St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 08:
Theology and Other Disciplines:
What is Special About Theology?

Resource Paper

A few decades back some universities were considering changing Theology departments to Religious Studies departments or developing Religious Studies instead of Theology. Lancaster was the first to open a Religious Studies department due to the work of Ninian Smart with particular strengths in new religious movements and spirituality. Some have added the title of Religious Studies to Theology. The University of Nottingham is one with a Department of Theology and Religious Studies, but it also has The Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham because it is the base of the highly confessional postmodern conservative theology called Radical Orthodoxy. In some places, like the University of Essex, the 1960s ignoring of theology and religion in that new university led the Chaplaincy to set up a Theology Centre first run by Andrew Linzey. The University of Glasgow has a Centre for the Study of Literature, Theology and the Arts. Some places have just closed Theology departments down - cuts affecting already small numbers of staff and students; there has been a huge loss of theology from smaller institutions. Hull has kept its tiny Theology department interestingly its Spirituality Studies is based partly on the secularisation of spirituality as encountered by many professions including Health. Lancaster's Professor Christopher Partridge calls this subjective wellbeing culture within the health services, and is one of his research interests.
Theology is essentially God-talk study from the inside of the religious tradition. When this takes place in a secular university, there is a potential clash of ideals: the university ideal is universal, humanistic, and a broad education for its own sake. It cannot be confessional. Theology from the inside can be confessional and this tension is not resolved within the university. Well, elements of the contemporary university are framed by business interests, making more activities applied and much of education being joined by training; in the past universities had confessional Marxists running Marxism by numbers courses, and so it is that confessional theologians have carried on their own special interests. If Theology presupposes its own truth, and its own confession, in a university this must ultimately be given up; and so Theology open to all becomes a study of what Christians believe and the tradition: in other words, it becomes an engagement in an ethnography. You get deep into a tradition of a people without necessarily holding it yourself. The student and lecturer is at perfect liberty to be anti-confessional or be neutral as well as confessional.
So Theology often migrates, and migrates into Comparative Religion/ Religious Studies, or Philosophy of Religion, History of Religions, Psychology of Religion and Sociology of Religion. Then the intellectual tools used are free from being confessional and religion from the inside. Yet theology is found in public universities because historically in Europe the State was closely interested in religion; this legacy continues and some of these places even continue to train ministers. But there is and must be a difference between the seminary and the university. The university must be purely academic whereas the seminary can remain confessional, however critical its study. Luther King House in Rusholme can assume confessional students for its studies in a way that the Department of Theology at Manchester must not.
Theology is rarer in schools. There used to be a subject called Religious Knowledge that has presumptions of confessional fact just as in Theology. This is in sharp decline too. Today Religious Education does include the confessional, in some faith schools, but also includes the critical (debating concepts), the ethnographic (what believers in the religions actually do), the phenomenological (descriptions and classifications of the essentials making up religions) and the experiential (which makes religious experience primary and religions secondary).
No university can be any of these methods, but the implication of Lancaster's move to Religious Studies was phenomenological. Warwick University in its Religious Education specialises in ethnogaphic approaches. The study of spirituality, e.g. in health services, is along experiential lines and cuts across formal religious teachings of any one religion. The critical approach is, really, an insider's approach, and in RE is sometimes called 'concept cracking', rather more critical than the descriptive and understanding phenomenological approach.
So Theology is problematic, but it is also problematic in how it relates to all other subjects. Here is the central problem. Theology frequently refers to other subjects for explanations, but other subjects almost never refer to Theology for explanations. This is because other subjects are interested in causality from the subject's this-worldy point of view, and no scientist asks what God has been doing in the cosmos or in evolution (except in some popularist publications: but then it is usually only a by-line). When a sociologist asks how religion affects the solidity of a community, it does not ask what God may have been doing to bring about stronger community bonds. It never sees God at work in the token exchangers of the Kula ring carried out by Trobriand islanders, for example. It is either about social systems or structures or group based interpretations or some combination of these. Yet Theology draws on what the scientist does, on what Physics says, on what the sociologist does and Sociology says. It is all in one direction. Even theologians who are also sociologists, like H. Richard Niebuhr and, more recently, Robin Gill, are mainly theologians who heavily mark their theology through sociological method as well as doing straight Sociology. There is an interesting and relevant difference between religious sociology and sociology of religion here. Sociology of Religion is meant to be entirely consistent with Sociology and initial values of humanistic neutrality, but Religious Sociology uses sociological methods in pursuance of religious goals - and this distorts the direction of research. Religious Sociology is the equivalent of business interestes directing research, application or research and developments into products. It just does it for Churches, and has happened mainly from French Roman Catholicism.
Radical Orthodoxy maintains a polemical attack on Sociology. It tries to turn the tables and calls Sociology 'secular theology'. This is unsustaibable and is so because Sociology is bound to do research, either qualitiative for in depth small scale meaning based studies or quantitative research for reliable repeat mass statistical work. Qualitative or quantitative research is always here on earth and is of what people say and what they do, where they do it and who with and what for and how.
The only exception to the pure this-worldly (other than Theology) may be in parts of Philosophy, such as Platonic, and that is only because Philosophy has a long history of handling religion, and some Philosophy imposes on religion arguments that inevitably changed religion towards the Enlightenment period. There are cases too where Philosophy has done the job in Brahmin Hinduism towards rationality that Theology has done in Christianity. Hinduism has had its own road to modernity that is not simply the result of contact with Christianity and its left-wing theologically speaking.
So Theology is fairly isolated, and whereas it reaches out to other disciplines, they don't reach out to it. They have no need of religion's hypotheses. Odd perhaps, in that so many universities grew out of monastic and church institutions, but on secularising and through academic specialisation in to subjects they have marginalised the Queen of Sciences.
As for the secular person doing Theology, or any different believer, the ethnographic approach can be used for depth and insight, but in the end such an approach is only people moving, myth making, forms of thinking and purposeful acting. The ethnographic approach is comparative and stretches across to other faiths and to other disciplines.
Yet from the other side, the theological side, the question arises is whether the object of Theology is only accessible to those inside people of faith. For the believer, there might be the objective reality, God, as seen according to the belief, according to the insider. The modern theologians, we have seen, were all inside the believer's circle, all inside what is called the hermeneutic (meaning-making) loop.
Brian Hebblethwaite, however, warns against a private logic only accessible by believers (1980, 20), but reckons that Christianity has been the most self-critical faith whilst Hinduism can be. He rates Judaism more limited than surely is the case: Judaism has undergone philosophical evolution and insight and realignment of its institutional confessions. Also he ignores early Islam being confidently one with science, mathematics and philosophy before it clericalised.
So let's look at how Theology relates to other subjects, like Hebblethwaite does, starting (as he does) with the closest subject, Comparative Religion. If we have such as a phenomenological approach - that is a description of its irreducible essentials - then such description is done on the basis of suspending any belief and treating religious concepts equally, seeing comparative patterns and how they are similar across religions, as well as seeing how they are different. This involves the act of classifying, arranging, listing. Essentially comparative religion is a database subject! Ninian Smart as mentioned is the person much associated with this approach: known in this for school RE as well. In the end one has to ask whether a deep believer can ever suspend belief, to do such a 'database' approach, just as one must ask whether a person steeped in the culture of their birth could somehow ever stand outside it in order to list its essentials in comparison with other cultures. Theology finds the essence of something because belief directs the individual there, and this is something comparative religion cannot do. Notice how the critical approach is an insider's approach most of all. An alternative then is ethnography, which is to observe believers actual actions and thoughts showing what are the essentials of faith (this relies on qualitative research): the interest is whether ethnographic findings of the essentials of a religion are the same as the phenomenological essentials. Ethnographic approaches are usually not good for official religion.
(Ask yourself, what are the essentials of some believers' participation in Christianity. Are they, for example, social and cultural, and cut out or deviate around difficult formal beliefs that would be essential in a phenomenological approach? How much magical and superstitious belief gets added to those who think supernaturally? How much doctrine is water off a duck's back for those of a basic humanistic and practical outlook?)
Psychology is often used to explain away religious experience. If you have voices from God in your head pyschology might have quite a different view of what is going on. What though of mystics - Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim - who find or reach further towards the divine? Is this just headcase stuff? Interestingly, there is no clash for the Buddhist because clearing the head of clutter and having visionary impacts are indeed directly about the mind. Buddhism is the most psychological of the faiths, and indeed some people say Buddhism is not a religion. Psychology does not, however, negate or disprove anything regarding religious phenomena, and indeed William James (1842-1910) was a psychological and literary based liberal theologian who asked how one might hear and speak the divine more readily through psychology and in one's language expression. Nineteenth century theologians were happy to see theology alongside other emerging subjects, including psychology. Carl Jung (1875-1961) developed archetypes, the idea of shared ancient symbols trapped in our biological memories that break out full of meaning when we draw upon them, like a collective conscience. We might regard him and Freud as pseudo-scientists as they are speculating about the mind with untestable so called facts, but with Jung we see a positive relationship between such psychology and religion. Jung is a foundation of the perspective of religious experience and spirituality.
In anthropology (which is ethnographic in method) we see magic, localised religion and cosmopolitan religion everywhere. Localised religion organises the manipulations of magic into some sort of shamanistic salvation system; cosmopolitan religion takes this and literacy much much further and develops even more complex systems - the supernatural wins over magic, and in rationalised pro-Western religion even the supernatural is challenged. The question is whether, in primitive societies, we see the essence of religion and what it is all about - located in magic. Or, is religion a set of horses for courses, that, for example, the development of critical Protestantism is its own essence that reflects who were are at that stage of modernity and transition. Cultures may be so cpmpared structurally (magic, supernatural, rational) but some object: deep meanings are held in cultures that are not comparative - each is its own meaning-entity. Some anthropologists have absorbed themselves into other cultures in order to get an inside picture: but if they manage this can they translate them via the narrative essay? Anthropology is entirely self-explanatory, without the need for a God hypothesis, as it is ethnography about the people, but again it does not rule out the means by which God would want to interact with the world when people are drawn to worship and ritual.
The fact is that religion does shift according to how we are organised socially and where we are technologically and what sort of knowledge we have got. You would not find Bonhoeffer's secular leaning theology amongst primitive societies: it really does belong in our times. So is Theology itself purely an expression of social organisation and social change, or does God work differently through different epochs? How come God seems to be disappearing as God-talk explains less and less about how the world works? Is this something God desires, or is it because such a God does not exist? Sociology answers none of these questions: but there is a Sociology of Knowledge and there is a Sociology of Theology. There ought to be a more open Theology of Sociology: actually we might say that Don Cupitt, especially in his latest pro-Western 'Above Us Only Sky' writings is producing a Theology of contemporary Sociology of Knowledge. Paul Tillich says we ask ultimate questions, but after Barth and Bonhoeffer a chap called Harvey Cox wrote The Secular City and in urban living we are too busy to ask such questions. Well we are not that busy, and Harvey Cox took a turn to the East after his Secular period. It is Cupitt now who is examining the language of the every day as an indicator of what people actually believe.
There are various methods of doing History, from those that overlap with Sociology, of psychohistory, and even with literary narrative methods, but in the end History is a present day activity of analysing primary documents from the past, whatever historiography then takes over (with the exception of oral history - a method of what is said now about the past). If you haven't got documents written at the time for the purpose of their subject matter then you have a real difficulty reconstructing the past. This, of course, is the problem with our perceptions of Jesus - there are no primary documents. The secondary documents that exist force questions like who wrote them and for what purpose. What some Theology then does, like the modern theologians did (from Barth onwards), is to say there is some essence of the Christian message that is irreducible revelation, and comes to us preserved via the tradition. A historian can neither confirm nor deny such a claim of irreducibility; it is outside the discipline of history. But beware when someone claims something in a tradition is historical, or that Christianity is a historical faith. What that means is different from rooted in critical history; it means that this religion has a timeline. Such religion recognises that time began, and it says that time will end, and that salvation is connected with linear time. Such is Zoroastrianaism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, mainly Sikh and the Baha'i; Hindus and Buddhists and Jains have a salvation scheme that goes round and round and round through cycles, and that is rather different.
Finally Science. Let's look at evolution. Evolution is local and specific to a particular environment. An environment locally favours one species and its reproductive success over another although in a situation of comparative advantage complex arrangements of species form an equilibrium for that environoment. The best attributes will live on and rework winners and losers. It is complex in the interrelationship of species and also in the level of redundancy that higher animals protect within groups. The question is, can there be any sort of overall plan towards the good when everything is local and specific to a situation? You could have deism, where God sets the creativity rules and retires, but this sets up a system red in tooth and claw that seems an immoral route to a supposed moral end. Alternatively, you might have God tweaking this and that along the way, but then we'd better change our science. Science and religion do seem to clash at several points, even if we really do need such precise Goldilocks conditions for planetary systems, our planet and for life to evolve at all. Still, our time starts in this universe and says nothing about failed universes that could be infinite in a number of false starts. However, when religion drops some of its views about an almighty God, and starts to look at what intelligent, remembering, socialising people should do in the face of suffering, drawing on empathy, then theology starts getting interesting again. And there is also plenty to wonder about regarding species like our own with the earth nearly 5 billion years old and about the same time left to it before the sun burns it up. Humankind shall be long gone by then, of course.
A fundamental problem is this. Religions are old, in human-cultural terms, and at the heart of them is the magical and the supernatural. This simply clashes with modernity (and with elements of postmodernity too). Ancient ideas in religion also carry ethical messages restricting human behaviour which modernity might well question (such as homosexuality as an ancient taboo but a modern feature of loving couples). The big question is whether Theology can sort any of this out. The nineteenth century theologians thought that Theology could adapt to modernity and its new subject areas. However, they tied themselves to progress and to optimism. After the First World War, and then the Nazis, optimism was in short supply, and the next wave of modern theologians built a special protected space for Theology - that space being God, revelation and the essential Christological message. Somehow this seems retrograde, but might be a last defence: some theologians however have returned to the literary openness of the nineteenth century (for example Mark C. Taylor) whereas others just talk shop from within the shop (like N. T. Wright).
Since the modern theologians, there have been further theological developments. Anglicanism is supposed to be culturally responsive, whilst carrying the essence of Christianity, or supposedly. So we can look at Anglican controversies as theology tries to square a few circles, as well as later on the range of theologies that predominate today including those that are most open.

Main Points Summary:


Hebblethwaite, B. L. (1980), The Problems of Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge, University Press.

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Adrian Worsfold