Philosophy and Theology . . . “Analytic” or Not

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

The following are thoughts inspired by the vigorous discussion that recently occurred on Roger E. Olson’s blog. Olson instigated the discussion by commenting that philosophy and theology are distinct disciplines due to the way in which “special revelation” is used by theology, but not by philosophy “AS philosophy” (pay special attention to the back and forth in the “comments” section of his post). Because I have written elsewhere about the relation between theology and philosophy, I will not repeat the details of those arguments here. Nonetheless, in what follows, I aim to do two things. First, I want to express my general sympathies with Olson’s way of differentiating between theology and philosophy (though I draw upon new phenomenology to make sense of such a distinction, which Olson does not). Second, I want to outline reasons that the contemporary project of “analytic theology,” which has gained significant attention (and traction) in recent years (see the new journal devoted to it), and is referenced indirectly by Olson, ought to keep a distinction between philosophy and theology in play, even if only to challenge the specifics of how that distinction gets articulated in the future.

In an essay entitled “On Shared Hopes for (Mashup) Philosophy of Religion” (which is available online at the Heythrop Journal website), I argue for what I term “mashup philosophy of religion.” [See also the special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited on this topic]. Drawing on the idea of “mashup” music, I suggest that we can productively do philosophy of religion while drawing jointly on continental and analytic resources in order to open new spaces for thought that might remain concealed without such collaborative engagement.  Therein, I propose a way of making sense of the distinction between philosophy and theology operative in the work of such new phenomenological philosophers as Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Michel Henry, among others. In brief, I argue that there is an important authority structure assumed in their work such that philosophy (at least of the phenomenological variety) cannot appeal in the same way to the authorities that theology can: for example, religious experience, revealed texts, ecclesial proclamations, etc., are “immediate” for theology in a way that they are not for phenomenological philosophy.  Put slightly differently, we might say that for the new phenomenologists, what counts as “evidence” is different for theology and for philosophy.  This is not to say that it is absolutely different—both would appeal to valid forms of reasoning, say.  Yet, theology can assume things that philosophy simply cannot—and this is what gives rise to the important historical conversation between philosophers and theologians that has inspired both disciplines in productive ways.  In other words, it is because philosophers and theologians draw on different evidentiary sources and authoritative structures that they have something to say to each other.  In light of the recent idea of “analytic theology,” the new phenomenological account of different notions of evidence and authority is worthy of careful attention by philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians.

My suggestion is that some sort of distinction between those scholars who are operating as theologians and those who are operating as philosophers—or even the same scholar operating alternatively as a theologian and a philosopher at different times and in different contexts—makes sense insofar as the distinction recognizes the basic postmodern insight that we always start thinking, reading, and speaking, from somewhere—in a context, a location, a place, etc.  Simply put, even if there is possibly a “view from nowhere,” it is not clear how we could get there (i.e., nowhere) in order to see what the view would look like. Gianni Vattimo once wrote that no one starts from zero when it comes to religion, which seems right, but we might expand his idea to inquiry more broadly. Even to make sense of what “inquiry” means relative to different disciplines, methodologies, and traditions, one must have some idea of what has counted as “inquiry” such that this specific discipline, method, or tradition is differentiated from relative alternatives.

When it comes to the relation between philosophy and theology, then, it is sensible that the distinction is not hard and fast, but itself a product of the histories of the disciplinary trajectories in which scholars find themselves.  Although there are certainly other ways to cash out a distinction between philosophy and theology, phenomenology has much to say about the way that historical and hermeneutic decisions always underlie such disciplinary trajectories.  Simply put, beginning to inquire in this or that way already assumes from the outset a range of interpretive gestures that open and close down different ways forward.  I applaud the inter-disciplinary aims of analytic theology, and it is because there is much in the project worth affirming that I think we should be wary of what might seem to some as merely a philosophical takeover of theology on the one hand, and a reduction of philosophy to theology on the other hand. Indeed, even to make sense of what productive engagement between theologians and philosophers might look like such that both of these problematic interpretations are avoided, the distinction between the respective authorities and evidentiary sources available to each is something that needs maintained (for now). Minimally it should be maintained as a place to start the conversation such that the distinction might then be revised, retooled, or abandoned as the conversation continues.

Let me close with a brief passage from my forthcoming essay that summarizes my general view on the relation between philosophy and theology:

“While I grant that all disciplinary boundaries are products of contingent social histories and, as such, are going to be porous and constantly renegotiated, there is value in at least keeping the conversation going about the distinction between philosophy and theology, especially in light of the new phenomenological appropriation of theological archives, rather than too quickly concluding that it is a conversation no longer worth having. I am inclined to say that the distinction needs maintained in order appropriately to respect the plurality of voices contributing to the philosophical and theological dialogues themselves. In other words, if the boundary between philosophy and theology becomes too porous, then this might invite a problematic hegemony. Alternatively, if the boundary is too rigid, then this might invite a cloistered disciplinary exclusivism that shuts down productive dialogue. As [Jean-Louis] Chrétien importantly encourages, philosophers and theologians should continue to explore what lies between these two extremes, but they will likely do so as philosophers or as theologians—we always already begin to ask such questions from within a discourse where such questions are asked.”

For what it is worth, my own hope is that a distinction between philosophy and theology is maintained so that scholars can take seriously the assumptions and authorities operative in the discourse of others.  In this case, the distinction would seem to foster the dialogical hospitality required of genuine conversation because it allows others to engage on their own terms, which we all can then weigh and consider in relation to our own terms.  Ironically, though, it might be that the “analytic” descriptor will  itself threaten to become an orthodoxy that serves to exclude rather than to invite a broad range of individuals into dialogue about central issues of religious life, belief, and identity.  In other words, despite being sympathetic with much of analytic theology, I believe a “mashup” approach is a better way forward because it maintains the philosophy/theology distinction (at least for the time being), while also encouraging scholars to draw on analytic and continental resources when addressing such issues.

That said, I recognize that these comments here are all-too-brief for the difficult topic at hand.  Again, this is not meant to be a fully developed argument for the distinction between philosophy and theology, but rather a few general thoughts on why such a distinction (as developed in new phenomenology) is worth taking seriously in the contemporary context of scholarly debate.  Hopefully, the project of “analytic theology” will end up encouraging continued discussion about who it is that one is as a philosopher and/or as a theologian, and what that person is doing when claiming to do philosophy and/or theology. . . whether “analytic” or not.


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