Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

The following are two antithetical(?) proposals. My problem is that I find myself attracted to both of them. Each, I’m persuaded, lays claim to a measure of wisdom; neither can be ignored altogether. But what is the alternative perspective that “sees round them both”? That’s a question that has occupied my attention for quite some time now. I hope to treat it at greater length at some point. For now it will have to do simply to register the dilemma.

A. Nicholas Lash

Theologians would do well to keep in touch with practitioners in other disciplines, whose methodological problems significantly overlap with their own.

from Change in Focus, (Sheed&Ward, 1973), 180.

B. John Webster

… it [is] increasingly difficult for practitioners […] of theology to state with any clarity what is specifically theological about their enquiries. […] they have been pressed to give an account of themselves in terms drawn largely from fields of enquiry other than theology, fields which, according to prevailing criteria of academic propriety more nearly approximate to ideals of rational activity. And so the content and operations of the constituent parts of the theological curriculum are no longer determined by specifically theological considerations, but by neighboring disciplines — disciplines which can exercise that controlling function because their lack of determination by theological conviction accords them much greater prestige in the academy. This process of assimilation means that, for example, the study of scripture, or doctrine, or the history of the church draw their modes of enquiry from Semitics, or the history of religions, or social anthropology, from philosophy, or from general historical studies.

from “Theological Theology,” in Confessing God, (T&T Clark, 2005), 22.

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4 thoughts on “Interdisciplinarity: Theological Threat or Opportunity?

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  3. dtkleven

    Have you read Barth’s “Evangelical Theology in the 19th Century,” (found in The Humanity of God)? A similar perspective as Webster (figures).

    It seems like “do well to keep in touch with” is putting it mildly. Webster would surely affirm this, as one of the tasks of theology is to articulate what we confess to each new generation in terms they can accept and to the particular problems that we face. The problem is when that task begins to determine the “content and operations and constituent parts of theology.”

    I guess I’m with Webster at the core, with a high interest in communicating that core meaningfully to other disciplines.

    Reply
    1. llwilmoth Post author

      Thanks for the message. No, I haven’t read that particular Barth title. I agree that Lash’s claim, as quoted, is a mild one, and I don’t doubt that Webster would endorse it in a mild sense. And if one were to read Webster mildly, I don’t doubt that Lash would agree that theology ought not to be determined by external considerations. That said, I still think that leaves open questions about how to demarcate determination from benign collaboration (i.e., What’s going too far? What’s not going as far as one may?). My main interest behind the post was simply to register the difference between the impressions their respective practices of theology leave me with. With Webster I’m left with a sense of confidence in theology’s self-sufficiency. With Lash a sense of openness to stretching theology’s imaginative reach by means of whatever tools are closest to hand. I have to say I think there’s something going for both of these impulses.

      Reply

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