On the relationship between systematic theology and analytic philosophy

As one who basically shares David Bentley Hart’s assessment of Anglo-American analytic philosophy as ‘degradingly barren’ and as ‘a silly game with poorly formulated rules, which serves as an excellent tool for avoiding thinking deeply about anything irreducible to crude propositions’, and who has enormous respect for Alan Torrance, I was interested in this recent discussion here between Helen De Cruz, Kevin Hector, and Alan on the (blessed and vexed) relationship between systematic theology and analytic philosophy.

And while I am considerably less sanguine than is Alan about the merits of analytic philosophy as a particularly helpful handmaiden in the pursuit and articulation of truth (partly on the grounds expressed in the interview about the ahistorical, acultural, and apolitical character of the way that Anglo analytic philosophers seem to go about their task; I have similar concerns, too, about those who undertake studies on Søren Kierkegaard, for example, with little or no concern to understand or attend to the context of village Lutheranism in nineteenth-century Denmark, or those who write books about Bonhoeffer as if he were a North American version of a Sydney Anglican (as opposed to an Anglican who happens to live in Sydney)), I was very grateful for the discussion, and for some of the acknowledgments contained therein, and for the opportunity to revisit the questions. I thought others might be too, so here ’tis:


  1. I reckon DBH or someone ought to try and spell out what some of the silly rules of the analytic tradition are…. I.e it would be good to be analytic about analytic philosophy.


  2. I suppose my worry here is not so much the a-historicism – some people within the analytic tradition have tried to address this (Michael Dummett on Frege, Peter Hylton on Russell) – but the idiom of “usefulness” in which both analytic philosophers – not least Christian ones, and theologians who are interested in analytic philosophy, seem to feel at home. It was this idiom that struck me listening to Alan Torrance’s very insightful thoughts on analytic philosophy. He kept saying how useful such philosophy was. Earlier this year, I heard a young theologian give a paper employing “conceptual tools” from analytic philosophy in order to think about the Christian account of time. Again what strikes me here is a kind of unselfconscious appeal to a utilitarian idiom: thinking is a matter of employing conceptual tools. And I suppose allied to this is a belief that clearness of argument is itself an indication of truthfulness. I have to admit it’s hard not to get the feeling that “analytic theologians” were the clever kids in the debating team at high school, and still imagine that thinking is kind of like what they were doing on debate night. The supposedly quirky humour of the thought-experiments analytic theologians keep constructing only adds to this impression (chorus girls as a model for the trinity etc.). That they admit what they are doing is not for everyone, but that it is nevertheless “useful”, highlights both the insider-ish feel of the whole thing (sorry, there’s a better word for this but I can’t think of it!), and its concession to very utilitarian account of thinking. And I suppose behind this account lies a very particular (and I think, rather peculiar) account of philosophy.


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