Approaches to theology and philosophy: As observed in the wild

It seems to me that there are three ways of bringing together Christian theology and philosophy that are both common and fairly uninteresting:

  1. The punching bag: The philosopher’s ideas are so bad (in whatever way) that they demonstrate the urgent need to rush back into the arms of the church.
  2. The proto-Christian: The philosopher’s ideas are good because they have independently discovered the vast riches of thought that we Christians already possess.
  3. The outside standard: The philosopher is granted some kind of moral authority, and it turns out that Christian theology does not measure up to the challenge.

Why are these methods uninteresting? They presuppose that theology and philosophy are two clearly separate entities that must be brought into a relationship that is always somewhat arbitrary. The arbitrarity is perhaps clearest in the case of #3 — why should theologians, qua theologians, care whether they measure up to a moralized version of some random philosopher? — but it’s present in #1 (why is this philosopher the enemy?) and #2 (why bother talking about this at all if it’s something we already know?).

The arbitrarity of all three methods works to suppress the fact that the encounter between theology and philosophy is not at all arbitrary or fortuitous — it is a “special relationship” based on the fact that both discourses are conceptual discourses. Bringing the two together in an interesting and productive way thus requires us precisely to bracket any presupposed difference between the two, to recognize that philosophers can very easily work with (and rework) concepts drawn from theological traditions and that philosophers’ conceptual work can act as therapeutic critiques of places where theological conceptual work has become sloppy or provide tools for clarifying theological concepts that remain imprecise.

[N.B.: This post on the difference between the two discourses may also be of interest.]

12 thoughts on “Approaches to theology and philosophy: As observed in the wild

  1. Who are the exemplitive philosophical figures thtat support each of these kinds? How do you support the argument that philosophy and theology might in themselves not be separate entities or domains of knowledge with a full set of conceptual tools and practices at variance to their respective programs? And, why should there be a relation between them at all, except for the purposes of refining certain ancient conceptual crossovers within their linguistic and terminologica drift? And, why should we bracket – a very Husserelian choice – a difference between them just because they, like other discourses, are emendable to epistemic conceptuality and normatitivity?

    I do not mean this as an attack on your post, but as an interesting inquiry that needs further explication…

  2. Aspects of it, of course, but, yes, it is not my main focus… I’ve always found your blog to be open and thoughtful, though. This particular post seemed fortuitous, to say the least, and, ergo, sparked my inquiry. Having grown up in the church, studied theology as a younger man, then chosen another direction for my own life and thought outside the confines of that great instititution I do have an interest; yet, over the years, obviously, my work in theory has taken other paths. Yet, it seems many are seeing a resurgence in this intersection of onto-theological or epistemic aspects of early scholastic and other trends. So I do try and attend to certain trends… your blog keeps an open mind toward this! I appreciate that, even if I disagree with aspects of your own thought, you at least work through it in an intelligent and sophisticated manner without disparagement and devisiveness. I think we all need that!

  3. So are you more asking, “why would philosophy need theology?” or “why would theology need philosophy”? Obviously both are present in your question (basically, why can’t they just be separate), but I wonder where your greater concern is.

  4. Hi Adam,

    Even though I basically agree with your position, I still have one major problem with this return to Christianity in a sort of post-secular form: Why Christianity?

    If one really wants to take a universel position beyond religion and secularism, doesn’t one need to abandon the references to Christianity since it works as a particular identitarian way in a global capitalist world? I mean, both Badiou and Zizek quotes Paulus’ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” and we can all be redeemed in the same way, that is universally (by communism). But does this not also mean, that we need to stop speaking about Christianity and the Christian heritage in order to move to the truly political position beyond religion. At least from a very pragmatic standpoint, I find it very hard to believe that a revival of a sort of Christian communist theory loaded with references to Christian thought, will somehow gain support from non-Christian groups such as socialists/communists in the Arab world, China, India and so on.

    I am not discrediting the theory as such – I find it particularly productive with Agamben in The Kingdom and the glory as a way of disclosing the heritage of modern thought – but a see it as a dangerous way to go in future political struggles. Aren’t we forced to leave Christianity in the past and insist that the true ethical stance in the modern situation is purely political?

    – Nicolai

  5. Christianity exists, it’s clearly very powerful — why not try to make some use of it? I don’t think it functions solely in an identitarian way, but even if it did — why exclude the idea that it could function differently? The notion that we need to purge all reference to Christianity seems weirdly “Christian” in structure to me, or at least moralizing.

  6. In truth only the first quetion is non-rhetorical, the rest are more rhetorical pleading rather than quetions needing a definitive answer. It was just interesting that you set up three specific rhetorical figures that you could then knock down rather than defining arguments against actual philosophical positions supported by a specific cases of philosopher(s). It would have been more intereresting to have seen just whose positions you were thinking of when you came up with these abstracted cases. That was alll. Nothing more.

  7. Okay, I hope you can see that your extra rhetorical questions did not help with clarity. If you have a question, please just ask it straightforwardly next time.

    For type #3, people will often make this move with Levinas (or with the later Derrida insofar as he draws on Levinas). For type #1, I’m thinking of the Radical Orthodox approach to Deleuze. It seems that #2 is less common — it’s often used in combination with the others (parts of this guy are just like Christianity, but then he has to go and do something evil…).

    As with any typology, there’s probably no perfect or pure example — I just assumed anyone in the field (anyone attending AAR regularly, for instance) would recognize what I was talking about.

  8. Okay. Let me then ask my question in a open minded non-rhetorical way: As you see it, is there some emancipatory potential in Christianity that we do not find in Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and so on?

    And is there maybe also some emancipatory potential in these religions, that we do not find in Christianity?

  9. Insofar as each tradition is different, each would naturally have different resources to draw on. I’m not comfortable attaching an emancipation quotient to any of them, but I don’t presume that Christianity is the “most” helpful. In fact, I acknowledge that in many ways drawing on Christianity is pretty counterintuitive! But it’s where I am.

    I’m working my way more into Judaism and will probably eventually do the same with Islam — Buddhism seems like a further reach, but who knows what directions I’ll be drawn in? But my starting point is Christianity because that’s where I come from and that’s where I made my first major effort of scholarly inquiry.

Comments are closed.