In past centuries most theologies began and proceeded from within a constrained circle. Usually the constraint was defined by a scripture, scriptures, or religious and theological traditions. All one has to do is look at the educational institutions for theology around the world and their curriculum to see this. Theological departments are invariably grounded in some religious tradition be it Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. This should not come as a surprise since most of these institutions were probably established to train scholars and clergy persons for those traditions. The problem with this circumscribed approach is that these institutions take as a given the veracity and authority of their particular traditions when that has become the very issue in a religiously pluralistic world. This leaves untouched some very basic questions that theology should address outside any particular theological circle:
- What is the source of religious knowledge?
- What is the fundamental basis for theological propositions and belief?
- How does theology proceed from that fundamental basis?
- Should there be limits to formal theological assertions and what should those limits be?
- What grants authority to a particular theological framework?
- How would an unbiased individual adjudicate competing claims between theologies?
These questions are particularly acute not only because of religious pluralism but also because the supernatural underpinnings of past theologies are being constantly pummeled by inferences from scientific explorations. Now neither pluralism nor scientific insights will have much of an effect on many religious adherents who accept what their traditions say without much reflection, but there is a growing number of people both inside and outside the traditions who demand more from theology. They expect theologians to give good reasons why they should accept a tradition’s assertions without resorting to circular arguments. As this group continues to grow, how can theology answer? The only way is to develop programs to explore theology, per se. As far as I have seen there are no developed programs out there in academia like this, and I have looked.
As an example suppose a theologically gifted person with theistic inclinations were to come on the scene today with no predispositions to any particular tradition. If they wanted to give a voice to their religious intuitions they could just “try out” the various traditions and see which one felt right for them. This is, of course, perfectly legitimate, albeit a blunt instrument. However, suppose they wanted more. Suppose they wanted a more explicit understanding of where the assertions of the tradition came from and why they should believe them. They would have a difficult time with this because the traditions today date back thousands of years. Instead an in depth understanding of theology, per se, would be required. How does one come to know anything about ultimate reality? How much can be known? How do religious intuitions get explicated? What are the scriptures and why should they be taken as authoritative?
These are the sorts of questions that theologians should be addressing today from outside their own particular theological circle. More and more there are individuals who will just not accept the traditions uncritically. When they compare what the traditions claim and to their “feeling for things” they do not find a satisfactory resolution. Theological institutions will have to broaden their scope of inquiry to make a compelling case for their core assertions. It will involve additional forays into epistemology, cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, systematics of abstract thought, phenomenology of mysticism and religious experience, just to name a few areas. While there may still be a considerable base of adherents who do not need or want all this to be faithing individuals, there will also be a slow but steady migration out of religion if theology fails to break the bounds of its constraints and look deeper into theology, per se.