Advocacy in Academe: Academic versus Confessional Theology

Roderick R. Hindery

Advocacy in Academe, nuclear particle collisions, an image for productive thought collisions

Advocacy in Academe, nuclear particle collisions, an image for productive thought collisions (1)

An article entitled “Introduction to Religious Studies, Theology, and the University: Conflicting Maps, Changing Terrain”, (CSSR Bulletin, Vol. 31/4, Nov. 2002, pp. 96-101) reprints a splendid introduction to a book, which Linell Cady and Delwin Brown have edited and published under the same title. It includes excerpts reprinted with the permission of its authors and SUNY Press, 2002 ($24.95.) In the words of CSSR Bulletin Editor, Craig Prentiss, this valuable introduction and synopsis stands on its own.

My comments address a central issue in the article. Is theology compatible with religious studies in the sense of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisive distinction in 1963 between teaching religion and teaching about religion? In the light of that judgment, the reigning division in state universities distinguishes:

  1. Theology, which describes a confessional stance and also advocates it; and
  2. Religious studies, which attempt to present confessional positions without advocacies pro or con.

Some of the book’s contributors maintain that this division should yield to the inclusion of “academic” theology in state universities, on the grounds that postmodernism has made traditional lines “fuzzy or jagged” among all academic disciplines; and because the boundaries between scholars and their data have become more subjective. The measure of subjective input into “objective” data has been realized increasingly across many fields. From the “quidquid recipitur….” of St. Thomas Aquinas to the epistemological revolution stimulated by Kant and Heisenberg, scholars acknowledge with increasing insight the axiom that “everything which we observe is affected by our acts of observation.” Recognition that claims to photographic objectivity are rightly deflated, however, does not suggest the rush to judgment of some postmodern thinkers that access to objectivity has collapsed entirely.

Theology and freedom of inquiry

I agree that theology may be arguably integrated into the secular university; but not because the deflation of objectivity legitimates the inclusions of theologies or any other fields which lack scientific method; and not because what delineates disciplined inquiries has grown blurred. A more compelling reason for legitimating the presence of theology within state universities flows out of human and scientific respect for the freedom of inquiry and for the open expression of ideas. All religious, economic, and political advocacies may be integrated successfully, if they remain loyal to scientific freedom and methods, such as, disclosing presuppositions; and testing assumptions, arguments, and conclusions against plural or conflicting viewpoints and positions.

Here, a critical summons is heralded for all of academe. Foundational premises should be disclosed not simply by academics in theology or religious studies, but by all professors of scholarly disciplines. Legitimating the integration of theology within secular or state universities, therefore, may be clarified and expedited by distinguishing academic or scientific theology from explicitly confessional theology. If the legitimacy of academic theology in universities can be upheld, new questions will arise about religious or confessional theology.

Academic theology connotes what Cady’s and Brown’s article calls the “existential normative” (p. 98) or Kathryn Tanner’s sense of what serves society and forms “citizenry, educated to make good decisions” (p.100). This meaning of academic theology apparently overlaps with Darrell Fasching’s redefinition of the sacred (and of theology–God-talk) as “that which matters most” or a “central organizing concept”(p.99). Fasching’s form of academic theology, by the way, seems to be “de-sacralized” or demythologized. Without comparative reductionism, it can be equated simply with ultimately humanistic positions, such as describing and proposing political and economic social theories, like communism or capitalism.

To develop Fasching’s line of thought further: all humanistic positions, including those described as academic theologies, have no place in academe, unless they appropriate scientific methods, e.g., a) by disclosing presuppositions; and b) by testing assumptions, arguments, and conclusions against competing positions. Otherwise they differ little from approaches which are both confessional and unscientific. In fact, scientific processes, which are invigorated by passion, may actually work more efficiently and productively than proposals which are emotionally bloodless or anemic. Why should such anemia reign in academe? If emotional expressions stimulate the desire for learning, why should ideas not be shouted from the rooftops?

Explicitly confessional or religious theology differentiates itself from academic theology to the degree that it fails to operate scientifically, that is, when it either hides its presuppositions or else refuses to present them in the context of viable alternatives. Aquinas and other medieval theologians insisted that theology is a science. In their judgment, theology differed from other sciences only insofar as it borrows its fundamental presuppositions from religious faith. If faith-based theologies move on to examine their own basic premises, they may fruitfully compare and contrast them with other religious assumptions (as in comparative religion). They may also test them within the context of the basic premises of other disciplines, such as physics, anthropology, and astronomy. Religious theologies become academic or scientific in whatever measure they allow and encourage comparative investigations to proceed freely and openly. In these cases the axiom, “Whatever is true, has nothing to fear from scientific inquiry” resembles the tolerance approved by the Jewish teacher Gamaliel: if the activity of the disciples of Jesus is not from God, it will collapse on its own (Acts 5: 34-39).

The late Isma’il al Faruqi’s vigorous proselytism of Islam at Temple University was shielded by scientific method, not in the classroom, but in open forums and stimulating discussions where his views were challenged by evidence and conflicting opinions. If he had tolerated similar challenges in his classroom, his confessional presentations there would also have proceeded within the scientific bounds of academic theology. Coupled with his enormous personal appeal and renown, his humorous, exciting advocacy would have continued to impede scientific objectivity less than it enhanced it, by inviting, and even inciting, opposing positions, and, thereby, critical thought.

Short of the extreme at which impassioned advocacy indoctrinates by replacing critical thought, impassioned presentations like Al Faruqi’s prescribe the medicine required to revitalize involvement, even excitement, in the classroom. Transfused by styles like his, inquiries and debates in the classroom might reflect the intensity and adventure, by which students and instructors alike are galvanized by speakers at podiums in university malls.

Can confessional theology function like academic theology?

Wherever explicit confessional theology is taught in religious universities, the operative distinction between confessional and academic theologies begs for further discussion. Apparently all investigation operates scientifically in religious universities except for the restricted investigation of faith-based assumptions. What if even the latter were submitted to scientific inquiry? Does confessional theology have anything to fear, if it functions like academic theology? Why should not religious claims be examined in terms of the credibility and competence of those who generate these assertions in terms of their consequences (“by their fruits…”), and in terms of how religions cohere with the principles held plausible, if not immutable, within other fields? Then the chief difference between religious and secular universities would consist not in their distinct incorporations of critical method, but rather in atmospheres permeated with the emotional feel of religious convictions. In a confessional context, faith-based premises can be advertised more diffusely and lived out more effectively, without crossing borders which separate advertising (which respects freedom) from propagandas, whose goals include disguising themselves behind the masks of freedom.


The integration of theology within secular academe may proceed correctly, not because traditional demarcations have grown fuzzy or seem less objective–due to postmodern recognitions of subjective input. Rather, this inclusion may be academically feasible, insofar as it remains loyal to methods of scientific inquiry; such as disclosures of presuppositions, and testing theories against opposing viewpoints. Apart from scientific methods, even the most rigorous non-confessional disciplines may remain ideological and hostile to free and critical inquiry. In the measure, however, that confessional theologies in religious universities present their faith-based premises comparatively, they increasingly resemble academic theology or religious studies.

Theology classrooms are not the sole locations at which advocacies function ideologically, rather than scientifically. It is not only religious theologies which have misfired in confessional or proselytizing modes, but any or all theories which have functioned ideologically–from existentialism to postmodernism–and from Marxist and other socialist models of production and allocation to capitalist models of “free market.” Whenever academic ideologists propose their assertions narrowly and infallibly, they represent not inquiry, but indoctrination. If they substitute emotional intensity for evidence and logical deduction, they become not professors of learning, but proponents of propaganda.

Academic toleration and encouragement of religious and other cultural advocacies may enhance rather than diminish critical inquiry and creative, productive thought by integrating or restoring passion to critical thinking within academe. The singular, paramount requirement for advocating theories within a scientific context is that proponents proceed openly and that they freely and fairly respect and encourage the expression of opposing positions. Under those conditions they eradicate the drudgery of religious and other ideologies in academe, which cloak enslavement to self-deception and indoctrination. Better yet, the liberation of critical thought manifests it not only as socially productive, but ultimately as an adventure exciting in itself.

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