Last week I attended a conference at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame. The conference intentionally brings analytic philosophers and theologians together to discuss issues of relevance to both. And the hope is that the discussions will be mutually sharpening as each group brings its own resources and perspectives to bear on the issues.
It was a fascinating experience. Although I enjoy enjoy philosophy, I’m not a philosopher. And it’s not often that I get to sit and talk with people who study and teach philosophy for a living. At times, I was thoroughly confused. Concepts like four dimensionalism, stage theory, phenomenology, fundamentality, and thin/thick particulars are a little outside my normal frame of reference. But most of the time I was intrigued to watch the interplay of philosophy and theology as we all wrestled with what it means to be a “human person.” Overall it was a great experience, and one that I would repeat without a second thought.
In my next post, I hope to reflect more generally on the nature of the philosophy/theology relationship itself. But today, I’ll just offer a few observations from the dialog that I got to be a part of last week. And, since the conference focused specifically on analytic philosophy as a resource for theology, my comments reflect only that branch of the philosophical tree.
As with many such interactions, we need to note both the baby and the bathwater, appreciating the former and guarding against the latter.
1. Sharper Concepts
You don’t truly realize how “fuzzy” your understanding of something is until you’ve had dinner with a few analytic philosophers. They’re relentless. Questioning, probing, analyzing. They’ll find concepts you didn’t even know you had and then press you to clarify exactly what that concept means and how it relates to your other concepts. It’s kind of like a mental enema. Uncomfortable and messy, but helpful in the end.
2. Better Definitions
In theology you can often get away with throwing around words that we’re all just supposed to understand: participation, communion, soul, existence. And the conversation will continue without any of us realizing that we all have different definitions for those concepts. Try that with a group of analytic philosophers and you’ll end up like a skewered pig slowly rotating over an open fire. I’m sure that can be annoying for some (we even spent several minutes in one session discussing the meaning of the word “has”), but you’ll definitely walk away with a much clearer understanding of what key words mean and how they’re functioning in the discussion.
3. Broader Perspectives
Any interdisciplinary dialog is beneficial to the extent that it helps you see familiar problems from different perspectives. I’m not likely to draw on Jean Luc Marion, Ted Sider, or even Leibniz for any of my usual theological discussions. But they each added something interesting to the conversation that wouldn’t have been available to me otherwise.
4. Creative Problem Solving
Analytic philosophers love to solve problems. They’ll sit around and discuss a problem from every angle until they can find some possible solution. And it doesn’t even have to be their problem. One paper explained how someone could believe in a physical resurrection even if you think that human persons are just material bodies (i.e. they do not have immaterial “souls”). But the person presenting the paper doesn’t actually believe that’s true. He was just identifying a problem (for the materialist) and how the problem might be solved. Earlier in the day another philosopher explained how a particular theory of time (which she doesn’t believe is true) could be used to solve a particular problem in Jonathan Edwards’ theology. For them, these are interesting puzzles. And an interesting puzzle is worth trying to solve. That leads to a lot of creative thinking and interesting conversations.
This could just be my experience, or it could be this particular group of analytic philosophers. But it seems to me that philosophers are funnier than theologians. Several of the papers, many of the Q&A sessions, and all the meals included large doses of humor. It was nice. Theology conferences are way too serious.
This is the flip side of “sharper concepts” and “better definitions.” Although those are real strengths, it’s a short step from there to nitpicking. And I’m not even sure where to draw the line between them. But there does seem to be a point at which you’re no longer clarifying words/concepts. Instead, you’re pressing on distinctions that seem unnecessary and unhelpful for the matter at hand. And at that point you’re actually making things less clear.
2. Scoring “Points”
I’m pleased to say that I saw very little of this at the conference. But at times philosophical discussions can feel a little like soccer matches: a lot of maneuvering, a few shots on goal that are quickly blocked by the other team, and finally a “score” when someone has to admit that the other is right on some point. Watching some conversations I even begin to wonder if anyone is still trying to figure out what’s “true” or “right.” Or are they just trying to win the game? (To be fair, theologians do this all the time. So this is certainly not limited to analytic philosophy.)
3. Neglecting Texts
This may have had more to do with how the conference was structured, but it was interesting how much of the philosophical conversation took place with little or no attention to biblical texts. At one point, someone even pointed out that we’d referred to the “image of God” several times in our discussions without once referring to any of the biblical texts or the significant biblical scholarship surrounding them. Given the normal sources and methods of analytic philosophy, I can see where it could easily lead to discussions that are disconnected from biblical theology. It doesn’t have to, of course, but it seems like it often does.
4. Arguing “Plausibly”
One of my biggest frustrations was the frequency with which people critiqued some arguments as being “implausible” while appealing to the “plausibility” of others. This seemed problematic for at least two reasons. First, this was one concept that went oddly un-analyzed. What exactly is “plausibility” and how should it function in arguments like this? You’d think analytic philosophers would have some answer for that. But it seemed to be more of an intuitive concept that didn’t need to be explained. More importantly, though, what shapes the “intuitions” by which we identify which arguments are more/less plausible? Unless our imaginations and intuitions have been thoroughly shaped by the biblical texts (which I just noted were interestingly lacking in these discussions), why should I trust those intuitions?
Overall, though, this was a great experience. I came away clearer, sharper, and more informed. There was some bathwater in with the baby, but there always is. And again, to be fair to the philosophers, the same bathwater is found in many theological bathtubs as well. So these problems aren’t unique to analytic philosophy. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them either.
As I mentioned, I’d like to continue reflecting on the nature of philosophy and how it relates to Christian theology. So in my next post, I’ll offer a few thoughts on the philosophy/theology relationship in general. And then I’ll share some thoughts on a few of the more interesting papers/discussions from the conference. So stay tuned from more thoughts from the bathtub.