Continuing discussion.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Analytic Theology: Interview with Editors Crisp and Rea (part one)

We are happy to feature an interview with Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea about their important co-edited volume, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford, 2009). Below is part one of two.

How did this book come about? Does the timing of the book’s release, compared to if it were released 10-15 years ago, indicate how philosophical theology work is maturing?

Crisp: Believe it or not, the book came about over a cup of coffee. In 2004-2005 I had a post-doc at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame where Mike and I got to know each other. One of the best things about that year was the time I was able to spend talking to philosophers. Mike and I became firm friends and often spent time discussing philosophical-theological issues. One afternoon over a coffee on campus we were talking about the state of contemporary theology and how strange it was that most theologians didn’t really access contemporary analytic philosophy in the same way that they accessed continental philosophy, especially given the renaissance in philosophy of religion since the 1960s and then the turn to Christian doctrine amongst analytics from around the early 1980s. We thought that we could put together a set of essays that showcased a properly analytic approach to theology – and that is where it all began.

Rea:  Part of what struck us, too, was the fact that philosophers were now talking quite a bit about topics like the trinity and the incarnation that fall squarely within the domain of theology, and it seemed odd to us that, by and large, philosophers and theologians working the same topics were nevertheless almost totally ignoring one another.  It was clear to us that part of the explanation had to do with a sort of disdain among theologians for analytic approaches to theology, and a similar sort of disdain among philosophers for the sort of continental/postmodern approaches that seemed to dominate theology.  We thought it would be good to explore this methodological divide.

As to the question of timing, I think that this kind of book has found a receptive audience because contemporary analytic philosophical theology has become a serious concern. So, yes, it seems to me that its publication is an indication of the maturing literature in the field. But it is also interesting that theologians are beginning to think about analytic philosophy too (e.g. the work of William Abraham – one of our contributors in the book – and Bruce Marshall). I hope that AT may be a contribution that stimulates more theological interest in this field.

What accounts for the turn toward “the explication of core doctrines in Christian theology” by philosophers of religion that self-identify with the so-called “analytic tradition”?

Rea: Part of the reason is surely just the fact that (a) quite a lot of the people working in contemporary philosophy of religion have Christian backgrounds, and (b) by the mid- 1980s, the stock issues in ‘generic’ philosophy of religion—questions about the rationality of religious belief, traditional arguments for the existence of God, and the like—had been pretty thoroughly explored.  I suspect, too, that part of what has happened in philosophy of religion is similar to what seems to have happened in other naturally interdisciplinary sub-fields like philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind:  for a while, philosophers work on certain paradigmatic philosophical issues that they think they can explore on their own; but as the conversations become increasingly sophisticated, they find themselves drawn more deeply into the literature and the problems of the related discipline (particular sciences in the case of philosophy of science, and empirical psychology in the case of the philosophy of mind).

Crisp: It might also be worth saying that around this time there was a renewed interest in historic questions raised by philosophical theologians of the past, particularly the medievals. And the sorts of issues they were interested in often involve matters with a direct bearing on central Christian claims such as the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement. I suppose it is also true that the renewal of metaphysics in the 1970s meant that such concrete metaphysical issues in Christian theology became much more attractive as areas to be mined by analytics than had previously been the case. The success of analytic philosophy of religion opened up the field of philosophical theology, as it opened up Christian philosophy more generally.

Al Plantinga likes to joke that much of the most interesting theology of the past twenty years has been done by analytics, not by professional theologians. But I think there is more than a grain of truth to this. Analytics are often excoriated for being ‘ahistorical’. But in fact, I think that analytics involved in philosophical theology have shown increasing historical sensitivity borne out of a deep engagement with particular theologians, including the medievals, the magisterial reformers and some post-Reformation figures like Molina and Edwards. This engagement with the tradition and concern to draw upon historic Christian discussion of doctrine in order to argue for key dogmatic claims is, I think, a very welcome development, and one theologians may benefit from.

How should philosophy in general, and philosophy of religion in particular, integrate with theology?

Crisp: It seems to me that the boundaries between philosophical theology and systematic theology are rather porous. Systematic theology always involves appealing to some sort of metaphysical claim or other – a matter that the American Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, makes plain in his Systematic Theology. But I am not sure that ‘integration’ is the right word. Bridge-building might be more like it. How can bridges be built between analytics and theologians that might be mutually beneficial and that might mean there is more traffic between the two disciplines? That is an important question, I think. And it is not all one-way traffic, either. There is important theological work that analytics can benefit from, e.g. the recent re-evaluation of St Augustine of Hippo by people like Michel Barnes and Lewis Ayres.

The ‘how’ question is partly about more discussion between analytics and theologians and more time being given to move beyond facile characterizations of the ‘other’ discipline. This is beginning to happen too, e.g. the Logos conferences that Mike has been organizing through the Center for Philosophy of Religion at Notre Dame, this year in conjunction with Dean Zimmerman at Rutgers, on the model of the Metaphysical Mayhem conferences. Last year’s conference was a real success. I’ve been at venues where mutual animosity between philosophers and theologians has prevailed. This was a forum where there was (I felt) evidence of a real desire to engage across these two disciplines. There is an AAR session on AT planned for later this year. It will be interesting to see to what extent it gets a wider hearing in the ‘Religion’ academy.

Rea: Here too I think that the analogy with other interdisciplinary subfields is useful.  How did philosophy of mind integrate with psychology?  How did philosophy of physics integrate with physics?  To the extent that these subfields have integrated with their sister disciplines, the integration has largely come about by experts coming to realize that awareness of what is going on in the sister discipline is importantly relevant to their own research.  The main obstacle to this realization in the case of phil religion and theology is just the methodological divide:  by and large, philosophers of religion and theologians have tended to view their relevance to one another in about the same way that analytic metaphysicians and Heideggerians have tended to view their relevance to one another.  And the only way to overcome the methodological divide (I think) is to explore it, talk about it, and see how deep it really runs. 

What is analytic theology?

Crisp: Analytic theology is the theological appropriation of the tools and methods of analytic philosophical theology for properly theological ends. It is really about bringing the work analytics have been doing into the theological fold. There is little that is new in this, apart from the fact that theologians are now engaged in work that is consciously appropriating the literature and methods of analytics for their own constructive theological work.

Rea: One criticism of our book (in Gordon Graham’s review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews) is that we haven’t sufficiently differentiated analytic theology from (analytic) philosophical theology.  This strikes me as a rather odd objection, in light of what I say in the introduction.  (Here I repeat some remarks I made over at Prosblogion when the review came out.)  As I see it, analytic theology overlaps analytic philosophical theology--in fact, there's not a whole lot included in the latter that wouldn't also be included in the former. Graham notes that if that is true, then "analytic theology is nothing new, and has been carried on with vigor for the last four decades or more". Fair enough, but I never claimed that analytic theology is anything new. As I see it, the most important (intended) contribution of the volume is just to get people reflecting on this already-familiar enterprise as a legitimate way of doing "theology" rather than simply as a form of applied "philosophy". And even this idea (i.e., that what analytic philosophers of religion have been doing for decades is a perfectly legitimate form of theological theorizing) isn't really new either--as anyone can see by looking at systematic theologies from the early 20th Century and before.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of chapters under the title, “In Defense of Analytic Theology.” How do the chapters by Oliver Crisp, William Abraham, and Randal Rauser contribute to this discussion?

Crisp: The first two chapters are articulations of AT. Mike’s Introduction is really a third attempt to get at AT too. In fact, it is the best piece of the three. My essay is really an attempt to argue that AT is not something theologians should shrug off as peripheral or unimportant. I also try to show that analytic theology is not necessarily about a narrow set of metaphysical commitments – that one could be an analytic theologian and take a rather different tack from the one I prefer. William Abraham’s piece is more about what analytic theology as a species of systematic theology might look like. It is a more ‘constructive’ piece of work than mine, in some respects. By contrast, Randal’s paper is a sort of ground-clearing exercise. Using the work of Harry Frankfurt, he asks whether certain contemporary theologies are locked into a perpetual bull-session aiming at effect rather than at truth.

What further work needs to be done concerning how and why analytic theology can be developed and strengthened in light of the alternatives?

Crisp: I think it would be interesting to engage other theological methods that are the subject of current interest in the literature. For instance, a useful discussion might be had with post-liberal theologians, or with representatives of Radical Orthodoxy. But for the present, I think we need more examples of analytic theology. It is all very well talking about theological method. What we need to see is what analytic theology looks like. I’ve published a monograph on the Incarnation that attempts to begin this [God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology]. Randal has just published a long essay on theological method that is a piece of analytic theology [Theology in Search of Foundations]. And Mike and Tom McCall have just published a collection of essays on the Trinity [Philosophical and Theological Essays on the Trinity] in which there is also evidence of analytic theology being done (especially in Tom’s essay in the volume). I have already mentioned William Abraham’s work, the most recent example of which is his Crossing The Threshold of Divine Revelation. Michael Sudduth has just published his book on Reformed Objections to Natural Theology, which should be of use to analytic theologians since it deals with whole question of natural theology. As the literature expands I hope we will see further discussion with those involved in other approaches to theology.

Rea: I also think that the objections against analytic theology need to be taken a lot more seriously by analytic theologians than they have been.  There are, I think, real worries to be raised about the limits of our abilities to theorize about God; illusions on the part of analytic philosophers about the degree to which they’ve managed to exchange evocative metaphors and other ‘fuzzy’ forms of speech for precision and clarity deserve to be questioned; and so on.  In the introductory essay I made an attempt to articulate some of these objections in a sympathetic and serious way, but I think that there is a lot more that could be done, and then, of course, the objections need to be dealt with.

The chapters of the second part address relevant “historical perspectives” about various issues and concerns relevant to analytic theology’s viability. How do these chapters by John Lamont, Andrew Chignell, Andrew Dole, and Nicholas Wolterstorff contribute to this discussion?

Crisp: The main concern that these essays address is the objection that analytic approaches to matters theological tend to be historically flimsy, or that they end up with a rather anemic, abstracted notion of what Christian theism really consists in. We were also concerned to ensure that key theologians were addressed, because the tradition matters in theology. John Lamont’s piece is a careful attempt to look at some of the Fathers. Andrew Chignell’s piece is concerned with Kant and the Kantian ‘legacy’ for philosophy and theology. Andrew Dole’s piece is on Schleiermacher’s anti-realism. (Tom McCall deals with Karl Barth in the context of his doctrine of Scripture in the third section of AT.) I think that each of these pieces is really terrific. Nick Wolterstorff’s essay is more about the development of analytic philosophical theology. And he makes the point I made earlier that the boundary between analytic philosophical theology and systematic theology is not the hard-and-fast one often presumed.

Are there other historical issues and concerns in this area that would merit further consideration and development?

Crisp: As I have already indicated, there is already a flourishing literature in medieval theology that has been done by analytics. I think it would be good to see more work done on Patristic theology and how this might be brought into the discussion. John Lamont’s essay is a good beginning, but there is much more that could be done in this area by analytics. It would be good to see what analytics could bring to this. It would also be interesting to see more work done on recent (i.e. late-twentieth century) theology. This would be more of a challenge, I think, because so much of this draws upon a continental approach to theology, e.g. the existentialism of Bultmann or John Macquarrie. But perhaps this is an opportunity, a bit like recent analytic work that has been done on Nietzsche – a thinker that does not strike one at first blush as an obvious candidate for an analytic assessment!

Michael Rea is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. Oliver Crisp is a Reader in Theology at Bristol University. Both Rea and Crisp have been contributors to Philosophia Christi. Philosophia Christi has also published philosophical theology theme issues, such as the Winter 2008 book symposium on Abraham's Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation or the Winter 2003 issue on the trinity.

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