Blogging my book: on norms of rational inquiry

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.)


8 thoughts on “Blogging my book: on norms of rational inquiry

  1. Can you say a little more about what you have in mind? What do you think makes a line of inquiry productive or conducive to flourishing?


  2. A very rough outline of my thinking:

    (1) The assumptions we begin from are truths which already assume some notion (even if it is not fully specified) of the good we are aiming for. (On the basis of the coinherence of truth and goodness and a teleological/eschatological understanding of the ultimate good.)

    (2) True assumptions will further the good of academic inquiry, false assumptions will hinder it.

    (3) Academic inquiry should begin only from assumptions which allow the good of academic inquiry to come fully into its own.

    (4) What makes a line of inquiry conducive to flourishing will depend on what we take the good to be.

    I would argue that the challenge for any line of rational inquiry in the university is to give an account of itself that is plausible in terms of accepted understandings of the good of academic inquiry more widely. I think orthodox Christian theology can more than pass this test whereas fundamentalist versions of the same or of other religions cannot. In the same way reasoning on the basis of astrology would also undermine the good of academic inquiry and so ultimately undermine itself as an academic discipline.

    Does this make any sense?


  3. Barth!

    But seriously, there might be a way of bringing Barth into a discussion on analytic theology, only requiring people to read the first 30 pages of the dogmatics or so; they argue for theology, and dogmatics in particular, as a science in a very interesting way. If one were to derive a provisional definition, one would say ‘academic inquiry should be engaged in the critical analysis of its norms, whatever those norms may be,’ perhaps with the proviso that these norms must not directly contradict the consensus of entire academic fields. This keys into Barth’s understanding of dogmatics/theology as the form of the Church’s self-criticism of its own understanding/interpretation of its one norm, Jesus Christ, and fits with a book on analytic theology (even though Barth employs different modes of analysis to your typical analytic philosopher).

    This would then exclude astrology etc., first because its practise is not methodically reflective, but also because its norms are in conflict with the consensus conclusions of other sciences—it would only be able to survive in the academy for a short time.

    Genuine critical inquiry into how the content of Christian Faith can and should be derived from its own presuppositions, meanwhile, could survive quite happily amongst other disciplines, so long as you have decent philosophy of science which shows that physics =\= a refutation of either a God or the Christian God. There would be individual critics along the lines that the norm of Christian Faith doesn’t deserve critical analysis in this way, but I don’t think this argument could be made in a way which actually held sway on the basis of disciplinary consensus.

    Anyway, yes, include Barth in your book. It’d be hilarious and interesting. And a good opportunity to show that Barth’s relationship to philosophy is more complicated than ‘we’ll have none of that, thank you.’


  4. (On which, Barth’s main problem with philosophical theologians of yonder years is that they have deviated from the fact that Jesus Christ is the sole norm of Christian inquiry, replacing him with either a general concept, a view of nature, or a political ideology. So long as the norm is recognised as God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, however, such that this is the start and end point of Christian self understanding, he’s very happy for people (and does so himself, imo!) to practise some quite sophisticated philosophical criticism in a variety of methods (primarily Wittgensteinian in the Church Dogmatics ofc.) in order to critically analyse our understanding of that single norm, what it means to speak truly of it, and how this can then inform ethical practise. All of which I think are entirely consistent with the broad scope of analytic theology as a method, even if you don’t want to commit analytic theologians to the acceptance of Barth’s view of Christian norms, meaning it would be possible to use the Dogmatics on this point without either distorting or imposing Barth’s more general thoughts on theological method.)


  5. Before you ask on what grounds one can justify the academic study of theology, you might begin by asking on what grounds one can justify the academic study of poetry, or engravings, or ballet. One could answer, in part, that there are some areas of legitimate academic study whose value lies in enhanced understanding and appreciation of that to which certain constituencies of observers and participants devote their lives (whether or not “truth” or “factuality” lies at their basis). Then one can raise the question of whether — or in what sense — these discourses engage the questions of truth/factuality.

    Your hypothetical theology-hater ought to be able to recognise that they benefit from people being more sophisticated about theology. Presumably (if Prof. Misotheos is correct), the more one understands theology, the shabbier its illusions will look. At the very least, the academic study of theology, well conducted, should fend off some of the public manifestations of theological dunderheadedness that beset most cultures.

    Moreover, the academic study of theology has pragmatic ecological benefits to Prof. Misotheos. Theology, after all, constituted the primary basis for the genesis of the great historic academic institutions of Europe (and many in the US) — and institutions with more resolute commitment to theology as one of the fields they study generate both enhanced understanding of collateral disciplines (history, art, literature, and so on),and also enhanced opportunities for grant capture by way of support for glorious traditions. Theology is dirt cheap on the academic marketplace (speaking as some of the dirt!), and killing off theology releases almost no benefits to Misotheos, and strips away some of the supporting ecosystem of wisdom and cosmopolitan (in Anthony Appiah’s sense) shared intellectual culture.


  6. Thanks very much for this AKMA. I have a lot of sympathy for your suggestions. I hope to write a follow-up post to engage with them a bit more. That will have to wait a day or so, though!


  7. Taking a step back from the question you’re posing here, would it be helpful to consider the multiple possible reasons which might be advanced for the rejection of theology as a valid academic discipline in the “secular” university? There seem to be a few, e.g.

    1. A pragmatic policy in favour of a practically secular university.

    Presumably there are anti-theologians who think theology is illegitimate not so much because of anything methodologically or epistemologically wrong with theology, but because they see a clash between the modern, secular (i.e. post-confessional) university and the religious content of academic theology. This could be because for American or French-style desires to keep Church and State separate, or a wider belief in the general desirability of keeping faith or religion out of public life. Such critics might fear the political or cultural influence of theology in the university, be explicitly concerned about various kinds of ‘extremism’, or be nervous about how outsiders (the public? the taxpayer? the press? the government of the day?) perceive the presence of religious reasoning within the modern university.

    2. An explicitly atheistic objection.

    The theology-hater might be convinced that it is untrue that God exists. Is an academic inquiry into a non-entity possible or desirable? Is it even moral to spend time and money on the study of a non-entity?

    3. An objection concerning evidence.

    Regardless of whether theology has a valid object of enquiry (e.g. a deity), this anti-theologian might insist that the actual, functioning considerata of theological study do not merit a discipline of their own. This might be because they (or some of them) lack something which would make them count as evidence; this might or might not be an empiricist objection. Alternatively, one could hold that the considerata of theologians are so irreconcilably diverse as to make the purported discipline meaningless, suggesting that the claims which theologians are wont to explore ought in the modern university ought to be divided by data-set and then parcelled out to other faculties or departments.

    4. An objection concerning rationality.

    This objection would suggest that theological reasoning is somehow either inherently or customarily sub-rational. A suspicion that ‘theology’ is the fig-leaf of fideism, and that all theology properly-so-called involves moves from premises or evidences to conclusions which are ultimately indefensible or beyond meaningful criticism. This might be personal/psycholohical, so that the theologian irrationally argues for whatever she consciously or unconsciously wants to believe; or confessional, presenting illegitimate arguments whose sole criterion of success is the extent to which they persuade people to accept the truth claims of a given religious group.

    I wonder if you might find yourself offering different reasons for accepting Hasker’s premises in conversation with these differently objecting anti-theologians?


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