Where Philosophy and Theology Intersect

Worldviews always have fascinated me. Part of the interest is psychological. Why do people believe what they believe? But the primary area of my interest is, and has been, whether the systems themselves are consistent. I like getting into the headspace of a system of beliefs, “trying it on,” so to speak, and seeing whether it has internal tensions, or contradictions, or surprising entailments. I love inviting in door-to-door evangelists, not so much to be evangelized (though I appreciate and respect their drive to bring what they view as important truths to complete strangers), but to see the system of thought they offer, how it works and how it all fits together.

A second formative interest I have had since as early as I can remember is in the big questions of life. Is there a God? Could there even be a God? Could there be an afterlife in which I will get to see my beloved dead? These questions consumed most of my intellectual energies in high school. (In second place for my intellectual resources was Dungeons & Dragons; schoolwork was a distant third.)

These two early interests come together nicely in a field called analytic theology, an explicitly interdisciplinary study, wherein historically and theologically adept philosophers and theologians employ the analytic philosophical method on the deliverances of theology. The interests intersect here because the field philosophically analyzes worldviews that give answers to the big questions. Analytic theology is an instance of a broader type of philosophical work. The element common to all members of this type is that they take the deliverances of some other study, perhaps physics, or psychology, or education, and apply the philosophical methodology of logical analysis, explicitly formalized argumentation, and strict definition of terms to those deliverances. St. Thomas students will recognize this methodology from their Philosophy 115 classes, where we philosophers take it as our task to instill the rudiments of this method in our students.

My work has focused, in particular, on the philosophical analysis of traditional Catholic teachings. I have published articles on the metaphysics of the Eucharist (what exactly happens there on the altar?), on the argument from evil (could it be reasonable to believe that God exists, given all the evil we see in the world?), on divine immutability (if God can’t change, how can he respond to prayers?), on the doctrine of grace (if I can’t acquire the gift of faith by anything I do, how can I be held responsible for not having it?), on Aquinas’ Five Ways of proving the existence of God and on the freedom of the blessed in heaven (how can the blessed be both free and unable to sin, since being genuinely free requires the ability to choose sin?).

My most recent work has been on Christology, the study of the person and work of Jesus Christ. During the 2012-2013 academic year, I received a yearlong research fellowship from the Notre Dame Center for Philosophy of Religion. During that year, I began a research project on assessing the consistency of the traditional Christological doctrines. The research I did that year has culminated in a manuscript, the main thesis of which is that the traditional Christian teachings about Christ are free from internal inconsistency. I have published an article (and have another forthcoming) on the consistency of the traditional Christology, where I defend the doctrine against the following objection. How can Christ be both divine and human? For anything divine must be immutable, omniscient and omnipotent. But anything human must be changeable, and limited in knowledge and power. Nothing, though, can be both mutable and immutable, or limited and not limited in knowledge or power. So nothing can be both divine and human. I have published two other articles on Christ’s freedom (if Christ knows the future in its entirety, including his own future actions, how can he be free in deliberating about or deciding what actions to take?).

My research is useful for teaching at St. Thomas. I teach many seminarians from the St. John Vianney and St. Paul seminaries in my upper-division courses. These men are keenly interested in seeing how the philosophy they learn can be applied to their vocation. My work in philosophy of religion and analytic theology provides useful bridges between their interests and the course materials.

My work on analytic theology has been supported by external grants as well. I recently received a grant (with Kevin Timpe of Northern Nazarene University) for over $40,000 to lead an investigation into the philosophical and theological objections to the possibility of a disembodied afterlife state. This project begins in fall 2014. I received a grant (with Mark McInroy, a theologian at UST) for almost $17,000 to run an interdisciplinary seminar this last spring on analytic theology.

Finally, I received a grant (with Gloria Frost, another philosopher at UST) for almost $200,000 to lead a multi-year investigation into the classical attributes predicated of God (e.g., omniscient, immutable), which will begin in January 2015. Both of these last projects were or will be put to educational use for our students. The grant with Dr. McInroy brought three world-renowned theologians and philosophers to UST to give talks to our faculty seminar participants; we had those professors give public talks to our students as well. The grant with Dr. Frost will likewise fund public talks aimed at students.

Shortly after the 2013-14 academic year ended, I left for Krakow, Poland, where I taught a weeklong seminar to the Dominican community there on the philosophical coherence of traditional Christology. Happily, the lectures were in English; otherwise, they would have had to have been composed of the Polish words for “yes” (tak), “no” (nie) and “thank you” (Dziękuję), the only Polish words I knew at the time. Working with the Dominican brothers there provided me with useful insights that will further my research into analytic theology, and also my teaching of the analytic method of philosophy to our UST students.

Associate professor Dr. Timothy Pawl teaches in the Department of Philosophy at UST. 

From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.