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Theology and Philosophy


While Livingston suggests that in certain situations, the discipline of theology can be considered a way that religion is studied, it is probably more accurate to classify theology as an expression of religion itself. Theology literally means "talk about God." It thus starts from a religious conviction (there is a God), and works from within a religious framework.. Theology thus presupposes a commitment to the doctrines or fundamental truths of a religion; the theologian is a part of that faith tradition. In other words, one is a Jewish Theologian, a Christian theologian,or an Islamic theologian. Theologians are helpful to a general study of religion insofar as they are committed to a scholarly analysis and interpretation of their own faith tradition. Theology can certainly be academically rigorous and demanding, but is is "not just an act of critical interpretation, it is a confession of faith." (Kessler, Studying Religion, p. 34). Numerous theologians have contributed to our understanding of religion and have even refined the tools that are used to study religion in general. In the final analysis, however, religious studies requires a more objective approach to each faith tradition.


Philosophy of Religion

 Unlike theology, philosophy does not necessarily presuppose a commitment to a religious tradition. At least since the 18th century in Europe, philosophy has attempted to look at religion from outside of its claims. In other words, philosophy's starting point is not from within a religion's doctrine, but outside of it, The philosophy of religion may thus be defined as "the rational attempt to formulate, understand, and answer fundamental questions about religious matters." The "religious matters" typically include such things as the existence of God, life after death, and the relationship of good and evil to the notion of a just God. While religion takes these subjects as matters of faith, the philosophy of religion analyzes these claims for their reasonableness and logic. For example, the 18th century British philosopher, David Hume, analyzed religious claims about the power and goodness of God in light of the existence of great suffering in the world. We will explore his analysis as well as the subject of evil and suffering in more detail in a later unit.

 While philosophy of religion is usually viewed as standing "outside" the claims of faith, it should be noted that this has not always been the case in Western civilization. Through the medieval period, religious thinkers used the methods of analysis and inquiry developed by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato. Even in later periods, it was not unusual for philosophers to see their purpose as clarifying and strengthening the claims of religion. It is also important to understand that within certain Eastern religious traditions such as Hinduism, there is no real distinction between philosophy and religion (or theology). For example, there are at least six philosophic systems that are accepted as a part of Hinduism. These philosophic traditions may disagree with one another, and may even seem to reject some fundamental doctrines of Hinduism; yet they are considered part of the Hindu tradition since they are directed to the liberation or salvation of the self. (Kim Knott, Hinduism, a Very Short Introduction, p 119). As one scholar put it, Indian philosophy "has sprung from religion and has developed side by side with religion. It has therefore been inseparably fused with religion to such an extent that philosophy minus religion is almost unthinkable in India" (Debra BrataSen Sharma, The Philosophy of SADHANA, p 2.)


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