I was very excited about a year ago to discover that there is such a thing as analytic theology. I studied math and physics before becoming a theology student. In fact, one of the main reasons I chose to study mathematics was to train myself to think carefully. Whether or not I succeeded in that respect, I did learn to think more analytically. Naturally, when I began to study theology I wanted to bring my (fledgling) analytic capacities to bear on theological problems.
Taking this approach was a bit lonely at first since people in my circles seemed to take a more non-analytic approach to theological questions: resorting to mystery, remaining content with tension, and generally taking a more literary approach (not that there’s anything wrong with that). As a result, I was very excited and encouraged last year to discover the new (open-access) online Journal of Analytic Theology. Check it out, be challenged, and be blessed.
But isn’t analytic theology “too abstract and spiritually sterile to count as genuine theology”? Not necessarily. I recently read an article in the journal by William Wood in which he said several things that resonate with my love for the analytic approach to theological problems. I’d like to briefly share some of those insights in the remainder of this post. These insights are relevant to doing apologetics since a great deal of apologetic material owes its creation to the analytic philosophical tradition upon which analytic theology rests. Apologists would do well to take these lessons to heart.
Sincerely seeking the truth
The task of the intellectual, Christian or otherwise, analytic theologian or otherwise, is to see things as they really are rather than as we want them to be. Thus the intellectual life is also a life of virtue insofar as it requires us to engage in a disciplined and patient search for truth, and to subdue the prideful ego so that we will recognize the truth when we see it.
I’m in full agreement here. This is my desire, to pursue the truth of the matter (theological or otherwise) and cultivate the intellectual integrity required to come to believe things because they are true, even if I wish they weren’t. I fear that in theological studies there is always a risk of simply buttressing one’s prior beliefs and traditions, rather than submitting them to analytic critique (not to mention critique by the Lord Jesus Christ himself). This is nearly always also a risk when doing apologetics.
Four positive benefits of doing analytic theology
Wood sensibly suggests that “The explicit goal of any piece of analytic writing is to present the truth as the author sees it.” He then identifies four benefits of this activity that cultivate virtue and thereby undermine the claim that analytic theology is a sterile or unspiritual activity.
First, Wood points to the “concentrated attention required to read, understand, and develop very technical analytic arguments.” He suggests that “many different religious traditions, both ancient and modern, also commend contemplative practices that cultivate attention and focused awareness. So there can be little dispute about the general claim that developing one’s powers of attention can be a spiritual practice.” I might simply add that it does one good to love the Lord with all one’s mind and exercise one’s mental faculties—along with all the rest of one’s self—in pursuit of deeper knowledge of Him.
part of what it is to offer a good analytic argument is to make that argument maximally easy for intellectual opponents to criticize or refute. This is actually a way of choosing to make oneself intellectually vulnerable, and a check against intellectual pride. In the proper spirit, it is a way of implicitly saying to the intellectual community “If I am wrong, I am wrong in ways that I myself cannot see. Please help me to see them.”
I truly love this aspect of analytic theology. There is in many ways a greater accountability when one shares precisely what one is thinking—rather than hedging and obfuscating—since there is something solid on the table to talk about. I sometimes wonder if theology is sometimes hindered by theologians (and lay-persons) who waffle about what they actually believe for fear of being branded heretical or unorthodox. The same often applies to apologists who fear scrutiny. I’ve heard this described at school as the “heresy of clarity”. Analytic theologians fear no such heresy and are free to speak their minds in hopes of together getting closer to the truth.
3. Imaginative identification with one’s opponents
A good analytic thinker (and theologian) will “try his or her best to make an opponent’s argument stronger and better before criticizing it.” Wood suggests,
This is an utterly ordinary practice [in analytic theology], but it can have profound implications. To do it well, one has to be able to inhabit, at least for a time, not only an alternative point of view, but often a hostile point of view. The more easily one can inhabit the viewpoint of one’s intellectual opponents, the better one can argue. By contrast, consider what it would be like to be completely unable to do this: one would be so locked in the certainty that one’s own views are correct that one could not even imagine what it would be like for them to be wrong.
I have a great deal to grow in this area. I think Charles Taliaferro puts it nicely elsewhere when he proposes “a philosophical golden rule of treating other people’s philosophies [and analytic theologies] in the way you would like yours to be treated.” This, of course, is hard work. But the transparency of analytic theology noted above makes it possible in principle to do so.
4. Passively waiting for insight
Often problems which appear intractable seem to open to the patient inquirer in a moment of insight or clarity. “Such moments seem to strike unexpectedly from ‘outside,’ as it were. They do not seem like a predictable result of one’s own willful efforts.” This has certainly been my experience. Waiting for these moments involves cultivating an openness towards new insights. Such moments can be squelched for the “philosopher who is overly enamoured with his own argument, and with himself for having devised it.”
As such, humility and patience are an advantage in analytic theology. Wood suggests that “When we actively wait for philosophical insight, we participate in a pedagogical practice that is quasi-sacramental. Waiting for insight and cultivating an attitude of openness toward truth is also a way of training the mind and will to wait actively for God’s grace.”
I like analytic theology a lot and I was very encouraged by William Wood’s article. I hope to cultivate attention, transparency, imaginative identification with my opponents, and actively waiting for insight in my own thinking and development. I’m also interested in how analytic theology can qualify as “Christ-shaped”, but that’s another (related) topic.
 William Wood, “Analytic Theology as a Way of Life,” Journal of Analytic Theology 2 (May 2014): 43.
 Ibid., 44–45, emphasis added.
 Ibid., 53.
 Ibid., 55.
 Ibid., 56, emphasis added.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., emphasis added.
 Charles Taliaferro, “The Project of Natural Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 21.
 Wood, “Analytic Theology as a Way of Life,” 58.
Originally posted at Cognitive Resonance.