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Theology among the disciplines in a Republic under Scripture

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This is PART TWO of excepts from a commencement speech I gave at a seminary last March. For Part 1, on The Three Senses of Theology, click here.

Now, let me go back to the question posed by our discussion of Thomas Aquinas: is theology indeed the Queen of the Sciences? If not, should we make it such? In the Western tradition, theology was a crucial part of the university, beginning with the ancient universities in Paris, in Salamanca or in Oxford, which were also started as crucial pillars of religious communities of what was then a united Christendom.

Over time, theology lost its pride of place in the onslaught of secularization. That in part also explains  the anomaly one finds today in many faculties of theology in Europe and North America full of theologians who don’t believe what they write about God: theology has become unmoored from its church foundations, losing its intimate connections with the daily life of the church in prayer, word, Eucharist, baptism, celebration.

For example, in the last 10 years or so, a movement in theological faculties has arisen, called Radical Orthodoxy (which I mentioned earlier), championed by the theologian John Milbank. Milbank critiques traditional accounts of secularization that posits it as an independent development from the wrap of Christian culture of the Middle Ages. In fact, he argues that shifts in theological thought, beginning with Duns Scotus and William of Occam, led as well to disciplinary shifts, leading to the birth of secularized social sciences. So Milbank and his followers wanted to recover theology as primus inter pares among the disciplines.

Indeed, Milbank’s revisionist account proffers radical implications on how we look, among other things, at theology and societal institutions and communities. On the first point, Radical Orthodoxy seeks to re-install theology as the Queen of the Sciences.

Indeed, Milbank argues that theology, inasmuch as it concerns itself with esse as such, with the ground of all being, and all in relation to such ground and source, it cannot be anything but be pre-eminent over all other disciplines. In fact, he goes as far as saying that ceding ground to other disciplines is idolatry, considering that such disciplines, in the first place, were born as a result of theology’s descent into hell. He says theology must now reassert its voice in giving an account of every sphere of creation so that theology is not side-lined by other disciplines but that other disciplines orient themselves in relation to itself as the “Queen of the Sciences for all the inhabitants of the altera civitas.”

So Milbank rejects all disciplinary boundaries and summons theology as the Queen sovereign of all disciplines, in this wise:

Theology has no proper finite territory of its own, and yet is able to speak of God, its specific concern, by way of all other subjects and sciences. So when one is speaking of “theology and economics” one is just directly concerned with the possibility of their being a mediated word of God, as when one is speaking of “theology and Church history” or “theology and the gospels.

As it were, he would have us with a theological economics, a theological political science, or a theological sociology. As a practical and logical outworking of theology as the only truthful account of reality, Radical Orthodoxy rejects the societal differentiation occasioned by modernity, such differentiation, being, in Milbank’s book, the result of a theological heterodoxy (here, let us bear in mind Milbank’s thesis that shifts in theology also led to the birth of heretical social scientific disciplines).

Indeed, subsequent works both by Milbank and his many disciples surface the centrality of the church as a community, as the new polis. I agree with the broader turns – especially his attack on claims to neutrality and objectivity of secularized special scientific disciplines – taken by Milbank’s Radical Orthodox project but reject his other argument – clearly implied in the book – that we should all now return the place of the Queen of the Sciences to theology, as it was in the time of Thomas Aquinas.

My principal concern here is the second point. While Radical Orthodoxy may have somewhat gone out of fashion in the academe, it is still useful to use its propositions as counter-point to what I believe should be the proper place of theology in the third sense (that is, academic theology) among the disciplines. In fact, in the Reformed tradition, it is a commonplace to speak of God’s word addressing every sphere of creaturely life. As the great Dutch theologian, journalist and statesman Abraham Kuyper had said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of creation over which Christ does not cry, ‘Mine’!”

But as the political philosopher Jonathan Chaplin asks, who has authority to interpret the word of God for, say, society and politics? His response:

The first answer of the Reformed tradition is, rightly, the whole people of God, not primarily academic theologians. Yet among the people of God are of course, academic theologians, as well as Christian scholars in all other disciplines, all of whom are equally subject to biblical revelation. Where the Reformed tradition may differ with Radical Orthodoxy is in denying that this subordination is authoritatively mediated to disciplines like social theory by a royal discipline called theology.

Christian sociologists will need to draw on the expertise of theologians for their understanding of the Christian narrative in general and specific biblical themes such as creation, anthropology, sin, history, community, eschatology and so on. But a theologian will also need to draw on the work of Christian sociologists for their Christian understanding of social processes, structures, and norms.

Thus, Chaplin explains, “for the Reformed tradition, the sciences are a republic, not a monarchy” but a “republic under Scripture.”

Chaplin here follows Dooyeweerd’s view that theology is but one special theoretical discipline among many. He understands that for Dooyeweerd, each of these disciplines must be shaped and directed by a biblically formed Christian philosophy. In his summation and integrative essay to the volume in which Chaplin’s essay appears, Jim Olthuis, who edited it along with Smith, says:

Other problems emerge…when theology is enthroned as queen of the sciences. The impression is created that any and every kind of Christian attempt at theorizing is ipso facto theology. Indeed, Milbank claims that any and all efforts by Christians to provide countertheory belong to theology and are, in fact, ecclesiology. I cannot help but wonder about what appears to be a hegemonic move. Is theology the only science that can legitimately be called Christian? Is there no room, in addition to theology, or Christian theories of economics, political science, history, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, aesthetics, psychology, and so on, each with its own field of study?…one is left wondering if there are any parameters distinguishing the various sciences from a Christian perspective. Would a Christian university simply have no hegemonic faculty, with all the other disciplines as branches or subsidiaries of theology?

Thus, what we must not do is to subsume all Christian knowledge under the term “theology.”

…….

The image found in this post is taken from here.

Written by Romel

May 31, 2018 at 2:05 am

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