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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

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. (

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

Theology might very well be eventually discarded, however, according to a consensus of relevant scholars—or, at least, some forms of theology might be. And that is precisely one of the main reasons theology ought to be present in the crucible of university debate.

If, that is, theology is to enjoy the status of a discipline at the secular university, it has to be what the gamblers call “all in.” If theology wants to participate in academic discourse, then theology must abide by its strictures, and not avoid the demands of the particular genre in which it is undertaken and expressed. If theology is to be conducted by discursive reasoning, as most of it is, sufficient evidence of the right sort must be analyzed responsibly and deployed cogently in order to arrive at conclusions open to verification—or at least falsification. If theology is instead to be expressed in more evocative, artistic modes, it nonetheless does not escape vulnerability to judgment: Are the things in question truly as they are depicted in this particular rendering?

What theologians may not do is resort merely to the use of sacred language nor appeal merely to shared convictions as if they have done all that is necessary to make their case. Words, concepts, phrases, prooftexts, clichés, authority figures—from the storehouse of sacred lore the lazy or disingenuous theologian selects elements that will reflexively trigger agreement in her particular audience. Matters thus are settled merely by invoking Augustine, Calvin or Moltmann, or “the Ten Commandments,” or “the Sermon on the Mount,” or “the Cross of Christ,” while some theologians disingenuously evoke glorious feelings by using charged terms such as “law and gospel” or “common grace and antithesis” or “imago dei” (one gets bonus points for the use of an ancient language). Such a theologian does not trouble herself actually to muster sufficient evidence of the right sort, analyzed in a transparent and responsible way, and marshaled rigorously in a chain of inferences toward carefully qualified conclusions—after which such conclusions are sharply tested according to the best contrary evidence and interpretations that can be found. And again, if she prefers to craft a more oblique artistic presentation—more poetry than prose, more depiction than argument—it nonetheless can and ought to be strictly assessed in terms of both its rhetorical and theological accuracy and cogency.

Nothing is sacred, therefore, in the sense that no theological contention is above scrutiny. You say that God is creator of all, or three-in-one, or invisible but omnipresent, or attentive to our prayers? Well, let’s see about that. Why do you think so, and why would (other) reasonable people think so? Is your explanation fully supported by the arguments you have adduced or the interpretative work you have offered? And is this the best explanation for what we have before us?

Alas, this proper vulnerability of theology to rigorous appraisal is avoided in some of the highest reaches of contemporary religious studies. Indeed, it seems that there is a kind of tacit agreement in the American Academy of Religion and similar organizations that no one will ask the hard, but crucial, questions particularly about the origins of one or another religion. Scholars used to ask, but do not ask anymore—at least, they seem not to ask out loud in the formal sessions of the AAR—whether Joseph Smith really found golden plates and translated them with special spectacles, or whether Muhammad really heard the Word of God via Gabriel and other means, or whether Moses really received the Law of God on Mount Sinai, or whether Jesus really rose from the dead. (Biblical studies societies, to be sure, are replete with critical study of Jewish and Christian claims of all sorts, which makes the AAR tacit agreement to bracket out such discussion all the stranger.) In fact, many scholars think it is intellectually appropriate (as well as, for many, religiously devout) to marginalize such questions as undecidable by scholarly means. Such critical questions—which one would naturally ask in order to come to a proper understanding of any other kind of social movement—seem to be impolite at best and disruptive at worst, a throwback to the bad old days of apologetics and polemics.

Yet apologetics and polemics—which, properly undertaken, are nothing other than defending one’s own assertions and challenging the assertions of others—are essential parts of the scientific study of any subject, and therefore of theology—as such disparate theological figures as Schleiermacher and Warfield agree (Schleiermacher, 1977; Warfield, 1983).[12] If theology wants to offer statements of truth to our minds, rather than offer bromides or fairy tales to our hearts—as Dawkins contends theology does—then its claims must be subject to the same challenges as any other. Are its origin stories plausible, let alone credible? Do this religion’s tenets cohere with what we know and value in science, technology, history, and other verifiable and important knowledge? Do this religion’s teachings conduce optimally to human welfare and the flourishing of the planet?

In fact, as I trust Donald Wiebe himself might agree, we do each other a service by calling religions to express themselves—and, indeed, to arrange their own beliefs and practices—according to the high standard to which we hold everyone and everything else in the university. We do each other a service by identifying and ruling out bad religions: bad intellectually or bad ethically. And we do each other a service by appreciating what is actually better in another religion, or present there and not present at all in our own, and thus learning from each other—thereby improving our own religion, or converting to another, or developing a new option entirely.

Only in this mode of honest engagement and evaluation can theology then make the most crucial claim it can make in the university: that it offers truth that no other discipline offers; that it contributes actual knowledge to our understanding that is not found somewhere else; that, in short, theology actually performs some fruitful intellectual work.[13] This is, after all, the tremendous claim theology has made down through the ages, right back to the Apostle Paul declaring in the very capital of ancient learning, Athens itself, that what was unknown to them by their science and philosophy was known to him by the revelation of God, and he would declare it (Acts 17:23). But such a declaration must properly be made in the context of argument, and it is instructive that arguing, as well as proclaiming, is exactly what Paul does in synagogue and theater, with Jew and Gentile alike, throughout his missionary journeys (e.g., Acts 18:4; 19:8).

Theology and the Church

What, then, about the oft-repeated claim that theology must be undertaken only in the context of the church, that there is something unseemly and even dysfunctional about attempting the study of the most holy things, of “divinity” as some still call it, in the profane precincts of the contemporary university?

Theology can be beneficially undertaken simultaneously in both contexts. Many great theologians, of course, never held university positions—from Augustine to Calvin to Edwards to Niebuhr. But many did—from Aquinas to Luther to Schleiermacher to Barth to Gutiérrez. There is no reason why one cannot respect one’s theological tradition and consult with one’s ecclesiastical colleagues and still meet high intellectual standards. Indeed, what criteria would the church require that the university would not?

To be sure, a church might require fidelity to its creeds, such that a theologian who ventured an alternative opinion would put his livelihood in peril. But such a church would be asking too much. For any Protestant church—at least in theory, at least according to the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation—ought to be open to fresh readings of the Bible even against its own traditions. And so would many Catholics and Orthodox be open to revision in their interpretations as well, in faithfulness to the revealed Word of God. Heresy—which should be equivalent to error, and not merely to “making a different choice”—should be refuted by argument, not by mere fiat.

One can understand why religious schools devise and insist upon fidelity to statements of faith. It is relatively easy for critics from other fields, such as, say, biology, to demand untrammelled academic freedom—for what are the consequences if they happen to be wrong, compared to the frightfully grave consequences that can attend theological error? It is no wonder that religious institutions seek to guard themselves and the students in their care against theological mistakes of possibly eternal consequence.

Still, theistic institutions ought to trust God ultimately to protect them against perils, and such institutions ought to recognize that they are not perfect—not at all. So theistic institutions, at least, should be open to the possibility of a well-constructed theological argument that brings new light into their midst. Their fidelity to their creeds will dispose them to think it highly unlikely that any innovation requiring a change in those creeds will be legitimate, to be sure. But that sort of intellectual conservatism is not only common in every other discipline, but it is indeed a good instinct. New ideas bear the burden of proof and ought to be required to prove themselves fully. The openness, nonetheless, needs to be there to let new ideas prove themselves—else an institution is no longer truly faithful, but fanatical.

Thus theology actually might be done better at the university than in a church-governed institution if the latter such institution is academically flaccid; or financially strapped, overloading professors with teaching, committee work, and fundraising; or intellectually restrictive such that professors lack genuine academic freedom and thus must engage in self-censoring, dissembling, and the like. Having said that, if the university is itself intellectually perverted, it would be better to place theology in the confessional school. For in many universities certain ideologies inimical to theology—or, at least, to the free investigation of theological subjects—dominate such that any deviation from the local “orthodoxy” is punished as ruthlessly as in any seminary or Bible school. And, more positively, in confessional schools theology can benefit from the creative synergy of multiple scholars pursuing similar questions via multiple disciplines but with a similar outlook. So one need not argue that theology should be pursued only in the university, but it certainly can and ought to be pursued in the university as well as in church-based institutions.

For Christian theology itself reminds us that “the church” is not to be understood as restricted to what we might call the congregational-denominational complex. The church includes every Christian working in relationship with fellow Christians, with the tradition, and with the Holy Spirit in devotion to Christ—in whatever sphere of service to which God has called one. Thus it can include theologians working at the university as well as theologians working in congregations and church-related schools. In sum, there is nothing unique about the academic discipline of theology that requires the cloistering of theologians away from the rest of the world—or even from different sorts of theologians. Theology is just another kind of intellectual work that needs to be done well on behalf of everyone, and not just the church.

To say that, however, raises another thorny question: Does one have to be a Christian to do Christian theology? In particular, does one have to be an observant, even pious, Christian to properly pursue theology? Paul Tillich and his latter-day epigone David Tracy say, “No.” Since their understanding of theology is, to put it simply, the correlation of the questions of the day with the resources of the Christian tradition, one can see their point. Any intelligent and interested person could connect A with B in a way that makes sense to another intelligent and interested person (Tracy, 1975: 57n3).

Others, however, would say yes: to do theology properly will require a congenial temperament. If, as Christian theology contends, the most important discoveries in theology are disclosed to the seeker by a personal God, not merely achieved by dint of the seeker’s methodical searching or by the skillful play of texts and concepts, then a proper attitude of reverent receptivity would seem to be a prerequisite. Luther would remind us that we are all simul justus et peccator and one can acknowledge that even some bright lights of recent Christian thought, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Karl Barth himself, held the treasure of the gospel in decidedly earthen vessels. But it would seem, frankly, simply obvious that the study of anything would be undertaken better by someone of moral integrity, courage, industry, and openness to the inspiration and sustenance of God, and a fortiori in the case of theology.[14]


Why would we university scholars abandon life’s central questions to the teachings of religious institutions or the musings of less educated individuals? Why, when we jealously guard our status as the experts on every other subject worth considering seriously, would we abandon the most serious questions to celebrities, clergy, and consumers? Why, when we champion the rigors of academic discourse as the high road to truth, would we abandon the question of the very meaning of life to the dangerous dynamics of populism and particularly to the vagaries of prominence in popular media? Quite apart from our professional pride (which can, to be sure, smack of elitism), is this abandonment of theology not actually dereliction of duty?

The abandonment of these questions is, alas, typical of the contemporary university, as philosophy departments have been known to focus entirely on epistemology and literature departments have been known to preoccupy themselves with ensuring that everyone’s voice gets heard—so that their discussions frequently have failed to get past prolegomena to substance. Thus the chief matters of life are being prosecuted in public arenas of power and preference, rather than in seminars of careful discussion.

Yale University theologian Miroslav Volf puts it thus:

In a globalized world, people of diverse and deeply held convictions live side by side under the same political roof. Major issues that rend states asunder—about the nature of democracy, the right to proselytize, the rights of women and gays, abortion and euthanasia, the distribution of goods, climate change, and so on—are largely about what constitutes the life worth living and the values that articulate it. But we have lost the ability to deliberate about them.

…The loss of this deliberative capacity has turned what ought to be public debates about alternative visions of the good life into shouting matches about unreflective personal preferences! (Volf, 2014)

But theology, properly undertaken, is not about personal preferences, any more than chemistry is. It is about what is real, what is actually the case, regardless of the preferences even of the investigator. And, as James Stoner suggests, “a good clean fight about what is true” would go a long way toward reforming a university culture alternately reveling and writhing in cynicism (Stoner, 2006).

Not all theologies will survive such a fight, to be sure. But we must agree that casualties here would be to the good of everyone involved. University study is supposed to reveal inadequacy of evidence, shoddiness of argument, and dubiety of conclusion. It particularly should rule out unpromising lines of inquiry—and some religions being practiced today might well be finally and helpfully exposed as such, just as many religions previously have fallen by the wayside as testing proved them to be not finally as helpful in interpreting the world as their competitors.

If, for example, Mormon claims about Jesus visiting the New World after his resurrection cannot be sustained in the harsh glare of public academic scrutiny, the Mormon is better off to know that, as is everyone else. If the Muslim finds that the Qur’an is not the document she thought it was, she is better off to know that, as is everyone else. If Mennonite verities about nonviolence can be demonstrated to be contrary to Scripture and actually dangerous in situations of grave conflict, then the Mennonite is better off to know that, as is everyone else. And if (to continue to select merely among the M’s) the materialist finds that her philosophy cannot adequately describe and explain altruism, or beauty, or even the existence of mentally healthy and clearly intelligent theists, then she is better off to know that, as is everyone else.

Such critical theological engagement is not profane, but holy; not disrespectful to God, but in fact honouring to God as One who has gone to great trouble to teach us truth and expects us to exert ourselves fully to find and understand it. The university can be, and should be, a holy place. Think of it: a whole campus equipped with buildings and equipment and books and computers and staff and adequate funding such that professors and students can learn from each other, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and grow wiser about the central issues of life. God belongs in such a holy place.

This language of the university as a holy place might well discomfit one. It might even seem pathetically naïve, as if in the contest of opinions truth always manages to win the day. A couple of centuries of various “hermeneutics of suspicion” prevent us from any such simplistic hope. Yet the university remains the best environment we have yet devised for the identification and testing of ideas, and the best we can do is to hold it as best we can to its ideals.

If we are not ready to pronounce the university “holy,” then, we ought at least to agree that the university ought not to be a stupid place: a place in which scholars painstakingly study every planet and comet and asteroid in the system while willfully and categorically ignoring the sun at its centre. Indeed, if theology were restored to a viable, even vital, place in the secular university, it would signal that the university was about more than mere knowledge acquisition and job training, important as they are, but was, once again, serious about wisdom, about the meaning of the examined life—about, yes, life abundant.

Reference List

Alston, WP (1991) Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP.

Burtchaell, JT (1998) The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Chadwick, O, ed. (1960) The Mind of the Oxford Movement. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.

Dawkins, R (n.d.):; accessed 15 October 2014.

Dawkins, R (1995) Reply to Michael Pool. Science and Christian Belief 7 (April 1995): 45–50.

Dawkins, R (1998) The Emptiness of theology. Free Inquiry 182: 6.

Griffiths, PJ (1991) An Apology for Apologetics: A Study in the Logic of Interreligious Dialogue. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Hamblin, J (2014) “When the snake oil works.” The Atlantic (October): 26-27.

Hart, DB (2006) Contribution to symposium on “Theology as knowledge.” First Things (May): Accessed 23 October 2014.

Haskell, TL (1998) Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Kant, I (1979 [1798]) The Conflict of the Faculties. Trans. and introduction by MJ Gregor. Lincoln, NE and London: U of Nebraska P

Lamont, M (2009) How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.

Malik, CH (1982) A Christian Critique of the University. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.

Marsden, GM and Longfield, BJ, eds. (1992) The Secularization of the Academy. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP.

Marsden, GM (1994) The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP.

Murphy, N (1994) Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International.

Newman, JH (1996 [1854]) The Idea of a University. Ed. Frank M. Turner. New Haven, CT: Yale UP.

Plantinga, A (2000) Warranted Christian Belief. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP.

Polkinghorne, JC (2006) “Christian interdisciplinarity.” In Christianity and the Soul of the University. Ed. D Henry and M Beaty. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. Pp. 49-64.

Sauter, MJ (1990) Visions of the Enlightenment: The Edict on Religion of 1788 and the Politics of the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century Prussia. Leiden: E. J. Brill

Schleiermacher, FDE (1977 [1830]) Brief Outline of the Study of Theology. Trans. TN Tice. Atlanta: John Knox.

Stackhouse, JG, Jr. (2014) Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology. New York and Oxford: Oxford UP.

Stein, G (1937) Everybody’s Autobiography. New York: Random House.

Stoner, JR, Jr. (2006) Contribution to symposium on “Theology as knowledge.” First Things (May): Accessed 23 October 2014.

Tracy, D (1975) Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology. Minneapolis: Winston/Seabury.

Volf, M (2014) “Life worth living: Christian faith and the crisis of the universities.” ABC Religion and Ethics (30 April): Accessed 17 October 2014.

Warfield, BB (1983) “The Idea of systematic theology.” In The Princeton Theology, 1812-1921: Scripture, Science, and Theological Method from Archibald Alexander to Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. Ed. MA Noll. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. Pp. 241-61.

Wiebe, D (2014). Interview by Christopher J. Cotter of the Religious Studies Project: Accessed 20 October 2014.

Wiebe, D (1999) The Politics of Religious Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wolterstorff, N (1995) Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP.

[1] For historical accounts of some of these issues in the North Atlantic Anglosphere, see Marsden and Longfield (1992); Marsden (1994); and Burtchaell (1998).

[2] Harvard and Yale offer Ph.D. programs in religious studies in programs separate from their respective divinity schools. Chicago is an interesting case, with its Divinity School continuing to offer degrees to clergy-in-training while the vast majority of its students pursue academic degrees. There is no (other) religious studies department at that university.

[3] See, among other works, Wiebe (1999).

[4] David Bentley Hart, with characteristic vigour, puts the matter thus:

“Religion, after all (as everyone knows), is a realm of purely personal conviction sustained by faith, which is (as everyone also knows) an entirely irrational movement of the will, an indistinct impulse of saccharine sentiment, pathetic longing, childish credulity, and vague intuition. And theology, being the special language of religion, is by definition a collection of vacuous assertions, zealous exhortations, and beguiling fables; it is the peculiar patois of a private fixation or tribal allegiance, of interest perhaps to the psychopathologist or anthropologist, but of no greater scientific value than that; surely it has no proper field of study of its own, no real object to investigate, and whatever rules it obeys must be essentially arbitrary.

“Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds” (Hart, 2014).

[5] One thinks, of course, of Karl Barth in this regard, as well as the mystical tradition more generally, but also of John Henry Newman, who agrees that faith disposes one to accept as sufficient “evidences” (we might say, “grounds” or “arguments” or “warrants”) that a disinterested investigator would find insufficient (see the selections from Newman’s sermons in Chadwick, 1960, 71-102).

[6] The literature documenting and discussing these contentions is, of course, vast. For a startling investigation of how bias can work at the highest levels of academe, however, see Lamont 2009.

[7] I recognize, of course, that various agendas have emerged to combine with, interfere with, and even supplant the fundamental principles of the university. But even so staunch a Christian and savvy a university veteran as CH Malik traces the genius of the university back to the basics of the Greek philosophical quest, the “irrepressible and unbounded passion for the exercise of reason and an incredible curiosity to investigate and know everything; …the university is nothing if it is not the home of free inquiry and unfettered curiosity” (Malik, 1982, 17).

[8] See, for example, the magnum opus of philosopher Alvin Plantinga (Plantinga, 2000) in which he (rightly) begs his colleagues to consider his description and defense of “warrant” in Christian thought as sound if Christianity were true—which, he says, is another question entirely. A philosopher of adequate skill can assess Plantinga’s argument whether or not she shares his Christian faith, just as Plantinga can (and does) assess the validity of arguments of non-Christians according to the common canons of analytic philosophy. Indeed, Plantinga’s critic might well profit from considering his work whether or not she shares his Christian faith, just as Christians can and do profit from reading, say, intelligent atheists. For an outline of argumentative discipline in theology, see Murphy 1994.

[9] The early Barth, with his categorical denial of knowledge of God as totaliter aliter, sounds much like the late medieval Nominalists in the delight with which he mows down any prospect of predicating anything of God. Barth soon realized, however, that the usefulness of a preacher, let alone of a theologian, was thereby rather tightly circumscribed, and he devoted himself thenceforth to the industrious exposition of what God had apparently gone to some trouble to reveal about Godself—and thus the voluminous Church Dogmatics.

[10] James Hamblin quotes Steven Nissen, the chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, in a similar vein: “Americans spend $40 billion a year on quack therapies” and, as Hamblin paraphrases him, “this doesn’t mean the government should fund studies of them all” (Hamblin, 2014, 27).

[11] I trust it doesn’t need to be said that the mode of the study depends on the subject matter to be investigated and the questions the investigator wants answered. The model of laboratory science works fine for some disciplines, of course, but not for others—not even for all branches of natural science. The cosmologist cannot replicate Big Bangs in her lab; the paleontologist cannot test planet after planet to observe the path(s) and mechanisms of evolution. What I call the “historical sciences,” such as these, depend on both the methodology of “lab science” and also that of historiography. When one moves into the social sciences, and then to the humanities, what ought to count as pertinent data and appropriate forms of interrogation and demonstration will vary per the subject matter. Nonetheless, the general canons of Wissenschaft still apply, which is why astrology and alchemy are no longer taken seriously: they fail those standard criteria. Theology likewise must follow a method appropriate both to its subject matter and to the questions posed by theologians. But if theology is to be done at the university, it must be conducted according to the pertinent disciplinary norms and remain vulnerable on those grounds to disputation. I recognize, in this regard, that religions vary as to the grounds they adduce for their truth-claims. Some emphasize the work of (a) God in history (such as the Abrahamic traditions), while others lean harder on intuitive appeal (you either see, in the strong sense of mystical “seeing,” the veracity of their assertions or you don’t). Scriptures are also understood quite differently by, and play different roles in, various traditions. In all of these cases as in others, considerable theological (or, perhaps better to avoid the “God-implication” of “theological,” doctrinal) construction has been undertaken. I would like to go on to consider the implications of my proposal, in fact, for the knowledge claims of Buddhism and of bhakti and jñanamarga Hinduism in particular, but space forbids my doing so here.

[12]A more recent, and cogent, argument for such discourse is Griffiths, 1991.

[13] This is the contention made by John Henry Newman in the second discourse of his The Idea of a University (1854). Physicist and priest John C. Polkinghorne testifies directly to the “explanatory work” that belief in God can do, and therefore to the need for a department of theology in any university (Polkinghorne, 2006).

[14] For these and, indeed, a good many other epistemological themes, see Stackhouse, 2014.


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