The objectivity of theology

Posted on March 7, 2010

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This post passed largely unremarked for some while, then Shiva added a comment suggesting that if the claim that theology was necessarily built on a discipline of prayer, and submissive to exegesis, it was ‘not very objective’. This struck me as interesting enough to warrant some reflection, not least because it captures something that is a persistent worry for most of us who study theology in a university, a worry that expresses itself in two distinct directions. On the one hand, we worry that, because of its nature, theology is not a ‘proper’ university subject – not adequately wissenschaftlich. On the other, we worry that we compromise something of the true nature of theology if we conform to broader standards of what it is to be academic that are present within the university. Somehow, the word ‘objective’ captures all this quite nicely.

We all recognise the notion of ‘objectivity’ implied: the scholar checks his (the idea dates from a time when the scholar was almost certainly male) own particular views at the door, presenting to the students a carefully-reasoned and unbiased account of all the differing positions on this or that subject, with a dispassionate evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each. I have several problems with such an account, but even if it holds, I am not sure that theology that is based on prayer and submitted to exegesis falls foul of it.

My problems first. The first – and for me, most telling, which says something about what I care about, no doubt – is that such presentations are almost inevitably boring. I have never met a good teacher who was not profoundly passionate and opinionated, deeply invested in what she was teaching. The best teachers start to make you entertain the possibility that Mozart or Milton or Maimonides matters because, from sentence one of the class, it is vibrantly clear that they are convinced of this. I know this in my own teaching. Three times now, in three different academic contexts, I have found myself having to teach a class on ‘Modern Christology’. Two times out of three I prepared assiduously (the third was at a time of fairly major personal crisis, and I relied on the fact of the earlier preparations). I know that each class was rather poor, and I know the reason. I think modern Christology is unbearably tedious. I offered the classes in each case a wealth of knowledge – I had an interpretation of Kant’s Religion… that I believe to be both original and convincing – but no excitement. Result? They were as bored as I was. Inevitably. The good classes, and the good lectures and seminars within those classes, come from shared excitement, a conviction that this or that is worth arguing about. And that has to start with the instructor.

But, let us assume some bizarre parallel universe where good teaching and interested students are not relevant considerations for a university. Should we, in this world, expect university instructors to offer a dispassionate presentation of all views with a fair consideration of the evidence for each? No. Let me, for once in my life, invoke Kant: I cannot be required to do that which is impossible to me. This old notion of ‘objectivity’ presupposed the existence of some hypothetical neutral stance, from which a privileged account of the actual value of all possible evidence may be offered. It does not, however, exist – for each of us, the evaluation of evidence and arguments is profoundly, if not entirely, determined by our own convictions and experiences. So in my own teaching I routinely disclose to my students my own convictions and assumptions, inviting them to challenge them, and assuring them that there will be no bias whatsoever in the assessment of their work (my observation is that, if anything, I routinely err on the side of generosity to those I disagree with in summative assessment, but I aim to err on no side, but to apply the written criteria scrupulously). I invite the students, armed with the necessary knowledge, to spot and discount the inevitable biases and blindspots that my own location introduces into my teaching, and rest content that, as a member of a diverse and passionate faculty, they will be exposed to other positions elsewhere.

Third, and this is probably a result of the first two points, I observe that this criterion of ‘objectivity’ is not applied in university life generally. I was speaking to someone before Christmas who commented, reflecting on teaching in a university system overseas, ‘why shouldn’t I preach my lectures? The feminist literary critics and the marxist historians preach theirs.’ Commitment to ideological positions is now normative in the academy (including, I assume it does not need saying, in the physical sciences); why should theologians be excluded?

So, I submit, a practice of teaching based on an attempt to be ‘objective’ is not a desirable aim, not a possible aim, and not a professional aim for the present-day university scholar. Let us, however, put that to one side; does a submission to Biblical exegesis and a commitment to a personal practice of prayer prevent the discipline of theology being ‘objective’?

We need now to pause and define ‘objective’ rather more carefully. The word has a long and interesting semantic history (in the C17th and C18th it was used in opposition to ‘real’ to denote that which existed only in thought and not in fact!), but the relevant meaning is §8a in the OED: ‘Of a person or his or her judgement: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached.’ So stated, of course, my second objection above comes into play: I cannot consider and represent facts in a way that is not influenced by my personal opinions. For instance, I am of the opinion that measurements I, and others, take of inanimate objects – their velocity, mass, electrical charge, and so on – have some interesting relation to reality as it exists beyond my mind. Because of this opinion, I studied natural science to degree level, and still take seriously the discoveries of science, when they appear to be well-founded experimentally. Historically, this is actually a rather unusual belief, coming to some prominence in Europe around 1500-1600AD, and largely unknown before last century outside of the West. Should I, in any discussion where scientific discoveries might be relevant, preface all my comments with ‘If it should happen that a certain currently-popular coalescence of metaphysics and epistemology broadly holds, then we might think …?’ Is that the requirement of objectivity?

Assuming it isn’t – which it seems to me necessary to assume – we have to either redefine ‘objectivity’, which I am not keen to do (words mean what they mean; that is simply vital…) or find a happier way of expressing the real concern expressed. I don’t like descending into German, but wissenschaftlich is the best word I know. It describes a well-formed academic subject, a phrase usually glossed in terms of a discourse that is self-conscious, and self-critical, about its methods and foundations.

Physics is wissenschaftlich insofar as it is aware that it relies on assumptions about the reliability of our observations of the natural world, and about the appropriateness of assuming that mathematics will (more-or-less?) accurately model all observed phenomena. (In my experience – and physics is the only science I studied beyond second year undergraduate level, so the only one of which I claim any real understanding at all – physics is much more self-conscious about these matters than other sciences; there is a famous, and much repeated, quotation from Paul Dirac, suggesting that the aesthetic value of a theory proposed in physics is vital; even a mathematical klutz like me, whose appreciation of beauty in these realms is akin to someone tone-deaf discoursing on Bach’s solo ‘cello works, can see the role that mathematical elegance actually plays in the discourse of theoretical physics.) Sociology is wissenschaftlich insofar as it is acutely conscious of the limitations of empirical data, and the possible biases introduced by surveying inevitably local and partial populations…

…what of theology? Can theology be wissenschaftlich? On the definition above, yes, if it is acutely self-conscious and self-critical concerning its own methods and foundations. Theology, in the old medieval formulation, is the study of living well before God. Of course, this statement already presupposes that some things are true; so what? So does a basic definition of physics as the study of material reality through mathematical models based on disciplined observation, or of sociology as the study of humanity through statistical analysis of quantitative data. What makes a discipline wissenschaftlich is not the indubitability of that discipline’s foundations, but its awareness of their dubitability, and openness to addressing those foundational and methodological questions.

(But this might rule any study in – well, yes. It happens that I know enough about (Western, 12-house) astrology (an obscure, or perhaps esoteric, way of misspending a youth…) to know that it has not been patient of questioning of its methods and foundations, but suppose it was, and gave answers that could be judged by other observers to be credible within its own terms of reference – then it is in principle a possible subject of study.)

My own analysis of Christian theology stresses the foundational place of the Scriptures in the discipline. This is perhaps slightly old-fashioned these days, but hardly eccentric, given the history and scope of the discipline; what of a personal discipline of prayer? Again, I could point to the history (Nazianzen’s third theological oration, to take only one central text…), but let me defend it differently. Many academic subjects (actually, I suspect all academic subjects if one interrogates them with insight and honesty) rely for their day-to-day practice and development on a fundamentally aesthetic apprehension of what ‘feels’ like a plausible insight or claim – I’ve cited Dirac on physics already. For each discipline, the question comes, whence this aesthetic taste?

The answer, of course, varies according to the subject under consideration, but it would seem to necessarily rely on some measure of appreciation of the phenomena being studied. A sociologist could, in principle, explore the correlation between any two variables; what makes a good sociologist is a nose, a hunch, for which explorations might be interesting.

So the theologian, the good theologian, needs to develop a nose for an interesting issue. How to do this? By being deeply immersed in the phenomena theology purports to explain. Hanging back for a moment from the truth question, that means either by walking closely with God, or at least by engaging in those practices which provide people with the conviction that they have experienced God. Which means immersion in the life of a local church fellowship, a regular practice of worship, and, most of all, a commitment to personal prayer.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I’m happy to say it again. A theologian who does not pray has not even begun to understand the discipline. She is being less than objective, falling short of the academic ideal, in her practice.

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