As my co-bloggers know, I am writing a book on analytic theology and the academic study of religion. I’d like to use the blog to solicit comments and feedback to help me work through some things I’m thinking about. Right now, I’m thinking about the norms of rational inquiry that should be operative in a contemporary university, and how they pertain to theology. A concrete example will make clear what I mean.
Suppose you think that theology—by which I mean constructive, Christian theology*—is not a legitimate academic subject, and that it has no place in a modern “secular” university. What would you make of William Hasker’s recent book Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God? (Previously and very ably discussed on the blog by Ed Brooks here and here.)
Although much of the argument is straightforwardly philosophical, Hasker also offers his own constructive proposal about how best to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, and the book advertises itself as a work of theology, not philosophy. He explicitly says that the argument of the book depends on the following assumptions:
- God revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth
- The New Testament is a broadly reliable guide to the life and ministry of Jesus, including his resurrection
- Divine providence guided the early church in its formulation of the trinitarian creeds
These are explicitly Christian assumptions. I take it that someone who denies that theology is a legitimate academic subject would also deny that a legitimate academic research project could begin from these assumptions. I disagree, and I am trying to formulate a response.
At root, I disagree with the hypothetical theology-hater because I myself think these assumptions are true. I also take it that a university is a community of scholars engaged in rational inquiry aimed at truth and at the production of knowledge. So whatever else it does, a university should foster lines of inquiry aimed at truth or knowledge and discourage lines of inquiry that are not aimed at truth or knowledge.
That’s clear enough, but it isn’t very helpful. It doesn’t give us a criterion by which we can recognize whether a given line of inquiry really is aimed at truth and the production of knowledge, but that question is exactly what’s at stake in the debate over the academic status of theology.
I’m trying to formulate a plausible, defensible criterion or a principle that would allow Hasker’s assumptions to count as the basis of a legitimate academic research project, but that wouldn’t allow just anything whatsoever. So, to subvert a Dawkinsian trope: I’d like a principle that makes room for explicitly religious reasoning in the university that also disallows, say, reasoning on the basis of astrology, phrenology, etc.
Here is one candidate: academic inquiry should begin only from assumptions that are known to be true . This seems far too restrictive to me.
No doubt a popular candidate would be some kind of evidentialist claim like: academic inquiry should begin only from assumptions well-supported by evidence . There is a lot to be said for this claim, though I would not want to restrict “evidence” just to empirical evidence, and it would not be easy to spell out a non-question-begging alternative sense.
Another alternative would be to go negative: Academic inquiry should not begin from assumptions that are demonstrably false. We could further spell out “demonstrably false” as something like: internally inconsistent, inconsistent with other claims known to be true, or empirically falsified by the best current science. This is a kind of “innocent until proven guilty” principle. I think everyone would agree that academic inquiry should not begin from demonstrably false assumptions, but is this principle restrictive enough?
(*I should also say that I’m mainly interested in Christian theology myself, but presumably any such principle would allow many other forms of religious reasoning too.)