Naturally in the wake of the video suppression-and-unsuppression I’ve been thinking again about the “what” of theology. I’ve been thinking about theology as an academic discipline and department, and how that works, and relatedly, about how it knows what it claims to know, and how it knows it knows it. Yes really: both of those: because surely that’s a minimal requirement for an academic: not just to know things, but to know (and be able to explain) how you know them.
I always think about that when reading or listening to (listening to being a much slower and thus more squirmy frustrating process) John Haught and theologians like him (Alister McGrath for instance). I also think about it when reading Paul Tillich. I think about the “minimal requirement for an academic” aspect. How does he get away with it? How does this work? Is theology just exempt from that minimal requirement, and if so why? Just a hangover from the past, when theology was central as opposed to marginal-bizarre?
What are the criteria for theology as an academic discipline? How do practitioners tell good theology from bad? Is there such a thing as “wrong”? Is there falsification? Is there peer review? Are there any boundaries – any checks on what we outsiders see as making stuff up?
Does it have an epistemology at all? Does it pay any attention to how it knows what it claims to know? Does it have clear standards? Is knowledge of the field all it takes? Is it hermetic and insular: internally consistent (or not) but of no interest otherwise?
Does Haught think about any of this? He argues against what he calls “scientism” (which may or may not agree with what philosophers mean by it), but even if “scientism” is wrong does that make theology right? Even if science is not the only way to find things out, does it follow that theology is another way to find things out? (I know the answer to that, because it’s so obvious. I know only obvious things. No, it doesn’t follow, because theology is not the only alternative to science.) Can you get from the error of scientism to the reliability of theology? No.
Is theology a form of knowledge? If so, what kind? What is its methodology? How does it know what it claims to know? Does it have peer review? If so, what do the peers review? What makes theology better or worse?
Haught talked about personal transformation (as necessary for getting at the truths of religion, or something along those lines). That’s a strange idea. Usually the more reliable way to get at knowledge, facts, truth, good evidence, is to learn the appropriate methods and unlearn the other kind. It entails learning not to trust your gut or your guesses, let alone your wishes. “Personal transformation” sounds like learning the opposite. Being “carried away” sounds like surrender to one’s own existing biases and wishes.
This is all very puzzling to me.