Saturday, 18 November 2006

The justification of theology

“The justification for a faculty of theology in the university lies in its willingness to bear witness to an eschatological disclosure of the ultimate foundation of all the disciplines and, in so doing, to the meaningfulness of all disciplines in spite of their inability to demonstrate their foundations…. [T]heology serves the other sciences best when it acts as a disruptive influence; when it reminds the other sciences of their inability to demonstrate their ultimate presuppositions…. If faculties of theology could learn once again to perform this function, they will truly deserve their place at the table. If they do not, if they continue to allow theology to be transformed into metaphysics or reduced to anthropology, well, we ought not to be surprised if theology loses its place altogether.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “Theology and Science: Karl Barth’s Contribution to an Ongoing Debate,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 22 (2006), p. 59.

11 Comments:

kim fabricius said...

Well roared!

Anonymous said...

Painfully true.

Rory Shiner said...

True, but probably not the kind of argument that lends itself to an outcomes-based, managerial university culture.

"At the end of this course students may expect to:

a. Experience a disruptive influence on their other studied via an eschatological disclosure of other topics.

b. Get job in theological industry and/or bring eschatological perspective to other employment.

c. Spell "eschatology"

michael jensen said...

At Oxford, one of the ancient homes of theological study, theology is under very great pressure to become religious studies in return for more government cash and more students flowing in from the high school religious studies courses.

Confessional theology will become a historical curio, believing theologians will become objects of tourist fascination. And yet, religious studies is one of the most boring academic disciplines yet invented.

Increasingly, Christian theologians in university positions have shown that they don't believe their own faith, so why should anyone else?

Tyler Simons said...

My money, in the end, is on theology, but it's important to note that Nietzsche, Derrida (I think) and Stanley Fish have all taken this same academic task upon themselves. Theologians, I think, might also have to justify why they're the ones who need to make this important point.

Tyler Simons said...

Please imagine I wrote "(among many others)" in the appropriate place in the above comment.

kim fabricius said...

Theology, obviously, has its own fiduciary framework. In that, however, it differs from no other academic discipline. Anyone even superficially familiar with contemporary epistemology and hermeneutics, and, e.g. the philosophy of science, should need no convincing on that score.

So the question is not whether theology has an intellectually respectable case for a place in the university curriculum, but it is twofold: first, why it should be privileged over, say, Islamic theology; but, second - and more to the point - why it should expect, as a matter of right, to have a place at all in institutions of higher learning that are in captivity to the prevailing plausibility structure of atheist humanism - apart, that is, from historical and cultural considerations, which (some might argue) are reasons enough. But theology qua theology is a Trojan horse in the secular establishment, so why should a secular university welcome Greeks bearing gifts?

If Alasdair MacIntyre is right that the West is entering a new dark ages, the church should certainly be prepared to support its own educational institutions from the nursery school to the university.

Christian A said...

“The justification for a faculty of theology in the university lies in its willingness to bear witness to an eschatological disclosure of the ultimate foundation of all the disciplines and, in so doing, to the meaningfulness of all disciplines in spite of their inability to demonstrate their foundations"

Imagine if universities were pursuaded of this and took it seriously. Perhaps first semester of first year would look very different:

Economics 1001: "The Theological Foundations of Economics"
Social Work 1001: "The Theological Foundations of Social Work"
Engineering 1001: "The Theological Foundations of Engineering"
etc :-)

Deep Furrows said...

Balthasar stated this as the task of the Christian and not just the theologian:

"What I have in mind here are only the limited and often mutually exclusive horizons of the particular disciplines (for example, mathematical logic, linguistic analysis, psychology, sociology, physics), each of which tends to make totalitarian claims to explain existence.

It is important for Christians to engage in these sciences not simply because of their countless, positive, theoretical and practical results, but also in order to uncover their intrinsic limitations and incompetence when it comes to asking fundamental questions of Weltanschauung, on which the meaning or meaningless of existence ultimately depends, and to which only God's revelation in Christ can vouchsafe an answer." (Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms).

Anonymous said...

Am reading Dawkins' new book at the mo' (The God Delusion), and his is certainly the view that theology is undeserving of a place in a university.

However, thus far (about 100 pages in), his otherwise admiral arguments are let down by a simplistic view of the point and practice of theology, and also his account of New Testament historical analysis is also misleadingly reductive.

If anyone else happens to be reading it, would love to hear your thoughts!

Matheson said...

It was Schleiermacher who wanted to revive theology as a respected discipline in the academy by giving it precisely the role McCormack proposes. He had some success, to be sure. But Tyler Simons has an important point: the 'hermeneutics of finitude' is a ubiquitous project in modern philosophy, and although it has demonstrably Christian roots this project no longer has any need (from its perspective) for God.

So I can't help thinking McCormack's proposal is as doomed as the efforts of the Intelligent Design mob - it makes the fundamental error of trying to slot theology into a niche in the technics of (post)modern rationality. If this is what theology must be, it will always come too late.

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