Theology and the University

The following is the penultimate draft of an essay recently published in the Canadian journal Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses. (The actual citation is “Putting God in God’s Place: Does Theology Belong in the University?” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses  45:3 (2016): 377–396.) As I understand the terms of the publishing agreement, I can publish this version on my website, while the final (“official”) version has to be obtained from the journal site itself.

Putting God in God’s Place: Does Theology Belong in the University?

When the University of Oxford was founded in the Middle Ages, it included, as did the other major European universities of that era, the teaching of theology. Oxford still includes theology in its curriculum, and so do many others. Does theology belong in the university? Apparently so.

Some might prefer, however, that more be said to justify the continued inclusion of theology in the secular university today. It is true that major universities in Europe continue to teach theology, while in the United States, Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and other leading institutions offer degrees in theology. In Canada, McGill, Queen’s, Toronto, McMaster, and other universities offer courses in theology taught by professors whose major research work is in theology. So far, so good.

At the same time, however, many universities, including equally prestigious ones, do not make room for theology as a legitimate academic discipline. The University of Paris, when it was reconstituted at the end of the nineteenth century, no longer included a faculty of theology. Many British universities offer religious studies, but not theology. In the United States, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford are among the leading universities that do not feature theology. In Canada, the legitimacy of theology has been a bone of contention since the middle of the last century as formerly religious universities came under the control of provincial governments, whole new universities were founded with some including religiously affiliated colleges and others not, and religious studies came into its own as an alternative to theological (= clerical) education. And the North American can glance Down Under and see New Zealand’s variegated educational landscape as being somewhat similar, while Australian universities that are not themselves confessional (such as the Australian Catholic University or various small colleges affiliated with the University of Divinity) make little or no room for theology at all.

One certainly can understand why theology would be suspect in the context of the contemporary secular—by which we shall mean here “not religiously affiliated or controlled”—university. By “theology,” I should make clear, I mean constructive theology, what is otherwise called systematic, normative, or doctrinal theology—not merely “history-of-ideas” social-scientific descriptions of the beliefs Christians or Christian institutions have held through the history of that religion. If we understand theology, that is, to be the articulation of the key truth-claims of the scriptures and other key texts and traditions of a particular theistic religion (and, by extension, the parallel doctrinal work in non-theistic religions), one can easily imagine a variety of reasons to hesitate over both the teaching and the scholarly production of theology on a secular campus. Religious beliefs can be passionately held—and who wants to offend? They can be violently held—and who wants to provoke? They can be obdurately held—and who wants to waste time in futile disputation?[1]

Theology, furthermore, connotes clerical training—which was, indeed, that faculty’s original purpose in the medieval universities. Training clergy continues to be the central focus of theology in German universities, as it is in the leading Scottish university programs and, at least ostensibly, in some of the private American ones as well, such as Harvard’s and Yale’s.[2] In the North American context of the public university, however, it isn’t at all clear how training clergy is consistent with the mission of such a school, and therefore, by association, it isn’t clear how theology could properly be taught at such a university.

To be sure, McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies continues to include pastoral training programs at the undergraduate and graduate level (B.Th. and M.Div.) in concert with the Montreal School of Theology. Queen’s University’s affiliated United Church seminary, Queen’s Theological College, became the Queen’s School of Religion in 2010, although it continues to offer Christian clerical training. Other universities in Canada likewise have affiliated seminaries. The question before us here, however, is whether theology as an intellectual discourse, as a genuine subject of academic inquiry, belongs in the curriculum of a public, secular university.

Let us make even more explicit this key distinction. The academic study of religion (usually referred to as “religious studies” or simply “RS”) is the congeries of social scientific, literary, and philosophical approaches to the phenomena of major and minor religions around the world. Religious studies focuses on describing whatever constitutes the organizing and motivating center of the lives of individuals and communities, and as such it examines both “proper noun” religions, such as Judaism or Sikhism or Buddhism, and “implicit” or “civic” or “philosophical” commitments that function normatively in people’s lives, such as Marxism, nationalism, sociobiology, or New Age eclecticism.

Theology, in this conversation at least, means the analysis and articulation of the beliefs of an individual or group in regard to the sacred—in regard to the ultimate questions of life: metaphysical, epistemological, moral, and aesthetic—with particular attention to the nature and revelation of God. The study of theology includes descriptive elements, to be sure: exegesis of scripture, for instance, or the history of a concept within a tradition. But the thrust of theology goes beyond the descriptive—“Here is what some people happen to think or what some texts happen to say”—to the normative: Here is what the faithful ought to be believing and practicing and feeling; here is what is bindingly true sub specie aeternitatis.

In what follows, I will refer mainly to the theology of the tradition I know best, namely, Christianity. Christian theology also, I daresay, is the theology that most readers will think of when considering the issue of “theology at the university.” But the case I make for the inclusion of Christian theology in the university curriculum is one that, mutatis mutandis, can be made for the theologies of at least some other religions as well. And to that more general point I will return in my conclusion.

In our day, theology has been challenged as a legitimate academic pursuit on at least two main fronts. The former is the question of means, of procedure: Theology is, to put it bluntly, accused of being unscientific. It is hopelessly fraught with prejudice, it defers to ancient authorities and traditions, and it remains impervious to counter-evidence and contrary arguments. It constantly drives investigation to foregone conclusions, perverting science into propaganda. It is the very model of unscientific, anti-intellectual discourse. For a representative of this view, I select my countryman, Prof. Donald Wiebe of Trinity College, University of Toronto, who has made this question central in his long and passionate career.[3] In his honour, then, let us refer to this challenging of theology’s legitimacy on procedural grounds as the “Wiebe objection.”

The latter challenge is posed most loudly in our time by Prof. Richard Dawkins, lately of the aforementioned University of Oxford. This challenge is aimed at theology’s subject matter, with the contention that it has none:

We who doubt that “theology” is a subject at all, or who compare it with the study of leprechauns, are eagerly hoping to be proved wrong. Of course, university departments of theology house many excellent scholars of history, linguistics, literature, ecclesiastical art and music, archaeology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, iconology, and other worthwhile and important subjects. These academics would be welcomed into appropriate departments elsewhere in the university. But as for theology itself, defined as “the organised body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God,” a positive case now needs to be made that it has any real content at all, and that it has any place in today’s universities. (old.richarddawkins.net/articles/1698)

More vehemently, Professor Dawkins declaims,

What has “theology” ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has “theology” ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? …What makes you think that “theology” is a subject at all? (Dawkins, 1998; see also Dawkins 1995)

Let us refer to this challenging of theology’s legitimacy on substantive grounds—namely, that theology in fact lacks an actual subject of inquiry—as the “Dawkins objection.”

We might note briefly a third kind of challenge that was raised in the very different context of turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Prussia by Immanuel Kant. One of Kant’s last major works, in fact, was about what he called “The Conflict of the Faculties” (Der Streit der Fakultäten, 1798). He worried that the (graduate-level) theology faculty was exerting downward pressure on the undergraduate education in arts, and particularly in philosophy, to produce opinions consonant with the Lutheran orthodoxy of the current regime. Kant had no problem with the idea that the churches could insist on preachers preaching only correct church doctrine from the pulpits, and thus did not object to theological professors being required to teach only correct church doctrine in their faculty to preachers-in-training. The church had its institutional concerns to consider, whether in regard to this world or the next, and theology faculties ought to properly serve their masters. But Kant did not want all discourse in the university to be restrained by the theology faculty, and especially not the work done in his own department of philosophy.

In good Enlightenment fashion instead, he argued that the various academic disciplines ought to engage each other critically. As academic disciplines they share, to be sure, common obligations to pursue knowledge and to provide education. In their relationship with each other, however, they have the duty to submit everything, including each other’s deliverances, to searching scrutiny. They therefore will be in a constant state of mutual agitation, of strife, in the common pursuit of truth for the common good. Thus, Kant concluded, theology needed to be kept in its proper place and not act as a ruler over the other disciplines: no “queen of the sciences” in fact, but simply a fellow worker in the broad landscape of intellectual inquiry.

Kant’s worries were exacerbated, of course, by the reality that the Prussian state funded and controlled the universities, and Prussian rulers wanted social harmony and loyal obedience above all. A constantly roiling contest over the fundamental beliefs of German citizens would not conduce to civic peace (Sauter, 1990). To be sure, that situation seems long ago and far away, but if one considers present-day Russia, one sees another ruler, whose main concern also is social harmony and loyal obedience above all, working with religious authorities to insert theology back into university curricula with precisely the same goals of social control as the Prussian princes. Here in North America, of course, surely no one fears theocratic dominance of public institutions. Instead, we can draw from Kant’s case the insistence that theological conviction must not compromise free inquiry. Indeed, a little later in this essay we can do Kant one better by insisting that theology itself must be conducted as a mode of free inquiry.

For now, though, we can pick up our two main objections and connect them with the two-fold justification for the inclusion of any discipline in the curriculum of the contemporary secular university: (1) the subject matter is studied with appropriate rigor; and (2) the subject matter is of such importance as to warrant public funding and academic attention. Let us proceed, then, to see how well theology meets the Wiebe and Dawkins objections in light of these two proper concerns.[4]

Rigorous Interpretation

According to the Wiebe objection, theology fails to qualify as an authentic university discipline because of its dependence upon faith. More explicitly, theologians come at their work already primed with a vast and deep set of presuppositions, commitments, and agenda that makes it impossible for them even to approach the standard of rationality appropriate for genuine intellectual investigation. Intriguingly, moreover, Wiebe gets more than a little support for his objection from certain kinds of Christian theologians who suggest that theology is merely a formal verbal response to spiritual experiences granted by God and the faithful exegesis of divinely given revelation. Any attitude of detached analysis would smack of hubristic autonomy, disrespectful toward God and therefore utterly unlikely to be granted communication.[5]

There is no doubt that these Wiebean opponents of what we might call “academic theology” are correct in the premise of their argument. Theologians generally do come to their work with a set of beliefs and concerns, some large and influential in their thinking, others less so. At stake in any theological discussion might well be treasured doctrines about, say, Jesus or the Church. At stake might also be longstanding personal commitments: to a spouse, a congregation, or a vocation. At stake might well be the theologian’s job or, at least, her standing in her denomination. So the theologian cannot possibly be expected to consider her subject neutrally and objectively.

Alas, however, for the whole university: no other professor approaches his or her work neutrally and objectively, either. Precisely no one launches a scientific experiment with no idea about what might happen and no interest in one result rather than another. Not many successful scholars in the actual university want to spend time either proving what everyone already knows is the case or proving a “null hypothesis,” since neither of these results, however carefully achieved, will elicit another dollar of grant money or a significant publication credit. Everyone pursues every important activity in his or her life laden with just the same burden and momentum provided by the accumulated ideas and motives of a lifetime as does a theologian.[6] Is the academic situation therefore hopelessly compromised by runaway interests, not only for the theologian but for every other scholar?

Professor Wiebe also suggests that “methodological atheism” is the right approach for religious studies as it is in the natural sciences: “You should not invoke the gods whether you are doing physics or religious studies!” (Wiebe, 2014). If Professor Wiebe means that the scholar must not resort to supernatural explanations merely when he frustratedly cannot account for phenomena any other way, thus bringing in a “God of the gaps” as an explanatory deus ex machina, then surely Wiebe is right to counsel against intellectual shortcuts. Yet in the study of religion especially, although also in other disciplines as well, if one does believe in the sort of deity who actively involves Godself in the workings of the cosmos rather than deistically just winding it up at the moment of creation and letting it run, then one must be open to the possibility that in this situation, the direct action of God might in fact be the truth of the matter. In such a case it would be a weird kind of science to keep looking for alternative, naturalistic explanations. To put it more clearly, if God did in fact perform a miracle at time t, one can hardly recommend that the scholarly thing to do to explain what happened at time t is to look, however hopelessly, for an alternative accounting.

We do not need to insist that a single worldview govern all scholars and all scholarship. The fact that scholars come at their studies with different worldviews is not a problem, but an opportunity for mutually beneficial interaction. It is a form of intellectual multiculturalism, in which each conducts his or her own business on behalf of his or her own (intellectual) community, yes, but also shares with others and receives good things in return as each contributes what he or she can to the common good, to the Great Conversation. For this exchange to happen, to be sure, there must be agreement on the nature of the task and the procedures to be followed in it, just as in any other mutually productive multicultural exchange. But, again, this should not be a problem. The definition of what a university is for and how it ought to conduct its business has been established for a long time now.[7] The imposition of a single ideology, therefore, is not what is needed to rescue the university from being a so-called multiversity—whether that ideology is secular humanism, Christianity, or Aristotelianism, to select among options currently on offer. No, the university is properly united by a commitment to studying the truth of important matters, of all important matters, as well as possible—and that means according to the best practices of each discipline.

So how ought we to deal with the challenge of scholars proceeding in their work with multiple and varying prejudices, agendas, and worldviews? The solution is ready to hand. We can expect that their professional guilds will discipline them, and in two key respects. First, we can expect that, if they have been trained properly—whether in physics, philosophy, or physiology—scholars have been trained to discipline their prior beliefs and concerns, to subject their subjectivity to the canons of their discipline. This is what we ought to mean by “objectivity.” There are right ways and there are wrong ways to formulate hypotheses, devise research programs to investigate them, and to test the results—before publishing them for other scholars to check and confirm. Literally no matter how you feel or what you think when you enter the laboratory or the library that day, your professional guild ought to have trained you in ways of pursuing scholarship that have been shown to provide optimal results. Even in forms of interpretation that differ markedly from the typical scientific model just delineated—particularly works of art (poetry, music, painting), but also in speculative reflection (philosophy, cosmology, ethics)—there are canons by which the relevant discipline is to be pursued and the resulting interpretation assessed. Not just “anything goes,” but instead everything is subject to rigorous appraisal.

Second, the professional guilds can be expected to discipline anyone who veers away from these canons, these conventions, and to penalize them professionally for their misbehaviour. Promotion, tenure, publication, collaboration—all are granted or withheld by one’s professional peers as means of keeping one on the straight and narrow path of proper procedure.

Instead, then, of asking the impossible—that scholars somehow “bracket out” what they believe as they approach their work (as philosopher Alvin Plantinga often has asked, Why ask someone to pretend not to know what she thinks she knows?)—we require the merely difficult: that one subject one’s preferences and prejudices to the demands of one’s discipline.

Theologians can do that. Thomas Aquinas set an impressive example of doing that at the University of Paris eight centuries ago, Martin Luther did the same thing several centuries later at the University of Wittenberg, and theologians properly aspire to doing the same thing, if not with the same brilliance, today. Poor selection of evidence (not of the right kind, or not enough of it) can be spotted by one’s peers, as can poor analysis (dubious grouping, fuzzy distinctions, thin connections) and poor argumentation (unbalanced, indifferent to alternatives, or flatly illogical).[8] One cannot and ought not to leave one’s pertinent ideas or interests at the door. They, after all, shape and motivate one’s thinking about the subject. If one had no clue or no concern, one wouldn’t undertake the study in the first place! Neutrality isn’t the same thing as objectivity (Haskell 1998). But having undertaken the study, prompted and guided by whatever might be one’s motives or expectations, one must study—and one’s discipline then disciplines all one does.

No serious theologian, after all, has ever denied the importance of reason as part of the grounds for, and a helpful check upon, the assertions of faith. Even Tertullian, that great champion of Jerusalem over Athens, was a lawyer who argued his points with both flair and rigor, as did Søren Kierkegaard, even as he is often misunderstood as a champion of fideism. No serious orthodox Christian thinker and no mainstream Christian tradition has ever suggested that believers ought to opt for some sort of belief utterly separate from knowledge, immune from intellectual probes, let alone demanding belief in the teeth of overwhelming contrary evidence—at least, not since Thomas Aquinas took on the convenient equivocations of the Averroists in the thirteenth century. Theologians instead have typically stood with Luther at the Diet of Worms in his willingness to be challenged on the basis of “Scripture and right reason.” And, again, even those whose work is not so much discursive as analogical and allusive believe that there exist better and worse interpretations and that there are conventions and criteria by which those interpretations can be communally appraised.

What, however, about the data involved in theological reflection? No one seriously disputes that the geologist does, indeed, have rocks strewn about his table or that the linguist does, indeed, have recordings of people speaking this newly discovered language. But the theologian trades in revelation: revealed scripture, particularly, but also putative revelation via prophecies, oracles, visions, and more. How can all this supernatural strangeness possibly be brought onto campus?

It should be brought the same way any other data are brought onto campus: on well-established grounds that this sort of thing bears serious examination. Not just any rocks or recordings are studied, of course, but only those that trained experts have determined are at least likely to provide information needed by the pertinent science. Similarly, not just any book anyone anywhere has claimed to be scripture, nor just any account of just any extraordinary spiritual experience, deserves attention by scholars. But those writings that have been plausibly assessed as somehow bearing the impress of the mind of God, and reliable accounts of what appear to be genuine encounters with God, of course ought to be studied to yield whatever knowledge they might provide about God.

“Yielding knowledge of God,” furthermore, is the primary interest of theology. The same writings can be studied by Religious Studies scholars with all sorts of other legitimate interests: literary, political, linguistic, psychological, and so on. The Bible and its relationship to the history of American literature, or the Bible as a text of repression and liberation in Africa, or the King James Version or the Luther translation as key episodes in the evolution of modern English or German—all of these are important avenues of inquiry. But the Bible as divine discourse—that, too, obviously would be important to consider. And theologians read the Bible primarily with that in view. What has God said and what is God yet saying (Wolterstorff, 1995)?

Similarly, as philosopher William Alston has shown, scholars might well study accounts of religious experience for a wide range of reasons: to understand the psychology of certain types of people; to understand the sociology of certain kinds of group events; to understand the deep anthropological structures of a particular tribe; to understand the history of a particular religious movement; and so on. But one might also study at least some religious experiences in hopes of gaining knowledge about the contents of the experiences, not merely knowledge about the subjects of the experiences. One might, that is, study putative experiences of God to find out something about God, not merely about the people who reported the experiences (Alston, 1991).

Not to do so—to rule out a priori the study of scriptures as scriptures and to rule out the study of religious experiences as sources of knowledge about that which was experienced—would be intellectually odd. It would be as odd as conducting a study of a piano recital in which everything is examined—the demographics and reactions of the audience, the architecture of the hall, the history of performance and the musicology of the pieces performed, the finances of the sponsoring institutions—all the while studiously ignoring the actual focus of attention: the musician and the music he is making. And in this bizarre scenario the scholar would also, of course, have to engage in this investigation only having made sure she has comprehensively bracketed out all of her previous acquaintance with, and concern about, this performer and this music. Such study would be very odd indeed.

Genuine Subject Matter

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, the Dawkins objection is that when it comes to theology’s subject matter “there is no there there” (Stein, 1937, 289). And, just as we saw in the Wiebe objection, Dawkins is joined (surely uneasily) by Christian theologians who agree either that God is simply so “other” as to defy study at all, or at least so transcendent that human modes of analysis can, at best, result in merely affirming what God is not (the via negativa) or perhaps offering some weak analogies.[9]

One might argue that Dawkins’s objection that there is no God to be studied flies in the face of the testimony of millions—now actually billions—of people to the contrary. The Christian religion is the largest cultural group in the world, and if one adds the believers of just one other religion, Islam, to its numbers, well over half of humanity believes that there is, indeed, a God of just the sort in which Professor Dawkins vehemently disbelieves. So do not the sincere beliefs of so many people deserve a place in the university? Put even more plainly, if a lot of people believe in something, should not their belief be honoured in a pluralistic, public institution such as a university with a department devoted to its study?

Well, no. Or, at least, not necessarily. Simply because many people believe in x does not, in itself, validate x as a viable object of scholarly investigation. Many people, after all, seem to believe sincerely in astrology. Polls tell us that many modern people continue to consult horoscopes to make daily decisions and even ones of lasting import. So why isn’t the astronomy department expanded to include astrology? If combining those disciplines was good enough for Johannes Kepler, why isn’t it good enough for us?

It isn’t good enough for us because the consensus of the relevant experts has come down massively against astrology as a science, as an actual avenue to knowledge. And it is the consensus of relevant experts that properly determines what is and is not studied at the university. This is the central conviction of universities: from the medieval origins of the university, up through the advocacy of Enlightenment figures such as Kant and Schleiermacher—who was a leading figure in the founding the University of Berlin, the model of the modern research university—and on to the structure of the universities who have separate senates that are charged with final authority over academic matters, in distinction from their boards of governors who oversee the university’s vitality as an organization. It is the professors who are entrusted with the responsibility to preside over the world of learning and to devote attention to those disciplines and subjects that deserve such scholarly attention.[10]

Then perhaps, the Dawkins objection would continue, theology ought to be dismissed as a plausible subject because so many scholars, and especially scientists, disbelieve in God. Surely when so many smart people disbelieve in something, it cannot actually exist and therefore cannot deserve academic attention.

Well, again, no. Or, at least, not necessarily. Lots of highly qualified people used to believe that the universe exists in a constantly reiterating set of cycles, whirling about in elegant repetition eternally. I refer not only to Ptolemy’s cosmos, of course, but also to Copernicus’s, Newton’s, and pretty much every scientist’s until the middle of the 1960s. The “steady-state theory,” as it was known, came to grief with the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR) that was explained best in terms of theories originating in the 1940s regarding the so-called Big Bang model of a finite universe with a definite beginning and subsequent continuous expansion.

Dawkins might reply, however, that we are not discussing the same sort of thing here. He is talking about whether such an entity as God even exists. The cosmologists were arguing about something the existence of which no one doubted, the universe, and were disputing only over how to understand its nature.

That seems a fair objection, but consider that the work of the pioneers of Big Bang theory was impeded, one might easily presume, by the majority opinion that there was nothing there for them to study to prove their theory. The discovery of the CMBR was, itself, an accident, as no one had apparently been looking for it since everyone “knew” such a thing wouldn’t be there to find.

Cosmology can continue to furnish us with examples here, and we should continue to draw on it particularly because physics has long held pride of place among the disciplines in our day. So let us ponder the fact that of late, scientists have been arguing over the existence of the Higgs boson, dark matter, dark energy, strings, and many more elements of cosmology that are essential to an even basic understanding of what the universe is and how it works. They literally are disputing over whether there is anything there to study, and on the grandest scale imaginable.

The testimony of many, many people to experiences that they believe are best explained by reference to the supernatural, and to a particular kind of supernatural agent (that is, the Christian God); the testimony of similarly large numbers of people that the Christian scriptures offer significantly more than mundane wisdom; and the sheer fact of the existence and eventual global spread of the Christian religion when compared with its extremely unpromising origins all evidence, to many scholars, the existence of something that needs explaining. Moreover, those scholars also affirm that here (and beyond) they find more than adequate grounds for believing in the existence of the quite specific explanatory “something” identified as the Christian God, and of the genuineness of that God’s revelation to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. Thus, they believe that theology is a well-warranted avenue for serious investigation.

If we shift our gaze back to the actual universities of our day, then, we find evidence that theology continues to enjoy the standard elements of intellectual legitimacy. It is indeed taught at some of the best universities in the world. The presses of some of those universities continue to publish theology as if it is a genuine academic discourse. Major academic societies continue to admit theologians into their ranks, such as the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For now, at least, theology bears all the marks of a real discipline studying a subject matter that many scholars, at least, seem to agree is actually there. So the mere fact that many other scholars dispute the existence of God, or even find belief in the existence of God upsetting, cannot be enough to disqualify theology from the university. One might hope that non-Christians, even atheists, could grant at a minimum that at this historical moment theology deserves a place in the university, even as they would rightly demand in turn that it then be put to any relevant test. Thus, like astrology, theology will have to be discarded once a genuine consensus among the relevant scholars emerges to that effect. Until theology is thus ruled out by academic debate, which is all we have of a scholarly nature to govern the university, theology ought not to be ruled out by mere academic politics. Indeed, in a kind of Pascal’s Wager, until theology is indeed ruled out, it would be simply foolish to forbid the pursuit of such extremely important knowledge—for what if, in fact, theology can deliver the goods?

The Accountability of Theology