Is there such a thing as Sikh theology? Are there Muslim theologians? Do members of the Buddhist Sangha attempt to correlate what they know by the light of faith with human reason? Does theology exist outside of Christianity, and can Christians recognize it as such?
To a traditional pre-modern Christian—that is, to any Christian writer between, say, Augustine and Jean Calvin—the answer is obviously “No.” For Augustine, as for Anselm five hundred years later and for Calvin half a millennium after that, theology is “faith seeking understanding,” and faith is a gift from God. Faith is a grace that enables us to believe what God reveals to us in Jesus Christ and to believe in its attestation in the Christian Scriptures. Faith lifts our minds above what we can know about God, above the “God of the philosophers and experts,” to the mysterious “God of Abraham, . . . Isaac, . . . Jacob.” Faith is the fiery light that showed Pascal the “God of Jesus Christ.”
Without the light of faith, which opens our eyes at baptism and throughout our Christian lives, we would be blind to God’s self-revelation in Christ and through the Scriptures. The events of the Old Testament, which cut the path for Christ, and the figure of Christ himself would fracture into shards. Some people mock what a poor fist Christopher Hitchens made of reading the Christian Bible, but that’s what the Bible looks like to bare forked human reason. Without the gift or grace of faith, one cannot see the objective revelation of God, let alone speak reasonably about it. In traditional Christian usage, “faith” is not subjective belief; it is an objective light that enables us to see the revealed truth and beauty of God himself, in Christ and Scripture. And theology is not just a “title” or a word but a domain, one in which mystery is layered upon mystery.
On the traditional Christian understanding, it makes no sense to speak of a non-Christian “theology,” where there is no objective revelation to be interpreted, either in history, or in text, or in human persons, and no God-given faith by which to see it. Non-Christian religious thinkers have deep religious insights and intuitions, but not the light of faith, which comes from God in order to illuminate and make sense of the form and figure of Jesus Christ. There is religious intuition in non-Christian thinkers, in proportion to their God-given desire for God and thus for Christ. But because the traditional, objective view understands faith as a gift from God and the object of faith as the self-revelation of God in Christ, it is not possible to conceive of non-Christian theology—where theology is understood as “faith seeking understanding.”
Any modern person expressing that opinion is liable to be made to feel like Msgr. Regnon in J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban, for whom “One moment it was ‘God is not mocked,’ or ‘Christ, and Christ crucified,’ and the next moment it was ‘Your ass is out.’” Moderns—in some ways rightly—feel much less comfortable saying “Your ass is out” than leading Religious Studies field trips. Modern people, including Christians, have learned since the eighteenth century to use words such as “faith,” “revelation,” and “theology” equivocally. Modern Christians still know that these words have an objective meaning—referring to the actual, historical self-revelation of God. But we also know that, subjectively or phenomenologically speaking, Muslims or Sikhs believe themselves to have a revelation. Buddhists revere their sacred texts as Scripture. Sikhs believe that God spoke through the ten Gurus, and that the Adi Granth, their Scripture, witnesses to this revelation: They bow down to the enthroned Book in their gurdwaras, just as Catholics genuflect before the Eucharist. Phenomenologically or experientially, it is evident that there is faith outside of Christianity. So it looks like an obvious step to speak of Sikh “revelation,” of Buddhist “miracles,” of Hindu “Scripture,” or of Muslim “theology.”
Outside the Church, we do not live in a world in which the Christian claims to objective truth are recognized as objectively true. Surely there should be as many “theologies” as there are “beliefs”? If you want, you could call them “faiths,” as Prince Charles did, when he said that he wanted to be not “Defender of the Faith” but “Defender of Faiths.” In modernity, outside the Church, “faith” is equated with subjective belief. Of course many people believe! It seems ungenerous to deny them the theology of their belief systems.
Non-Christian piety is real and profound; it is the reverence non-Christians experience for the sacred. Our great phenomenologist pope, St. John Paul II, once got so carried away with respect for Muslim piety that he kissed the Koran. He was rebuked for this by one of his bishops, who was later made a cardinal. In my early days of teaching, I had to direct students around half a dozen houses of worship in Bristol—a synagogue, a mosque, a gurdwara, a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist shrine. I felt uneasy about the business. But one of the students came to me and thanked me in tears for our field trip. She had ceased to believe in God when her mother died, and the experience of this variety of “faiths” had given her back her own faith. Non-Christian piety is touching, because it does innocently and naively touch on the reality of God. The piety of pagans is like the love of virginal girls, who have yet to kiss the Bridegroom and yet fervently desire Him.
Does this spontaneous desire for God, evident within the non-Christian religions, mean that Christians must acknowledge the existence of “theology” outside of the Christian revelation? Before we leap to show our appreciation for the subjective beliefs of non-Christians, we should make sure that we have correctly understood what they actually and subjectively believe. However much the “faith” of Buddhist monks may delight Western tourists to South East Asia or Tibet, Buddhism understands itself as a philosophy, not as a faith: It sees itself as the most reasonable path out of suffering. The teachings of the Buddhas, the Dharma, are not supposed to be “revealed truth” but the product of reasoned thought about the cosmos, which can be received and meditated upon by reason alone. Since Buddhism has gods, finite creatures who circle within the round of samsara and ultimately perish, but no “God,” it is difficult to see what Buddhist “theo-logy” could consist in. Ancient, pre-Christian peoples have pietas toward their gods (as Aeneas trusts in divine providence), but not faith in the Abrahamic sense. Neither the Vikings nor the Ancient Greeks nor the Romans had “faith” in their gods, and when Aristotle spoke of “theology” he meant metaphysics, not faith seeking understanding.
Calling non-Christian religions “faiths,” as Prince Charles did in his well-meaning way, is a tricky business. In my first teaching position, I had a colleague who used to insist, “Islam is not a faith, it’s a civilization!” It is not surprising, then, that theology as “faith seeking understanding” barely exists within Islam. Like Buddhism, or Sikhism for that matter, Islam sees itself largely as a body of plausible teachings, which can be grasped by common-sense reason. There are six “notes of faith” within Islam, but “faith” is not itself a central concept. Islamic religious speculation consists largely of polemics, or what Christians would call “apologetics”—that is, criticisms of non-Muslim ideas of God, and rational defenses of the Islamic way. “Submission” is a kind of reasoned pietas, not a type of faith.
There is in much non-Christian piety the idea that the “natural” way our mind tilts, before culture and false ideas derail it, is that of the religion to which one belongs: Muslims think Islam is “natural,” and on one of those college field trips, a Sikh told me that everyone is born a Sikh, but many lose sight of this primitive truth. So even subjectively or phenomenologically speaking, theology as Christians understand it—as faith seeking understanding—is alien to most non-Christian religions. Though Theravada Buddhism is the original Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, none of the non-Christian religions preach a God so mysterious that he can be acknowledged and reasoned about only in the light of faith. The non-Christian theistic religions comfortably exclude themselves from the domain of theology by preaching a God who can be grasped by human meditation. “Theology” is something Westerners benignly think non-Christians ought to have (since we do), and which some of the natives obediently cook up for us tourists.
And if educated members of the non-Christian religions, which have been submerged and surrounded by Western ideas for hundreds of years, want to call their pious speculations “theology,” who are we to stop them? Christians cannot seek to be more Buddhist than the Dalai Lama or more Islamic than the Imams, and withhold from them the right to call what they do “theology” in the name of the purity of their traditions. But as Christians we must be clear that, in this case, the terms “faith,” “revelation,” “God,” and “theology” are being used subjectively, and carry no reference to objective truth. There is a field where these terms are understood phenomenologically, and it is Religious Studies. Religious Studies is and should be a treasure trove of religious understandings of God, a kind of Aladdin’s cave filled with the riches of the human search for God. The “open sesame” is the key to the human heart and human desire. Christian institutions, who know from Whom that desire secretly flows, should foster Religious Studies.
Equally, every institution that regards itself as Christian must reserve to Christianity the title of “theology.” To do otherwise would be to abandon the Christian claim to the objective illumination of faith, and the reality and beauty of God’s self-revelation. Any institution—that is, any hospital, school, college, or university—that bartered with the objective truth of revelation by treating the words “faith” or “revelation” equivocally or subjectively would immediately give up its claim to Christian inspiration. “Faith” means one thing to a Christian and another to a Muslim or a Buddhist; in Christianity, the object of faith is the Trinitarian God revealed by Christ. A Christian institution that does not act on the premise that Christian faith is true ceases to be Christian.
So is there such a thing as theology outside of Christianity? If “theology” means “faith seeking understanding,” and “faith” is used in a non-equivocal sense, the answer is clear. Professedly Christian institutions cannot propose that there is such a thing whilst remaining Christian. And for that very reason, these institutions are bound to study the religions and their insights within Christian theology departments, in the light of faith and revelation. It is the vocation of Christian institutions to open up those treasures to the grace of faith, and through that grace to see them grow in abundance. Rather than plundering the treasures, we will restore them to their original owners enhanced in beauty, splendor, and truth.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a fortnightly blog on religion.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.