What is the Relationship Between Theology and Other Science Disciplines?


What is the relationship between theology and other diciplines such as philosophy, history, human sciences and natural sciences.

Knowledge is a unity, and especially in modern times of specialization, there has grown up an awareness of the dangers of fragmentation and the need for interdisciplinary dialogue. Theology is in special danger of isolation, particularly when it assumes a markedly revelational form. It can then become a completely esoteric knowledge, cut off from the secular disciplines. Interdisciplinary dialogue is therefore especially important for theology. Furthermore, theology has in the past been engaged in somewhat sharp controversies with other subjects. These have invaded parts of what was once recognized as the territory of theology. Has that territory been completely eroded, or are there borderline areas where mutual criticism and mutual exchange of knowledge may take place? In what follows, the borderlines between theology and a number of other disciplines standing close to it will be explored. In this way, the nature and distinctiveness of the theological enterprise will be further elucidated.


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Of all the interdisciplinary dialogues in which theology is engaged, the dialogue with philosophy is the most important, and it is certainly the oldest. Indeed, if we think of theology as having originated among the early Greek philosophers, it was at that time scarcely distinguishable from philosophy. The close relation between the two subjects has continued ever since. Admittedly, there have been interruptions and sometimes protests against the closeness of the relation. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” demanded Tertullian, an early critic of philosophical influences in theology, and he has had many successors.

However, the dialogue seems to be inescapable, and after every interruption it is resumed. There are good reasons for this. Theology makes assertions about God, man, and the world, and these themes have also occupied philosophy during most of its history. It is natural for the theologian to compare his own pronouncements with those of the philosopher. The two approaches are different, but it would be surprising if there were not something to be gained by examining the points both of agreement and of disagreement that emerge in the two inquiries. Even if much of modern philosophy has turned away from such traditional themes as the existence of God and the destiny of the human person, there remain good reasons for promoting the dialogue between theology and philosophy. For philosophy may be regarded as the voice of that which is most typical in a culture. A cultural mood finds expression in many ways, but perhaps its most precise and subtle expression is to be found in the philosophy that it inspires. If, then, it is important for theology to relate itself to cultural factors and to interpret the traditional revealed material in a language applicable to the prevailing culture, the theologian must attend to the philosophical expression of the culture. This is the case even where the philosophy may take a secular form and may lack interest in explicitly theological questions.

Theologians of the past have sometimes made alliances with forms of philosophy that seemed to support the theistic conception of reality. Sometimes they have done battle with philosophies of a materialistic kind, as these seemed to pose a threat to the validity of religious faith. The present relationship is likely to be different, for the contemporary philosopher may have nothing to say directly about theological questions at all. This does not take away the need for dialogue and may even permit it to assume a healthier form. At a time when many philosophers have turned away from metaphysics, they cannot be suspected on their side of subservience to theology. Likewise, theologians cannot be accused on their side of adapting the faith of their communities to the current metaphysical fashion. Actually, the interest of theologians in philosophy continues to flourish, and has perhaps three main focuses.



A fruitful discussion has taken place between theology and existentialism. We have seen that a humanistic type of theology has been influential since the time of Schleiermacher. This type of theology, stressing as it has the doctrine of man, almost inevitably must confront existentialist philosophy as a major way in which modern man has sought to express his self-understanding. S0ren Kierkegaard, the father of modern existentialism, had passionate Christian convictions. He believed that faith is more a matter of the will than of belief. His influence has been very great in drawing modern theology away from academic and speculative concerns into a much closer relation with life as it is actually lived.

At the same time. Kierkegaard stressed the otherness of God and the paradoxical character of revelation. In these matters he would probably have been less than happy about the subsequent development of the relation between theology and existentialism, which has taken the direction of a more humanistic and immanentist view of faith. This later development has appealed more to the work of secular existentialists such as Heidegger and Sartre than to Kierkegaard. These secular existentialists have offered an analysis of the structures of human existence. The terminology employed in this analysis has been taken over by existentialist theologians in order to restate fundamental doctrines concerning man and faith. Sin is understood as alienation, faith as decision and commitment, and revelation itself as a new self-understanding.

The most consistent attempt to provide an existentialist theology has been Rudolf Bultmann’s program of demythologizing. He seeks to eliminate from the Biblical revelation all mythological and crudely supernatural elements, and to replace the traditional language with a language describing a form of human existence. Bultmann, however, makes it clear that he does not wish to eliminate the concept of God, though certainly this concept would itself need a radical demythologizing. Existentialist theologies have been criticized not only for their alleged minimizing or even abolishing of the transcendent dimension of revelation, but also for their individualism. To some extent, this individualistic tendency has been counteracted by the influence of such philosophers of personal being as Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel, who have shown that human existence is fundamentally social. Their influence has also operated against the reductionist tendency in some existentialist theology, for God is understood as the “eternal Thou,” the founder and enabler of interpersonal relations and genuine community.

Logical Analysis.

Though it has not attracted as much attention as the exchange with existentialism, the dialogue between theology and logical analysis has been of considerable importance. Especially in the English-speaking countries, logical analysis has risen to be a dominant philosophy of modern times. According to the analysts, philosophy has no special subject matter of its own. The business of philosophy is to examine the language and logic of the particular sciences with a view to discovering the trustworthiness of their procedures and the weight that may be attached to their claims to truth.

The language of theology has not escaped this scrutiny, and in the earlier phases of logical analysis, theology came off badly. For the method of the natural sciences was taken to be the norm, and theology, as well as metaphysics, ethics, and some other subjects, manifestly did not fulfill that norm. In particular, it seemed that theological assertions were untestable. Is there any experience—and “experience” was usually understood as sense experience—that is relevant to verifying or falsifying such statements as “God exists” or “God is love”? In the later phases of logical analysis, it has generally been conceded that the model of the natural sciences was absolutized in the earlier history of the movement. It has also been admitted that there are many meaningful kinds of language that do not conform to the empirical pattern. But it still remains a challenge to theologians to show that their language has a pattern as intelligible as that to which the natural scientists can point. In particular, it is a question whether theological language is genuinely cognitive or merely expresses emotion or, perhaps, moral intention. Some advance with this problem has been made through the analysis of personal language (that is, language that reflects the individual s viewpoint as opposed to external, objective phenomena) and by taking a new look at traditional theories concerning the indirect character of religious language, especially theories of analogy and symbolism.

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While it has been indicated that metaphysics has gone out of fashion, it has still a few practitioners. Even if it is agreed that Hume and Kant discredited rational or speculative metaphysics, it is argued that a case can still be made out for two other kinds of metaphysics: descriptive metaphysics and existential metaphysics. The first kind, exemplified by Alfred North Whitehead, seeks, on the basis of what we learn from the empirical sciences, to offer a description of the world in the most general categories. The second kind, exemplified by Nikolai Berdyaev, seeks to develop what he calls a “metaphysic of the subject,” an understanding of reality to be reached from what we know through our own total participation in it.

These subtle systems of thought cannot be explored here, but their relevance to theology is obvious. Modern metaphysics has been especially influential in theological thinking about God. The traditional idea of God as a sovereign lord completely prior to and independent of his creation has been much under fire. The new metaphysics has led rather to an understanding of God as acted upon by the world as well as acting on it. Sometimes this view is called “panentheism,” to distinguish it both from traditional theism and from pantheism. It has been widely received by many theologians who believe that it accords better with the Biblical belief in a “living”—dynamic—God. It is also believed to ease the problem of evil, so intractable for traditional theism with its substantial God dwelling in immutable perfection.



Next to philosophy, history is perhaps the most important partner for dialogue with theology. At least, that would hold for Jewish and Christian theology, for which, as we have seen, revelation has assumed a historical form. The truths of Buddhism do not seem to be^le-pendent on their historical origin. But if God has revealed himself in the history of a people (Israel) or of a person (Jesus Christ), then the historical circumstances under which the Jewish and Christian faiths came into being are of the greatest importance in assessing those faiths. As historical religions, it would seem that Judaism and Christianity have a kind of vulnerability that some other religions escape. Yet this vulnerability is not something to be deplored. It means that at some points at least the Jewish and Christian faiths can be subjected to some empirical criteria. One of the positivist objections to the possibility of religious knowledge has been precisely that no empirical tests seem relevant. But clearly the rigorous methods of scientific historical research are relevant to determining whether indeed the Hebrews made an exodus from Egypt or whether Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate or whether these stories are simply creations of the mythical imagination.

At least from the 18th century onward, theologians have come to accept that the so-called “sacred” history of the Bible must be critically examined by the same methods that are used in the investigation of secular history. Although this critical work has led to the erosion or re-interpretation of some particulars of the Biblical narratives, and although some surprising new evidences have come to light, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, yet the main historical outlines of both the Old and New Testaments remain unshaken. No reputable scholars would be prepared to dismiss their contents as pure fabrication. This result is important, as far as it goes, for it is hard to see how either Judaism or Christianity could survive without some core of factual history.

This is still only the beginning of the problem of theology and history. Even if the facts are broadly established, what about the interpretation? Empirical investigation might establish the probability that Hebrew tribes migrated from Egypt around 1200 b. c. or that Jesus was crucified in the time of Pontius Pilate. However, another major step has been taken when one goes on to give a theological interpretation of these events as God’s action in history. To take such a step implies a philosophy of history. Perhaps there are few theologians today who would attempt to construct a theological interpretation of history on the scale of St. Augustine’s City of Gocl. However, all theology seems to be committed to the view that somewhere divine agency enters into the complex tissue of the historical process. At this point the theologian finds himself in conversation with other interpreters of history—Hegelians, Marxists, evolutionists, posi-tivists, and others.

Finally, we may notice the relativizing influence of history on theology. The tremendous increase of historical knowledge in the 19th century, and especially knowledge of the history of religions, made it possible to set the Biblical history in a much wider context of human religious experience. On the one hand, this wider context has militated against claims to exclusiveness. On the other hand, it has enhanced the probability of the validity of claims to revelation and knowledge of the divine, since these are seen to be based on universal forms of human experience.

Human Sciences.

Mention must be made also of the relation of theology to the human sciences —psychology, sociology, anthropology, and the like. Psychology offers in purely naturalistic terms explanations of many things that go on in the human mind. In particular, the psychology of religion has undertaken to study by empirical methods such phenomena as conversion and mysticism. The discovery by psychology and psychoanalysis of the unconscious depths of the human mind has opened new ways toward understanding religious phenomena. Is “God” simply a projection of the human mind, and are such experiences as grace and revelation to be accounted for not in terms of divine action but in terms of forces arising in the depth of the human mind itself? The theologian welcomes the new light that psychology throws on the structure of man’s inner life and accepts that religious experience is subject to the same kind of psychological laws that govern other experience. He would, however, challenge the assumption that the psychological account of religion is an exhaustive one. Psychology, so far as it is an empirical science, is necessarily abstract. It does not attempt to go beyond proximate explanations of the phenomena and, indeed, has nothing to say concerning the theological type of explanation.

Similar remarks apply in the other sciences of man. The sociology of knowledge has made it clear that supposed theological differences have often been the expression of subtle social forces of an entirely untheological nature. All beliefs, as has been noted earlier, are in part determined by social, historical, and cultural factors. But this is far from implying that once the sociology of a belief has been investigated, nothing more remains to be said. There is still the important question of its truth or falsity.

Anthropology has investigated the origins of religious beliefs and traced their histories. But, once again, to trace the history of a belief is not to determine its present status or to settle its claim to truth. Theology can learn much from the human sciences, though probably their importance has been much exaggerated in recent years. Their abstractness always misses the concrete richness of the human phenomenon, and their stress on relativism, if unchecked by any other considerations, tends to slip into a complete skepticism, which eventually engulfs the human sciences themselves.

Natural Sciences.

Finally, there is the question of theology and the natural sciences. Unfortunately, the best-known chapters in this story have concerned the battles between scientists and theologians. The warfare began in ancient Greece, when the philosopher Anaxagoras taught that the sun is not a god but a mass of blazing rock, and he was exiled from Athens as a punishment. At the time of the Renaissance, Galileo and others sulfered at the hands of the church for teaching that the earth is not at the center of things. Theologians and geologists later quarreled over the age of the earth. The long periods of time required by geological theories seemed to conflict with the account of history given in the Bible.

The most celebrated and most acrimonious clash between theologians and scientists came in the 19th century over the theory of evolution and the descent of man from animal ancestors. The repercussions of that debate had not quite died away in the late 20th century. To many people, it seemed that in each of these encounters, theology suffered defeat, and the sciences were vindicated. This is no doubt true with regard to the matters of fact which were at issue.

What is more important is that out of these disputes the boundaries between theology and the several sciences were more clearly defined. Theology came to understand its own task better. Revelation offers no shortcut to discovering empirical matters of fact. It is rather the basis for self-understanding in a world that is differently conceived at different stages of scientific development. The doctrine of Creation, for instance, is not a rival to scientific accounts of human or cosmic origins, but an acknowledgement of the dependent status of the world and man.

The problem of the relation between theology and the sciences is a very complex one. The two inquiries are so different that any attempt to link their results is a risky one. Many attempts have in fact been made to draw theological conclusions from scientific findings. Sometimes scientists themselves have made the attempt, sometimes theologians. Teilhard de Chardin, who combined the roles of scientist and theologian, has offered a very influential interpretation of evolution in Christian terms. But it is difficult to justify the logic of theories that proceed from empirical data to theological conclusions. The old disputes between science and theology are not likely to break out again. The theologian has learned to respect the integrity of science and seeks to show that his own interpretation of reality is compatible with the scientist’s.



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