Rejoinder from Paul MacDonald regarding Analytic Theology

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April 2, 2014 by mattwilcoxen

A while back I wrote a review of Dr. Paul MacDonald’s Modern Theology article on Analytic Theology. Dr. MacDonald recently commented on that post with a detailed reply. So that his response does not merely get lost in the comments of an old blog post, I thought I’d copy and paste it here.

In what follows, I respond to Matt Wilcoxen’s review of my article. While I understand and even appreciate the criticisms Wilcoxen makes—whether directed at the analytic theology project or my summary, analysis, and moderate defense of it—I still think he fails to grasp the deeper point of much of what I say and argue. I hope that clarifying my main interpretative and argumentative claims will help blunt the force of his critique.

To start, Wilcoxen says I offer an “all too vague” definition of analytic theology. But in the section of the article he quotes, I am not endeavoring to offer a definition of analytic theology. I’m simply identifying some its main characteristics, which I glean from what self-identifying analytic theologians have said about it. Moreover, the analytic penchant for clarity, precision, and rigor does not define analytic theology (nor are analytic theologians the only ones who care about these things). Style serves substance, or specific aims—most notably, providing clear, precise, and rigorous conceptual and metaphysical analysis of central Christian doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation. So contrary to what Wilcoxen suggests, we cannot reduce analytic theology to a mere “stylistic aid.”

Wilcoxen then raises a good question: “what constitutes sufficient clarity, precision, and rigor?” I pose this very question to the analytic theologians whose work I consider. How do we know, for example, when we’ve achieved a clearer understanding of what it means for God to be both one (in being / substance) and a Trinity of persons? Analytic theologians can point to the metaphysical models they offer, which give us clear options for making metaphysical sense of the Trinity. (See the second section of the article for more on this). But they can and should do much more: for example, showing how their models improve upon models that other Trinitarian theologians, both past and present, have offered. This is part of the ongoing challenge analytic theologians face in meeting the very high standards they set for themselves as explorers and purported explainers of cardinal theological mysteries.

In the final section of the paper—my modest defense—my aim is not, as Wilcoxen suggests, to define analytic theology or theology itself so narrowly as to exclude obvious contributors to and shapers of the field, both historical and present. I also don’t “demand” that all analytic theologians hold certain commitments; in fact, I recognize that that analytic theology may flourish as an epistemologically or dialogically pluralist enterprise.

But I do wave a cautionary flag: epistemology matters for theology. Wedded to the wrong epistemology, theology, analytic or otherwise, can become severed from the very transcendent truth (and reality) it traditionally has sought to understand and explicate, as well as defend. More specifically, a theology that rejects realism, even broadly and moderately construed, in favor of more skeptical and subjectivist epistemologies, threatens to undermine itself by devolving either into cosmology or the anthropology of religious experience and belief. I think this is bad for theology, not good: anti-realist epistemologies put theology in a straightjacket, not realist ones.

Given this, how could I possibly think that (in Wilcoxen’s words) “analytic theology must believe that God is an objective feature of the universe”? Pursuing objectivity in our knowledge of God does not require turning God into an object (onto-theology), and we shouldn’t let ourselves fall into what I think is a distinctly modern (and postmodern), dualist trap—having to embrace either idolatry or agnosticism, as if they are the only alternatives. I see no inconsistency in developing a theology that is dogmatic and speculative but also recognizably and rigorously respectful of divine mystery. Theological giants like Aquinas have done so—why can’t we let analytic theologians try and do the same?

Wilcoxen offers a final criticism: “the author has not provided any clarity, precision, or rigor as to how it is possible for us to know the divine nature itself. And that is the question, isn’t it?” It is the question—not one you can tackle in a single article. But if you want to get my answer to it, read my book: Knowledge and the Transcendent (The Catholic University of America Press, 2009).



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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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