Can analytic philosophy save theology?
Theology today is beset by a problem, one that is shared by many disciplines in the humanities. The problem is multi-layered. In fact it is a number of problems. Let me take a moment to identify three of them.
1. Skepticism: Many theologians write in the shadow of Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. There is an enormous and fundamental ambiguity in what the philosopher Immanuel Kant proposed, but many people — the aforementioned contemporary theologians included — have read Kant as an “antirealist”. In other words, they’ve understood him as claiming that we cannot have experience or knowledge of the world in-itself but only the world as it appears to us. On this reading of Kant he claimed that even fundamental categories like spatial and temporal relations are our psychological projections, part of the in-built grids of our minds, but not necessarily part of the world in-itself. Needless to say if all our knowledge is swept away in the antirealist net then the idea of revelation is as well. And this means that God-talk is likewise an antirealist social construction.
2. Publish-or-perish: The academy as a whole is beset with the problem of publish-or-perish. With this very real pressure the focus shifts from “do I have something important to say?” to “what can I find to say?” If you have to publish x number of papers and books to get a job, get a promotion or get tenure then you had better find something to write about. Unfortunately your colleagues down the hall face the same problem. So what will you do? One consequence of this is that academics often engage in research projects which are trivial. Remember that guy you met at the cocktail party last week who is writing a history dissertation on a third rate English politician from the seventeenth century that nobody has heard of? Does the world need to know about that politician? Probably not. But a search of the records shows there are only two theses and one dissertation on him already and voila. Triviality is but one result of the publish-or-perish mentality. Another result is poor research and writing. In this case the topic may be important but the scholar(s) treatment of it is not worth the paper it is written on. We need not bother to identify all the adverse consequences of publish-or-perish. All we need to do is picture a factory aiming to produce the maximum number of overall widgets possible rather than the proper number of good quality widgets needed. The results, as you can guess, are not pretty.
3. Turgid/obscure prose: These first two problems give fertile soil for the third. Many theologians today write in an indefensibly obscure manner. The graduate seminar becomes like a poker game in which students sit around the table playing cards like “ground of being”, “perichoresis” and “Dasein” (obscure terms in foreign languages are often trump cards) in a complex social arrangement of one-up-manship. (Or one-up-personship?)
Analytic philosophy to the rescue?
Analytic philosophy does not take a stand on the Kantian problem (though analytic philosophers surely do). But it is a style of philosophy which sets aside pretension and highly values concision and clarity in expression. For those reasons it is not intimidated by turgid/obscure prose, it encourages the posing of direct (if sometimes naive) questions like “Why is this important to know?” and it drives people back to question their fundamental assumptions about what Kant or any other philosopher supposedly established.
It is surely naive to think that analytic philosophy can save anything. Indeed, it has its own baggage, including a lack of historical consciousness and a penchant for overly technical analysis. But nonetheless, analytic philosophy can be a revitalizing force in degenerating discourse. In recognition of its potential to renovate some of the degenerative dimensions of contemporary theology, Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea edited the book Analytic Theology (Oxford University Press, 2009), including my essay “Theology as a Bull Session.” You can read a recent review of the book by James Anderson at the online journal Ars Disputandi: