jump in, if you’re keen to follow this up, because he probably has a much more sophisticated understanding of Barth’s own views on ‘philosophy’ than I do. But again, I don’t think any of this necessarily questions your basic typology.

  17. I think this is a good, and thought-provoking post, and comes at a time when I am supposed to be working on similar issues (emphasize the ‘supposed’).

    If this list is supposed to be exhaustive, then I wonder if you could have something like a 2.5, meaning that theology and philosophy are complimentary (which I think is different from incommensurable, and hence not quite 2). Also, as they pursue different, yet related tasks, there is no hierarchy or subordination of one to the other (and hence not 3). They just deal with different things in their own fields and yet need the other for a full picture of reality, human being, history, etc. As a crass example, some not very good Thomists might say that philosophy deals exclusively with reason, and as such is good, true and salutary, indeed dominate in its field, while theology deals exclusively with revelation, as as such is good, true, and salutary, indeed dominate in its own field. Each is happy and the master of in its own discourse, yet both complement the other.

    This is not my own view, but I’m sure that I’ve read something similar to it somewhere.

  18. dan, just curious: where would (your) yoder fall?

    and, inasmuch as he takes himself to be merely representative, perhaps exemplary, of a certain (not necessarily Barthian) tradition of theological inquiry, where would that tradition fall?

  19. This is really late now—but, I’m satisfied, too, with the clarification of (3) from last night. I had just been talking about Rahner and Heidegger when I read your post, which is why he was on my mind, but I ended up thinking mainly about the patristics and medievals too. @Ken, I think that earlier clarification would also put your example in the realm of (3).

  20. Not sure about the direction of the question on Derrida, I may be getting a bit obtuse — what do you think might be getting lost?

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Derrida was ill-classified by your scheme, only that Derrida makes me think of the question of the limitations of any scheme, which made me wonder about what figures might be liminal for your own.

    I agree that the interesting question is, where to go from here? How to move beyond any of these? To that end, while I don’t quite see things the way Bruce lays them out in his comment, I do think that the category that calls the categories into question would be the place to be.

    On a separate issue, I take it you would put a suggestion like Stephen Gould’s “Non-overlapping magisteria” in #2 ?

  21. Bruce, didn’t mean to sound dismissive, mainly meant that as a qualification of what I might be missing in what you said. So, that said, your question on Heidegger: the critique of ontotheolgy proceeds from the conditioning of all theological discourse by a philsoophical discourse on being (ontotheology being a blockage of the latter discourse). But theological discourse is permitted, at least in early Hdgr, at a regional or ontic level. Though again it needs the ontological-philosophical as condition.

    As for #2 — what if i renamed this the particularistic position? The criterion being the need to subordinate everything to a particular locus of revelation (that could be JesuLogocentric or Ecclesiocetnric). Of course Barth would give us the world as it is, but this seeing is conditioned by the particular revelation, no? Perhaps I’m being very simplistic here.

    David, that’s what I’m trying to figure out, but i can say it’s not there amongst 1-4.

  22. My initial thought in reading this was the same as Ken Oakes as he describes a possible (2.5). I had in mind correlationist approaches (in the sense criticized by post-liberals rather than the more recent use of the word). I agree with Ken, against Brian, that this doesn’t seem to fit into (3). It also strikes me that this approach would include a pretty broad range of adherents, perhaps more so than any of the other groups listed, although some towering figures are perhaps more ready at hand in your models 1-4.

    Another way of approaching this might be to ask how Frei’s types overlay or fail to overlay on these models.

  23. I’m wondering about Barth too — there’s something unique there that separates him from Hauerwas, Lindbeck and co.

    Perhaps a transverse crossing of these four would be a division between (a) anthropocentric and (b) theocentric construals. Or put another way, between (a) notional and (b) operational theological claims.

    If, in other words, the theologian/philosopher really does believe in God (“operationally”) this affects both form and content of one’s theological claims, as per Barth. I feel (1) and (4) would tilt more toward (a) while (2) and (3) would tilt more toward (b) though I’m unsure if they can reduced to them. Yes/no?

  24. Steve Harris, I see where you’re going, I think, but I’m more interested in the discourses, strategies, structures, etc that distribute the concepts of God and Man. From my vantage, the belief or nonbelief in God is less important than theoretical discourse that determines the sort of God that one believes or does not believe in.

    As for the suggestion of a 2.5, a correlationist, for example, or a bipolar Thomist (as suggested by Ken), I would put them under 3, insofar as they admit two valid ways of talking about the same thing (and then the difference, within 3, would be whether these two valid ways are to be integrated or simply correlated, across a certain incommensurability).

    In this sense, I’d still leave Barth in 2, again referring to my most recent previous comment — it is the fact that a particular discourse (revelation or what have you) conditions all other discourses, even as it enters into relation with them. This being the difference between Barth and 3, because 3 (whether correlational or integrative) allows a kind of mutual conditioning that Barth does not. Again, I’m willing to be shown wrong on this (and I will look at the Green piece Scott recommends), but as far as i can tell Barth will not allow mutual conditioning in any egalitarian way.

  25. Bruce, I should say that I am actually very invested in the concern you have to step out of the parting of the ways you mention between theology/revelation and philosophy. In fact I’m working on a way of doing that right now. My aim here, though, was to track the determinative theoretical habits that do not just make use of, but that also develop and ramify, the very parting of the ways that you rightly call into question. For what it’s worth…

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