Theology and the Humanities

Given theology’s share of discontinuities with the natural sciences, it might be thought to follow that theology is better classified among either the social sciences or, more likely, the humanities. It’s not an unreasonable inference. When you get down to it, it’s not easy to pinpoint how the procedures of theology differ from those of, say, philosophy, history, literary studies, interpretive anthropology, others could be listed. Nevertheless, I don’t think this is quite right. For one, the humanities take as their object of study (as the label suggests) humanity, i.e., its nature, condition, perspective, what-have-you. Theology, however, while of course having an interest in humanity, has for its primary subject matter God. The reason theology takes an interest in humanity, that is, is because of humanity’s relation to God, or better, because God has taken an interest in humanity. This is why I am tempted to think of theology as an enterprise sui generis, something distinguishable from both the sciences and humanities. I want to say that seminaries in the US, whether deliberately or not, are instructive here in virtue of their convention of granting M.Div. degrees, masters of divinity, and not of either sciences or humanities.

Of course, though, the true story is going to be more complex than my recounting has rendered it. For one complication, consider Calvin’s ever-so-suggestive remark that opens his Institutes: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other [emphasis added]. The knowledge of God and of humanity, studies divine and humane, are intimately intertwined. While the knowledge of humanity Calvin has in mind here is more likely an already-theologically-laden anthropology, I still want to hear him as hinting to an opportunity for theology, as inviting theology to consider its relation to the humanities proper. To that end, here’s a list of readings, for anyone interested, that take up the nature and powers of humane studies in general and, more specifically, the question of theology’s interest in the humanities:

  • Christopher Brittain and Francesca Murphy, eds. Theology, University, Humanities: Initium Sapientiae Timor Domini, (Wipf&Stock, 2011).
  • Davies, Crisp, D’Costa, Hampson, eds., Christianity and the Disciplines: The Transformation of the University, (T&TClark, 2014).
  • Ford, Quash, and Soskice, eds., Fields of Faith: Theology and Religious Studies for the Twenty-first Century, (Cambridge UnivPr, 2012).
  • Gordon Graham, “Human Nature and the Study of the Humanities,” in Institution of Intellectual Values: Realism and Idealism in Higher Education, (Imprint Academic, 2007), 171-184.
  • Peter Hacker, “Wittgenstein and the Autonomy of Humanistic Understanding,” in Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies, (OUP, 2001), 34-73.
  • Pete Ward, ed., Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography, (Eerdmans, 2012).
  • John Webster, “Regina artium: Theology and the Humanities,” in The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2012), 171-192.
  • Rowan Williams, “Theology among the Humanities,” in The Vocation of Theology Today, edited by Greggs, Muers, & Zahl, (Cascade, 2013), 178-192.
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