A Troubling Realization

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A while back several people suggested to me that the study of philosophy was much more academically rigorous than the study of theology.  This wasn’t the first time such a suggestion had been made to me, but for some reason this particular instance really bothered me. 

Part of the reason undoubtedly was that these individuals had received graduate degrees in both theology and philosophy, so i couldn’t write this suggestion off as mere ignorance.  Arrogant maybe, but not ignorant.  Another reason why this bugged me was that it seems like most of the Christian philosophers in training saw theology as “helpful,” but not foundational (for lack of a better word at the moment) for their work. 

I’m sure that this second reason betrays my conceit that theology is a nobler discipline than philosophy.  Like many fathers in the church, i want to see philosophy as the handmaiden of theology.  Like Karl Barth once remarked, theology is the “queen of the sciences.”  While i’m not disparaging the importance or the necessity of Christian philosophy, if we are to be true to our beliefs it seems like we must affirm the primacy of theology.

Even though i may tend towards arrogance or snobbery, i get annoyed when i sense that theology is being supplanted by philosophy in the realm of Christian academia.  I think that to a degree i have a legitimate gripe.  However, i fear that at least part, if not most of, the reason for my frustration is that it is true.  It does seem like they have to work a lot harder than i do.  This was quite a troubling realization.  In a sense, it is convicting for me.  Although i refuse to make a “new year’s resolution,” i do want to hold myself to the highest possible standard in my academic pursuits so that i actually live out what i profess to believe, that theology is the queen of the sciences, and to do theological work well requires the utmost effort on my part.

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14 responses to “A Troubling Realization

  1. One question to be asked of your interlopers is what sort of theology they are thinking of. Few could argue that someone like Barth or Pannenberg produced work less rigorous than philosophy, but that argument can almost certainly be made against Rick Warren or John Piper (for instance; not to single them out).

  2. Oh, I meant to say also that although Barth may have at one point said that ‘queen of sciences’ line, it goes back (at least) to Thomas.

  3. Having graduate degrees in both (M.Div. and M.A. in analytic philosohpy), I can say that philosophy (of the analytic stripe) is definitely more rigorous than theology, in the same way that chemistry is more rigorous than social work. The controls and constraints are much more tightly regulated. The language (within a particular vein) is used a bit more technically. But I would not here equate ‘rigorous’ with ‘better’. I find that the rigorousness of analytic philosophy (even the supposed ‘Christian’ philosophy) is exactly what ends it up in asinine conversations that are sometimes even destructive to good theology. I cannot defend that claim here, of course, but I spent four years in analytic philosophy both adjuncting and presenting at the ‘Christian’ philosophy conferences before could not stand the myopic nature of the discipline any longer. I’ve had conversations with the biggest Christian philosophers out there and have been thoroughly impressed with their rigor, but less than impressed with their insight. I don’t gloat about this, it has been a major point of despair for me over the years.

    A note on ‘rigor’: as an instance of rigor without insight, my M.A. thesis (analytic philosophy) was initially submitted at 67 pages with some historical analysis of the topic included. It was defended and passed at 22 pages of pure argument. Rigor can exclude much of what needs to be said about a topic in order to understand it.

    Just my insight, cheers.

  4. Hmmm. Interesting. I have not studied theology at a high level (only an MA from an evangelical seminary), but from what I have seen and read I imagine that it is being done by many at the same level of rigor as philosophy. That being said, it is a sad fact that secular institutions tend to have higher academic standards than their evangelical counterparts. As a result, the typical theology (graduate)degree is obtained more easily than the typical philosophy (graduate) degree. This says nothing about the discipline of theology. It is a reflection of the lax standards in evangelical seminaries.
    On a side note, I do think that the practice of *doing* philosophy is a fundamental skill crucial for all disciplines. This doesn’t mean you need to know anything about Kant or modal logic, but rather that you should master the methodology of philosophical inquiry.

  5. PS — I am a graduate student (PhD) in philosophy at a large state school.

  6. Chris, I may have given the wrong impression. On the contrary, my M.A. was a piece of cake compared the M.Div. I felt like the expectations and competencies required were much higher at the evangelical seminary compared to the public university. Although, that may vary by seminary and university alike. But my M.A. was from top 10 program for terminal degrees in philosophy. I could barely make decent marks in seminary whereas I made straight A’s in philosophy. Again, this is merely anecdotal. But I’ve talked to several other people with whom I went to seminary and went on to other (non-theological) graduate programs. We all had roughly the same sentiment: this is not too bad compared to seminary.

    All that said, I would say that I learned how to think acutely and how to write rigorously in philosophy. I do agree that most seminarians would benefit greatly from the ‘skill of philosophy’ which is more aptly labeled ‘rhetoric’. In fact, I tell people that I’m not sure whether my M.A. is actually in philosophy or rhetoric. It sure seemed much closer to rhetoric. Just goes to show how varying our experiences can be.

    Let me also add that I am passively working on a research degree in theology and can say that several of the historical theologians I am studying with (including OT and NT scholars) are more rigorous than anyone I’ve studied under elsewhere. But, and this is a big but, they are also extremely conversant with philosophy and mostly because of their European background and/or education.

  7. gracepointaudio

    Sorry, I just realized I goofed again. I meant to say: “All that said, I would say that I learned how to think acutely in seminary and how to write rigorously in philosophy.”

  8. Well i’m happy to see that this post has generated a bit of discussion. Let me start by saying thanks to all, they are all appreciated.

    WTM,

    I hear your point. Sadly, in this particular interchange they were actually picking on a post of Ben Myers. The conversation turned to Barth, and they didn’t really have a whole lot of respect for his project either. The reason for that i think lies more in what drujohnson pointed out.

    drujohnson,

    Thanks for your insights. I think that you are right in that the difference between the two disciplines may have more to do with their “genre,” and what they are trying to accomplish. Those who didn’t hold Barth in high regard as a thinker did so b/c of all the logical inconsistencies in his thought. For Barth, who saw God as the “wholly other,” such a criticism was meaningless.

    Chris,

    Good to hear from you. WOuld you mind elaborating on what exactly a “methodology of philosophical inquiry” looks like? I’m not sure i understand the term very well. I do agree with you in he basic sense that theology does have much to learn from philosophers.

  9. Logical inconsistencies in Barth? I’ve never found one. But then, the logic with which Barth is working is different from that with which, say, analytic philosophy works. Might all this be written off to a certain residual philosophical imperialism left over from the 19th century? In any case, it should be clear that I find this whole philosophical attitude to be a bit pretentious.

    In any case, I remain unconvinced. The simple fact that theology and philosophy work with different sets of rules and thought forms, and that theology (pursued correctly) does not consider itself beholden to those of philosophy, does not mean that theology is any less rigorous. It simply means that the two are different.

    I have a good friend in a philosophy PhD program at Fordam, and while he would undoubtedly fault many theologians and aspiring theologians with lazy, un-rigorous thinking, he would also readily confess the rigor of other theological work.

  10. It’s a good question, and I will have to think about it. I’ve been trying to read Wittgenstein and Kant, to add a little philosophical rigor to my thinking.

    Is it too easy in theology to pursue a problem until it gets difficult, and then fall back on mystery or paradox?

    Or does the fear of falling into heresy stop us from pursuing an argument to its logical conclusion?

    On the other hand, do Kant and Wittgenstein (among many others) teach us that there are limits to logic and reason?

  11. I will go ahead and give my convictions (since I’ve already weighed in): that all epistemology is basically founded upon paradoxes or mysteries as a starting point. But this is only if one assumes all the post and neo-Kantian formulations of epistemology. I have some very deep-seated reasons for this that I gained in the study of analytic philosophy.

    “Logic and reason” as they are given through current philosophical thinking (analytic, not continental) are essentially the right answers to the wrong questions (IMHO). I am constantly shocked that very few “Christian” philosophers are concerned to answer the questions scripture asks and through the purview of scripture itself. I just haven’t seen much of “Christian” philosophy that merits the title “Christian”, maybe “Christianish”. It’s like calling the Left Behind series legitimate eschatology. Those novels, like much of “Christian” philosophy, are attempting to correspond to loose or bad theology and ignore most of the questions that scripture is concerned about eschatalogically. I think Nietzsche asks more biblically concerned questions than most today (not to mention Kierkegaard).

    I believe that the ideal of domesticating abstracts might be too alluring for many “Christian” philosophers and they just can’t get around the notion that Kant asks all the wrong questions from the wrong vantage. Wittgenstein asks some great questions, which yield helpful answers.

    When I teach philosophy intro classes at the public university (or otherwise), I generally try to get students to seriously consider what questions the philosopher is trying to answer. Otherwise, a philosopher merely offers better or worse rhetoric and the possibility of overlapping with legitimate scriptural questions.

    But this is a lot of caricature and generalizing over the last 5 years of experience.

  12. BTW – I would be interested to hear other’s perception of the field as a whole.

  13. One More though: I’m not sure if it’s still that way, but at least the impression I get from the few German Theologians I know a bit about is that in the 20th century, in Germany, graduate study in theology included the study of philosophy. For example, apologetics was not a separate topic, but using something like Tillich’s method of “correlation” one had to address the theological issues raised by a major philosopher. Bonhoeffer, for example, was thoroughly familiar with Nietzche and Hegel, and I believe he interacted with Heidegger in his habilitationschrift Act and Being. Moltmann’s Theology of Hope was based on his encounter with the marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. So in that educational tradition, I would say theology was more rigorous, since I don’t suppose there was the corresponding expectation that philosophers be conversant with theology.

  14. One of my philosophy of religion professors explained that in philosophical circles epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind are at the top field, followed by ethics, then metaphysics, then philosophy of religion, and finally aesthetics. For modern philosophers, theology and philosophy of religion is almost as low as one can go.

    My understanding of the current milieu is that when it comes to modern analytic philosophy, secular philosophers consider Wittgenstein to be the last word on theology and religion in general. This last word is that the term ‘God’ has no real meaning. In a way, they view religious practice is essentially a predicate with no object. This view filters down through Christian philosophers as a general impression that philosophy is more respectable than theology.

    The problem is that when it comes to evangelical theology, this is just as rigorous, if not more so, than secular philosophy. However, what most secular philosophers are familiar with is contemporary constructive theology, which is basically junk. Modern liberal theology, in my opinion, has become a place where anything goes. One can write whatever theological nonsense that one wishes without ever having to connect to any discernable foundation. A perfect example is the book by Paul Fiddes, The Promised End. This is a book on eschatology that never engages scripture. Instead it engages prominant theologians such as Aquinas, Augustine, and Barth regarding their version of eschatology. Then it engages literature, both classical and modern. Never is a discernable foundation visible except in a chapter that is clearly rooted in modern physics. Most philosophers have no idea about the rigorous, thorough, and thoughtful work that Geisler, Davis, Moreland, Craig, Reynolds, Rae, and Grudem are doing/have done. What they see is the loosey-goosey stuff being put out by Cobb, Fiddes, McFague, Kaufman, Pannikar (sp?), and Keller. With this under consideration, it is no wonder that religion is taking a back seat to philosophy.

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