Continuing discussion.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

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

We are happy to feature the second part of our interview with Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea concerning their important book, Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology (Oxford, 2009). In the first part of our interview, Crisp and Rea discussed the features and work of analytic theology and how the two parts of their book contribute to this maturing sub-field of philosophy of religion.

The chapters of part three examine the “data” for theology: scripture, reason, and experience. How do these chapters by Thomas McCall, Thomas Crisp, Michael Sudduth, and Michael Murray contribute to the discussion?

Rea: One of the main worries about analytic theology is that it is somehow wedded to a strong form of rationalism—an overly optimistic view about the power of pure reason to provide grounds (indeed, as some have it, absolute certainty) for our religious beliefs.  The essays by Crisp, Sudduth, and Murray all, in various ways, contribute to addressing this worry.  Sudduth, for example, argues that experience plays a vital role in natural theology, and Crisp argues that “authoritative testimony” plays a vital role in warranting our belief in the inspiration of scripture. Murray argues for a conception of theology as a discipline that works in cooperation with the empirical sciences to produce an overall unified explanatory theory.  Together, all of these essays challenge the view that (analytic) theology is committed to a conception of theology as a purely rationalistic enterprise.

McCall’s essay, on the other hand, addresses a different concern.  Some worry that, by assuming (as analytic theologians do) that we can theorize about God and come to clear understanding of various truths about God, we somehow put God ‘at our disposal’—as if, by making these truths generally accessible to us, it would no longer be exclusively up to God to whom he revealed himself or when; rather, it would be partly up to us.  According to McCall, this is a concern shared by Karl Barth; and, as McCall presents it, Barth’s doctrine of scripture provides a way of understanding the divine inspiration of scripture that allows truths about God to be fully accessible to human beings while at the same time avoiding the objectionable consequences that are supposed to follow from that claim. 

What further work needs to be done in analytic theology concerning theology’s “data”?

Crisp: Well, for a start, there is more work to be done on the relationship between biblical studies and theology. Much of the work that has been done on this has not really led to much engagement. A good example is the book Hermes and Athena, edited by Tom Flint and Eleonore Stump, which I think is a really important work, though it is often said to have ‘failed’ to generate constructive discussion between analytics and biblical studies scholars (a claim that is moot). But there are also examples that should be given more attention than they have, such as C. Stephen EvansThe Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith.

It would also be interesting to see more work being done by analytics on the role of tradition in Christian theology. Again, there is a small literature on this, but there seems to be scope for more that engages with the recent theological interest in resourcement and ‘retrieval’.

A lot of recent theology is in part an attempt to return to a more ‘mysterious’, apophatic approach to theology, especially in some Radical Orthodoxy work. It would be interesting to see analytics engage with this, not least because many analytics presume a certain kind of univocal approach to religious language: that, say, human love and divine love are just different quantities of the same thing.

In the fourth and final part of the book, the chapters offer “correctives” to analytic theology? What concerns are Eleonore Stump, Merold Westphal and Sarah Coakley attempting to address in light of major objections against analytic theology?

Crisp: Each of these contributions ended up being rather less anti-analytic theology than we had first thought they might be. Stump’s piece is very interesting, I think, because it really seeks to deal seriously with narrative – a matter that has been important in recent post-liberal theology and in the work of Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas. Her essay does show that analytics can make an important contribution to issues at the interstices between literature, narrative, theology and philosophy. Merold’s chapter is perhaps the most critical in some ways. But it was very important to us to have a thinker whose work is clearly within the ‘continental’ stream contributing to a volume such as AT. I admire Merold’s work and think this is a helpful, constructive piece of work. Sarah Coakley’s essay is a fine essay enjoining analytics to think much more seriously about apophatic (i.e. negative) theology, using William Alston’s Taylor Lectures as a foil to Teresa of Avila’s work.

How would you make a positive case to theology faculty or a dean of theology faculty (especially systematic theologians) for the relevance and usefulness of analytic theology to their work?

Rea: I would invite them to spend a year in the Center for Philosophy of Religion, or to attend an interdisciplinary workshop with a mix of talented and open-minded philosophers and theologians.  Right now philosophers and theologians are separated from one another as much by myths, misconceptions, and outright ignorance of what goes on in the other discipline as by substantive methodological differences.  For those who do have substantive methodological objections against analytic theology, the answer is to do more work on the sorts of issues raised by our volume.  For those who are more in the grips of myths, misconceptions, and ignorance, the remedy is for the person to come and see what’s really going on in the (analytic) philosophy room.  On the few occasions when I’ve organized workshops for smallish groups of talented, open-minded philosophers and theologians interested in common themes, the results have been amazing:  folks from both disciplines have come away very pleasantly surprised by how much they’ve learned from those in the other discipline and by how much their intellectual interests overlap.

Crisp: There are terrific resources in the analytic tradition for pursuing theology in a way that is sympathetic to the sorts of concerns held by many historic theologians in the (western) tradition. For instance, it seems to me that many medieval and post-Reformation theologians are engaged in a sort of analytic theology. If one compares, say, St Augustine, or St Anselm of Canterbury, or St Thomas Aquinas or Jonathan Edwards or Francis Turretin with some of the work in the AT volume, I think there are obvious parallels. One might even say there is little that separates them in terms of the sort of philosophical sensibilities displayed. So, for those interested in doing theology in a way that is seriously engaged with the tradition, seeking to take forward the sort of theological discussions that have been the substance of the vast majority of the Christian tradition, analytic theology is worth seriously considering. And, as I have already mentioned, there are theologians doing this, like Bruce Marshall in his book Trinity and Truth, or William Abraham’s Canonical Theism project in the USA, Alan Torrance and Sarah Coakley in the UK, the Utrecht School in the Netherlands, or thinkers like Ingolf Dalferth in the German-speaking countries. Even systematic theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg or Robert Jenson, whilst not analytic theologians, show an awareness and appreciation of some analytic work. There are fruitful avenues of research to be had here, for theology qua theology.

How would you like to see this book used in a classroom setting?

Crisp: It would be useful as a supplement to courses on philosophical theology and on courses that deal with theological method, common in seminary settings in particular. It would be good to see it used as a discussion point in seminars, getting young theologians to think through how they approach substantive matters in theology. These are essays that should be discussed, not just read.

What are the possibilities for work to be done with analytic philosophy of religion and Christian spirituality, and especially, with spiritual theology?

Crisp: This is something that I think is a very exciting prospect. Sarah Coakley’s essay in AT is, in some ways, aiming in this direction. And there are other places where philosophical theology is beginning to meet with spiritual formation or the more ‘applied’ aspect of theology, such as Marilyn Adams’ recent treatment of Eucharistic theology in her book Christ and Horrors. And analytics could learn quite a lot from reading George Hunsinger’s recent book on the sacraments and ordination, Let us Keep the Feast. There is an existing literature in philosophy of religion on mysticism and petitionary prayer. It would be interesting to see this extended to include other areas like ecclesiology or sacramental theology. And, of course, I think this is where analytic theology could really make a difference, a contribution to the tradition.

Personally, is there something unique and fruitful to engaging in analytic theology as a Christian (a follower of Jesus Christ)?

Crisp: I wouldn’t want to claim that analytic theologians were necessarily any more virtuous in this respect than theologians of another stripe: an analytic approach to theology will not guarantee an orthodox, disciplined Christian life any more than another approach to theology can. But, for what it is worth, I think of analytic theology as a faith seeking understanding enterprise that is (or ought to be) aimed at truth. That is surely a mainstay in much (western) Christian theology. Such theology has historically been done in the service of the Church. And, to my mind, theology that is not in the service of the Church is in some important respect defective. Analytic theologians should be concerned with the question of truth. But they should also be serving the Church in the theology they produce. I’m not saying one couldn’t do analytic theology without this component. But I am saying that such analytic theology would be defective in an important respect, just as any theology that is not done in the service of the Church, to the glory of God, is defective.

Rea: I think that if one isn’t a religious believer, it makes little sense to view the Bible or religious experience or the traditions of the Church (or the Rabbis, or whatever) as sources of data for building complex and systematic theories about God.  It makes a lot more sense to view the Bible as literature, the traditions of the Church (or of the Rabbis, or whatever) as just reflections on the relevant literature, and religious experience as…well…something other than experience of God.  So for those who are not religious believers, analytic theology should seem a rather hollow and pointless enterprise.  So yes, I think it should be a lot more satisfying if one is a believer (and hence if one is a Christian).

What is distinctive about a Christian analytic theology?

Crisp: I have already said something about what analytic theology is, and I suppose that gives some indication of what makes an analytic approach to theology distinct from much contemporary theology which draws upon more ‘continental’ modes of philosophical thought. So the ‘analytic’ component to analytic theology will be distinctive to the extent that it is appropriating the modes and methods of an analytic approach to the subject matter of theology. It is certainly distinctive for the Christian theologian to be engaged in an analytic project qua theologian, that is, from within the bounds of the Christian tradition, pursued in a faith-seeking-understanding manner, rather than qua philosopher, as someone with an interest in these issues coming at them from the ‘outside-in’, as it were. Someone from another faith tradition might also be an analytic theologian. I do not doubt that one could do analytic theology in Judaism or as a Muslim – and there might be a good case for doing so. But that, it need hardly be said, is a rather different enterprise than Christian analytic theology. I am not responsible to the Jewish or Muslim community. But I am responsible to the Christian community. And, for obvious reasons, that shapes the sort of issues I want to deal with as an analytic theologian.

Part one of the interview with Crisp and Rea can be read here. 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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