Home > Oliver Crisp, Slavoj Žižek, Theological Method, Theological Scholarship > Some visceral reactions to “analytic theology”

Some visceral reactions to “analytic theology”

I recently picked up the new volume Analytic Theology: New Essays in the Philosophy of Theology, edited by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea and I have to say I am kind of stumped by what exactly the book is all about. As far as I can tell, for Crisp, the proposal of “analytic theology” is basically a plea to contemporary theologians to give analytic philosophy, and in particular, analytic philosophy of religion, another chance. In his essay Crisp fields a number of expected objections to the use of analytic philosophy in theology. He anticipates, for instance, the objection that “‘analytic theology’ might look like a Trojan horse,” an attempt to smuggle into “the citadel of theology potentially destructive alien ideas” (34). In response, Crisp reminds us that theology has always used the best available philosophical insights of the day (e.g., the patristics employed Greek philosophy, Thomas used Aristotle, etc.). Theology, in other words, has always employed philosophy as a “handmaid,” that is, theology has always made some “instrumental use of reason” for explicitly theological ends. Certainly this type of objection will be made, but it certainly strikes me as a strange one, for it seems more than obvious that theology never has nor can it escape or adequately avoid properly philosophical problems.

The real objections most theologians will have with this project will have little to do with the question of the use of reason in the theological task. Instead, it seems to me the objections will stem mostly from visceral reactions depending on how one feels about the current state of analytic philosophy in general and analytic philosophy of religion in particular. Although Crisp does not want to debate the merits or demerits of continental philosophy, this is unfortunately the central issue as far as I’m concerned. Most theologians have no real problems with drawing from philosophy for theological ends, but by and large theologians in recent times it seems have tended to find the “continental approach” to be more amenable to the theological task than the “analytic approach.” For whatever reason, this has been the case. Whether this is on account of the perceived “dry” nature of analytic philosophy or real objections to the starting point and methods of the “analytic approach,” this is just the reality of things.

Crisp tries to unpack a bit of what he thinks to be the “virtues” of the so-called “analytic approach,” but I’m simply not convinced that these virtues are somehow unique to analytic philosophy. Crisp doesn’t say that the named virtues of analytic philosophy, such as, “logical rigor, clarity, and parsimony of expression,” are somehow absent from continental philosophy but this seems to be what in the end is implicitly suggested. Let me just say that I am all ears here–I am open to hearing Crisp out. But, I have to be honest: all I can glean from Crisp’s proposal is the basic suggestion that theologians should actually read Swinburne even though he might be a little more boring than Zizek! Perhaps I am being totally unfair here. For the record, I read Crisp’s book on Christology and if it is any indication of what “analytic theology” is like than I am more than open to exploring the possibilities.

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  1. Delfin J Beltran MD
    October 23, 2009 at 12:15 am | #1

    As a total non-theologin it seems to me from RO’s description of visceral reaction to the topic, my visceral interpretation is the esseence of the difference of personal thought values between my wife and I. When a statement is made her reaction to it is initiated by negative thoughts that the comment doesn’t agree with her feelings about the subject and therefore it is either false or not worth her time and she doesn’t feel that discussion is anything more that an attempt to shut her opinion out. As a physician I need to deal with the discovery of valid knowledge that exists, possible effects of a knowledge bit are not part of the discovery process and there do exists some bits of knowledge that are as close to 100% truth as humanly possible but still recognizing that human thought and knowledge has the inherent characteristic of incomplete knowledge. Thanks RO for tweaking my cortex – lack of exercise leads to softening.

  2. Jeremy Wiebe
    October 23, 2009 at 6:31 am | #2

    A couple of brief thoughts: being someone who sees much overlap between philosophy and theology, in both content and method, I think there is a bit of an artificial distinction between the two. To position philosophy as a “handmaid” raises the question of how to do theology without philosophy (and raises the question of what counts as philosophy – is it topical? methodological? necessarily naturalistic?).

    Philosophy can be a convenient scapegoat for some theologians, especially when another’s theological conclusions differ from the received orthodox positions. Here philosophy of whatever stripe can be a “handmaid” but one that is used at arm’s length and with suspicion. Crypto-philosophy is a sin to be avoided so that theology can remain untainted and liberated from the methodology or conclusions of the philosophy being used. Can theology ever wholly disentangle itself from philosophy however, and vice versa?

    Perhaps recent continental philosophy (and the growing field of continental philosophy of religion) may have, or appear to have, more in common with theology in terms of content and methodology. I wonder if the seeming reaction (who knows how widespread?) against analytic philosophy as helpful to the theological cause doesn’t have something to do with the dominance of analytic philosophy in phil departments in Britain and North America. Not only is analytic philosophy disliked for the common reasons you give above, but also for its widespread dominance which tends toward a methodological foundationalism: setting the rules of the game so to speak (for phil and theol), and understandably provoking resistance. Is Crisp largely trying to get at a don’t-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water argument? Just because most analytic phil lacks Zizek’s theatrics, it may still have some use?

    I haven’t read the book in question yet, so can’t fairly comment on it. But I wonder how helpful it is to try and develop an “analytic” theology. Maybe it is a move to ever more specialization and another sub-discipline.

  3. October 23, 2009 at 5:31 pm | #3

    Thanks for commenting Sam.

    Good comments Jer. I agree fully with what you’re saying here. I think that theologians need to be more open and more forthcoming about their philosophical presuppositions. And more and more I am coming to realize the importance, perhaps even the necessity, for theologians to take the time to interrogate and clarify their own philosophical assumptions.

    I think Crisp sees “analytic theology” as a conscious effort to employ the resources of analytic philosophy in theology. For him, it is a “faith seeking understanding” kind of proposal, one specifically interested in pushing theologians, particularly those with a “postliberal” bent, to reconsider the usefulness of the analytic philosophical thought-world.

    This is a very interesting topic to me as I find myself having great difficulty finding common ground with friends who have been schooled in contemporary analytic philosophy. It is great to hear your insights on this, Jer.

  4. roger flyer
    October 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm | #4

    Sam’s comment:
    visceral interpretation is the essence of the difference of personal thought values between my wife and I…

    is important. The ‘input’ we receive from our ‘circle’
    of friends makes up the content of what we think, who we are. RY!

    We are together in this.

  5. roger flyer
    October 24, 2009 at 7:54 pm | #5

    glad to see you blogging again…

  6. roger flyer
    October 24, 2009 at 10:54 pm | #6

    Sorry for the exclamation, Ry. Tired.

  7. October 25, 2009 at 7:18 pm | #7

    Firslty, Jer raises excellent points about the politics of analytic philosophy’s entrenchment as the dogma of philosophy departments in N.America. Just try to find someone who has read Derrida or Foucault outside of the Religious Studies or Literature departments in a N.American University. Also on the political note, Caputo accuses analytic philosophy’s obsession with minutiae as being correlated with their lack of willingness to engage with concrete political issues—if they talk about things so far divorced from reality, nobody can accuse them of being politically subversive. Indeed, the APA endorsed just such an approach in the midst of McCarthyism to ensure that no one could be accused of being a Communist.

    Although Crisp does not want to debate the merits or demerits of continental philosophy, this is unfortunately the central issue as far as I’m concerned.

    Exactly. For Crisp to avoid engaging in some type of weighing of the continental-analytic divide is highly disingenuous in a book that bears the name of one player.

    And here’s where I weigh in: I believe that theologians actively avoid analytic philosophy for two very good reasons. Firstly, analytic philosophy is a largely irrelevant affair. Logical clarity is all fine and well, but most of the minutiae being parsed by contemporary analytic philosophy (in my admittedly somewhat limited experience) fall into the category of oppressively dull and so abstract that you fail to see any connection with people, humanity, the world or anything you could care about.

    Secondly, where analytic philosophy of religion does engage in matters that theologians might care about, it is my experience that it usually falls into the camp of apologetics, particularly arguing for the existence of God, natural law, and/or universal morality. These types of arguments are generally regarded by theologians as misguided and even possibly harmful. Any theologian who takes Barth’s injunctions against natural theology seriously will therefore avoid most analytic philosophy of religion.

  8. John R
    October 26, 2009 at 10:47 am | #8

    The basic problem theologians should have with making much use of analytic theology is its positivistic disposition. Now, positivism has been smashed to teeny little pieces by a dozen analytic philosophers over the last fifty years, but in my experience (and I have a degree from an analytic department) analytic philosophers are still holding out an inchoate hope for positivism.

    There are plenty avenues for theologians to explore, I think. After Gettier some very interesting possibilities in epistemology have opened up. Kuhn and others have created revolutionary paradigms for understanding the natural sciences, and by implication other disciplines and in fact all knowledge. Virtue ethics, non-physicalist philosophies of mind, Kripke’s work in the philosophy of language — these are all opening up non-positivist avenues in analytic philosophy. The disposition toward positivism still remains, however, and that is definitely a problem.

    Socially, run into some problems. After Alvin Plantinga, Christians have poured into analytic philosophy departments — so much so that some professors have started to talk about it as a problem. Unfortunately, these tend to be your average modernist evangelical types, and they tend to work in relative harmony with the positivist disposition. They fear the specter of “relativism,” and for that reason will admit that folks like Thomas Kuhn, Alasdair MacIntyre, Wittgenstein, and even Nietzsche or Gadamer had some good points here and there but will want to incorporate that into a positivistically-disposed trajectory rather than rethink some more fundamental issues.

    So in my experience, things aren’t moving the right direction for good theologians to want to use analytic philosophy, and the Christians who are now exerting considerable influence in philosophy are not forward-thinking enough to be useful to theologians in the near future. I suspect that Hauerwas’s use of Wittgenstein and MacIntyre is the best you’re going to get.

  9. October 27, 2009 at 1:57 am | #9

    I find it immeasurably difficult to get excited about Crisp’s project. The analytics around here have squashed out of me any desire to read in that direction.

  10. -kp-
    October 28, 2009 at 10:17 pm | #10

    Say more Myles. Do say more.

  11. November 2, 2009 at 9:58 am | #11

    I think Matt’s laid out most of my objections. “Philosophy of religion” was the worst course I’ve taken here, mostly because, ironically, all theological categories and concerns were bracketed off in order to get “conceptual clarity”. Some clarity is fine, but at some point, you have to 1) venture something, and 2) get over needing to defend a banal universal morality. Kant has screwed us all.

  12. Jon
    November 2, 2009 at 7:17 pm | #12

    Incidentally, Ingolf Dalferth over at the University of Zuerich has been writing in the vein for many years before Crisp

  13. Oliver Crisp
    November 4, 2009 at 3:07 pm | #13

    Hello. I was directed here from Ben’s Faith and Theology blog.

    I hope you won’t mind if I venture a short response to some of the issues raised in this recent posting on my work in Analytic Theology. First, many thanks for the comments. The other papers in Analytic Theology are really at least as good as the one that has been commented on here, and I do encourage you to read them. Mike Rea’s Introduction is terrific too. Randal Rauser (a contributor to AT) has just published a monograph, ‘Theology in Search of Foundations’ with OUP. This is a ‘thicker’ description of analytic theology that might also be of interest, given the nature of some queries raised here.

    Anyway, to business: I’m giving a paper to a conference of young theologians in Maynooth, Ireland this weekend, and I have taken the liberty of referring to several of the objections raised here in that paper. Here are two that might be pertinent:

    What can one say to the ‘visceral reaction’ objection which sparked this all off on this website? A visceral reaction is hardly a reasoned reaction, is it? Yet theology is surely at least reasoning about God. So it is very difficult to know what to say about this objection. In a similar way it is difficult to know what to say to someone who says ‘I hate opera’ and when one inquires why, receives the response ‘I just do – that is all there is to it!’

    A more serious objection comes from those who worry that Analytic Theology is just a species of philosophical theology – that it isn’t really theology at all. But I deny this. There is significant overlap between the two disciplines, yes. But Analytic Theology is no more thinly disguised philosophy than is theology underpinned by continental philosophy. Analytic Theology is about making sense of theological concepts and concerns within the Christian tradition using certain philosophical tools to do so. It is not primarily about the philosophical analysis of Christian doctrine, but the theological analysis of Christian doctrine using certain philosophical tools. Similar methods, different ends.

    Now, many philosophers have been doing this in recent years. I say theologians should get in on the act. Some theologians already have. Dalferth might be an example (thank you Jon for this), so are Bruce Marshall and William Abraham (another contributor to Analytic Theology). The more the merrier! We might even think of Analytic Theology as a sort of return to a more classical way of doing theology (updated with, amongst other things, the not inconsiderable advances in logic and philosophical logic). Rauser describes it as a sort of new scholasticism. I don’t object to that. But the posts on this and other blogs, and discussions with friends and colleagues, has made me think it might be worthwhile writing something more on ‘thicker’ accounts of Analytic Theology, taking up where Rauser’s book leaves off. Perhaps I’ll get around to that at some point. Meantime, thank you for all your comments!

    Best wishes,

    Oliver Crisp.

  14. John
    November 5, 2009 at 12:25 am | #14

    I would propose that the essential the key to understanding anal-ytic “theology” is that it is all done by up-tight anal-retentive personalities.

    Just as Luther was an anal-retentive personality.

    And that they thus all need to de-colonize themselves.

  15. November 5, 2009 at 10:44 am | #15

    Oliver, I doubt you remember, but we met over dinner once two years back while you were at Regent.

    I don’t mean anything personal in my dissent from your project, as I’ve not read your own take on the matter. My exposure to ‘philosophy of religion’, largely informed by the analytic tradition, as seen in the work of Swinburne etc has left me wondering how this approach could have currency with the ‘scholastic’ tradition, as the scholastic tradition assumed that God was not known apart from faith, not–as is the case in some defenses of Christianity via analytic tools–in spite of faith.

    I look forward to giving this a shot.

  16. November 13, 2009 at 3:02 pm | #16

    Oliver, thank you for your response and sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you. I wonder if you could respond to the discontent many of us have with current analytic philosophy of religion. I hear that you envision analytic theology to be a firmly theological discipline–not a sub-species of philosophy. I have no doubts about that and as I mentioned in my post I do not really see this as a very serious critique. The question is not so much with whether analytic theology will be theological enough, but rather a question of the value of analytic philosophy of religion for theology in general. Many contemporary theologians are skeptical of the value of analytic philosophy as a handmaid for theology and certainly there are some good reasons for such skepticism.

    In your comment you emphasize that analytic theology seeks to borrow the tools of analytic philosophy. You also say something along these lines in your article. Could you respond to the question I raise in my post about this? I am not compelled by the idea that analytic philosophy has a certain “logical rigor, clarity, and parsimony of expression,” that is somehow absent from continental philosophy. Certainly we can talk about methodological differences, but praising analytic philosophy’s “clarity” and “logical rigor” over continental philosophy doesn’t strike me as saying much at all in terms of methodological tools.

  17. December 2, 2009 at 6:11 pm | #17

    Late to the party as usual…

    I’d be another young theologian to count among those dissatisfied with analytic approaches, at least as compared to continental, but my reasons are, perhaps, a little different.

    First, analytic philosophy seems to offer helpful tools to the theologian—care in making distinction, conceptual clarity, categorical consistency. This kind of rigorous attention to detail is no doubt important to the task of doing theology well, but it is instrumental. Continental philosophy seems to be addressing theological questions (even and especially where these philosophers do not claim to be doing so) from a non-theological perspective. There is a sense of encroachment for theologians here, but also a sense that these philosophical approaches to theological questions open up new angles. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that the desire to interact critically with continental folks is almost irresistible (even where it’s not brought to fruition).

    Second, as both Matt and John mention, the appropriation of analytic method in theology has tended to accompany an apologetic approach to theology. To many theologians this is distasteful for several reasons: 1) following Kierkegaard and Barth, the intuition that the best apologetic is a good dogmatics (because apologetics is rarely effective anyway) is a strong one; 2) apologetics often smacks of a rationalism that theologians find barren and strange to the tradition. The continental tradition, on the other hand, better theorizes the gaps, aporia, and fractures in human reason and experience—and finds these points generative and stimulating rather than obnoxious puzzles to be overcome. The “mystery” card can be overplayed in theology, especially where it’s supposed to be an explanation (or stand in for one), but most theologians nevertheless operate with a strong sense that neither we as human subjects, nor the creation we inhabit are transparent to reason—much less God and God’s relation to the universe.

    That, at least, is what pulls me toward the continental moon and away from the analytic sun. I’m going to cut myself off before I type the phrase “most theologians” ever again.


  18. May 16, 2010 at 1:18 am | #18

    “Whether this is on account of the perceived “dry” nature of analytic philosophy or real objections to the starting point and methods of the “analytic approach,” this is just the reality of things.”

    What makes me stray from analytic philosophy is precisely this point: *NOT* the “dry” nature, but instead the starting points and methods of the analytic approach.

    Analytic philosophy is explicitly and unabashedly a wedding of science within philosophy, and modeling philosophy on the natural sciences. I have nothing against science, you’ll be pressed to find a Christian that’s more enthusiastic about integrating faith and reason than myself. HOWEVER, Continental philosophy grants us the insight that we ought not be so reductive to think that science is indeed the model of inquiry, and in fact is no more “objective” than the other disciplines.

    Continental philosophy disabuses us of all the problems that analytic philosophy triumphantly parades as achievements. While analytic philosophy upholds the virtues of ultimate and “unbiased” Reason (with a capital ‘R’), continental philosophy demonstrates that reason is a valuable albeit malleable tool.

  19. May 22, 2010 at 3:55 pm | #19

    Howdy Mike,

    I actually do think that analytic philosophy brings some helpful tools to the table. But like I said, I think the project on the whole is a non-starter. Here is what I mean:

    Each camp (analytic and continental) has its own set of problems they are trying to tackle. And fundamentally, as I have come to gather, they have radically different presuppositions that set them off in their different directions.

    Continental philosophy is trying to reacquaint us with our “historicity” — that is, our “situated-ness,” or embodiment. Continental philosophy is deeply aware of our cultural and societal located-ness, and begins from there. But more importantly, you can never, ever escape your historicity — you can never get to a “God’s-eye-view” perspective of pure objectivity. By contrast, analytic philosophy does the exact opposite. It’s trying to escape from our subjective culturally-biased experience, and access “objective, unbiased Truth,” with a capital ‘T.’

    This is certainly a commendable goal, but the problem is that it’s unattainable as finite, human creatures. One of the biggest contributions of continental philosophers is to disabuse us of even the idea that we can do such a thing. While analytic philosophy touts the virtues of ultimate and “unbiased” Reason (with a capital ‘R’), continental philosophy demonstrates that reason is a valuable albeit malleable tool.

    A second (and related) reason why analytic is a non-starter right out of the gate: Analytic philosophy is explicitly and unabashedly a wedding of science within philosophy, and modeling philosophy on the natural sciences. I have nothing against science, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Christian that’s more enthusiastic about integrating faith and reason than myself. HOWEVER, Continental philosophy grants us the insight that we ought not be so reductive to think that science is indeed the ultimate model of inquiry, and in fact is no more “objective” than the other disciplines.

    Like I said: Analytic philosophy does bring some helpful tools to the table. In my philosophy curriculum, I intentionally have taken a very pluralistic approach dipping my feet in both camps, and I don’t consider myself strictly a “continental” philosopher. However, the presuppositions and goals just cripple analytic philosophy right out of the gate.

  20. May 22, 2010 at 3:56 pm | #20

    Whoops, I copied part of my comment above to paste on another site, and accidentally pasted it here on this site. Sorry about that =D.

  1. December 15, 2009 at 12:15 am | #1

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