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Reading the Church Dogmatics 10: Theology and Religious Studies

Within the sphere of the Church philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics, whether individually or in conjunction, might take up the task of measuring the Church’s talk of God by its being as the Church, thus making a special theology superfluous.  Theology does not in fact possess special keys to special doors.  Nor does it control a basis of knowledge which might not find actualisation in other sciences.  Nor does it know an object of enquiry necessarily concealed from other sciences.

Karl Barth, Church  Dogmatics I/1, p.5

In one sense, theology’s subject matter – the material with which it works – is not esoteric. It is not invisible to normal human eyes. It does not become visible only by means of some peculiar technique. Theology’s subject matter is there for all to see. Theology works with and on the practice of the church, and that practice is visible to ‘philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, or pedagogics’ (5). And theology measures this subject matter against criteria that are visibly pointed to by the practice itself: it pursues ‘criticism and correction of talk about God according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ (6).

In one sense, then, faith (the faith of the theologian, that is) is irrelevant to the theologian’s ability to pursue this task. Theology could even be seen as a branch of religious studies, taking off from religious studies’ multi-disciplinary description of the visible practice of the church, its identification of the language that the church audibly speaks and of the criteria for judgment acknowledged within that practice. Theology would simply be the form of religious studies that emerged when its practitioners took the decision to see what happens when one measures the church’s practice ‘according to the criterion of the Church’s own principle’ – in other words, to see what happens when one takes the faith of the church seriously in its own terms.

That does of course mean taking seriously the church’s claim that its speech is speech about God, and the ways in which the church’s speaking is practiced as a speaking under discipline and under judgment. If, in one sense, theology’s subject matter is Christian practice, and is there for all to see, in another sense it is Christian practice only insofar as that practice speaks of God, and so theology’s real subject matter is God. Barth can therefore also ask ‘what good theology will include its subject matter in the “reality accessible to us”?’ (8).

So, to the extent that theology takes the practice of the church as its subject matter, it does not in principle need to have a distinct existence over against religious studies, but might simply be part of religious studies. Such religious studies would, however, need to be open to the decision, discussed a couple of posts ago, to treat the practice of the church, not as an irreducibly fragmented collection of discourses, each fragment to be explained only as a contribution to its own specific social and intellectual context, but as an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter. And I am not sure that the claim that the church is an ongoing conversation with a common subject matter could itself emerge as a secure conclusion simply from attentive description of Christian practice. It seems to me that, if approached from the direction of a descriptive religious studies, such a decision could only rest upon the recognition that the church included its own practices of intellectual inquiry, within which that decision (however implausible or ungrounded) was habitually made – that is, that something like dogmatic theology already existed as an ecclesial practice, and that it was a practice whose internal dynamics and possibilities were worth understanding.

Barth’s main point when he introduces the relation of theology to other disciplines would then be that these decisions, to treat the church as possessing something like a coherent intellectual tradition, and to examine the self-criticism of the church possible in the light of this intellectual tradition, do not imply a move from exoteric to esoteric – from a sphere visible to the natural intellect to a sphere only visible to the eyes of faith. And it is only because religious studies does not take this form that theology is, in practice, distinct from it. The corollary of that would seem to be that there is no reason in principle why religious studies might not take a form in which it was open to the pursuit of investigations in which ‘the theme of theology’ (10) was taken up – and, in the light of what I have said above, I think that might be true even if in religious studies has not taken up that theme in general as its own governing criterion.

In other words, there is something here approaching an argument commending theology to the practitioners of religious studies. It is true that Barth is not going to allow us to make that argument glibly. To travel far down this route might seem to involve fitting theology neatly in as one discipline amongst others in precisely the way that Barth warns against (as mentioned in the previous post), and we would have to ask whether in the process theology’s own proper criterion was in fact being subordinated to some other, alien criterion. That’s a proper caution, but I don’t think it is a killer. If religious studies takes as one of its tasks understanding the internal dynamics of the religious communities that surround us, including the criteria by which those communities seek to criticise themselves, then it need not enter into a ‘conflict of will’ with theology – provided only that a church exists that does indeed seek (in whatever complex ways it deems appropriate) to ‘take up the theme of theology’. And it seems to me that this is not simply a theoretical point about what is possible ‘in principle’, but a real practical possibility, even if the existence and power of other visions for religious studies means we would be unwise to treat it as a stable and dependable reality.


This post is part of a series on the opening of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1.