On What Counts As A Theological Position

Anderson Brown has an interesting post arguing that agnosticism is not a theological position because it is the claim that one cannot make a metaphysical assertion about the existence or non-existence of God and, therein rejects both the possible alternative theological positions (that there is a God and that there is not one):

A “theological position” would be an opinion of some sort (that’s the “position” part) about something (say, existence or lack thereof) specifically about God (that’s the “theological” part). “Either God exists, or God does not exist” is a theological position, because it contains the premise that both sides of the disjunction make sense. Put in metaphysical terms: that it’s possible that God exists, and possible that God does not. But I’m not sure the agnostic is entitled to that much.

But Brown does not think that the agnostic is entitled to his position that the question of God is in principle unknowable since there are available reasons for and against the proposition that there is a God even though one might not be convinced that they conclusively lead to one conclusion over the other.  Agnosticism is not therefore a theological position but a refusal to do theology.  Brown claims he is himself, therefore, a sceptic since he thinks there are reasons to believe and not to believe and yet is unsure which way to go.  And he rejects agnosticism as an alternative altogether (except as the alternative to evade the questions altogether), again because there are possible reasons that can be weighed, so the question is not simply beyond answering rationally.

For my part, I’m not sure that questions of atheism, theism, agnosticism, skepticism, pantheism, etc. as Brown lays them out are really “theological” positions but rather, simply philosophical ones.   As long as we are on the plane of discussing God as a plausible or implausible, theoretically knowable or theoretically unknowable, theoretically proven, or skeptically doubted being, I think we are still doing philosophy.

It’s only when we are accepting a faith tradition (or multiple ones) and taking into account its sources, and not restricting ourselves only to rational ones, that I think we enter into doing “theology” proper.  This is because theology is the study of God or gods and assumes there is a God or gods from the outset.  So, I would argue that atheism, the philosophical position that there are no gods available to study, is a rejection of theology as much as agnosticism is.

And skepticism is a choice to hold off on doing theology until there is philosophical evidence that would permit acceptance of (a) a metaphysical entity known as God and (b) the authority of a specific faith tradition or traditions for interpreting that God’s nature/works/etc., in the terms of which one could then proceed to do “theology.”

I think it’s important to keep this space between philosophy and theology because if you are a skeptic about the metaphysical God but absolutely convinced that special revelation is bogus for epistemological reasons then as far as religious belief and practice goes you are far closer to the agnostics and atheists than Brown is when he simply has an openness to the possible reasons for believing in the God of the philosophers.

Now, maybe you’re equally as open-minded a skeptic about special revelation, capable of persuasion to accept it as you are of the metaphysical God, in which case you are a skeptic about the existence of God and a skeptic about whether theology contains any truth at all.  But that’s something specifically different than simple skepticism about the philosopher’s God that gets combined with confident atheism about the specially revealing gods of faith.
Personally, I am simply a metaphysical skeptic when it comes to the existence of a unified, eternally existent “ground of all being” or Anselmian “perfect being” of some sort.  But based on my views of epistemic justification, in principle I completely rule out special, narrowly given, revelation as a legitimate source of authority and so am atheistic with respect to all religious interpretations of God the second they go beyond the philosophically plausible.

I do not believe there is any such field of knowledge called “theology” (except if by that term you mean a species of literature, myth, and history of ideas.)  And technically it is possible (since anything is possible) that some theological tradition is actually true but we can in principle have no justified knowledge of it and so should never make belief claims about it, even if it were to actually be true.  There is a difference between something’s being true and it’s being rationally affirmable.  Special revelation, rejecting the standards of public reason, is in principle not rationally affirmable and so even were it to contain truths (which is extraordinarily unlikely anyway), we would still be unjustified in believing them.

To that extent that mere possibility of special revelation remains, I might really best be called an agnostic about whether there can be special revelation since I think we can never know whether it does or does not happen since it is in principle not subject to rational corroboration or assessment.  But, being committed to the principle that we should not affirm what we cannot have adequate reasons to believe, that means rejecting the claim that the theology done from within that “special revelation” could ever be called “knowledge.”  Even if it happened to be right.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://AndersonBrown'sPhilosophyBlog Anderson brown

    Dan, thank you for the discussion. I have added Camels With Hammers to the blogroll here. I would not describe myself as a sceptic: I am persuaded by Wittgenstein’s arguments that sceptical claims make no sense: they involve an improper use of the verb “to know.” The existence of the external world, for example, is not the sort of thing about which one can either know or fail to know. “God” taken as “ground of being” (Tillich) or “universal mind” (Hindus, Spinoza) looks to be relevantly similar (harder to cash that out than it looks!) to “the external world”: not the kind of thing that qualifies as an object of knowledge. The agnostic wants to be a sceptic: he wants to tell us that we don’t know something that we are sure that we do know. I hold sceptical problems to be pseudoproblems.

  • Evangelos

    I’m wondering if you could do a post, or at least simply clarify for me, on what you mean by special revelation exactly. Is it that God or gods reveal themselves to a certain number of human beings who are then distributed to the whole world with instructions, or is it any contact with a divine being/creature (I say creature to allow room for angels and demons to pop in) at all?


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