I suspect that I'm shooting a bit above the heads of the freshmen, at least in some parts of the material, but I both help them through the material and want them to see the type of thing they should be able to read by the end of the semester as lay readers with some basic background in philosophy or theology. I think that that might give them something of a target in their heads of what an informed, lay level of readership actually is.
The symposium is a discussion of the question of whether theology can be re-appropriated – or accepted again – as a kind of "knowledge" (as opposed to mere personal "belief") in the public sphere, particularly in that of the secular university. The participants are James R. Stoner, Jr., professor of political science at Louisiana State University; Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University; Paul J. Griffiths, Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago; and David B. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite.
Stanley has taught a number of friends of mine, and is the guy magazines like Time usually point to as the United States' premiere theologian. He's a Methodist who is deeply Catholic and has the most amazing foul mouth. Griffiths is wicked smart: I had the chance to hear him at Notre Dame this December and was very impressed. I take the most issue with his part of the following symposium, but he's so often speaking as Devil's Advocate that I suspect he would take issue with what he says, as well. It's good stuff, if you've got the time.
Theology as Knowledge
Copyright (c) 2006 First Things 163 (May 2006): 21-27.
James R. Stoner, Jr.Who stripped the public square and left it naked? That puts the matter a bit abruptly, but it is worth asking why religion lost its prominent place in American public discourse during the later decades of the twentieth century—and why the attempt to restore it has triggered a culture war among writers in the republic of letters.
The usual explanations—that secularization of public discourse necessarily results from increased pluralism in American society, or that it was the deliberate product of a determined faction on the Supreme Court—offer clues but remain inadequate. As recently as the 1950s, the pluralism of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” was apt not to suppress attention to faith but to enhance its public voice. And in other areas of life, such as popular culture and cuisine, pluralism fostered engagement and emulation, not a retreat to the bland.
Meanwhile, blaming judges leaves unanswered the question of why they interpreted the Constitution in so secularist a manner. It underestimates the extent to which the decisions of the Warren Court reflected the common wisdom of their time, and it forces us to ask why those decisions succeeded in binding subsequent judges who are probably more friendly to religion.
In fact, I suggest, the secularization of the public square resulted from the prior secularization of the university. Of course, this itself had a variety of causes, but the academics’ decision that theology is not a branch of knowledge, merely an elaboration of belief, helped turn America away from a religiously informed public square.
The issue is as old as Cardinal Newman’s day. Several discourses in The Idea of the University are devoted to theology as “A Branch of Knowledge,” its bearing on other branches, and their bearing on it. In America, it seems to have been around the beginning of the twentieth century when theology was eclipsed in the curriculum of the nation’s leading universities, as they transformed themselves from Protestant seminaries into research institutions influenced by the German model. Darwinism in the natural sciences and pragmatism in the others made theology superfluous, the professors thought, and by mid-century the natural sciences were increasingly autonomous, while the humanities and social sciences were enamored of such thoroughly antitheological figures as Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.
As George Marsden explains in his Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, the full meaning of these curricular developments was hidden for a long time—not least from the universities’ alumni—by the continued, visible extracurricular religious life of the students: The Yale Christian Association, known as “Dwight Hall,” remained a center of student life, and in the 1920s both Harvard and Princeton constructed grand new chapels at the center of their campuses. Religious idealism of a generic sort was a regular object of appeal in addresses by university administrators, even as denominational idiosyncrasies dropped from the curriculum and study of the Bible was marginalized. Though theology was no longer treated as a field of knowledge, the old religious establishments persisted for more than fifty years.
But the shell cannot survive forever without the living organism, and in the 1960s the religious establishments collapsed as clergyman presidents, mandatory chapel, and even formal affiliation with the founding denomination disappeared. The crisis in the universities in those days may or may not have been precipitated by this collapse, but no one can deny the crisis revealed a vacuum of authority. Indeed, American universities today still live with that crisis.
My question, however, is not whether theology ought to be restored as the queen of the sciences, but whether she belongs among them at all. As a political scientist, I am particularly interested in what happens to the national polity when graduates of many universities—especially the oldest, wealthiest, and most prestigious—never saw theology as a serious field of knowledge and thus see religion as, if not an illusion, at most a form of mere belief.
One consequence is obvious: The equation of theology with belief has now been written into the law of the land. In the 2004 case Locke v. Davey, the Supreme Court upheld a state of Washington statute that denied theology students state scholarships that were available for vocational training in every other field. Only Justice Thomas in dissent distinguished “devotional theology” from theology in any other form, and that was to distinguish “the study of theology from a secular perspective.” Religion, it seemed to the Court, is all emotion or commitment, not thought, so the state can with reason exclude theological study from its support, even though it was admitted that, since the choice of what to study was made by mature individuals, there was no Establishment Clause objection to including theology if the state had so desired. That the word vocational is itself a term of religious origin seems to have occurred to the justices not at all.
Another consequence, as the controversy over intelligent design has revealed, is that society in general (and, here again, the judiciary in particular) seems incapable of imagining that rational doubts can be raised about Darwinism except by those whose reason has been clouded by religious belief. I know good, Christian scientists who are skeptical of the claims made by the proponents of intelligent design, and this journal has certainly been in the forefront of exploring its relation to theology—but these debates take place “off the radar screen” of the general press and apparently in a dimension beyond judicial notice. That science and religion are fundamentally at odds—or, rather, that the one is a matter of the mind and the other of the heart—seems a settled tenet of public debate.
Similarly, because theology is considered tied to emotion rather than to thought, the great moral controversies of our age proceed, not exactly without a theological voice, but with that voice heard only for its conclusions, not the reasoning that attained to them. Indeed, the conclusions are often thought suspect because their origin is presumed to be irrational. On campus, or at least on the faculty, the theological voice is absent or barely audible. One reason for the notorious uniformity of faculty sentiment on issues such as abortion and gay marriage is the banishment of modes of discourse that might produce a contrary conclusion. Students do not believe everything their professors tell them (thank God!), but they do tend to accept that the professors speak for rationality. Some obstinately hold to their faith, but they are made to feel obstinate for doing so.
Indeed, holding theology not to be a form of knowledge creates the entire way religion is approached in our culture. Religion can still make itself heard in the public square—but only by singing or shouting, not as a kind of reasoning. When philosophers, following John Rawls, speak of “public reason” as the test of what arguments and what positions are valid in public, they mean to subject public discourse to the censorship of the secular professoriate. They know, I think, that they will never actually suppress the voice of faith in everyday politics, but they mean to exclude it from the higher reaches of the law, from journalism and the media, from professional and corporate networks, and the like.
Is there a way out of this predicament? Not a political one, or at least not an immediate political one. Anyone who looks at the matter with an open mind will see, I think, that there is at least a kind of knowledge possessed by theologians. Many disciplines have a historical dimension—political theory and constitutional law, for just two examples—and it is becoming increasingly apparent to scholars that simply to understand authors who wrote in the past it is necessary to know something about the theology they took for granted.
From Renaissance art to Enlightenment political theory, every text is opaque to a reader who does not know at least the basics of Christianity. In the study of English literature, no overdose of critical literary theory can compensate for ignorance of the Bible. In the study of history, the age of Western discovery and expansion cannot be grasped apart from the story of its missionaries or the millennial struggle of Christianity with Islam. At the very least, knowledge of religion is needed as ancillary to many fields—and I think scholars appreciate that it is critical in understanding a religion to consider how the religion understands itself. Sociology of religion without theology will not do, as it ends up reiterating the worldview of sociology rather than letting its subject speak for itself.
Still, in my experience, the research program of scholars has not been the only cause of a reawakened interest in theology. Interest in religion is reawakening among students, and, unless they are browbeaten, the students are not satisfied with superficial answers from professors trying to cover their own ignorance of theological concerns. If only to be able to keep up with improved catechesis, professors trained during the apogee of secularism have had to retool to be taken seriously in the classroom.
Nor can they count on scoring easy points by expounding their worldly experience in contrast to their students’ narrow upbringing. Few undergraduates have been granted the luxury of an age of innocence; and when not hungry for affirmation of their misbehavior, they are eager to hear a voice of moral authority, and they are astonished when it comes confidently giving reasons, not just making assertions. The questions theology asks—about the nature of God, what can be known in revelation, how to live in the light of these things—are universal. Just to know how to formulate them as questions and where to look to weigh the most plausible answers is a kind of knowledge in itself.
None of this is to say that theology will return to its ancient pride of place. In different kinds of institutions it will have a different function, formative perhaps in resurgent denominational colleges, auxiliary in more-secular universities. Nor is it to say that the current array of religious-studies associations and their journals will satisfy the needs of which I have been speaking. I certainly do not expect anything like the old Protestant establishment to return to authority in the universities, for the current liberal establishment there is in some ways very much like the establishments it replaced.
There will be moments, I trust, for genuine academic leadership, but for now the urgent need is to restore the serious sense of mission among academics who study theology—for, in the long run, even goodwill and an aching desire for a certain kind of learning are no substitute for scholars doing the hard, even sacrificial academic work. Obstacles are already in place: scientists who are not open to understanding the philosophical basis of their own work, counselors and coordinators who disseminate strictly secular doctrines and practices, entrenched scholars whose whole careers have been based on a contrary premise. But a good, clean fight about what is true would itself reform a university culture reveling in cynicism.
James R. Stoner, Jr., is professor of political science at Louisiana State University.
Stanley HauerwasJames Stoner comes as close to getting it right as anyone I know: Christians have betrayed the university by accepting the rules of engagement by liberal societies, which require that religious convictions, if they are to be recognized in public, be relegated to the realm of “belief.” Stoner is quite correct, therefore, to insist that, if the university is to recover its claim to be the site where rationality is achieved through contestation, then theology as knowledge of God should have a crucial role in the university.
The argument here is not simply that you need to know a great deal about the Christian past to understand classical literary works or issues in contemporary political theory. That is true, but Stoner notes that such understandings do not commit the university to acknowledge that theology is a genuine knowledge. The challenge is much more basic: The history of Christianity is not the subject of theology; God is the subject of theology.
Stoner attributes the loss of theology as knowledge to the process of secularization. There is no doubt something to that, but I think we must also recognize that the loss of theology as a knowledge was partly the result of developments in theology begun as early as the division of theological areas in the Middle Ages. More, the modern university emerged in part to legitimate the modern state, and that required the divisions of theology, if the universities were to train ministers as civil servants. In his recent book Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy, and Nation, Gavin D’Costa draws on the work of Hans Frei to argue that these developments climaxed in the formation of the University of Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Schleiermacher, the architect of the new university in Berlin, accepted what Frei calls the “great reversal” by which the theologian’s task became fitting the biblical story into a world increasingly dominated by disciplines that assume the that the world could be understood whether God exists or not. Following Kant’s account of university disciplines in “The Conflict of the Faculties,” Schleiermacher argued that theology could, like medicine and law, be included in the university only because such subjects were crucial for training the clerks necessary to sustain the modern state.
Recognizing this history, D’Costa argues that, if theology is to regain its claim to be knowledge crucial for the work of the university, it must be reconnected with the practices that make it intelligible: prayer, the sacraments, and the virtues. In a wonderful chapter entitled “Why Theologians Must Pray for Release from Exile,” D’Costa suggests that prayer is the necessary condition to secure the objectivity of theology, because theology cannot be done with intellectual rigor outside the context of a love affair with God and God’s community. The formal object of theology is God, and, like other disciplines that require practices and virtues constitutive for knowing the object of their investigation, theology requires prayer.
D’Costa is well aware that such an account of prayer as the necessary condition to recover theology as a mode of knowledge makes it even more unlikely that theology can be acknowledged as a subject in the university. Yet he suggests that theology, if it can reclaim its own best understanding, may find itself the one discipline capable of integrating the otherwise unconnected disciplines that constitute the modern university. “Put bluntly,” D’Costa argues, “the purpose of the university is to find love at the heart of all things, for love is the cause of the world. This does not mean that the study of atoms is going to show that love rather than neutrons and protons is to be found. Rather, once the atomic structure has been explicated the question of how such ordering analogically facilitates the possibilities of love, harmony, beauty, and truth is vital, and is another way of recognizing the ethical and methodological dimensions of the disciplines.”
I do not believe that what D’Costa is proposing is utopian, but it does place the responsibility on those of us who are theologians to do theology as if it mattered. We must bring to an end the disciplinary divisions that invite theologians to say, “I cannot comment on St. Paul’s understanding of the gospel because scripture is not my field.” Indeed the attempt to make theology “objective” through the transformation of theology into a historical discipline must be seen for what it is: a way to separate theology from its source, which is the praise of God. Of course, none of us are capable of knowing all we need to know to do the work of theology, but we must not forget that we know all we need to know to make the work of theology compelling: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Oddly enough, I think D’Costa is right to think universities, even secular universities, are more open today for seriously done theology than many might suspect. The Muslims are leading the way. Read, for example, Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, a book written by an anthropologist who teaches at Berkeley, and then tell me the university is incapable of providing a home for serious theology. Of course it may be that the best theology being done in the university is done in departments not officially identified as theology.
Indeed, I think it may well be the case that secular disciplines and universities are more open to theology being done in an unapologetic mode than are universities still connected with various forms of Christianity. The latter continue to be burdened by the presumption they cannot and should not “impose” Christian convictions on their students. But Christians no longer have the power to impose their convictions on anyone, even their own children—which means theologians are free from the constraining presumption that we “must be careful” because we have the responsibility to maintain the status quo.
In his book Formations of the Secular, Talal Asad observes that Islamic preoccupation with state power is not the result of a commitment to nationalist ideas but the result of the confrontation with the claim of modern nation-states to constitute legitimate social identities. He notes, therefore, that “no movement that aspires to more than mere belief or inconsequential talk in public can remain indifferent to state power in the secular world.”
That seems to me exactly right, but it also makes clear why the case James Stoner makes for the recovery of theology as a knowledge within the modern university is one that cannot be limited to the university.
Stanley Hauerwas is Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke University.
Paul J. GriffithsJames Stoner is eager to remind his academic colleagues that theology takes itself to traffic in truths about God. He thinks this reminder timely and important because secular universities (and they are almost all secular, even those that claim not to be) now largely hold the view that religious preferences and their associated theological claims may have deep personal meaning but can have no cognitive significance and therefore ought not to be treated as if they had. This view, Stoner says, damages universities because it makes it difficult for those who work in them to understand the writings, music, sculpture, and paintings of those who thought that some theological claims were true. He would prefer that universities be places in which people with serious theological commitments might work and flourish as theologians.
Some of this is unexceptionable. Stoner is certainly right that theologians have typically understood themselves to be making claims to truth. And it is also true that contemporary American universities are full of people who would not know how to take a theological claim with cognitive seriousness if their eternal salvation depended on it (which, of course, it may). It is true, too, that they share this incapacity with many in law, politics, medicine, and business, and with a surprising number of people who regularly go to church.
In fact, talking about God as if such talk might be true and of deep importance de-classes you, both socially and intellectually. Those who ride the buses and trains to work in Chicago, where I live, can often be seen reading their daily portion of the Bible in what, so far as I can tell, is a thoroughly cognitivist and nonironic spirit. Those who drive to their tenured positions in universities are instead likely to be listening to National Public Radio, whose writers and commentators seem to find it exotic and worthy of careful condescension that there are Americans who believe they know truths about God and that these truths are important.
The tendency to restrict theological talk to the sphere of personal preference, and thus to insulate it from relevance to discussions of public policy and public mores, now runs deep and broad in our polity. Some peculiarly pure—and peculiarly risible—forms of this separation have been recently evident in discussions of intelligent design. I recommend U.S. District Court Judge Jones’ December 2005 ruling in the Pennsylvania school district case as an excellently and unusually self-righteously confused example of this restriction of theology to the noncognitive.
But some of Stoner’s reasoning is dubious. There is no interesting connection between an inability to take theological claims seriously and an inability to recognize that others do. An erstwhile colleague of mine, Stanley Fish, has done some of the best work of recent decades on John Milton, work that shows abundantly that he understands what it meant for Milton to take theology seriously. But Fish has no tendency himself to hold theological views or to consider seriously the possibility that they might be true.
Our universities are full of people like Fish. There are examples, certainly, of scholars who do not know what they ought to know in order to discourse on theologically freighted artifacts of the past; and there are examples of otherwise intelligent people who are blind to the theological aspects of what they study. But I think they are not numerous. Stoner’s example (in Theology Today) of the art historian who did not know that the scenes in a picture he was discussing represented the mysteries of the Rosary must be, if not apocryphal, at least rare. You do not need to be a Nazi to understand what it was like to hold Nazi views, and you do not need to hold theological views yourself in order to be able to interpret the work of those who did. Our universities are better than Stoner thinks on this score.
In addition to thinking that our universities would do their historical and interpretive work better if they had more theologians in them, Stoner also thinks that theologians ought to be able to flourish and do theological work in them, just as political scientists like him do: that, we might say, theology ought be regarded as one more academic discipline. But ought it? I suggest, as advocatus diaboli, that it ought not, and that there are properly theological reasons for thinking it ought not.
Suppose we consider intellectual disciplines to be individuated by their formal objects. Then political science would be differentiated from ornithology because the one treats the political order and the other has to do with birds. On this reasonable understanding of what marks one discipline off from another, theology would have to be characterized as treating of God.
But God is like neither politics nor birds. God, according to the account of most right-thinking Catholic theologians (and many Protestants and Jews and Muslims as well), is neither an item in nor an aspect of the cosmos. He is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen: He who called the cosmos into being out of nothing, and He whose essence is by definition unknowable to human reason. Anything whose essence could be known to reason would by definition not be God. Reason can establish that God exists, Thomas Aquinas notes (I have some doubts, but let’s allow it for the sake of the argument), but in so doing it must confess that it has no idea what it has established the existence of.
Theology does not stop there, of course. But when it says more about its formal object—God—it does so not on the basis of reason but rather on the basis of faith. What this means is a complicated matter, but one thing it means is that theology utters substantive and positive truths about God (that God is prevenient and inexhaustible love, that He was incarnate, and so forth) principally in response to God’s self-revelation, God’s gift of Himself. Without that gift, constructive systematic theology—the real thing, that is—cannot be done.
But this means that theology is not for everyone. It is not a public discipline. It is a work of the Church, a work of the faithful, an elucidation of what God has revealed and the Church does its best to understand and teach (speaking now of its Catholic variety). The claims it makes and the arguments it offers are premised on truths accepted on authority, which is to say on the credit of their proposer.
As a result, theology’s place as a proponent of knowledge in the secular university is uneasy. One important strand in the history of the university’s self-understanding, at least since the growth of the research university in Germany in the nineteenth century, is that the knowledge claimed and systematized by the disciplines ought to be public in just the sense that theology is not. (Max Weber’s 1916 lecture “Wissenschaft als Beruf” is a classic document in this line.)
If this is right, then it follows rapidly that Stoner needs to think harder about his claim that theology does belong in the secular university, for he is not taking seriously enough what he claims to want to take seriously: theology’s self-understanding. He is right that theology claims knowledge, but he does not show any awareness of theology’s oddity as knowledge-propounder. He may be thinking of theology as an idolater would: as a form of thought whose object is a being-in-the-world like Zeus or Superman.
Of course, even if what I have written about Stoner’s proposal is right, it does not follow that properly theological talk has no place in the university. It follows rather that it should be mentioned rather than used (as with Fish on Milton: Milton uses theology while Fish mentions it).
And there remains, as well, the possibility that the Weberian advocacy of Wissenschaft is itself confused. Perhaps all forms of thought, all intellectual disciplines, rest their claims to knowledge on axiomatic truths accepted on authority, truths that are therefore not demonstrable by pure or natural reason. If that is right—and there are certainly those in the contemporary secular university who would happily say so—then theology’s difference is perhaps not so different.
The paradox here is that orthodox Catholics (at least those of a Thomist bent) are likely to align themselves on this matter with Weberians against poststructuralists and thereby to rule theology, properly construed, out of the secular university. And then, with an elegant irony, only idolaters and poststructuralists will be left to advocate for theology’s place in the university.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
David B. HartOn a great number of points, James Stoner’s argument is obviously right. The long, inglorious, forced retreat of religious reasoning from the commanding heights of civic and legal culture has certainly been hastened by the displacement of theology from the center of the modern university’s curriculum. Once, in an age now rapidly receding into legend, theology enjoyed the status not merely of a science but of the “queen of the sciences,” whose special preoccupation with the highest things—God, the soul, the virtues, the transcendentals, metaphysics—invested her with the privilege of legitimating, inspiring, and unifying all the lesser disciplines. Now, though, her estate is much diminished. In most private institutions of higher learning, she may be tolerated, but she is rarely invited to dine at the high table , and is not encouraged to show herself when company comes to call.
His larger question, however—whether theology might once again be recognized as a genuine kind of knowledge and be readmitted into full society with the humane sciences—is undoubtedly, in some sense, the correct question to ask, but it is also a question rather along the same lines as asking whether Arthur might soon return from Avalon to rescue Britain from the European Union. No, the answer seems certain, in all likelihood not. The majority of the faculty of most modern universities would surely regard the claim that theology constitutes some kind of “science” absurd and presumptuous.
Religion, after all (as everyone knows), is a realm of purely personal conviction sustained by faith, which is (as everyone also knows) an entirely irrational movement of the will, an indistinct impulse of saccharine sentiment, pathetic longing, childish credulity, and vague intuition. And theology, being the special language of religion, is by definition a collection of vacuous assertions, zealous exhortations, and beguiling fables; it is the peculiar patois of a private fixation or tribal allegiance, of interest perhaps to the psychopathologist or anthropologist, but of no greater scientific value than that; surely it has no proper field of study of its own, no real object to investigate, and whatever rules it obeys must be essentially arbitrary.
Now, as it happens, theology is actually a pitilessly demanding discipline concerning an immense, profoundly sophisticated legacy of hermeneutics, dialectics, and logic; it deals in minute detail with a vast variety of concrete historical data; over the centuries, it has incubated speculative systems of extraordinary rigor and intricacy, many of whose questions and methods continue to inform contemporary philosophy; and it does, when all is said and done, constitute the single intellectual, moral, spiritual, and cultural tradition uniting the classical, medieval, and early modern worlds. Even if one entirely avoids considering what metaphysical content one should attach to the word “God,” one can still plausibly argue that theology is no more lacking in a substantial field of inquiry than are history, philosophy, the study of literature, or any of the other genuinely respectable university disciplines.
Moreover, theology requires far greater scholarly range. The properly trained Christian theologian should be a proficient linguist, with a mastery of several ancient and modern tongues, should have formation in the subtleties of the whole Christian dogmatic tradition, should possess a considerable knowledge of the liturgies, texts, and arguments produced in every period of the Church, should be a good historian, should have a thorough philosophical training, should possess considerable knowledge of the fine arts, should have an intelligent interest in such areas as law or economics, and so on. This is not to say that one cannot practice theology without all these attainments, but such an education remains the scholarly ideal of the guild. And, as Stoner rightly notes, the absence or near-absence of theology from the general curriculum has done incalculable harm to students’ ability to understand their own fields. This is perhaps especially—or at least most obviously—true in the case of literary studies; but, in fact, it would be hard to name a discipline outside the hard sciences or mathematics that can be mastered adequately without some degree of theological literacy.
And yet, all that said, theology will never be restored in the modern university to anything like the status it once enjoyed, or even to the status of a particularly reputable form of knowledge. Nor is it entirely certain that theologians should wish it to be.
One of Stoner’s guiding premises is that the secularization of the public square and the progressive exclusion of religious reasoning from civil law were never historically necessary. At one level, this is true. In purely constitutional terms, the wall of separation between public institutions and faith has no legitimate basis, and the ever more invasive and dictatorial peremptoriness with which generations of jurists have forced an institutional laicism on every stratum of civil society is a betrayal of the federal principle and a violation of republican liberties.
Nevertheless, modernity is secularization. It is, in its essence, a project of detaching moral, legal, and governmental reasoning from any authority transcendent of the state or the individual. It is the project of an ethics conformed not to divine justice but to human reason and popular consensus; of a politics authorized not by divine ordinance but by the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state; and of a model of freedom based not on the perfection of human nature but on the unconstrained liberty of individual will.
And America is a modern nation—the first, indeed, explicitly to constitute itself without reference to any sacral institution of its authority. In a nation so formed, nothing was more inevitable than a subtle, chronic antagonism between religious and state authority; and, to secure itself against any rival source of moral legitimacy, such a state was forced continuously to drive religious adherence from the public realm into the private realm of “values” (where, of course, it is free to do what it likes). It scarcely constitutes a kind of fatalism to acknowledge that, for all the enormous virtues of its Constitution, and despite the piety of many of its citizens, America enjoys no miraculous immunity from the logic of modernity.
The secular order was born only a few centuries ago, making its first systematic appearance under the guise of a novel doctrine of absolute monarchy and the total sovereignty of the state over its subjects or citizens. And it was an order born in blood: To free themselves from the lingering constraints of an old, moribund, now largely nominal system of political subsidiarity—with its plurality of powers, estates, spheres of competence, and obligations—the modern states of Europe were forced not only to subdue the Church within their territories but to shatter the power of both the Church and the Holy Roman Empire by waging what, to that point, were the most sanguinary wars ever fought on European soil (wars that we are still—as a testament to the power of propaganda—in the habit of remembering simply as “wars of religion”).
In the wake of the final triumph of the modern centralized state and of the breaking of the Church, there followed a protracted period of wars, revolutions, tyrannies, and attempted genocides that spilled oceans of blood and that, for rather obscure reasons, we are supposed to think morally superior to the age of “religious intolerance.” And so we are all now the beneficiaries of enlightened secular governance and its special achievements: the absolute state and total war (and, of course, a universal right to legal abortion).
So when I say it is not obvious that theologians should desire the restoration of their discipline in the modern university, it is not because I believe in a wall of separation or because I am a Christian separatist who believes the Church should never have allied itself with kings and princes to begin with. It is because I simply find it impossible to grant that the modern secular state is anything other than a frequently wicked perversion of social order.
This is not to say that the time has come for theologians simply to sound their mournful recessional and withdraw from the stage of history. It is to say, though, that it was on terms decided by the secularized university that theology was driven out from the inner chambers of the curriculum, and only on those same terms would theology be admitted back.
This is obvious even from Stoner’s conclusion, with its bland recommendation for a theological appreciation of modern academic pluralism. Christians should undoubtedly celebrate truth wherever they find it; but it is not natural to theology that it should function as one discipline among others, attempting to make its contribution to some larger conversation; as soon as it consents to become a perspective among the human sciences, rather than the contemplation of the final cause and consummation of all paths of knowledge, it has ceased to be theology and has become precisely what its detractors have long suspected it of being: willful opinion, emotion, and cant.
I confess I am being intentionally extreme. What I fear, however, is that theology would—as a more generally accepted form of academic knowledge—be required to give its parole and that the price of its recognition by the post-Christian university would be its reciprocal recognition of the secular order. On those terms, exile might be preferable to repatriation on sufferance. The academic margins might be a more hospitable and healthy climate just at the moment. The desert, after all, has often proved the most fertile garden of the spirit, and it may be that a vocation to theology and the ethos of the academy are—for the time being, at least—essentially inimical.
David B. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and author of The Beauty of the Infinite.