Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Fides quaerens intellectum

My favorite place to work in the college library is a comfy chair by a window looking out over the quad -- smack in the middle of the theology section of the stacks. It occurred to me the other day that theology occupys as many shelves as science. That in itself is not surprising given the history of the college and its early gathering of books from various religious sources. Bear in mind, too, as I have noted here before, that the college has first-rate science departments, equal to the best of secular institutions of similar size, and is currently building a $34 million science building that will be the centerpiece of the campus. The science to be taught there will be international consensus science, unaffected by any religious test or filter.

So what's the difference between the two disciplines, theology and science?

A common definition of theology was supplied in the 11th-century by Saint Anselm of Canterbury: fides quaerens intellectum "faith seeking understanding." And there you have it. Start with a body of inherited beliefs, almost invariably determined by circumstances of birth. Theology then becomes the task of giving those "true" ideas some semblance of intellectual respectability. This mostly involves shuffling and reshuffling what one started with, like quoting holy scriptures to prove that the scriptures are a reliable source of truth.

Meanwhile, on the floor above is stack after stack of science books, reliable consensus knowledge based on a way of knowing that does not begin (or end) with inviolable conclusions. It was born in the classical Greek world, especially at Alexandria, resuscitated in the late-Middle Ages and Renaissance, refined in the 17th century, and affirmed in the Enlightenment. Begin with universally available empirical evidence, formulate hypotheses, hold the hypotheses to the refining fire of experiment, build consensus. Understanding seeking faith.

The books in the science stacks have given us the modern world: medicine, technology, voyages to other planets. Every new science book advances the sum of reliable human knowing. By contrast, most of the books in the theology stacks could have been written a thousand years ago.

So theology as an -ology is a nonstarter: it has no subject that can be known except by faith, zero reliable evidence, no conceivable test this side of the grave. The discipline that does have a place in academia is religious studies. Like all human behaviors, religion is a subject that lends itself -- indeed demands -- study by careful scholars. We have much to learn about the origins and evolution of religion. This was tacitly recognized by many colleges and universities some decades ago when they changed the name of the relevant departments from Theology to Religious Studies. A friend and colleague here at Stonehill has initiated a concentration in Catholic Studies. I applaud the idea and wish him well.