Still loads to do…my “to-do” list for August is going to be all kinds of not-finished, alas…
I would love to hear you expound upon the difference you see between the theologian and the philosopher sometime. I would classify myself as a philosopher far more than a theologian, and I don’t see a vast divide between in the perspectives we each bring to our practices. . .
As you wish, dear friend!
A great deal of the difference I see between these two roles is to be found in their respective etymologies. One who “does theology” is one who “speaks of the gods” (logos + theoi); whereas one who “does philosophy” is one who “loves wisdom” (philos + sophia). They don’t have to be diametrically opposed, and in fact many theologians are also philosophers, and many philosophers are also theologians.
My (Jesuit) Latin professor always noted, however, that philosophy is always an adjunct to theology and not vice-versa, which is an intriguing suggestion, and may be due to his own creedal monotheistic religious institution’s long-standing traditions on the matter.
I think many people would see it in the opposite fashion today–theology is more of a subsidiary of philosophy. The fact is, many colleges have at least one or two professors who teach philosophy, but a much smaller number have courses in or professors of theology. And, looking at the philosophers who are teaching at colleges, many of them are non-religious, non-theists, and are not interested in metaphysics (one of the traditionally recognized branches of philosophy) at all.
There is a way, I think, particularly since the Enlightenment and afterwards, that philosophy became abstracted from being an adjunct to theology, and has become more of an end-unto-itself than something which is realized in practical application a good deal of the time. (No, that’s not a blanket statement, only a general trend I’ve observed.) Philosophical discourse sometimes appears to engage with itself, and is accountable to nothing else but itself, which can lead to some undesirable excesses.
In the last twenty to thirty years, academic theology can often end up doing the same thing, to the point that those writing about liberation theology (for example) get so caught up in what they’re doing that the actual people and the praxis-based foundations of their theology become more and more abstract, and what is produced is something that the “base communities” whose experiences are supposed to underlie the discourse of liberation theology would no longer understand nor have any interest in what work is produced. What good is a theological system based on a particular people or group’s set of experiences if that group or people do not understand, recognize, nor have any use for the system produced?
Moving away from some of the modern difficulties in these matters, though, there is a larger trend at work. Philosophy, with all of its schools and teachers, often tends to create or inform a particular “way of life,” as it were. So, in the ancient world, the Pythagoreans, the Stoics, the Cynics, the Skeptics, the Epicureans, the Platonists, the Peripatetics, and various other schools all had their well-known teachers, their academies and institutions, and their accompanying ways of life (which often included particular theological stances). I suspect that a good deal of the time, what emerges in this trend is that a particular group of thinkers or a particular teacher comes up with a theory, you might say, of life and of the universe, and of humans’ place within it, and then shapes their way of life to fit that theory. It either then appeals to people or it doesn’t, it attracts followers or it flounders, it becomes a productive way of engaging with the world or it becomes a failure and a curious footnote of philosophical history. Of course, particular teachers and thinkers within the school of an earlier philosopher can likewise develop the earlier theories further, or expand upon them, and still remain within the general framework of the extant school, and can either succeed or fail from there, etc. A good many large world religions, often those of the so-called “axial age” that solidified around a charismatic founder, are also of this general nature–Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and Confucianism among them.
So, all of that is well and good.
The difference I see between this sort of philosophical engagement and participation and theology, however, is that theology is always first and foremost concerned with the gods, with one’s experiences of them, and with the further practical implications of those experiences and one’s understandings of them, rather than with keeping to a particular theory or way of life. Certainly, theological insights can have immediate and profound implications for one’s way of life, or for one’s overall working theories of existence, but I have always seen the theological process as far more practical in nature and experiential in basis than philosophy (which, note, does not mean that philosophy always is, nor has to be, impractical or non-experiential in comparison). I’ve been told, on repeated occasions, that the exact opposite is true by a lot of people, but my own experiences have been as I’ve explained above.
As a result, while I do think reading and studying some philosophical works, or writings by people who are considered to be within a particular philosophical school (e.g. Plutarch, who is a “middle Platonist,” or the writings about Apollonius of Tyana, who was a “neo-Pythagorean”), I’ve very rarely gone “That’s great, I’m going to adopt this way of life!” after having done so, or even have gone “That’s a really good idea and I think I’ll try and develop it and apply it!” (Though the latter happens more often than the former.) Insofar as any of these things create greater understanding for me in terms of my own experiences of the gods, I consider them useful and productive; insofar as they lead to confusion, lack of productivity, or are a barrier to further practice or experience, they’re not useful and time shouldn’t be wasted on them whenever it is possible to avoid doing so. My focus is therefore always on “how will this help me?” rather than “is this true,” you might say…
In some internet-based comment
battles discussions over the last few years, I’ve had people say “Well, that’s an XYZ viewpoint, and it’s not true because of ABC.” In every case where this has been done, and where my own viewpoint has been labeled as being of a particular school of thought or philosophy, it’s never been because I’ve researched those ideas, or identify with that school, it’s been because that’s what my viewpoint on a particular matter happens to be; furthermore, just because a rival school of philosophical interpretation thinks it has “disproved” the other school’s notions does not necessarily mean that it’s right either, especially when the person in question subscribes to that school’s notions and is utterly lacking in my own particular experience, knowledge of and around those experiences, and thus the relevant interpretive data to arrive at the conclusions which I have. These have always been “philosophical battles,” you might say: someone has told me my school of thought is wrong, whereas what is really going on is the other person is debating between various different schools of thought which have nothing to do with what my experiences of the gods or of other divine realities have happened to be. It’s a difference, I think, between philosophy and theology, and the attempts by some (which have probably always existed ever since philosophy and theology became distinct disciplines or areas of inquiry) to use philosophy to disprove theology. I’m simply of the opinion that theology is always primary, not only in my own experiences but in my own thoughts and theories of action.
Because what has been called “mysticism” (but which I think should be understood as “religion in practice, spirituality in action”!) is heavily involved in what I’ve done, I thus think that mystical theology is really the way to understand these matters and to characterize them, rather than attempting to philosophically analyze or categorize them. This latter formulation may be a matter of semantic preferences, rather than a “real” difference; if it is, fair enough–the previous are mine!
Again, I wish to emphasize here that these understandings–idiosyncratic though they may be–are my own, and are based on my own experiences of these areas of inquiry. There are tons of perfectly good philosophers out there with whom I’d have no problems whatsoever; and there are theologians out there with whom I’d have every problem in the world. But these are the general trends that I’ve found, and why I therefore prefer to characterize myself as a theologian and a practitioner of theology rather than as a philosopher or a student of philosophy.