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Theological Method

We should we place Theology within the academic spectrum? Once known as “The Queen of the Sciences”, it struggles nowadays to gain recogition as a valid field of study in its own right, and almost no-one would call it a Science. There are several reasons for this decline in its status.

* Most practitioners of the discipline agree on defining the central activity of theology, particularly Systematic Theology, as “Faith seeking Understanding”. That definition, which I accept as proper, would seem to confine theology to the inner conversations of the Church, or an equivalent faith community. Those who share a faith seek to understand what it means, an activity exluding outsiders. A few theologians have tried to break out of that confinement by defining their quest as “Seeking to Understand Faith”, which would open a community and its beliefs to critical examination by a wider academic world …. a form of Religious Studies, and rightly belonging there. There is a place for such an examination, but it is not what Theology is about.

* We can let go of the “Science” label. Nowadays it is thoroughly owned by the physical sciences, over which Physics is sovereign. They have their own methodology, yielding their own fruits with spectacular success in our modern era. However, the academic world recognizes other disciplines that yield other kinds of knowledge, and lumps them under the category of Humanities. This is where Theology sees itself rightly belonging, not necessarily as Queen or making any other claim to dominance, but rather as one way of integrating knowledge gleaned from many fields.

* After all, in setting out to talk about God in some way, theology is trying to get some sort of a handle on ultimate reality. Formerly it shared this task with philosophy and in medieval universities the two were practically inseparable. Have you read the story of Abelard? As an academic discipline, however, philosophers have long since abandoned any hope of examining the nature of reality, or Metaphysics as it was known, yielding all of that to the cosmologists. who may freely speculate about multiverses without being subjected to the sort of critical scrutiny in which philosophers specialized until a few decades ago. That is another story, but it does leave a gap into which philosophically trained theologians may step, if we are brave.

* Theologians have easy access to our own busy stable of academically respectable disciples among the Humanities, each of which is accountable to and fully open to the participation of practitioners from any or no faith-community. Biblical exegesis, history and historical theology, pastoral theology, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, economics, political studies … the net extends out as far as you like to throw it. These not only provide grist for our mill, but also essential sources of truth that constrain our theological assertions. Our implicit aim must be to integrate the whole of human experience and understanding.

* Some people within the Church have been heard to say, “But we are all theologians!” meaning that we all have a right to our own thoughts about God, the universe and everything. Fair enough, but not all who gaze at the stars are cosmologists, and not all who can patch up a wound are doctors. To do theology well requires some competence in the disciples mentioned in the previous paragraph. Which in turn implies that all theology is necessarily very, very tentative. (See the page Why Fragments?). Actually, we are all in this theological enterprise together as believers, but we also need to acknowledge competence where it exists. We are not the first up for breakfast: there are giants in the field already (See Barth et. al.)

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