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David Bentley Hart on the Discipline of Theology

David B. Hart on "Theology As Knowledge" at First Things (May 2006).

The majority of the faculty of most modern universities would surely regard the claim that theology constitutes some kind of “science” absurd and presumptuous. ¶ 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. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.

So when I say it is not obvious that theologians should desire the restoration of their discipline in the modern university, it is not because I believe in a wall of separation or because I am a Christian separatist who believes the Church should never have allied itself with kings and princes to begin with. It is because I simply find it impossible to grant that the modern secular state is anything other than a frequently wicked perversion of social order.

This is not to say that the time has come for theologians simply to sound their mournful recessional and withdraw from the stage of history. It is to say, though, that it was on terms decided by the secularized university that theology was driven out from the inner chambers of the curriculum, and only on those same terms would theology be admitted back.

This is obvious even from Stoner’s conclusion, with its bland recommendation for a theological appreciation of modern academic pluralism. Christians should undoubtedly celebrate truth wherever they find it; but it is not natural to theology that it should function as one discipline among others, attempting to make its contribution to some larger conversation; as soon as it consents to become a perspective among the human sciences, rather than the contemplation of the final cause and consummation of all paths of knowledge, it has ceased to be theology and has become precisely what its detractors have long suspected it of being: willful opinion, emotion, and cant.