Eruditio et TheologiaYesterday, we addressed part of Duke Divinity Professor Reinhard Hütter’s article, “Polytechnic University,” and recommended an epistemology requirement in the curriculum. Today, we address more directly the addition of theology courses to our undergraduate curriculum. Duke boasts a Divinity School, focused largely on pastoral training, and many courses that explore the anthropological dimension of religion. Theology differs from both, though. It examines, on the merits—and not from an historical or cultural perspective—whether God exists, in what manner he exists and the relevance of God’s existence to someone.
By affirming the value of theology courses, we are not endorsing a particular answer to the question of God’s actuality or to the impact of that answer on the meaning of the human person. We are suggesting only the legitimacy of theological inquiry—as an engagement of the possibility of God’s existence and how such existence may inform other truth claims—and recognizing its place in a holistic humanities education.
Although Hütter makes bold claims about the importance of theology to the university curriculum, we resist addressing their substance. We mention his observations only to illustrate the usefulness of theological studies to Duke’s academic enterprise.
In the article, Hütter identifies two conceptions of truth and three conceptions of the human person. As to truth, he compares John Henry Cardinal Newman’s conception with Friederich Nietzsche’s. Newman asserts the transcendent dimension of truth, which emanates from a god that is understood philosophically as being itself and the source of all being in the universe. For contrast, Hütter quotes Nietzsche: “[t]here exists neither spirit, nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions that are of no use.” Hütter continues, again returning to Nietzche’s words: knowledge is a tool of power, and, “as in the case of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful,’ the concept is to be regarded in a strict and narrow anthropocentric and biological sense.”
As to humanity, Hütter attributes to Newman’s background a “theistic humanist” understanding of the person that depends upon the god that is the origin and destiny of the person’s contingent being. Hütter quotes recent theological tradition: “When God is forgotten, the creature grows unintelligible.”
Hütter also describes two competing conceptions of the person. The first is a “posthumanism” in which the human being is a highly developed animal concerned with maximizing the success of its species, primarily through technical application of the sciences. The second is a “transhumanism” in which the human person is his own arbiter of meaning, supplies his own essence and makes himself as he wants regardless of his “given” nature.
The modern university’s end is the proliferation of knowledge, at the center of which lies truth. Determining the correct conception of truth bears directly on the correct conception of the human person. One cannot approach that debate without permitting both sides a fair hearing. Few would doubt that the non-theological side has a firm foundation on the humanities landscape. We suggest only that the theological side be offered a foothold as well. Theology neither entails evangelism nor presupposes God’s actuality. Rather, it raises central questions about human existence and prompts debates about the nature of the universe, objective knowledge and ethical action—debates that promise to benefit all who engage in them.