Final thoughts on philosophical theology

I kind of can’t believe I did it. I can’t believe I carefully read and blogged my way through the Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. I’m so, so glad I did and am so, so glad it’s over! (Side note – I feel like lots of my accomplishments fall into this category – I feel they’re important to do, I’m very glad I did them, and I am super that happy future me doesn’t have to do them now. Present me does a lot of unnecessary things to relieve Future me of nonexistent burdens.)

Cheers to 2020 me!

I thought it worth giving a few of my final thoughts on the whole of field of philosophical theology as represented in this book. I made some notes as I went, but these are mostly my thoughts after mulling over the project as a whole for a few weeks.

  1. I will definitely accept some “this operates in a way and on a scale bigger than we can really understand” for some arguments about God. I think the very definition of God requires this as a justification for some claims, as a resolution or conclusion to some problems. However, if one comes to rely on this explanation when all or most of the arguments defending something about God run into logical contradictions, then that reliance takes what the scholar is doing out of the realm of rigorous intellectual discipline and into the realm of faith. Once an argument and its justifications are divorced as such from our human intellectual experience, then what is the point of forming any sort of beliefs about that God, or even concerning ourselves with her? If all her actions operate in a way distinct from how we operate, and if the “good” and “utility” are inaccessible to us, why should we… care? Further, what value is there in the intellectual exercise if it is all supposedly beyond our ability to understand? And how can you separate the “good” arguments from the “bad” arguments if this is the logical crutch? It’s a unique tool, useful in a narrow set of circumstances, dangerous if used or relied upon too often. It is also not a tool of philosophy. Which brings me to…
  2. Theology and philosophy operate under different constraints. Since this field is philosophical theology rather than theological philosophy (what would that even look like, I wonder), that means that theology and its constraints will always win. But if theologians don’t let philosophy guide them into more “rational” modes of belief and thought wherein the constraints of philosophy win out sometimes, then I’m not sure why theologians choose to do philosophy. Using philosophy as one more tool for justifying an existing belief isn’t great. Don’t get me wrong — I think some theologians (in this book and elsewhere) absolutely take philosophy seriously and that they do it well, so this is not an indictment of the OHPT as a whole. (And philosophers certainly use warped philosophy to justify their questionable beliefs all the time. This is a human thing.) In fact, I thought a lot of philosophy was done exceptionally well here! But it was so very obvious how often theology won over philosophy in each topic covered. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about that. On one hand, I don’t like it, for the simple reason that I, personally, prefer philosophy and find it to be the better way of engaging intellectually with reality and spirituality. On the other hand, these scholars are upfront about their starting position, so it’s not like they are pulling a bait-and-switch. I disagree strongly with many of the arguments for Authority, so I suspect a lot of my philosophy vs. theology frustrations might come down to that. I don’t find religious texts and history to be authoritative and infallible as Christian theologians do, so I am always willing to question accepted tenets when logic doesn’t hold up or when reality suggests a different view. Reading this work just made that difference between philosophy and theology very, very clear, and I am glad my intellectual life arced to philosophy instead of to theology as I had originally planned.
  3. WOW the field of philosophical theology is packed tight with the musings of white men. Holy shiz nuggets. (ONLY ONE WOMAN CONTRIBUTOR WTF.) If those in the field of philosophical theology want it to be relevant and respected in the intellectual and academic realms, they really need to focus on who is deemed “worthy” to contribute to it and why those entering the field fit within a very narrow demographic. That says something about the field, about the institutions training the scholars, and about the way those of the belief system engage with and evaluate the world. 2020 made that REAL clear and I was not impressed.
  4. I saw another overwhelming lack of diversity in the educational histories of the contributors. If I hear from one more Notre Dame graduate, I may light myself on fire. Just because Notre Dame is the top institution for those wanting to earn a degree in the field does not mean an overwhelming majority of contributors should come from there. That homogeneity tells me the field is in some way intellectually narrow and constricted and subject to a very narrow set of biases that, I believe, must undermine the academic and intellectual mission. Part of the point of having research universities in many different states and filled with a diversity of scholars and educators is that you want to make sure inevitable biases are naturally resisted or guarded against in the field as a whole. I don’t know what that should look like for philosophical theology, but I am eager for diversity in the institutions cranking out graduates and contributors to the field as a whole.
  5. SPEAKING OF DIVERSITY again (sensing a theme?) … holy cow was this heavily weighted towards Christian theology. I was actually really surprised (*laughs at my naivety*) at how underrepresented other religions and theologies were. I realize that there is a depth and breadth of theological work in the Christian tradition that warrant this kind of treatment, but that also holds true of other Divine Being-centered religions. Judaism got one chapter. Hinduism didn’t get a single treatment. This book is just incredibly West- and Christian-centric. I think that is a direct reflection of the lack of diversity in the field as evaluated by Western academics. A friend made a revelatory point to me last year, that one of the reasons there are so few black (and black women) philosophers is that generally the work of black women is not categorized as philosophy, even though it is deeply philosophical. I suspect a similar kind of erasure is going on here.
  6. My biggest theological takeaway was the overwhelming (how many times will I use this word?! AN INFINITE NUMBER, PERHAPS) demonstration that the whole edifice of “What/Who is God?” as the Most Perfect Being Containing all Perfections in the Christian tradition is not logically sustainable. We simply cannot have all that we want in our wishes for who and what God is (or can be). The nature of God’s freedom has consequences for how we can argue about how she answers prayer. The nature of God’s knowledge has consequences for how free humans are and how good God is. When it comes to God’s qualities, we simply can’t ascribe to her all the perfections. There has to be a give, a “sacrifice”, almost, in one’s conception of the perfections of a Divine Being like the Christian God. To believe in God’s perfect goodness requires lack of perfection in her knowledge. To believe in God’s perfect knowledge requires a limitation (or complication) in the purity of human freedom. To believe in Heaven and Hell requires a God who has a less-than-perfect quality of knowledge, power, or goodness. Just because we want a God who ticks all the “perfection” boxes doesn’t mean that such a God is logically possible. Also, this is definitely not an area in which I accept “it’s beyond our ability to comprehend,” for several reasons. I just wish theologians would be more honest (with themselves and others) that their beliefs and views have actual logical consequences and that they were (more) willing to accept logical limitations. If you aren’t willing to accept logical limitations, then you aren’t doing philosophy and should not call your work philosophical. (I’M FEELING INTELLECTUALLY TESTY)

This all might sound pretty harsh, but to be honest, I did not find a lot of conclusions in these pages to be philosophically compelling or satisfying. I was disappointed, but I also feel like my thinking in these areas is much clearer after this year-long project, so I’m grateful for it for that outcome. I’ll definitely return to my reviews to remember some of the specifics, but I won’t read the book again. In fact, I already gave it away! To a friend, who is so lucky to read it (if she ever does, ha! Turns out, not everyone is as interested in and motivated to read it as me) with all my lines, notes, scribbles, and swear words.

Marginalia FTW.

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