Further thoughts on separating theology and “belief”

What is the difference between philosophy and theology if it’s not the personal belief stance of the thinker in question? What makes the pursuit of something like theology distinctive compared to what one would normally call philosophy? I should say from the first that I think this has to be regarded as an open problem, because philosophy and theology are both critical and speculative discourses undertaken in dialogue with a historical tradition. Given such similarities, it is understandable that one would cast about for factors external to the discourse itself, such as the “personal belief” of the thinker. I think that such a difference is both nonsensical and boring, however, and I propose that a more reasonable and interesting difference must be found within theological discourse itself.

One potential starting point is the very formalistic definition of theology familiar from Tillich: theology is discourse about the “ultimate concern.” Such a formalistic view informs Goodchild’s Theology of Money, where he elaborates the theological system implied by money’s status as the highest value which gives all other values their value. Yet that distinction is unsatisfying, as it seems as though Platonism, surely a particularly exemplary example of philosophy, is a discourse about the ultimate concern or the highest, value-giving value. Hence the difference collapses and the door opens for all manner of boring, extrinsic claims: “Philosophy posits reason as the highest value, while theology thinks it’s faith!” No matter that such a claim can’t stand up to the most cursory historical understanding of philosophy and theology — apparently it’s very satisfying to say.

A potentially more productive difference could be drawn from the work of Kierkegaard: what makes theological discourse distinctive from philosophy is the decisive importance of historical events for theology. One can look to Philosophical Fragments for an elaboration of this view, albeit in a way that is biased in a specifically Christian direction (i.e., Kierkegaard wants to posit the structure of what we might call the truth-event in such a way that the Christian revelation is the only possible candidate). We don’t need to accept Kierkegaard’s Christian bias, however — it’s obvious that a structure works for other major religions, above all Judaism and Islam. And a theological “style” of thought could easily be applied to other types of events, such as the French revolution.

Does this last example collapse the two discourses again? I’d contend, rather, that it illustrates the continual interpenetration of theology and philosophy, in the sense that what is historically revealed, the historical event of decisive importance, nonetheless feels like it should put forth something that is “always” true. Taking the French revolution as the decisive event — one will then claim that the rights claimed in that revolution represent self-evident truths of human nature, etc., just as in the patristic and medieval periods Christian theologians were concerned to demonstrate that the decisive event of the incarnation resonated with the truths uncovered by the most prestigious philosophical discourses (above all Platonism).

Hence we can see that questions that presuppose a clear demarcation between the two discourses aren’t getting at what is really going on. Instead of asking whether theology is a subcategory of philosophy, or a “style” of doing philosophy, or philosophy done “within” a particular religious tradition (i.e., with certain axioms), or whether philosophy is a tool to be subordinated to the higher truth of theology, etc., a truly interesting investigation will see the relationship between the two as one of continual struggle — or at the very least, one will see the two as part of one continuum defined by the poles of the eternal or unchanging (philosophy) or the decisively important historical event (theology). With this in mind, one can make interesting and counterintuitive claims — for instance, that Christian theology in the patristic and medieval periods became increasingly philosophical in orientation, while certain important strains of modern philosophy have been genuinely theological in their approach.

Why is this important? It’s important because it’s incredibly boring to let these questions be preemptively answered by the same old boring dichotomy between faith and reason, religion and the secular. Those dichotomies are so boring because they’re ultimately about institutional and political “turf” — namely, they’re about vindicating the modern secular nation-state against the specter of “religion” with its supposedly inherent irrationality and violence. The approach I outline here moves the stakes of the struggle between theology and philosophy back to where the really belong: to the realm of thought.

34 thoughts on “Further thoughts on separating theology and “belief”

  1. What about theology being anchored in, and also partly concerned with the elucidation of, an experience of a number of practices, such as prayer, mass, the sharing of bread and wine, charity, walking around the Kaaba, pilgrimage, meditation, etc? I’m thinking Hauerwas, de Certeau, among others.

  2. How is philosophy unconcerned with “practice”? Ethics makes up a big part of philosophical discourse. Insofar as the types of practices you name are more properly tied to theology — and charity and meditation strike me as equally compatible with philosophy — it’s because they’re commemorating decisive historical events.

  3. Theology also critiques religious practices, normally by reference to their perceived faithfulness to the event they’re commemorating — generally, I think it’s a mistake to claim that theology “grows out of” religious practice in any strong way.

  4. Great post! (It will be my comment on this blog, so you don´t have to worry… My time in front of the computer is finally at its end.)

    I agree with most of what you say regarding the boring stuff, but I do think that your struggle between philosophy and theology seems to implicate the following which I don’t think that we can accept:

    a) A reduction of philosophy to the quest of eternal truths and b) a reduction of theology to history. Even if you show the impossibility of separating theology and philosophy with your argument, your definition of theology and philosophy seems to define what should be proven. Namely that philosophy is about the eternal and unchanging and that theology is about history.

    And if your definition of the relation between philosophy and struggle as a struggle is plausible then you will at least have to answer the following questions:

    1) What is the continual struggle between philosophy and theology really about? Why define it as a polemos?
    2) If it’s necessary to define the relation between philosophy and theology as a struggle is there a possibility for reconciliation? Or could there be a winner – is it possible to think an end of the struggle?
    3) What is the relationship between history and theology – how does an event in history become theological? And how does this becoming escape the boring stuff – belief, dogmas, tradition, existential commitments and so on?
    4) What is the relationship between philosophy and the eternal if not historical?

    Could it not be more fruitful to admit that theology is not philosophy of religion, but philosophy about God? That is something that many of the modern philosophers – Agamben, Negri and Bataille, just to name three – works hard to break with, and that many other philosophers include as a dimension of their thought?

    It´s interesting to see that many modern thinkers fight hard to break free from all theological fetters, to make philosophy truly and radically a thought without God, a pure atheological thought. This desire to think purely atheological seems to be one (of many) limit(s) between theology and philosophy, for even atheistic theology has to think at least the death or void of god. Isn’t this what makes Agamben to a philosopher, and Altizer to a theologian – i.e. the difference between philosophy as a atheological thought and atheistic theology as a theological thought of atheism or the death of god is that theology always have to be a logos on god. And isn’t the impossibility and necessity of articulating the difference between philosophy and theology a sign of this brutal truth that we are all caught in god talk…

  5. How is it that Kierkegaard’s position is equivocal with other religions when its basis is in the notion of Jesus as the unresolvable synthesis of the temporal and eternal?
    I do agree with the tiring and potentially destructive elements of ‘turf’ involved. That is what helped dislodge my own position as I didn’t want to have to be justified by back patting from a confirmed in-house group. I am of course now speaking of a sort of microcosm of turf. This is has left me unsettled in many intellectual/spiritual areas but it is decreased the sort of ‘need’ to resolve this and just get about the work of things.

  6. A nitpick: It’s always worth remembering that Johannes Climacus is not Soren Kierkegaard. Conant and others have argued (and I think they’re probably right) that the point of the Climacan authorship is just to show that the “thought experiment” of _Fragments_ is confused from the start (thus its epigraph: it asks its question in ignorance, in such a way that it does not understand why it is asking it; in its “answer” to this question it puts forth a straightforward contradiction, that one is to think the unthinkable (the definition of “the god” Climacus gives), and pretends it has here something profound), and that the _Postscript_’s treatment of “how one can become a Christian” is similarly a joke. (The first part of the _Postscript_ seems to show why one can’t become a Christian by historical-critical treatments of Christian material, or by a speculative taking-up of it; the second part seems to show that one can instead become a Christian through another, “subjective” means, one elucidated by 500-odd pages of dense prose, but this is not an improvement on the “speculative” treatment of Christianity. This is why to understand the book is to see that it must be revoked, and that the question “How can I become a Christian?” cannot be answered by anything that can be put forth as a treatise.) Kierkegaard was not offering a model for theology in the Climacan works; he was parodying something that theology sometimes becomes (especially in our reflective, speculative age). The weird Hegelian historical-speculative jumping jacks are a distraction from anything actually involved in Christianity. (From what I know of him, I think Badiou might actually be doing what you claim Climacus was doing; whether his work is an improvement on a self-conscious parody is not clear to me.)

    I’m not sure that philosophy isn’t concerned with historical events, either. Kant and those who came after him were clearly concerned with “the history of pure reason” (as the last pages of KRV call it), and with the connection between their “modern” age and “modern” philosophy — sapere aude and all that. There’s also plenty of work out there about what historical events Plato might’ve had in mind when he wrote his dialogues, etc.

    But then, I don’t see what’s important about the titles “theology” and “philosophy”. Why are these supposed to be of significance, beyond the fact that librarians need to shelve books in one place or another? The sort of stuff you can find in the “philosophy” section of a library is incredibly varied; why is it supposed to not be trivially arbitrary whether something gets put there, or in “theology”, or “history”, or any number of other categories? If someone says something like “theology is only done as a form of prayer” or “philosophy can only be a sort of poetry”, why should we take these as descriptive claims about the sorts of works you can find on certain shelves, rather than as demands that theology/philosophy *should* be done in particular ways — and if they are these, then what do they matter, unless the people making the demands can actually see to it that other work doesn’t get shelved at all? People can demand whatever they like, if all they’re doing by this is expressing their preferences for one sort of thing rather than another.

    If someone refuses to engage with a particular work because it’s outside of their “department”, is it any real solution to this to argue that No, the work is actually *inside* of their department, and so they should engage with it? Isn’t this just leaving in place the real problem, the idea that one can have a “department” within which one can remain, and within which one can entertain and resolve problems, with each department being independent of each other?

  7. I am a bit out of it since I just spent the last two days, probably all told 28 out of the 48 hours, sitting at my computer translating and editing a volume of essays on Laruelle. But rather than talk about how Kierkegaard’s Christ isn’t Christian, I thought this selection from a crazy gnostic might be of interest, in place of me being able to actually contribute anything interesting at the moment. This will be in a paper for the Speculative Medievalisms:

    Second Intermezzo: Selection from Gilles Grelet, Déclarer la gnose. D’une guerre qui revient à la culture [Declaring Gnosis: On a War that Returns to Culture] (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002), pp. 87-88.
    9. – The Christ-division
    9.1 – Who is the angel? The Christ who does not serve as a sponge[1] – that is, the Christ who enlists an absolute dialectic or one that is incessantly dialectisized rather than one relative and figured in the State and ultimately the market (or dissolved) uni(versi)ty to which it submits the situation.
    Let’s be clear: what is at stake in the present recovery of the hatred of relativism and of its correlate survival is radically christic (we would only say “Christian” with caveats [avec pincettes] since the regulated corruptions of Christianity, Roman Catholic or Reformed, are obvious). Moreover, do not the Gospels, whether canonical or apocryphal, carry, in black and white, the injunction concerning that hatred which is pure rebellion? Thus, the logion of Luke 12:51: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division”, which (with Matthew 10:34) echoes (although a bit muffled) the logion of Thomas cited as the general epigram to this book. [“”Men think, perhaps, that it is peace which I have come to cast upon the world. They do not know that it is dissension which I have come to cast upon the earth: fire, sword, and war.” Gospel of Thomas, Logion 16. – Trans.]
    What is said must be heard: Christ does not bring resolution to the conflicts that form humanity’s misfortune, he does not come to absolve the world’s contradictions in the pacified (spiritualized) unity of the Whole of being where each finds their place (and this is so even though one assuredly can produce a number of gospel [évangéliques] passages that could go in this direction), in short he never in any way intended to found the State.
    Completely to the contrary, Christ bears forth the demands for the masterly [magistrale] division between the truth and the semblance (the former is claimed to be the occidental pole, dark or exilic from existence, the latter is the oriental or angelic pole), the imperative of absolute war against the State stretches as a mortified state of the situation. So, far from allowing the auto-divinization of historical becoming under the aegis of the Incarnation, Christ is the agent of anti-history, the Angel of all the angels: Christos Angelos.[2]

    9.2 – Taken from his angelic edge, therefore, rather than from his marshmallow state,[3] Christ imposes a complete rupture with the uni(versi)tary conception of the world that characterizes occidental thought. What is signified by the “christo-rebellion” is not ideological – or relative to this or that position of mastery, and for Mastery as such – but cultural or absolute: the un-respectable-Christ is the Angel that delivers the soul from its occidental exile, orienting it towards the Light that has not submitted to the relativist corruption.
    The reason for this literally absolute aberration is to be found here, that Christ is the Light, and so John 1:5 says that this light shines in the darkness and that the darkness did not overcome it (in order to be “overcome” [saisi], or “understood” as we may also translate it, it was necessary that Christ be capable of a rational reception, of a inscription into the schemas of rationality, in short: that he can be related to something else, set in relation, captured [saisi] in a relation…). That is why,

    9.3 – Theorem: the Christ, constant reference of the West for two-thousand years, is also, and more still, the principle of the war that comes back to its eternitary [éternitaire] mastery.

    [1] One sees equally that the Angel, on account of incarnationism, could not be of value except as an ornament: the becoming-ornament of the Angel (which is consistent with the disjunction of the Christ and the Angel making the former the “filler” [mastic] of rationality in its enterprise of conjunction in all directions) alone sums up the obscurantism of the conjuncture in its occidental determination (cf. Christian Jambet, Revue des Deux Mondes, February 2001).
    [2] Grelet includes a two-page long footnote here entitled “The other Incarnation”. The content of the footnote clarifies somewhat the idea of the Christos Angelos in relation to Christ as the “means for overthrowing rule”, that is the Kingdom of Ceaser, and of “instituting the Kingdom of the Angel where man, in the Light of the Cross which consumes objectification, overcomes chooseification”. Christ then is “Angel of all the angels, the Gnostic Christ is the Envoy charged with delivering men from their enslavement in this world by liberating within them the knowledge of their origin and the means of getting back to the place from which they have been exiled: Christos Angelos frees through the knowledge that gives men the means of rebellion that they are, against all humility, fundamentally driven by”. [Translators note.]
    [3] The marshmallow offers the perfect image of relation between the “fundamentally Christian” West and Christ, since we know that the soft and very sweet candy does not, in fact, contain any marsh mellow.

  8. Daniel, I don’t think we’re speaking on the same levels with regard to Kierkegaard. I was just putting forth the usual reading as a convenient point of reference — delving into an “advanced” reading, which I assume is held by only a minority of scholars, isn’t responding to the actual use I’m making of the text.

    And the point isn’t just to talk about historical events — obviously Plato cared about historical events, but they aren’t decisive in the way that the revelation at Sinai or the incarnation of Christ are decisive. As for Kant’s concern with the history of pure reason, etc., that’s precisely what I was getting at with the claim that certain strains of modern philosopy became more “theological” in orienation.

    Why retain the names? I think there’s a case to be made against keeping theology in particular, since I obviously view the reference to God as misleading (and since it’s obviously insufficient to distinguish between philosophy and theology, given that philosophy very often involves discourse about God). It’s important, though, to keep the genealogical link to the “historical religions” (initially Judaism and Christianity) that have introduced the strain of event-oriented thought into the Western intellectual tradition.

  9. Another thought: the view I outline in the post opens the door for someone to do specifically Christian theology without any particular belief about “God,” insofar as one regards the life of Christ as a historically decisive event.

  10. I like the idea that something is theological because it takes some historical event as decisive, at least as a challenge to the usual banalities. I’ve been more and more worried that Kant was right: the difference is just that theology is subservient to some external norm (which he takes as the text of the Bible) and philosophy isn’t. The ‘Kierkegaardian’ solution would be able to affirm the Kantian one, while opening it up considerably.

    But I doubt too that there really is any single enduring difference, or any real reason to keep the two separate. At this point I think the search for theology as distinct from philosophy is on the same pointless path as the search for religion as distinct from all other institutions and practices. And ‘theology’ has come to be said with such a triumphalist tone of voice in one part of the world, and such a disgusted tone of voice in another, that I usually find it easier just not to say it at all. Keeping the genealogical link to the historical religions doesn’t require setting up their way of thinking (or even, one polemical interpretation of what constitutes ‘their way of thinking’) as a fundamentally different discipline, does it?

  11. I think this post is a huge insight. Extremely useful and clarifying. Can I offer a slight refinement of the language that history “is decisive” for theology in a way it isn’t for philosophy? (Maybe this will be too analytic; tell me if it works for you.) I was thinking about what this meant, specifically in relation to Plato’s dialogues and Hegel’s phenomenology. It seems clear to me that the former would be more philosophical and the latter more theological by your distinction. But how are events more decisive for Hegel than for Plato, I wondered. Plato often uses historical persons as his sock-puppets, numerous historical examples to illustrate the concepts he lets his personae bandy about, and often even seems to have meant to influence Athenian politics through his dialogues. — And the answer I came up with for myself was this: Plato’s actual arguments don’t require historical events as premises. For someone like Hegel, on the other hand, it seems that an account of the history of mind is inextricable from his philosophical arguments — including, ironically enough, the historical event of greek philosophy. Similarly, for Islamic, Jewish, and Christian theologies — in general, at least — the life of Mohammed, the patriarchs, Jesus, are precisely premises in their most important arguments. Does that get at what you meant by “more decisive”? Or is my version too reductively focused on argumentation?

    Just to support the self-subversion embodied in that last question, it just occurred to me that my refinement of your phrase doesn’t cover things like the “spirituality” of philosophy and theology — you know: meditation, ecstatic experience, etc., something both a Plotinus and a Paul go in for, as well as their epigones. History is more decisive for the religious side of this duality too: the most successful guides to Christian spirituality — say, Ignatian Meditation — succeed religiously precisely to the degree that they focus upon the historical event, while the spirituality of the philosophers — say, the state held up as an ideal at the end of Spinoza’s Ethics — succeeds precisely to the degree that they accomplish the apophatic/ontological move that loosens their meditations from a decisive connection to history.

    So that’s my comment (and a negation of it!), and I have a question as well:

    I was talking with a friend in my department who is an orthodox Jew, and he was telling me that Hassidic Jewry is focused upon law-abiding life to such a degree that it doesn’t give a shit what you believe philosophically or theologically so long as you stay Kosher, etc. He said you could go to any such rabbi in the world, tell him that you believe our universe is an atom in the eye of an enormous hippo and all the Jewish scripture and laws are forgeries, but if you also tell him that you abide by the law he will tell you that you are a good Jew. My question is: apart from whether my friend is telling me the truth or not, how would such a variety of religion map onto this theology/philosophy distinction or would it somehow escape them both?

    Anyway, thanks for the great ideas.

  12. Platonism seems to obviously be a religion to me. The fact that it is just assumed to be philosophy has very little to do with the work itself. I still think the Tillichian definition is a good one, although your distinction about history being decisive does seem to shed an important light on the Abrahamic faiths.

  13. Robert, Something like the distinction between examples and argumentative premises is indeed what I’m intending here. As for the question on Judaism, I think it shows the limits of the concept of “religion” and the way Judaism (more or less) self-consciously resists being inscribed into that concept — an idea that I draw from Dan Barber’s work (and Boyarin, who he pointed me to on this question).

  14. To think in such a way as to take seriously the possibility of a decisive event in history is to think theologically, to think in such a way that assumes that every event is explicable through some ahistorical system is to think philosophically: wonderful! Both ways of thinking are conditioned historically, of course. We can date philosophic thinking’s beginning to ancient Greece; can we date theological thinking’s beginning? Perhaps Isaiah (on the nothingness of the gods of other nations and the rupture with idolatry marked by the Mt. Sinai event?) But now we have both forms of thinking attacking/responding to the same thing: mythic thinking. What is mythic thinking? The thinking of idolatry, the identification of human power (of procreation, of killing) with the power that holds sway in the cosmos. Then philosophic thinking rejects this, and says that it isn’t procreative/killing power (sovereign power, as Foucault explains it with the expression “letting live, putting to death”) that is fundamental, but the power that comes from harmonious balancing of forces internal to the cosmos (justice). And Isaiah? Theological thinking says that it isn’t procreative/killing power that is fundamental, but the power that identifies with the powerless (the victims of mythic violence). What if the real “decisive event” in history were precisely the emergence of both of these anti-mythic ways of thinking? And what if each had the responsibility of criticizing the other insofar as each still harbors mythic thinking within itself? So philosophic thinking becomes mythic when its quest for harmony and system becomes a myth (Kierkegaard;s critique of a certain Hegel, say); theological thinking turns mythic when it makes a fetish of powerlessness and leaves history to be run by the mythic forces (maybe immanentist philosophies like Deleuze’s offer a critique of such Manichean-gnostic theologies, as a certain Barth represents).

  15. Bruce, The addition of mythical thinking into the mix is helpful, as are the more explicitly political stakes — and I for one love the reference to Deleuze as a critic of thinkers like Barth. (That would probably bear out in Dan’s experience of discussions with Barthians on blogs….) There seems to be a certain priority of the theological in your account here, though — does that seem right?

  16. Adam, no I am not claiming priority in any sense for the theological break with the mythical. I think that Xenophanes, for example, has one critique of polytheistic idolatry, Isaiah another. The critique in both instances is directed at the idea that there is a fundamental will or principle (arche) of disorder that needs to be violently repressed. The problem for both Xenophanes and Isaiah is that the cosmic order is being interpreted as a reflection of the human will to sovereign mastery (hybris), rather than being seen from the angle of the balance of forces that maintains order in a beautiful whole (kosmos), or from the angle of the powerless victims of sovereign violence. The “paradigm shift” that both critiques reflect owe a great deal to their political matrix (the rise of the aristocratic agonal city in the Greek context, the anti-monarchic egalitarianism of Israelite prophecy in the other), but neither seems to be primary. I should say, though, that I think that the Israelite critique has a greater dialectical bite (that the appearance of power is its obfuscation, and the appearance of powerlessness reveals the presence of the greatest power), and that it therefore is a more penetrating critique than the Greek philosophical critique of mythic thinking. It certainly engages with the dimension of history more directly, as you say, since it engages mythic thought at that level rather than at the level of the “kosmos.”

  17. I was thinking that theology might have the priority in part because you claimed that the emergence of these two discourses may itself be a decisive historical event (of the kind associated with theology?).

  18. Yes, I see what you are driving at. Say that the Israelitie critique of mythic thinking is self-reflective: it sees itself as a break in history because it foregrounds the dimension of history when it claims that true power is revealed only in history and not in the cosmos, and only on the side of powerlessness. But I am not entirely sure that Parmenides and Heraclitus were not also self-reflexive, claiming that the truth only reveals itself in thinking that negates history as the direct evidence of the truth. When Heraclitus says that nature loves to hide itself, may he not be read as saying that his own logos is the first unveiling of nature through a logos that expresses the truth rather than conceals it. Parmenides certainly saw his own poem to be a competitor with Homer’s poetry. I guess I am a little wary about denying to Parmenides and Heraclitus a sense of their logos as a rupture with the past and a “revelation event” of the truth in history. (If you read Parmenides poem on its own terms, it claims to be a revelation.) I would certainly argue that when you get to Plato in the Laws, you do see him portraying his work as inaugurating a new moment in history, and as being a revelation (of a divine lawgiver). Now one can say that this is simply a rhetorical ploy to give greater authority to his work, but then can’t we say the same thing about the author of Deuteronomy, for example? Just because Plato does not assume a pseudonymous authorship (as the author of Deuteronomy represents himself as Moses) does not, I would claim, mean that we must take his narratorial strategy as purely rhetorical. Why couldn’t he really believe that something radically new was taking place in and through his authorship? Or in and through the person of Socrates? I guess I am suggesting that it may not be so easy to divide philosophical thinking from theological thinking in a sharp way in the way they conceive of their relation to history as events of rupture. I would agree, though, that philosophical thinking seeks to establish order in history (Plato’s effort in the Laws is to eliminate stasis as revolution and impose stasis as changelessness), whereas theological thinking seems intent on establishing a special kind of order, peace, that is not a balance or harmony among the parts of a whole, but something to do with the individual qua individual, the individual not as representative of a species, but as the expression of the unique divinity. But this is, to be sure, connected to the historical reality of the individual (as potential victim of sovereign violence). So, at this level, history does play a greater role.

  19. I agree with you entirely. (BTW, should you want to read a thinker whose ideas very much support yours, I recommend the opening chapter of Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption where he speaks to the relation between philosophy and theology.)

  20. By the way, Tillich never defines “theology” as the discourse about ultimate concern. That is his definition of faith. Of the difference between philosophy and theology he says in his Systematic Theology, “Philosophy formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated…

    Two things here:

    1) Tillich agrees with Aquinas that the difference between theology and philosophy lies essentially in the intellectual starting point of the two positions, namely, “nature” vs. “revelation”. (Philosophy utilizes the perception of our natural faculties while Theology begins with divine revelation.

    2) Tillich’s idea of a “circle” is akin to Adam’s idea of the difference between a “receding hair line and being bald” – it is a kind of continuum, and one that exists in the ream of thought

    The primary difference, of course, is that though theology and philosophy both exist in the realm of thought (and thus exist in a continuum) – theology begins with data that is not native or natural to human thought: revelation.

    Obviously one who rejects the idea of transcendence or ‘outside thought’ will reject this distinction altogether; but to me this is exactly what keeps the theology section in the library apart from the philosophy section – One deals with imparted knowledge, the other with ascertained knowledge. Both deal with knowledge.

    Another Tillich quotable (also conveniently located on the Tillich wiki page):

    “The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence… They are ‘spoken’ to human existence from beyond it, in a sense. Otherwise, they would not be answers, for the question is human existence itself.”

    Bruce, I really like the idea of contrasting theology and philosophy with mythic thinking – the idea that both theology and philosophy are pregnant with mythic potential is also very important, I think.

  21. If theology is defined in relation to history it´s because a religious tradition has posited a historical event as an event of revelation (for example). Religion always preceds theology. So it still seems that theology presupposes faith and/or a religious tradition because even if theology only represents the fact that _other people_ have believed that the life of Moses or Christ were important historically we still have to admit that these historical facts are produced as theological events by the fact that they mobilize the possibility of religion or the acceptance that there is a god.

  22. Ahab, Wow, you are absolutely determined to make sure that the difference between theology and philosopy is the difference between faith and atheism! I still find that view to be boring, limiting, and unfaithful to the historical evidence of both discourses.

  23. No; I think your point about a continuum between philosophy and theology is not only helpful, but one that is often neglected or rejected by the viewpoint that stresses faith as necessary for theology. Evidenced by Tillich’s perspective, it is possible to understand revelatory knowledge as part of the continuum between philosophy and theology. I agree that the more interesting discussion is indeed how this ‘revelatory knowledge’ as an event coincides (or struggles over time) with the philosophic tradition. Questions like “do these two traditions of thought pertain to a mythic tradition?” are very interesting – I simply wanted to affirm your affinity for a continuum-structure while pointing out Tillich’s distinction between theology and faith.

  24. Aric, Okay — I misunderstood your intention. The clarification on Tillich is well-taken; I was being imprecise in my use of his concepts. (I misperceived you as trying to assert Tillich against me, rather than trying to square the “real” Tillich with what I was saying in the post.)

  25. Adam, it’s not that I think that the relationship between religion and theology is something ideal. It’s not me who are absolutely determined to posit this relation, it´s just a fact that a historical event can only become theological if a religious tradition has understood it as a religious event. (No Christian atheism without Christianity.) I can accept that it’s boring, but it’s still a historical truth that religion precedes theology and that theology therefore structurally has a necessary relation to religious thought.

    The continuum-structure is not only a structure between philosophy and theology but also a historical structure that makes it easier to differentiate theology from philosophy. The gap between theology and philosophy seems to become larger and larger the older man gets, and it’s interesting to see that it most often are theologians that want to affirm their relationship to philosophy. Most contemporary philosophers have no problem to accept the impossibility of theological and religious thought. This is an absolute fact produced by secularism and something that has been analyzed by Hans Blumenberg for example. And even if we don’t accepts Blumenbergs understanding of secularisation it´s still a fact that the relationship between theology and philosophy is more a diachronic relationship and less a synchronic one. If there for example is a structural and logical relation between theology and philosophy still in Aquinas, Descartes and Kant it becomes more and more a philological and historical (or even allegorical and metaphorical) relation in Marx and Stirner. Even the strongest counter-argument to this: that a diachronic relationship, or a genealogical relation, is a philosophical thought (and therefore something structural) seems to imply the fact that if theology is liberated from religion it’s only because it no longer is a logos about god, but a philosophical thought about religion.

    The less the religious traditions has the possibility to mobilize religious (and therefore theological) thought, the harder it gets for theology to affirm itself as a theological thought, it necessarily becomes sociology, history or philosophy. I don’t lament this, it’s just a fact.
    We can therefore see a severing and a radical departure from theology within the philosophical camp – Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Stirner, Marx – and it’s evident that these thinkers attack (traditional) theology because they criticize religious institutions. This also means that philosophers starts to think history free from the all theological fetters, which makes us postmoderns, or what ever we are, to meet the religious events in history as something that’s not proper theological events but just plain and simple historical facts. If theology stands in relationship to history it’s because history no longer says anything about god or divinity. History is no longer a place for revelation.

  26. You may find our upcoming book event interesting from this perspective. In fact, I don’t think it will do any good for us to continue discussing until you devote a little more time to book-length studies that challenge the secularization narrative you’re putting forth — since you’re so certain of it that you view it as an absolute objective fact (which presumably I’m stupid for not seeing?), I don’t think we can make much progress in this format.

    For now, rest content that I understand what your view is, and I disagree for reasons that don’t stem from misunderstanding. Further restating your view will only result in annoyance on my part.

  27. Aric,

    I like your question, but ultimately I don’t think it works to divide philosophy from theology. We presume that Socrates wasn’t a revelatory event, but Socrates repeatedly ascribes the basis of his actions/words as statements and/or commands literally from oracles or visions or daemons. Xenophon says that Socrates directed him to ask questions of the oracles before going off to war (and Xenophon did, in fact, do just that). It’s just that philosophers tend to disregard this aspect of Socrates – many take Socrates’ oracles and visions as charming analogies or sly in-jokes without a lot of thinking about their meaning.

    Further, I think calling something a “mythic event” is starting a discussion off on a wrong track. Plato’s Socrates calls the “mythic events” that happened to him simple facts. Similarly, the revelations are the core of many religions are depicted are also depicted as simple facts. The god/gods performed [these miracles] and here we’ve got all these witnesses to prove it! The oracle/daemon told [various things] to me [me being Socrates here] and now I’m telling you about them. Socrates here is the eyewitness, the exact same form of proof as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.

    A fun aside is the Imperial religion in the game Warhammer 40,000 (this digression has a point, trust me). The game has a huge fictional universe attached – for example, there have been dozens of novels published set in that universe. Leaving aside the specifics of that religion, effectively, various miracles arguably caused by the Emperor (the leader of humanity in a distant future) are on video tapes that have been widely distributed to most of humanity. In the fictional universe, the novels depict these videos to be the truth (the videos have not been doctored or faked). This evidence leads the vast majority of mankind to believe that their Emperor is/was literally a god (or the God) because of this factual evidence. And this factual evidence is no different from evidence that, in our universe, we use to convince ourselves of all sorts of facts. Within that universe, those miracles are not mythic events, but events simply. Words about the God-Emperor (theo-logos) in that universe are both philosophical and theological simultaneously, and the two things are indistinguishable.

  28. I have been following this blog for many years. This post compelled me to comment as I have been thinking about the relationship between theology and philosophy, especially as someone who has studied and teaches both.

    But I would have to say that I agree mostly with you Adam, although I would describe it more as a conflict rather than a struggle, I have responded in more detail at


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