Philosophy vs Theology or Liberal vs Orthodox?

A few days back when a fellow Stephanian shared an article mentioning that the St Stephen’s College in Delhi is thinking of ‘replacing’ its Philosophy course with Theology, I became immediately concerned about a number of things. Of course the first thing to create unease was how could an educational institute of the repute of St Stephen’s even think about something like this. But immediately afterwards I also concluded that these decision-makers themselves have no clarity about the stark distinction between Philosophy and Theology as two separate academic disciplines (I offer the benefit of doubt by calling ‘Theology’ an academic discipline even if not in a very strict sense). I do not see anything wrong for an educational institution to function autonomously as far as they do not turn that place into a meaningless space of redundant hegemony where rationality is not offered any room. Nor is there anything wrong in introducing the study of Theology as far as it is done within the parameters of academic (and thus rational) code of conduct and does not end up producing radical minds instead of liberal minds. But to think of doing this at the cost of Philosophy is indeed meaningless. 

It is not simply about Philosophy versus Theology, it is also about liberal versus orthodox study of a certain discipline. By no means am I suggesting that the study of Theology cannot be done liberally. In fact, this is precisely we have ‘Religious Studies’ (social scientific study of various religious traditions) constructed as an academic discipline (even if such disciplines do not generally find place in Indian universities). Here I wonder, if the torch bearers of St Stephen’s would have thought of replacing Religious studies (that does not exist in St Stephen’s anyway) with Theology or vice versa, it would still have made some logical sense. But to think of removing Philosophy and introducing Theology instead, holds no ground in rationality. 

Any rational being would know that Philosophy is the backbone discipline for all other disciplines. All disciplines work under the rubrics of a philosophy (thus we have philosophy of history, philosophy of economics or philosophy of sociology) and when Philosophy itself is discussed as a discipline, we talk about the meta-philosophical investigations, in other words—how is the philosophy of philosophy done. While philosophy as a discipline is not preoccupied with the idea of God alone, Theology falls under a very myopic domain of Philosophy that is concerned with the philosophy of God alone. The sphere of Philosophy is endless, while for Theology it is restricted to the study of God and God alone. You can literary philosophise everything. Everything can be an object of a philosophical inquiry including God, sex, food, gender so on and so forth. 

Traditionally, the study of Theology has been associated with a more orthodox approach towards the study of God (even though there is a difference between how Theology of various religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc. is practised in universities and how it is done in orthodox traditional schools like seminaries, temples and mosques etc.) and everything falling within the domain of God including the ideas related to religion, spirituality etc. For Philosophy, however, everything is a problem and it tries to seek an answer to those problems. The existence of God or Absolute is also a philosophical (and not a theological) problem for them and that is precisely how they approach seeking an answer to this problem. Theology is traditionally restricted and even though it engages with the ideas of divine and sacred, it does not really problematise them and the antithesis created by the idea of profane (as opposed to sacred) is of no much concern for them. In a sense pure Philosophy begins where Theology ends. However, if Theology is to be understood as the rational analysis of the concept of God, then there is no need to distinguish between Theology and the ‘Problem of God’ as usually discussed in Philosophy at the first place. Philosophy does not focus on Philosophy of Religion alone. Like everything else, Philosophy does problematise the idea of God as well because it is not simply satisfied by the idea of the existence of the God alone.

A domain of study (a certain religion/religious ideology/religious culture) might be orthodox or absolutely unorthodox in itself, but we as academics cannot afford not to interpret it liberally. When we practice a discipline, we cannot practice it unidimensionally. We have to develop a multidimensional method to study it. It cannot be God and religion alone that I need to philosophise, I got to philosophise the social, literary, political ideas about God and religion as well. Besides, to begin with, I need to problematise these ideas in themselves outside the domain of religion. I can ignore them only if I accept that I am developing myself into an orthodox philosopher which is an oxymoron in itself. I might be religious to the core, but if I possess a sincere Will to study that religious traditional ‘critically’ (or liberally) then occasionally I should also be willing to be ready to step outside that belief system or in fact to step outside myself as a believer. If this is not acceptable to us, then we should also learn to remain content with whatever little we know without aspiring to know more about it and without claiming to be critical about it. Essentially, I should be willing to, as if, coming out of myself (again only occasionally) and looking at myself from outside me (possibly from a distance). This is what a philosopher would call a self-reflective or self-critical thought process or state of mind.

There is always a danger if one is dogmatic about Divine—it might produce radical minds, and to be philosophically critical about Divine might make the process of being undogmatic (and thus a strong believer in oneself) smoother. Unfortunately, academics all over India seems to be coming under the sway of ‘radical states of mind’ rather than ‘self-critical states of mind’. On the one hand where certain Indian academics are boasting (and rightly so) of brining revolutionary changes to Indian academic system even if so far only at a minuscule level, yet on another hand what public university systems are facing at the hands of the Power they are tied up with, is something to deeply ponder over. And to ponder about it, we need a systematic way of thinking—Philosophy.

Mrinal Kaul studied Sanskrit at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and is now Assistant Professor in Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal.


Author: Mrinal Kaul

I am a Kashmirian Orientalist

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