Theology and Humanities

Recently I was talking to a young German lady who, in her own words, is a “born-again” Christian, about the subject of theology as part of the humanities (Geisteswissenschaft), which she rejected because for her theology[i] means the doctrine of God or the doctrine of the contents of a particular religious faith and its faith documents in particular. I took the position that theology was a field of literary study and that people of faith often had difficulty with the study of theology because they could not accept literary education, literary criticism, literary references, or further literature as aspects of the study of Scripture, which she saw as the basis of her faith. I said that it takes into account both historical influences and individual perspectives, which is difficult for people of faith to accept because they often come from a particular doctrinal view.

Dictionary.com defines literature neutrally. In the narrower sense, literature here is what others classify according to various criteria:

  1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
  2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.:
  3. the literature of England.
  4. the writings dealing with a particular subject:
  5. the literature of ornithology.
  6. the profession of a writer or author.
  7. literary work or production.
  8. any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills:
  9. literature describing company products.

Literature here is then everything that can become the “object” of literary studies. Since literary studies is also concerned with the analysis of orally transmitted testimonies, it also includes, contrary to the original meaning of the word, things that have not been written down. Literary studies are the scientific study of literature. According to common understanding, it includes subfields such as literary history, literary criticism, literary interpretation, literary theory and edition philology. Historically, literary studies have emerged

  • from the university study of (rhetoric and) poetry,
  • from the study of the novel as a subject of the “belles lettres”[ii] and,
  • and, according to its name, from the study of “literature” – the field of academic publications until the 19th century.

In a similar vein, theology has over time equally included comparative studies, which is not the same as the theology of religions, even if issues such as the uniqueness of Christ, salvation inside and outside the Church, and the meaning of religious pluralism are important to the comparative theologian, just as to other theologians. Comparative theology is in part a comparison of theologies, and entails reflection on theological themes (“revelation,” “grace,” “the Trinity”) and also theological method and purpose as exemplified in various religious traditions. It is not primarily a comparison of faith in itself, nor experience, nor even of scriptures, but a theology that proceeds by comparison; it fulfils the basic goal of “faith seeking understanding” precisely in the intelligent juxtaposition and use-together of theological texts from different traditions.[iii]

In our conversation, she compared her experience of the so-called “study of theology”, which I understand to be a branch of theology, and her decision not to study theology, with an event I attended where theology students complained about the pressure, which they said was being put on them and questioning their faith. I had the impression that the students lacked maturity and had difficulty differentiating. Our conversation revealed that we agreed on this point, but not on whether it is acceptable to subject the Scriptures to literary criticism, which was a, issue in both our experiences.

It was significant that her husband seemed to have little time for the discussion, as he himself had belonged to the “born again” faction and was still attached to them, and he got up to see to the drinks. I therefore did not follow the discussion any further, but I thought at that moment that faith appeared to require a status where further thought or speculation was limited to what one already knew. He surprised me by reappearing and showing me the notes from a seminar he had attended on the origins of the Old Testament, which he had kept and filed away. There were several slides in his notes that contained exactly what I had talked about, namely that Abraham was born under the name Abram in the city of Ur in Babylonia around 1800 BC, and many examples of Babylonian, Sumerian and Akkadian references to Ur were given and archaeological finds were listed.

I think the difference between our attitudes was the literary aspect. A scientific attitude, usually found in academics (of which I am not one – at least not formally), follows the thoughts put forward on any subject and examines the evidence for the theories put forward, weighs them up and forms the synthesis in my case from which practical life is guided. It leads me down paths that some believers avoid, including traditions that they see as antithetical to their own, but which in my experience open up possibilities and deepen the hypothesis of our own culture and religion. It also explains descriptions of behaviour that we discover in Scripture that we do not understand and that often contradict the positions of the Church.

The connection with the humanities also gives us an idea of what the writers of the Scriptures were thinking, and this is the point that “born-again” believers balk at, because they often believe in a divine inspiration, which they believe contradicts the idea that the Bible is a collection of religious literature gathered and connected by a narrative that gave the people of Israel an identity. Inspiration, of course, has many facets and is often experienced in moments when one is not prepared for it, which is just as possible when sorting through centuries of religious experience as when praying under the starry night sky. Scientists have similar experiences, whether on a bus travelling home, or awakening in their bed, but seldom when pondering over a mathematical formula in a laboratory. The wealth of experience with inspiration should open up what we understand as divine inspiration, rather than restricting it to particular experiences.

For example, Owen Barfield, a British philosopher, author, poet, critic, and known as “the first and last Inkling” a group in which JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were members, spoke about the participation in the world of people prior to the axial age[iv] having a different quality to afterwards. Barfield spoke of original participation, “The “primitive” awareness or consciousness in which mankind once believed–in a pre-logical, pre-mythical manner–that “there stands behind the phenomena, and on the other side of them from me, a represented which is of the same nature as me … of the same nature as the perceiving self, inasmuch as it is not mechanical or accidental, but psychic and voluntary …”

“A perspective which reveals more and more of perception and less and less of thought”, original participation is, Barfield explains in History, Guilt and Habit, “a kind of consciousness for which it was impossible to perceive unfiguratively. But what does one mean when one speaks of perceiving figuratively? One means a kind of consciousness which does not, which cannot, perceive the material merely as such, which in perceiving its environment, perceives at the same time an immaterial within or through, or expressed by it … a kind of consciousness for which there is no such thing as a merely “outer” world””[v][vi]

Mark Vernon went on to explain how the axial age brought a withdrawal from this original participation, which brought about new paradigms, and the beginning of scientific thought, as well as new religious ideas, which are seen in the younger prophetic age of the biblical record, which invariably led to them suffering for it. He also goes on to describe people like Socrates and Jesus as representatives of yet another kind of participation, namely of reciprocal participation, a synthesis of the two previous positions, for which they also were executed.

This is an example of literary criticism that helps us understand the development that Jewish and Christian scripture show us, and why there was so much resistance. Due to the developments that occurred when Christianity became an official Roman religion, we have lost the connection to reciprocal participation, of which Mark Vernon wrote:

It’s therefore a mistake that much subsequent church teaching on Jesus’ death has focused on treating it as a sacrifice that atones for sins. This is the logic of original participation. It’s the ancient understanding of sacrifice, as an external action that produces prescribed results. It depicts Christianity as something to be gained from without rather than something perceived within, and also feeds a culture of dependency that, I think, is another of the most quietly unattractive aspects of modern Christianity to adult people. Better is another view that also runs through the tradition, sometimes called the sign or exemplary theory. On this understanding, sacrifice is not about anxiously securing benefits but is rather about cultivating a sacrificial attitude: the routine letting go and offering up of life.[vii]

Therefore, I think we can see that understanding religion as an area of humanities, and using the methods of Literary Criticism, we can find alternative an understanding of traditions, which may render them more accessible to people.


[i] Greek θεολογία theología, from Ancient Greek θεός theós ‘God’ and λόγος lógos ‘word, speech, doctrine’

[ii] Belles Lettres (French belles lettres ‘beautiful literature’) is a term that emerged in the 17th century for the area of the book market that was shaped primarily by French fashions and that settled between the literature of the humanities and natural sciences (lettres or sciences) on the one hand and unpretentious book production on the other (which in the 19th century came under the word Volksbücher in German). Parallel to this, the term “fine literature” was established, which today is used synonymously with ” belletristic”.

[iii] https://www.bc.edu/bc-web/schools/mcas/departments/theology/areas-of-study/comparative-theology/what-is-comparative-theology.html

[iv] Axial Age is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers. It refers to broad changes in religious and philosophical thought that occurred in a variety of locations from about the 8th to the 3rd century BC.

[v] https://owenbarfield.org/BARFIELD/Encyclopedia_Barfieldiana/Lexicon/Original_Participation.html

[vi] For 20th Century minds the “logic” of Original Participation seems unfathomable. As Barfield notes in Saving the Appearances, “To make no class distinction between the sun and a white cockatoo, but to feel instantly and sharply a world of difference between both of these natural phenomena and a black cockatoo is, it is felt, a state of mind at which it would be difficult to arrive by inference”

[vii] Vernon, Mark. A Secret History of Christianity (S.128). John Hunt Publishing.

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