Sunday, August 9, 2015

Whither Theology in the Secular Academy

I couldn’t find the discussion post to the topic of what would have needed to be in place in 20th century public schooling for the automatic eradication of God from public discourse to have not happened.  The message was, I believe, to the effect that scientists should acknowledge the limits of what can be illuminated by science and not pretend to have anything of substance to say about metaphysics (ontology).  I agree with you on that, just as I believe that in their better moments, most scientists would, too.  However, your point is well taken that in the scientific guild as a whole there is at the least, an implicit zeitgeist ( operative based on the assumption that the universe, at some very profound level of knowledge is subject to the potentiality of rational understanding on naturalistic grounds alone.  This would be the perspective of the scientific philosopher Karl Popper (I almost wrote Barth) who also propounds the indeterminate nature of our understanding of nature and the universe itself even in his seeking of World 3 Objective Knowledge (See his intriguing book, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach).

To add something from my field, there is also a similar zeitgeist in the historical profession in which anything beyond the natural is automatically eradicated from the field of study.  Thus, in 20th century historiography, at least at the public university, we can study art, politics, society, diplomacy, and culture on their own terms (as they are defined by the guild), but not theology as a historical discipline on its own terms, or even as a sub-discipline of intellectual history.  Thus, notwithstanding the profound grappling of the relationship between faith and culture as exhibited by the neo-orthodox theologians en masse, the neorthodox interpretation of faith on its own terms gets virtually no coverage at all in the 20th century European intellectual history curriculum. The partial exception may be Reinhold Niebuhr in his focus on “realism” and contribution to cold war ideology, but not his theology as representative of one way in which a Protestant intellectual grappled with the meaning of God and culture in the 20th century, especially in his opus, The Nature and Destiny of Man

That subject has been basically taboo based on the enlightenment, rationalist assumptions that have undergirded the history profession over the past century and more.  The extent to which the postmodern influence will change things remains to be seen.  Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida have been willing to view religion on its own terms into some of their work. However, I’m not sure the extent it extends beyond some version of humanistic naturalism.  My best hunch is that they would reject monotheism as a serious possibility in its own right as beyond the pale of serious human discourse.  If 20th century intellectuals knew as much about Barth and Bultman as they do of Heideggar and Wittgenstein, they would have come to have known that there are contemporary viable ways of thinking about God, whether or not one accepts the validity of any such thinking.  The fact that Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans is not a book that is studied in 20th century intellectual graduate courses is a scandal of vast proportions that played its not unsubstantial role in eradicating God from the curriculum of the secular university.

Thus, God as a profound discourse of human probing, and certainly any claim of God as radical other, has been eradicated from the field of intellectual history based on the presumptuous conceit of enlightenment thinking.  This legacy, which nonetheless endures, is powerfully challenged by postmodern scholarship, which nonetheless reifies the secular in the refusal among its major proponents, with some notable exceptions, to view theology as a legitimate discipline based on its own intrinsic standards.  In short, Karl Barth et al are excised from the intellectual history of the secular university where anything beyond naturalism is viewed as absurd on its face (or merely private).  In my counterfactual reconstruction I would correct this oversight.

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