An Oriel Theology Manifesto

I think that what we do as Oriel theologians is special. This is not just another boast about our drinks events; it is not even a boast about our academic results (a poor boast indeed from my fingers). This is a serious claim about the way we do theology. Not so much a claim about the way we study for the various theology courses offered by the University (though often we study for those by taking tutorials with William Wood, so…); this is a claim pitched at a more fundamental level, a claim about the way we think theologically. I think our way of thinking theologically is distinctive; I think our way of thinking theologically is good. So just what is it that is so special about Oriel theology?

The short answer is that theology at Oriel is both analytic and traditional. The sense of ‘analytic’ I have in mind, at least as a starting point, is the regnant sense in the phrase ‘analytic philosophy’: roughly, philosophy is analytic insofar as it is embedded in certain networks of influence, which derive from the German logician Gottlob Frege. Frege, so the (for our purposes, true enough) story goes, introduced exceptional standards of rigour in philosophical statement and argument. These standards travelled to Cambridge, and later, to Vienna and Warsaw, from which they were forced to America by Nazism. Eventually, they became normative throughout the Anglophone world. So by saying that Oriel theology is analytic, I am in part saying that it seeks after these analytic standards of rigour originating in Frege.

What does the pursuit of analytic rigour look like in practice? The main thing is to make it as easy as possible for your intellectual opponents to refute you. Thus Bill in his paper ‘Analytic Theology as a Way of Life’, and Timothy Williamson making a very similar point in The Philosophy of Philosophy. By offering definitions, drawing distinctions, and employing some formal apparatus, you articulate your main thesis, as well as the structure and premisses of your argument for that thesis, as explicitly as possible. Thus your work is totally exposed: your critics need only glance through to see that it’s right here that you go wrong. When this level of scrutiny is available, the bad arguments and surprising consequences are much easier to recognise.

In the century or so since Frege pioneered the predicate calculus, philosophers have applied these standards of rigour in examining numerous issues. Another sense in which Oriel theology is analytic is that is inclined to draw upon this tremendously rich and carefully elaborated tradition of thought. This is particularly significant when it comes to addressing the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of theology. No one has ever been in as good a position to consider the central questions of metaphysics and epistemology as that which the best of the current generation of analytic philosophers enjoy. No one until now could draw on as extensive a stock of total available knowledge, nor of distinctively philosophical ideas and arguments; no one untrained within the analytic tradition can pursue as easily the Fregean ideal of rigour. This is not an argument for ignoring the past, or other disciplines (indeed, see below); it is only an argument for taking contemporary analytic philosophy very seriously. For reflecting on the basic metaphysics of Christianity, or the warrant of various theological claims, the work of a Quine or a Plantinga is of enormous importance.

Enough about being analytic for now. What about traditional? A frequent complaint against analytic approaches in both philosophy and theology is that they are ahistorical. Theologians in particular think within a long and living tradition, speaking to and for concrete communities defined by specific events. To do theology traditionally is to do it in acknowledgement and celebration of this fact, to depart from the caricature analytic theologian who plunges straight into a demonstration of the coherence of Chalcedon without bothering to ask who Jesus Christ was for Nestorius or Eutyches, let alone who he might be for us today. Among other things, this involves engaging with the tradition of theological reflection in what is rather loosely called ‘modernity’ – or to take a stricter, yet still historically interesting, category, the tradition of theological reflection influenced by Kant. Oriel theology is traditional in that is thoroughly engaged with theological traditions.

Other valences of ‘traditional’ are also important here. Theology can be traditional as opposed to revisionary. The tradition of theological reflection influenced by Kant, moreover, has been markedly revisionary. I think that Oriel theology is traditional insofar as it prefers to take its bearings from pre-modern, pre-Kantian sources. This preference in fact coheres rather well with the analytic character of Oriel theology. To oversimplify wildly, Kant emphasises the role of the knower, as opposed to the known, in the knowledge relation. Just how radical such an idea is when applied to religious knowledge should be obvious. Some theologians, such as Schleiermacher, embraced this ‘Copernican revolution’; others, such as Barth, reacted with counter-revolutionary zeal. In doing so, however, Barth did not try to craft a nuanced alternative to Kantian epistemology, but simply ran as far as possible in the opposite direction, essentially insisting that there is nothing interesting to be said about religious knowledge save that God effects it through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Analytic philosophy, by contrast, began with a careful rejection of one particular application of the Kantian approach to epistemology: psychologism in logic. Frege forcefully argued that the laws of logic are not laws of thought but rather laws of truth. Since then, of course, many aspects of Kant’s legacy have found able analytic defenders; the important point is that nuanced alternatives to Kantian epistemology have never been in short supply within the analytic tradition.

Hence the comfort with reaching back beyond Kant, and above all to the Patristic era. The worries that so many theologians in the post-Kantian tradition show, about what people now are able to believe, can be dismissed as a prejudice born of failure to think seriously about alternative epistemologies. By going back, moreover, we can get closer to the initial Gospel proclamation. For another error of some post-Kantian theologians has been to suppose that the Greek philosophical categories employed by the Fathers and the Mediaevals were an alien imposition corrupting the pristine Gospel. To reject wholesale the Patristic appropriation of ’the riches of Egypt’ (in Gregory Nyssan’s striking allegory) is to make a simple blunder about the nature of philosophy. It is not something separate from, and perhaps in opposition to, the rest of human thinking, but rather a concerted attempt to clarify, systematise, and extend that very thinking. Worrying about the ‘Greek philosophical category of ousia’, or what have you, is confused (at least, it is so when such worries are not substantiated by detailed and philosophical argument). All the Fathers were ever doing was spelling out as explicitly as they could the claim that ‘though he was in the form of God… he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death’. The degree of clarity available to them may not be as great as that available to us, post-Frege, but it certainly exceeded that available to the ancient Israelites, pre-Aristotle. Refusing to follow the Fathers in that quest for clarity means either abandoning the Scriptural claim, or leaving it open to the kind of confusion and distortion against which the Fathers fought so hard.

That, crudely sketched, is a personal vision of theology as analytic and traditional. What has it to do with Oriel? Well, the roots of this theology go deep in Oriel’s history. Much of the Patristic scholarship on which the Oxford Movement was founded was done at Oriel. Oriel’s association with the Nolloth Chair for the Philosophy of the Christian Religion, meanwhile, has given it a central place in the complex history of analytic philosophy’s relationship with religion. Most important of all, however, is Oriel’s specialisation in the Philosophy and Theology Joint School. The teaching for the two sides of the course is closely integrated, encouraging students to draw together ideas and approaches from disparate sources. Of course, absolutely vital are the teachers prepared to do that integrated work. Bill Wood teaches philosophy of religion, modern theology, and Patristics, and has published analytic studies on Pascal and Aquinas. The pattern, moreover, extends beyond Bill to his predecessors at Oriel. Richard Cross relates mediaeval discussions of the Incarnation to contemporary analytic debates, while, in addition to her work in Patristics, Sarah Coakley writes on such topics as feminism and the analytic philosophy of religion. All three are on the editorial board of the Journal of Analytic Theology, while Cross and Coakley co-edit Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology for OUP, in which series Bill’s The Secret Instinct was published.

Not all of my colleagues, of course, will share quite my view of things, but I suspect that enough are in sufficiently broad agreement for this exploration to be worthwhile. What’s striking is how rare this sort of view is. Analytic theologians have, perhaps unsurprisingly, engaged seriously with the Scholastic theological tradition, but they have not otherwise been particularly interested in history: whether the history of the early doctrinal debate, or the history of post-Kantian theological reflection. The mainstream of systematic theology, for its part, has not tended to look too kindly on the analytic upstarts. A serious issue here is precisely the absence of history within analytic theology, though opponents also consider analytic theology to be spiritually arid (on which point read ‘Analytic Theology as a Way of Life’) and associate it unfavourably with certain kinds of conservative Protestantism (on which point come make yourself welcome at Oriel Chapel). Whatever such critics say, however, analytic philosophy remains another Egypt, rich in theoretical and methodological resources, waiting to be plundered. The possibilities for a historically informed and engaged analytic theology are great indeed.



4 thoughts on “An Oriel Theology Manifesto

  1. My answer to Tertullian is as follows: people in Jerusalem have to think, and they’ll think more clearly once they’ve visited Athens.

    My answer to ‘Tertullian’ is as follows: pipe down or I’ll eat all your oolong.

    Liked by 1 person

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