No More Theology Departments?

No More Theology Departments? June 26, 2009

I still have to get to replying to a few outstanding comments but in the meantime, I figured I’d quickly address this question from Evangelos:

would you contend that theology departments should not exist at the academic level, even if they were challenging traditional beliefs (I’m thinking of this fellow who appeared on Colbert a few months ago who had written a book contending that the Divinity of Christ was a later invention)?

I think you mean this interview with Bart Ehrman, who was also on The Colbert Report another time.  Both are really interesting discussions worth watching.

The history, psychology, anthropology, sociology, biology, literature, and philosophy of religion are all valuable pursuits that religion departments would have an interest in exploring even if I am right.  If the entire academy were to accept my epistemology, that’s what those departments now purporting to do theology would do exclusively.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to use political power or bureaucratic academic power (if I ever had it) to disband theology departments as a result of the realization that, assuming I am correct, there is strictly speaking no such thing as faith/tradition-based theological knowledge about matters inaccessible to reason, general experience, and evidence.

While I think there is no knowledge in theology, as I said in the recent post you to which you were replying, I do think that sophisticated theologians can communicate interesting philosophical ideas in a form of poetic expression.  There could conceivably be interesting provocations to thought from such exercises, comparable to those we experience from other literary forms of expression.  So, for example, in working out the “theology of forgiveness,” theologians may creatively interact with traditional source materials and historical theologians and create new interesting models or reformulate older ones.  That work, may provide the structure of an account that an ethicist can get ideas from even though she rejects the parts of the account that intermix myth or archaic superstitions, etc.  That model of forgiveness might also give insight to psychologists about how people formulate their understanding of what forgiveness is.  In these ways, theological work can be both a highly poetic form of philosophizing and an artifact of human expression that, like other literature and arts, gives insights into the human experience.

But I think that the value of theological models would ultimately be quite limited and would be better served by the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, ethics, natural science, social science, etc. all of which would not murky the waters by mixing myths with defensible propositions liberally as theologians do.  (And often it is the most important concepts in theological works which are the most muddled and even philosophically incoherent—the doctrines of the Trinity and the full humanity/full divinity of Christ being clear examples).

There will for a long time though be a crucial and defensible place in the academy for explication of religious texts as subjects of literary examination, study of the role of religion in history, and for investigation of the evolutionary and psychological sources and functions of religion.

While all these tasks might be simply carried out within the other departments, the cross-pollination of insights between the contributions of these various phenomena would be perfectly legitimate for treating a phenomenon like religion which is so amorphous and which has shaped and been shaped by all those other aspects of human life in endlessly inter-tangled ways.

So, I would still think there is a tremendous amount to learn about ourselves from studying our religious natures, histories, and writings.  And I think some of the questions of theology that can be treated from the perspective of philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and empirical science would still remain or become the provenance of revamped, rationally credible theology departments which no longer lent any credence to supernaturalism, superstition, traditionalism, or sacred texts taken as divinely inspired and specially authoritative.

Your Thoughts?

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