Posted by: aediculaantinoi | August 26, 2012

Theology vs. Philosophy: What’s the Difference?

Still loads to do…my “to-do” list for August is going to be all kinds of not-finished, alas…

During the course of this post recently, I got a comment from Disirdottir which said the following:

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.


  1. “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.”

    That’s about how I would sum it up, too.

    • Cool! I’m glad I’m not too far off, then! ;)

      (Though, in fairness, our formal educational backgrounds in these matters are similar, after all…)

  2. I give primary consideration to my experiences. For me that means that I cannot be anything other than a metaphysical pluralist. The fundamental, underlying reality of existence will never be able to be summed up or reduced down. Those who have tried to do so have failed, else why are there still those of us who resist them even when they claim the Truth?

    To say that I interpret my experiences through the lens of a polytheistic theology is too specific and yet not specific enough. I’ve realized I can only hold on to polytheism as a term of convenience and even then it fails me.

    My theology, my mystical experience, is itself pluralistic. Just as set and setting are considerations for the avid psychonaut, so too for me. I cannot, in my own way, achieve union with the divine powers I worship without recognizing their independence from me and the environment in which our relationship exists and takes place. Recognition though, is inappropriate too in a way. It is wise, but not necessary, to recognize what is, regardless.

    And yet, to say that this relationship is all that is happening is as crude as reducing down my experiences to the common perception of what polytheism is and should be. By means of interacting with these divine powers, by becoming intimate with them to whatever degree possible, I become like them. My own moral development and character are shaped by my encounters with these divine powers just as with my mortal companions.

    This is not to reduce my relationships with them to a utilitarian means of obtaining ethical training. In fact, why would I seek to develop my ethical and moral capacity if not in service of developing these relationships further? It is true that moral excellence can be it’s own reward. Certainly my quality of life prospers incomparably when I am “good”. And yet that is my nature.

    I don’t know if any of that made any sense or if I’ve contributed to what you’ve written here in any meaningful way. It’s very late here and I’m very tired but there are my thoughts for what they are worth. /ramblings :D


  3. [...] later followed up the piece with this reflection on the differences between theology and philosophy which is quite pertinent to the debate: There is a way, I think, particularly since the [...]

  4. Part of the problem is the semantic drift of the term “theology”. In classical Greek, this term was used exclusively of poets and mythographers: theology, in other words, was not a theoretical discourse. This usage persists right through the end of pagan antiquity.

    Even a text such as Proclus’ Elements of Theology—which constitutes virtually the sole exception in Proclus’ work to his normal usage of the term “theology”, and a title which we cannot be sure was given this text by Proclus himself—can adopt the perspective it does relative to theologies, the always-plural concrete discourses about these or those Gods, their symbols and activities, by speaking of the stoicheia, the “elements” or dependent parts of these discourses. It does not pretend to be a freestanding discourse, any more than an ancient physicist would believe one can separate out the “fire” or “air” in a complex body.

    All of this changes with Christian intellectual hegemony. There are no longer multiple “theologies”, there is only one; hence the relationship between theology and philosophy, which in the pagan era was essentially many-to-one—for there were an irreducible multiplicity of revealed theologies, while philosophy aspired to unity among its rational disputants—could now only be one-to-one. With this structural transformation, it’s not hard to see how the boundaries of theology and philosophy began to dissolve, with deleterious consequences for both, as well as for any discourses dependent upon them.

    To get a sense for this ideological shift, I highly recommend Richard Bodéüs, Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals, which details how a theoretical “theology” in the medieval sense was concocted out of Aristotelian writings that had no such intent. This philosophical theology was then placed at the center of the philosophical curriculum once the emphatically polytheistic Platonism that dominated philosophical thought in late antiquity had been thoroughly suppressed, and one was free (for several hundred years, at any rate) to give to philosophical terms pretty much any sense that one liked, until some arguments got enough traction in the Muslim and Christian world to begin to generate some internal coherence in the new theologico-philosophical hybrids of the era.

    • Thanks so much for this! I was hoping you’d write in and share some of your own (much better!) insights on the development of these terms.

      As I’m a very big proponent of pluralizing a lot of terms that often get singularized due to (I think) monotheist/monist tendencies and the hegemony of creedal forms of same, I’ll make sure to always (or at least as often as possible, when appropriate!) say “theologies” rather than “theology.”

  5. […] Essays by polytheist theologian P. Sufenas Virius Lupus (recommended starting point: “Theology vs. Philosophy: What’s the Difference?“). Lupus also writes for the Patheos Pagan channel (recommended starting point: […]

  6. […] fair few are random internet searchers who happen upon this blog and find posts on Sikhs or the difference between theology and philosophy; and lately, a huge number are also interested in the latter stages of Floralia, for some reason. […]

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