Grappling with the purpose of theology

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September 19, 2017

Michael Rea in his introduction to Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology engages with the work on Merold Westphal, who posits that onto-theology (that is, the notion that theology can properly tell us something about God, is a major sin to be avoided.1 Rea quotes from Westphal, emphasize the reference to Martin Heidegger, who believes that the purpose of theology is to serve “concrete Christian existence.”2 In other words, theology is envisioned as a program of exploration that is about impacting one’s own way of life; the focus of theology is decidedly humanistic. Practicality is the main criterion of theology. By contrast, analytic theology has a proclivity towards engaging in questions of truth about God Himself3. Amidst theology, there is an all too familiar class between the “theoretical” and “practical,” or as it is experienced in the context of the Church, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

However, the division between the two appears quite foreign to the New Testament and more particularly the Pauline literature. The Apostle Paul’s prayer in Colossian 1:9-144 cuts right to the heart of the division that we are so familiar with.

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (NRSV)

This prayer is offered up in response to the joy that PAul has in the growing of the gospel among the saints of Colossae, along with the rest of the world. Paul was hearing witnesses to the work that God’s love had been producing and he was eagerly seeking for this growth to continue; it is the very thing they had “not ceased praying for” (v. 9) Furthermore, the request for “wisdom and understanding” (I will come back to this in a minute) serves a purpose of “lead[ing] lives worthy of the Lord.” At one level then, we can be inclined to see the practical, orthopraxic focus within Paul’s prayer.

However, the request of the prayer itself does not easily fit within a “concrete Christian existence.” It is directed towards not a practical knowledge and capacity to live pleasing to God, but it is ‘onto-theological’ in seeking for the saints the “knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” One may certainly try to append onto the words knowledge (‘epignosin’), wisdom (‘sophia’) and understand (‘synesei’) an assumed practical (practical knowledge, practical wisdom, practical understanding), but this will not do for Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul’s usage of these words are described in relationship to God5, the Spirit6 and even Christ.7 Furthermore, PAul’s prayer transitions in the panegyric of Colossians 1:15-19, where there is little notion of human practicality; it is a praise of the all-encompassing, divine nature of Christ. That Paul follows this with the implications of Christ’s stature being the saints reconciliation through Jesus death in 1:21-23 only solidifies the notion that the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding is no mere ‘practicality.’

That Paul seemlessly sees the interconnection between what we might categorize as orthodoxy/theory and orthopraxy/practice suggests something deeper is happening that ‘transcends’ the normal human experience of the differing modes of thinking. Whether the theory-practice distinction is a cultural byproduct or a human universal, it does not in Paul’s mind have anything to say to the saints of the Church. Theology has both a ‘practical’ and ‘noumenal’8 dimension to it that interweaves together. Being inspired by Paul’s panegyric, one might even say Christ inhabits both the practical and theoretical dimensions.

That there is a relationship between the two ‘modes’ of thinking points to philosophical perspectives that rejects the implicit dualism that make strong distinctions between various modes of life and thinking in abstract and concrete ways, such as Descartes distinction of mind-body and Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. Philosophical perspectives that take into consideration embodiment cognition as propounded and popularized by Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff offer a way of understanding the interconnection of the abstract with ‘concrete,’ embodied experience and, therefore, can incorporate theology having both practical and analytic goals that interweave together. This is not to mention the implication an embodied philosophy would have to overlap with the understanding of the Incarnation.

What is analytic theology?

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September 16, 2017

Since getting accepting into the MLitt program at the Logos Institute, I have continuously asked myself: what have I gotten myself into? This question became more foregrounded as I arrived and visited with other people in the program and saw their various educational skills and backgrounds. There is a feeling of intimidation that has overwhelmed me these past few weeks. In discussion with one other student, I know there is that feeling coming also. But as with many feelings of trepidation, it is sometimes fueled more about not knowing rather than not being able.Surrounding coming to this program is a very important question: what is analytic theology?

It isn’t simply enough to talk about theology. What theology really is hard enough to describe as it is, eliciting almost as many answers as there are theological traditions. To prefix that with the word “analytic” brings images of cold, hard academic rigor, strong skepticism, and abstruse terminology. In my first discussion before applying with one of the teachers of the program, Dr. Andrew Torrance, I probed into what it meant to pull analytic philosophy, invented by philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore and propagated by later positivists like A.J. Ayer, into theology. I asked with a hint of skepticism given the nature of their skepticism about God that the early analytic philosophers had and a bit of trepidation considering the mathematical genius of people like Russell and Frege (who is a precursor to the development of analytic philosophy). Should analytic philosophy and theology mix? And more personally, can I who focused more on Biblical Studies with only a passing training in philosophy, and most in the Continental and American Pragmatist traditions, actually do this work? Dr. Torrance’s answer and the answer in some of the readings for the class can help alleviate some of the questions and concerns.

In the Introductory chapter of Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, Michael Rea outlines a broad vision for analytic theology by describing the “analytic style,” as containing the following:

P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.’

P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.

P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.’

P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.

P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence.1

While these criteria are certainly not beyond question2, it does present a brief, yet formalized picture of the work done in Analytic Theology. However, to a neophyte in analytic philosophy/theology, these propositions come across as hard to really grasp.

To put it into a less precise description (and potentially overly narrow), it seems that analytic theology is about using the available philosophy resources in analytic philosophy to come to understand what one is really trying to say about God and whether it is reasonable or not. The tools and methods challenge us3 to see what is happening underneath the hood of our expression and reasoning. Much of our talk about God can easily devolve into appellations to vague, undefined concepts that we then employ in various, equivocating ways.

For instance, the language of grace can easily diminish into some broad, touchy-feeling notion of acceptance while also making appeals to some divine power coming at the cost of the sacrifice of Christ. The concept of grace can be appropriated to justify non-judgmental acceptance of a person while simultaneously used to talk about the power of God to effect personal, spiritual transformation. While these two notions need not be bounded off from each other as unconnected, that these two semantic functions can appear in the same sermon, writing, etc. and switched between without clarification can lead to some murky confusion. Sometime this confusion may even lead to a contradiction/tension within the concept itself. Insofar as the aspect of grace that entails God’s power of transformation entails a certain standard that a person is transforming into, it can be undercut by the aspect of grace that is understood as unconditional acceptance, where the standard is overlooked (or vice versa).

Given the object of knowledge of Christian theology, God as revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, is not an object of inquiry that is knowable via the same methods as the physical, material world is, it is necessary that our talk about God would necessarily be ambiguous and fraught with potential equivocation. The appropriation of the tools of analytic philosophy ushers our own theological expressions as well as other’s we engage with into a greater scrutiny, challenging our ideas at a level that we are not typically accustomed them to being challenged. It is quite easy to become immune to the criticism of opposing theological perspectives. For instance, I as a Wesleyan am quite immune to any appeal by a Calvinist that says giving God the greatest glory entails unconditional election. However, in providing a more rigorous critical base to work from, it is harder to develop a mental immunity to a deeper level of criticism,4 hopefully prompting a greater openness to understand the total work that God is doing in Christ through the Holy Spirit in His Church and throughout the world. So, as a Wesleyan, how one defines “free will” in the Arminian/Calvinism debate impacts how one assesses its viability for determining soteriological discussions. If “free will” is simply defined as the ability to make a choice that is not wholly caused or determined by previous events, then Wesleyan-Arminian theology is left with a void of neither empirical evidence validating it nor Scriptural texts talk about such an abstract matter. As a Wesleyan, a deeper understanding of the definitions of the terms I am using pushes me to know more specifically what I am talking about and considering how reasonable it is. In light of such a challenge, I am inclined to qualify my adherence to free will as a freedom from God’s unilateral determination of my choices, which may be more justifiable within the canon of Scripture, rather than making broad, metaphysical and psychological claims.

While my knowledge of the field of analytic theology is certainly only at the beginning stages, I can fairly confidently say that it is more about refining than it is a whole brand new field of thinking. It is like learning how to use power tools after you have been accustomed to a hammer and handsaw. Power tools may be overkill if you simply need to put a nail in, but they are certainly helpful if you are trying to build a whole house. Likewise, analytic theology is overboard if one is simply trying to deepen’s one devotion to Christ, but if you are building a whole theological system of beliefs5 then it behooves us to use the best tools at our disposal. But the same work is being done as in the past, only with tools that do it differently; analytic theology isn’t a new branch of theological belief as much as it is a discipline to include with our other disciplines that train our hearts and minds to follow Christ.

So, the task is certainly exciting; while intimidating still, it is intimidation from knowing the rigor of the work to be done, rather than fear of inability.

Hello from St. Andrews!

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September 16, 2017

Life has taken quite a turn. Just last week I moved to Scotland to attend the University of St. Andrews; I am here to study a Master of Letters in Analytical and Exegetical Theology as part of the Logos Institute. It is fitting that as I make a new stage in life in a journey across the Atlantic, I make a new start on this blog (although, I will admit that this blog is restarting due to negligence to renew my hosting and domain fees; this wasn’t planned!).

So, I am rebooting with the hopes that this time will be a little bit more focused in my blogging. My problem in the past has been that I am so incredibly interdisciplinary in my desired approach to learning that I lose focus and therefore motivation to continue to write. However, being back in an academic setting that is interdisciplinary, combining Biblical Studies, theology, and analytic philosophy, while have a particular focus should prove beneficial to me, if for no other reason than I have something specific to keep my focus on in learning.

In light of that, I hope this re-reboot of this blog to be much more focused, principally on the field of Analytic and Exegetical theology; while I don’t plan for it to be exclusively dedicated to that, I definitely feel it is a good direction for my writing. Blogging, when done well and not for the purposes of self-aggrandizement, can be an effective catalyst for expressing inchoate thoughts into a more expressible and manageable form. Engagement with other serves as a bonus to refine one’s ideas, both in content and expression.

But while the idea of Analytical and Exegetical Theology may evoke notions of stodginess, I hope for the writing I do on this blog to be a bit more vibrant by engaging the resources of Biblical Studies, theology, and analytical philosophy, along with my other interests in cognition, linguistics, continental philosophy, etc. to address more immediately pressing and seemingly pragmatic questions. Even though I am not presently serving as a pastor, I am still focused on the prevalent theme of my Wesleyan background: God’s sanctification transforming us towards a holy life lived before Christ. So, I hope this blog does not simply engage the pressing questions of the theological academy, but also the focal points of engaging the whole of life in light of Christ. Hence, the title of the blog remains Pistis Christou, a reference to the Pauline Greek phrase translated as “the faith(fulness) of Christ,” as it is Christ’s own life that through the Spirit we recapitulate within ourselves as the Church.

So, here goes for a new stage of life and blogging!