Theology as Interdisciplinary Inquiry

Learning with and from the Nature and Human Sciences

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Editor(s): 
Robin W. Lovin, Joshua Mauldin
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     2017.
     202 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802873880.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Theology As Interdisciplinary Inquiry emerged from a three-year collaborative research project among theologians, anthropologists, psychologists, and legal scholars about globally relevant topics: evolution and human nature, religious experience and moral identity, and law and religious freedom. Led by theologians Robin Lovin and Friederike Nüssel at the independent Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and funded by the John Templeton Foundation, nearly forty scholars convened between 2012-2015 for conversations about the above topics at the intersections of the humanities, the sciences (broadly construed), and law. This book features essays by six scholars involved in this multi-, trans-, interdisciplinary project, and is framed by an introduction and conclusion, which trace the contours of a cross-disciplinary constructive approach to theological method. Building on contextual, liberation, and public/political theologies which have long engaged with gender and ethnic studies, social and natural sciences, and critical theories, among others, “the aim of this book is to call attention to this growing body of work and to encourage more general theological reflection on the possibilities for interdisciplinary theological inquiry” (xiv). In the introduction Lovin and Nüssel, together with law professor Peter Danchin, anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, and ethicist Stephen Pope, describe this method as an aesthetic art of mutual understanding and engagement across seemingly isolated, insulated disciplines, as well as this method’s virtues of curiosity, improvisation, humility, and hope which bolster and foster such engagement (xxiii, xxx-xxxi). Moreover, in the conclusion, theological ethicist Douglas Ottati characterizes this method of doing theology—in contrast to dogmatic, postliberal, and radical orthodox theologies (150-158)—as a collaborative sensibility, or “the willingness to believe it may be fruitful to engage in conversations about relatively common topics with people who employ different disciplinary frameworks … Basically, it means being open to conversations with other, nontheological disciplines and fields in the conviction that these conversations may help to clarify, develop, revise, and improve one’s theological reflections” (133, 140).

Enacting this method, Celia Deane-Drummond in the opening essay puts theology and evolutionary biology as well as anthropology in dialogue to reflect on niche-construction, or human historical adaptation to and shaping of the environment, as a means to explore human evolution and agency aligned with both biblical traditions of creation and scientific knowledge. Three subsequent essays by neuroscientist Michael Spezio, New Testament scholar Colleen Shantz, and historian of Christian spirituality Andrea Hollingsworth elaborate on new possibilities for mutual conversation and discovery between scripture studies, historical studies, and psychology about ethics and spirituality. Together, these essays identify and probe the confluence and divergence of psychology—particularly virtue science, cognitive science, and neuroscience—with religious experiences of leading an exemplary moral life (Spezio), and with mystical encounters with the divine, whether ecstatic with epistemological impact (Shantz), or as part of a method of spiritual exercises, of an embodied, prayerful praxis of self-integration and transformation (Hollingsworth). Two final essays by theologian John Burgess and law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell chart new paths on the theme of law and religious freedom by discussing the features of religious freedom without civil-political rights or other institutional supports as manifested in the Russian Orthodox new martyrs between 1917 and the fall of Communism (Burgess), and by addressing the acceptance of legal authority as founded, not upon sovereignty or social/economic sciences, but upon an unselfish aesthetic appreciation of beauty, of equality, harmony, and empathy, whether in art or socio-political relations (O’Connell, 123-124, 127, 131).

On my reading, these essays collectively constitute an impressive foray into an interdisciplinary theological anthropology, “[theology] turns to natural and social sciences, not for natural theology, but for theological anthropology, an account of human nature that is intelligible both in a theological understanding of humanity’s relation to God and in biological, psychological, and sociological understandings of human flourishing” (xxviii). In addition, the method espoused by these essays parallels the multidisciplinary setting of the study of religion (134-135). Indeed, theologians housed in departments of religion or religious studies, whether at religiously-affiliated institutions, liberal arts colleges, or research universities with-or-without graduate programs in religion or divinity schools, have long understood and practiced this multi-, trans-, interdisciplinary method of doing theology among their colleagues who employ the arts, humanities, and scientific disciplines to unpack different phenomena associated with religion. This method bears fruit both pedagogically for scholars and students alike who probe the intersections of multiple methods in the field—not discipline—of religious studies in order to address global problems, and theologically, in collaborative publications like this one and many others. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rosemary P. Carbine is associate professor of religious studies at Whittier College.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin W. Lovin is William H. Scheide Senior Fellow in Theology at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey. His previous books include An Introduction to Christian Ethics: Goals, Duties, and Virtues and Christian Realism and the New Realities.

Joshua Mauldin is outreach officer at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, New Jersey.

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