Sharpening the Mystery

I have been participating in a research seminar on the relationship between analytic theology and liberal theology, mostly because I know very little about these two fields and am attempting to expand my horizons. Thus far we have simply been reading analytic theology in an attempt to understand what exactly this phenomenon is (essentially, it’s theology done in the style and according to the values of analytic philosophy). Despite my attempts to be open minded towards it, there are certain things that bother me.

First, the general opinion regarding the difference between analytic and continental philosophy is that the former prizes clarity to a very high degree, whereas the latter does not. However, it seems to me that this distinction is somewhat simplistic. Both fields are concerned with clarity, but neither treats it as an end in itself. Each utilizes it for another end. From what I can tell, analytic philosophy prizes clarity because it facilitates the demonstration of logical coherence and non-contradiction. Analytic philosophy’s criticism of continental philosophy is that it is often murky and unclear. However, in some respects, there exists in continental philosophy almost a hyper-clarity with respect to the philological analysis of words and the history of concepts. Continental philosophy aims to be very clear about the ways in which we use words and concepts. However, its purpose in doing so is not to arrive at non-contradiction. Rather, it is demonstrate the contradictions in which we are always, already mired. Its aim is to “sharpen the mystery” (as one participant put it). This is invaluable for a field like theology.

More specifically, upon reading some analytic theology (and here I do not mean more traditional systematic theology, but more philosophy-of-religion-type authors like Leftow and Crisp), I felt that this was not really theology at all. To be sure, they were analyzing theological concepts, but they were not analyzing them according to the internal logic of theological discourse. Rather than using theological tools of analysis, such as church tradition, biblical narrative, communal Christian experience (I’m not so much referring here to mysticism but communion, baptism etc.) and so forth, particular doctrines were extracted from their doctrinal, historical and biblical contexts and annexed to logic and anthropology. Now, do not misunderstand me. It is not that I think that theology cannot interact with other disciplines and even incorporate the best resources of others into its tradition(s). However, there is a difference between appropriating other concepts and extracting our doctrines entirely from theological discourse. Also, this is not to say that this sort of exercise is useless. It might be thought of as a sharpening of our theological tools, a meta-theology of sorts, and might therefore be very important. I just don’t see how we can call it ‘theology’ in any meaningful sense of the term if it does not occur in conversation with the theological tradition(s) within which we evaluate ideas and make creative innovations.

So, I offer these observations here so that others can disabuse me of my hang-ups in case I am not being as open-minded as I might be.

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One comment on “Sharpening the Mystery

  1. Great post! I really appreciate your observations about doing theology from norms inside our tradition, and also about the kind of clarity that continental philosophy seeks. In my own work, I’m going to bring queer theory (highly continental, if I do say so myself) into dialogue with theology, because I think qt will prove amazingly useful for theological discourse. But I appreciate the prompt toward making sure the Story and Christian practices are not snowed under by the external resources.

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