College of Fellows

Theology Without Philosophy: A View From the Box-Canyon of Religious Studies

 DSPT Fellow Russell Hittinger at the meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences
DSPT Fellow Russell Hittinger (standing to the right of Pope Francis) at the meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, April, 2013 

F. Russell Hittinger

I was first trained in theology and then moved over to philosophy. Born in the 10th year of the pontificate of Pius XII, I represent the last generation that went from first-grade through PhD entirely within the Catholic system. The system had its shortcomings and faults. I will speak only of its major virtue. As a student approached college years, he or she learned that theology and philosophy are either respected together or abandoned together. Thus, my esteem for, and solidarity with, this Dominican School, which has the audacity to put these two words in the name of the School, to integrate philosophy and theology in its curriculum, and to do so for some 81 years. 

After being credentialed, I have labored for the better part of my career in a relatively new sector of academia that knows - or pretends to know - nothing of theology or philosophy. It is called religious studies.
To help you make sense of it, let's conjure the image of an elaborate system of canyons somewhere in the southwest, perhaps something like Canyon De Chelly in Arizona. Those residing in the box-canyon of religious studies intermarry, and enjoy a brisk trade with the denizens of adjacent box-canyons: environmental studies, gender studies, film studies, and animal studies to mention only a few of these disciplinary bands sharing the same language and the same techniques for making academic pottery. By and large, studies peoples have a clean conscience. These areas of study were invented in the 1960s to meet the needs of a new generation of students and to provide interdisciplinary work across faculties.
Unlike the other studies peoples, however, religious studies people are haunted by their genealogy. Once-upon-a-time there existed an ancestor who went by the name of theology, and yet another one called philosophy. Hastily and improperly buried, theology is a family ghost, something like Navajo corpse powder — never to be spoken of by name without fear of contamination. For their part, Philosophers still exist. But like ancient and rather clever Anasazis, they simply disappeared, and moved to a remote part of the canyon on the other side of the university leaving behind, like so many petroglyphs faintly etched on canyon walls, a few ambiguous messages about once cohabiting with Theologians. These days, the Philosophers endeavor to make the same academic pottery and jewelry as the scientists, but their work looks like knock-offs of the real thing.  Only a few tourists buy their wares.
Sometimes precocious students in religious studies will piece together parts of the ancestral story, inferring that they have been orphaned. Why not study theology, they ask? And I will say, do so immediately. But if you want out of this maze of box-canyons, you will have to study philosophy as well.

And here are three reasons. 

The First Reason: It's The Most Natural and Human Enquiry

I invoke the authority of Epictetus (a slave, who lived in Rome at the time of St. Paul’s martyrdom):

Were I a swan, I should do after the manner of a swan. But now, since I am a reasonable being, I must sing to God. This is my function, and so I will do it. I will not desert my role, as long as it is granted me to hold it; and you too I call to join in this self-same hymn. [1]

The proper role of a rational animal is to make enquires and to engage in what Plato called Theo-logia, discourses on the divine. This is what distinguishes human discourse from swan songs. It is not the fact of merely having reason, nor is humanity the exercise of reason in pot making. Rather, Epictetus is referring to the enquiry and speech about first principles. And thus, too, Proverbs reports (25.2):  “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of king is to search things out.” In his famous article on the first precepts of the natural law, St. Thomas lists three dimensions of human inclination: 1) to preserve the unity of being, according to its kind – which is true of all natural kinds; 2) to procreate and nurture, which is true of each animal, according its kind; 3) but, as the most properly “human” inclination, to know the truth about God. 

To be sure, many if not most aspects of religion are socially constructed and really can be studied as social artifacts – on this score, religious studies people in the box-canyon are not totally wrong. There is no such thing as a natural religion. Nor is there any authentic science, just as such, pertaining to religion. All inclinations and habits that we might label “religious” stem from the primary inclination to know the truth about the divine. To know truth about the divine is the very stem of personhood, and it is not something assembled after we have adequate social relations, or after we have assembled the contingent data of religious artifacts. To use Epictetus’s analogy, if we should find swans singing together, we are not thrown into doubt whether it’s in the nature of a swan to sing. This is exactly where Dignitatis Humanae vatican locates the inalienable duty and right of religious liberty. 

The proper function of an image-bearer, made unto the image and likeness of God, is to mirror the prototype by acts of intellect and rational appetite. By exercising our nature, we image-bearers are to bring forth theo-logia, discourses about the divine.  Even from afar, and somewhat obscurely, the divine prototype is mirrored in these discourses; and the human person understands himself in that mirror.

Christ promises much more – direct knowledge of the Divine Logos itself. But even this promise presupposes the aptitude and rational desire of the image-bearer to know the truth about God, however much this knowledge and devotion falls short of God himself.

We can remain indifferent about particular religions arrayed in human history. However, with regard to the inclination to know the truth about God, no one can remain indifferent without at the same time falling into a stupidity about one’s own nature. Since philosophy and theology share this stem of human inclination, we cannot be indifferent to their relationship.

In Fides et Ratio vatican (1998), Blessed John Paul II lamented: “I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians” (FR §61) In ages past, some theologians spoke contemptuously of philosophy in order to highlight the importance of being taught divine mysteries by God himself – like Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” I’m only guessing, but I do not think that this is the kind of position that distressed the pope. More likely, in our place and time, lack of interest in philosophy indicates that theologians have become, or are becoming, religious studies people who are looking at the cultural and historical pottery. Pottery aside, to lose interest in philosophy is already a symptom of disinterest in theologia under the aspect of truth about the human and divine.

The Second Reason:  It’s Difficult, and Therefore Requires Study

The difficulty is rooted in a paradox – which means that two things are true, but need to be kept together in a kind of tension. On the one hand, the deepest and most properly rational inclination of the soul is to know the truth about the divine, and to go on to perform such internal and external acts as are befitting of this relationship. On the other hand, the end and object of this inclination is most obscure. The divinity is not a visible thing among other visible things; and no one in this life can see the divine essence. In this respect, it is like happiness: it is easy to desire to be happy, but that in which happiness consists is not easily understood.

Here is Maimonides on this very problem:  

Suppose you awaken any person, even the most simple, as if from sleep, and you say to him, Do you not desire to know what the heavens are, what is their number and their form; what beings are contained in them; what the angels are; how the creation of the whole world took place; what is its purpose, and what is the relation of its various parts to each other; what is the nature of the soul; how it enters the body; whether it has an independent existence, and if so, how it can exist independently of the body; by what means and to what purpose, and similar problems. He would undoubtedly say" Yes," and show a natural desire for the true knowledge of these things; but he will wish to satisfy that desire and to attain to that knowledge by listening to a few words from you. Ask him to interrupt his usual pursuits for a week, until he learn all this, he would not do it, and would be satisfied and contented with imaginary and misleading notions; he would refuse to believe that there is anything which requires preparatory studies and persevering research. Guide, Ch XXXIV

These sentences are from A Guide For the Perplexed. What is the perplexity? The law is relatively easy to do, but very difficult to understand. While Maimonides was writing for the pious Jew in diaspora, the perplexity itself is universal.

I sometimes ask students to put matters theological on a scale of human difficulty. At the easy or facile end of the spectrum we might include the first two of Thomas’s primary inclinations: preserving oneself in being, and procreating and nurturing. Human persons get the hang of these things fairly quickly without much study. Let’s put on the difficult end of the spectrum writing computer codes for NASA. 

Where do you put matters theological?  

Most students will locate it toward the easy end of the spectrum. Theology is religion and religion is inspiration and experience. It would be convenient to pin this attitude on the tails of the Evangelicals, but I can assure you that it crosses boundaries of religious upbringing. Students thus inherit not only an ancient human preference for easy theology, but also the predilections of my generation, the 1960s. Let us have the experience that runs deeper than theologies and rituals. That prayer of the 60s for an Easy Rider approach to theology was not totally wrong. It expressed a desire to become more conscious of the stem of the natural inclination emphasized by Epictetus and St. Thomas. Among Catholics, it also expressed the urgent need to bring discourses about the divine closer to the people.

Even so, and perhaps with good intentions, emphasis solely on experience led to the box-canyon of religious studies. In the first place, matters close to theology consisted in subjective experience, and studies were left to academic investigation of religion as culture and political power. Far more telling is the fact the two easiest modes of theology – for which we have a virtually universal historical record – are poetical and civil discourses about the divine, fables and rituals of group solidarity. In our contemporary context they are best called the Narrative and the Politically Correct. They are the easiest because they are familiar and because they are evaluated chiefly in terms of their utility rather than the truth.

In Romans 1.20, St. Paul teaches that through the medium of creatures, God stirs in reason an intuition of his power and divinity.This is the easy part of the spectrum. But we know how Paul continues in Romans Chapter 1 … “and [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being …” One effect of sin is to construct a very low comfort zone in theological discourse, rendering its object and end as so many images of our own conduct. This is just what the ancient pagan thinkers meant by poetical and civil theologies. The pagans knew that these practices are unworthy because they replace truth with social power and utility. Surely, this is why in Acts 17 St. Paul congratulates the Athenians (indeed, he called them “pious”) for that single altar on Mars Hill dedicated to an “unknown God.” It took serious theological reflection to name that altar, and it stood as a marker of Philosophical Wisdom. 

Third Reason:  It’s Ecumenical, Crucial for Our Age of Globalization

When Plato first coined the term theologia, discourses on the divine, he was aware that these discourses are myriad. They include: utterances, performances, oracles, texts, arguments, interpretations. So far forth, these discourses – like all discourses, concern what later came to be called the Trivium. The word Trivium is derived from the Latin word via, a road or way. It concerns order within and among discourseslogia. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric comprise a threefold work of arranging linguistic signs according to sign-things (words), sign-objects (referents), and sign-use (performances). The Word considered materially, discursively, and purposively. They are arts because they are works, usages - mental constructions of a sort. 

Here is the problem. The Trivium is indispensable for detecting the coherence and validity of discourse. We use it all the time, even if implicitly.  But it is not sufficient for truth.

The ancestors of our box-canyon took this problem to heart. They honored theology as a science, ordering the myriad of religious discourses to a certain end: namely, a universal knowledge of what can be truthfully said about the divine, including what we cannot say. The capstone would be either natural theology, or the divine insofar as it speaks to us of itself, which is revealed theology. Without these two capstones, religious discourses have only a linguistic-cultural order among themselves. This, once again, is the box-canyon of religious studies. Without natural and revealed theology, religious discourses will be ordered by default to the curious and the political:  fables and civic theology. 

This will be a disaster for our age of Globalization, because it does not allow discourses on the divine to present themselves as True.  Indeed, it gives fabular and civil theologies every reason to dig in as local folkways, Ummas, and private opinions — now equipped with technologies having global reach. Wasn’t this the alarm that Pope Benedict sounded in his Regensburg Address vatican ?

In Fides et Ratio vatican , John Paul II contends that without philosophy in the broad and deep sense our interreligious dialogue will be reduced beliefs as mere opinions, and the opinions will be organized and mobilized according to pragmatics.  “Philosophical thought,” he says, “is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” (FR §104)  — “All religious truths, are to some degree grounded in philosophy.” (FR §30)

All human beings desire to know, and truth is the proper object of this desire. Everyday life shows how concerned each of us is to discover for ourselves, beyond mere opinions, how things really are. Within visible creation, man is the only creature who not only is capable of knowing but who knows that he knows, and is therefore interested in the real truth of what he perceives. FR §25 

Everyone knows that false but perhaps useful discourses about the divine are unworthy of God and the human soul. Etruscan burial practices, the metaphysical poetry of the Upanishads, the astronomical priesthoods of Mesoamerican plateaus, purification rituals of ancient Semitic peoples – not to mention the theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – represent, or at least attempt to represent, the universe as it really is – which is to say, as can it can be understood and communicated as Wisdom. Christians believe that there is a still higher wisdom that is a gift of the Holy Spirit. If there isn’t this lower wisdom of enquiries and propositions about what is universally true, we search in vain for the ground of interreligious dialogue, much less dialogue with the physical sciences. The lower wisdom is not fixed in books. It cannot exist anywhere or in anything other than a living intellect. It is dynamic, rooted in experience, as regulated by four precepts.

i) Be attentive by probing the full range of experience, ii) be intelligent by cultivating an inquiring mind and gaining insight into experience, iii) be reasonable by marshalling evidence and judging the validity of insights and iv) be responsible by acting on valid insights. Each precept takes us further, promoting us from mere experiencing towards understanding, from mere understanding towards truth and reality, from factual knowledge to responsible action.” [2]

That is one of my favorite passages from Bernard Lonergan’s Method in Theology. “To go beyond attention, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility,” Lonergan says, is “to fall in love.” [3]

I must conclude with a disclaimer.  Nothing in this report from the box-canyon of religious studies should be construed as a depiction of my own department, nor the work of my colleagues.

Even so, I salute the faculty and students here for attempting something better.  May this Dominican school, and all who collaborate in its mission, thrive ad multos annos.

[1] The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. The Harvard Classics: 1909-14; Vol. 2, part 2. § 1. back to text

[2] My thanks to Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J. for reminding me of this passage in Lonergan’s Method in Theology as I considered the conclusion of this address. 

[3] And this addendum as well, from Lonergan, “Dialectic of Authority,” in A Third Collection, p. 10.