Saturday 21 October 2006

The science of faith

“Theology is the science of faith. That is – as Barth said – a scandal for today’s scientific thought. It is however not something irrational; it is no contradictio in terminus [contradiction in terms]. It means that the knowledge with which this science is occupied is not knowledge that we ourselves can acquire, but knowledge that requires complete participation and devotion, and only so comes to us.”

—Gerben J. Stavenga, “Physik auf dem Wege zur Theologie,” Zeitschrift für dialektische Theologie 3 (1987), p. 36.


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

"Some have called theology a 'science,' and in one ancient sence of that word, theory organizing a body of data, they are correct. Perhaps it is less misleading, though, to speak of theology as a 'discipline,' (a term that embraces not only all the natural sciences but also art, law, and medicine), and to expect only that each discipline display a rationality appropriate to its own metier. A part of theology's rationality is its sense of connection and interdependence with other disciplines--with the social sciences (whose proper sphere is the discovery of the way things are in the human world), the humanities (whose sphere is the understanding and interpretation of that world), and philosophy (whose role, like that of poets and artists, is creative transformation of human awareness). What is NOT required is accepting a philosophical basis purported to be a more certain foundation than theological certainty itself. Happily, philosophers are recognizing that they can provide no such foundation (Barth CD I/1; Rorty, 1979)." James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology vol. 1 (Rev. Ed.) (Abingdon Press, 2002). p. 38.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above. One of the things that's bothered me about that quote (Theology is the science of faith) is that it tends to scede the epistemological high ground to a methodology that is not in itself sufficient to give a complete or even sufficiently rich explanation of that which is most dear and precious. Perhaps an equally troubling way to say something akin would be, "Science is the theology of materialism," for that would at least show the disciplines (ht: Michael Westmoreland-White) of theology and science on equally important bases. Which is at least a starting point for conversing about the twain.

Anonymous said...

To avoid confusion, it should be noted that for Barth, "science" is not synonymous (as it tends to be for Brits and Yanks) with "natural science". Barth's discourse has its origins in the Schoolmen, particularly Aquinas (following Aristotle), for whom "scientific" referred to knowldege founded on secure premises and based on demonstrable evidence. And, more precisely, Barth follows German usage, where the scientific (wissenschaftlich) status of a subject is determined by the subject's unique object of study. As Thomas Torrance points out, here Barth is following Martin Kähler, who insisted that "every particular subject requires its own form of scientific [wissenschaftlich] analysis."

Is this helpful?

Anonymous said...

Beautifully helpful, actually. Tough to be a Yank...

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these comments.

The James McClendon quote is spot on -- and, as Kim says, this is exactly what German-language writers are talking about when they call theology a Wissenschaft ("science"). Although in English "science" connotes "natural science", the German Wissenschaft simply refers to any academic discipline in the university.

Thus the traditional question of whether theology is a "science" really just means this: does theology have a place in the university alongside other disciplines (Wissenschaften)? And it admittedly seems like a "scandal" to answer: Yes, theology belongs in the university because it is devoted to faith!

Anonymous said...

Thanks all, especially Kim and Ben. Having just finished 'Evangelical Theology' where the B-Man goes on about the "happy science" of theology quite a bit, this explanation of Wissenschaft is very helpful.

This blog is an education to me. Ben, you really should be charging an entry fee! ;-)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

McClendon, of course, knew that German version of science. But, since he was writing in English and primarily (though not exclusively) for a U.S. audience, he simply made allusion to the ancient understanding of scientia and the German Wissenschaft while proposing a different terminology.

McClendon's wife (now widow), Nancey Murphy, has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and a Th.D. in theology and writes much on the relationship of theology to the natural sciences. And Jim had even co-written some things with the (atheist) philosopher, James M. Smith, so he was very familiar with all the currents of epistemology, ancient and modern.

I wasn't taking a poke at either Barth or Stavenga, but just proposing McClendon's language as a possibly better way forward in the Anglo-American (and Commonwealth) world.

And now, as a public service, I will give some helpful terminological distinctions on "Yanks." :-) To Brits and Aussies (and English-speaking South Africans), a Yankee or Yank refers to anyone from the U.S.A. To those from the U.S. South, especially Southeast, a Yankee or Yank is a Northerner. (To an expatriate Floridian like me a regular Yankee visits the South and a Damn Yankee stays.) To someone from the U.S. North or Midwest or West, a Yank or Yankee is a New Englander.
When I spent 6 months in Oxford several years back, I took quite some time getting used to being referred to as "a Yank." Where I was raised, "them's fightin' words." :-) Just so ya'll know. :-)

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the terminlogical explanation. As a New Yorker with a Georgian mother, who went to university in New England, and who has spent most of his life in the UK (three years in Oxford), and most of that in Wales, I can vouch for your discriminating sense of place, which is to be highly commended, as there is a saying over here that war seems to be God's way of teaching Americans geography. Indeed many "Yanks" think of the whole UK as "England", but I'd feel safer calling a Southerner a Yankee than a Welshman English (the common denominator, of course, being a sense of grievance from oppression).

I would only add that, for me, a "Damn Yankee" carries further linguistic freight: it refers to that goddamn team from the Bronx, wheras I support the Flushing based Mets. For the benighted, we're talking baseball here - cricket without the valium, played in less time than it takes to grow a beard, and always with a guaranteed result!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Yeah, I have tried very hard--sometimes without success--to explain to my fellow Americans how the UK can contain several nations: England, Scotland, Wales, & Northern Ireland--and, no, those aren't British "states." :-)

Despite it's official title as "America's pasttime," I always found baseball too slow to be interesting, Kim. I like both global football (soccer) and American football, but I failed to fathom cricket. It was beyond my "Yankee" sensibilities, according to the good folks of Regent's Park College and of the pubs of Oxfordshire. Years before that, when I was in Heidelberg, Germany, I found just as much enthusiasm for soccer, but, gratefully, no cricket.

I've lived outside the Deep South now for most of my adult life: Heidelberg, Louisville, Kentucky, Oxford, Louisville again, Chicago (loved everything there except the winters), Pasadena, Calif., and Louisville once more. Opportunities to spend 2 years in Japan and 5 in Perth, Western Australia, both fell through. But I would jump at the chance to live in the Deep South, again--except for the benighted Mississippi.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Michael, when were you at Regent's Park? I was at Mansfield from '79-'82 (I know, prehistoric!) and was taught OT by RP's Rex Mason. Was he still at RP when you were there? Rex was a fine scholar - especially of the post-exilic period - and quite a character. The outstanding Paul Fiddes I'm sure you encountered. And if you like American football, you must have gotten into Rugby Union during your time in the UK. That is the sport of Wales.

Alas, Ben is not too into sport - perhaps he takes Barth's reference to sport as a Pauline "power" too seriously - and even with his slight interest in rugby, he picks the wrong code, i.e. league rather than union. Well, nobody's perfect!


Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I was at Regent's Park, Oxford for 6 months in '93 as part of the "external studies" of my Ph.D.
Mason was still there, but I studied with Fiddes--and, yes, Kim, he was amazing.

I tried to follow Rugby, but I was so busy and my time so short that I didn't really have time to learn and appreciate the sport. Sport CAN be a Power--as "houliganism" at European football games demonstrates and ANY glance at U.S. culture reinforces.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael.

I was jesting a bit over Barth and sport, because you are absolutely right - sport can be a Power. Indeed it was, right here in Swansea last Sunday, when the Swans played Milwall. These two football (soccer) teams have the most notoriously violent fans in the league, and, sure enough, there was trouble - in spite of segregating supporters. Three cops were hurt trying to control the clashes.

It is interesting that rugby is a more violent game than soccer. They say over here that rugby is a game played by thugs and watched by gentlemen, while soccer is a game played by gentlemen and watched by thugs. Mind, there are fewer and fewer gentlemen playing soccer itself.

But when it comes to Powers, sport pales in comparison with the Strong Man in the contemporary world: I mean religion of course.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

BTW, Kim, I find little evidence that war actually teaches Americans any geography. The BBC did "person on the street" interviews in Washington, D.C. last month and very few people could distinguish Iraq from Iran on a blank map of the Middle East!! Apalling.

Say, I have a modest proposal for international law that might cut down on wars: No nation is to be allowed to invade any other nation if less than 75% of the would be invader's population cannot find the would-be invaded nation on a blank map. All would-be invaders, even for "humanitarian intervention," must have at least 5 translators with each battalion who are fluent in the language of the people being invaded and/or protected.

Anonymous said...

Michael, that's more than a "modest proposal", it's more like an apocalyptic vision, a prelude to "swords into ploughshares"! Excepty that Bush would reply, "What is 'international law?'", and "Doesn't everbody speak English?" :)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Well, I was kind of thinking post-Bush--you know, when most of his admin. is in the dock in the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace. There is no statute of limitations so, just as with the Pinochet govt. in Argentina, if I live long enough, I can expect to see these criminals tried for their crimes.

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