AT as liberal theology?

May 25th, 2017 by

William Wood of the University of Oxford came to our seminar to defend, what initially seemed to me to be, an incredibly implausible thesis: that analytic theology (AT) is an instance of liberal theology. This struck me as implausible for the main reason that I thought I had an obvious defeater for the claim: me. I take myself to be doing analytic theology and I find myself with an allergy to any theology that has even the hint of Schleiermacher or Tillich or the like. Dear Dr. Wood are you saying that I am the theological descendent of Schleiermacher? This must be how Luke Skywalker felt. No, that’s not true, that’s impossible!

I have had a deflationary understanding of AT. AT is a methodology or, more colloquially, an angle on doing regular ol’ theology. I have thought that one could combine AT with any more substantive theological commitments. Want to do AT as an evangelical? Sure. Want to do AT as a Thomist? No problem. Want to do AT as a Mujerista theologian? Go for it. So if Wood’s claim were one can do AT as a liberal theologian, I would say this is obviously true. But to say that, necessarily, AT is an instance of liberal theology, I would say this is obviously false. But, Wood has written two very helpful articles on the nature of analytic theology for the Journal of Analytic Theology, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that perhaps his claim was not obviously false.

First, Wood finds an affinity for reason in both liberal theology and AT. An affinity is a long way from a claim of identity, but it might be a start. Both liberal theology and AT find reason to be of significance for the task of theology. According to Wood, this already makes them compatriots against both those in the secular sphere who hold Christian faith to be irrational and those within Christianity who subsume reason to some other ordering principle. This, for Wood, is a start.

Second, those reading this blog are no doubt familiar with AT, so I’ll sketch a bit of what Wood means by liberal theology. He offers this characterization by way of a two-pronged formal norm:

The Formal  Norm

  1. Liberal theology seeks to ground all its claims in reason and common human experience (the credibility criterion)
  2. Liberal theology seeks to express the traditional claims of Christianity in a contemporary idiom, borrowing as needed from the best of contemporary thought (the continuity criterion).

Wood goes on to defend this formal norm in his paper as a description of liberal theology. For a brief blog post, I will skip all that and just take him at his word that this aptly characterizes liberal theology. The question then, for me, is does this also aptly characterize AT such that AT is, formally, an instance of liberal theology?

With respect to norm 1, Wood claims that AT is, like liberal theology, a reasoned response to the Enlightenment in that it displays the kinds of patterns of reasoning that only come in modernity. For AT, as for liberal theology, a rational examination of the claims of theology is just the name of the game. Further, anyone who reads much AT or analytic philosophy of religion knows that brief narratives and stories are often employed to pump readers’ intuitions about what is a common human experience (the lives of Jones and Smith or Paula and Jerome are thoroughly examined). Norm 2, to me, seems also to aptly characterize AT, at least as I do it. I have often described my job as to not so much say new things, but to say old things in fresh ways. I am interested in expressing the age-old truths of Christian orthodoxy in a way that people today can understand.

So, where does that leave me? To join the dark side, am I forced? Well, not so fast. Here is my main worry: the argument proves too much. It seems like one entailment of Wood’s case is that most instances of theology extant today are instances of liberal theology. A lot hangs for Wood on the notion that we are all living in, to use Taylor’s phrase,  “a secular age” as a result of the Enlightenment. But if we are all in this age, and all theology done now is downstream from the Enlightenment, then all theology done by any today would seem to be liberal.

Further, it has seemed to me that much analytic theology displays the kinds of patterns of reasoning more akin to medieval and Protestant scholasticism than any other comparables in the history of theology. And if medieval scholasticism was attempting to employ reason and experience and express Christian claims in a contemporary idiom, is that too liberal theology? If this description ends up entailing that Thomas Aquinas is a liberal theologian, then I think something has gone awry.

So, at the moment, I feel I can continue in my Padawan path, but Wood has given us much to think about with respect to the nature and aims of AT.

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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