What does it mean to claim, as I do, that theology is the Queen of the Sciences? It is a title that stems from the medieval era, when theology was openly acknowledged as the most important intellectual discipline. Surely, by now, we’ve grown out of such superstitions? Well, that is the default assumption of the modern world, but as devotees of The Silence of the Lambs will know well, if you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Truly, the last remaining superstition is the one that denies theology her proper place as queen.
There are all sorts of ways to consider our forms and patterns of knowing, and those forms and patterns interlink in particular ways. Most importantly, there are intellectual hierarchies. There are some areas of study which open up other areas, and where a development will cascade down to transform how things are understood. For example, physics and chemistry were once entirely distinct intellectual pursuits; now, however, it is understood that chemistry is effectively an intellectual subset of physics. That is, a full understanding of physics is determinative for how we understand chemistry. This does not mean that the study of chemistry isn’t separate from the study of physics. One can become an expert physicist without at the same time becoming an expert chemist; what it means is that the ultimate explanation for truths in chemistry are dependent upon the ultimate explanation for truths in physics, and not vice versa. There are no truths in chemistry that cannot finally be grounded upon truths in physics.
So to claim that a particular area of study is the Queen of the Sciences is to claim that this particular study is the one that underpins all other areas of knowledge. This is the original claim made for theology, that, properly understood, a right understanding of theology guides and determines the way in which all other subjects are understood. There are no areas of study that are excluded from the Queen, in just the same way that there are no areas of our nation that are not ultimately subject to the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, if there were areas outside her purview, that very fact would mean she would cease to be Queen.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that there have been two principal areas of study that have pretended to the throne. The first is mathematics, the second is physics. Whilst there are some academics who still dream of a ‘theory of everything’, which would establish their area of expertise upon the throne, I believe most would recognise this as a clear example of an ambitious reach exceeding intellectual grasp. This is what it means to live in a postmodern intellectual environment, for the ‘modern’ was precisely the notion that science, as best exemplified in mathematical physics, would provide a new and more rational way of understanding, and therefore ordering and controlling, our human world. That dream died at least fifty years ago, although there are still some who cling to somnolent fragments. Must I mention Professor Dawkins again?
So to have a Queen of the Sciences means to have an intellectual hierarchy, within which some subjects are fundamentally shaped and determined by other subjects. This isn’t just a matter of scientific knowledge (to think that it is is to maintain the modern assumption that science is the most important form of knowledge). Consider Jane Austen, and the study of her novels. Knowledge of Jane Austen is a subset of knowledge of nineteenth century English novels, which is itself a subset of English literature – and that in itself is a subset of literature as such. So it is possible to become an expert in Jane Austen, her novels, her writings, her context and so on – and yet still recognise that such expertise (admirable and enjoyable though it may be!) is only a small area of equivalent expertise across a wider field.
Now imagine that there is someone who is a devotee of science fiction novels – who studies Asimov and Clarke and Iain M Banks – and who denies that this has anything to do with the study of literature. Now this might be well-intentioned, and a question of semantics. In the same way that ‘classical’ music has become identified with music of a particular period, even though similar music is still being composed today, it may be that our aficianado of science fiction is simply segregating out one form of literature from another. That is a defensible position. Yet to say that science fiction is not literature, and by that to mean that issues of the use of language, plot structure, characterisation, thematic explorations and so on are not present in these works is not a defensible position. To say that science fiction has nothing to do with the questions of marriage in early 19th Century england, and is therefore not literature, is to restrict the subject matter of ‘literature’ arbitrarily.
Which is how I tend to feel when someone denies that theology is the Queen of the Sciences. In order to fully understand any subject area there must be an understanding of the investigator themselves. There has to be a level of self-awareness, an appreciation of the limits of what can be understood properly, of what might be useful speculation and conjecture and, most especially, of the way in which our desires and ambitions can distort our perception of the truth. In other words, all our forms of knowledge – even the most ‘hard’ of scientific realms – is ultimately dependent on our most fundamental commitments and beliefs. We need to cultivate an awareness of those commitments and beliefs in order to gain a full and proper knowledge of every other subject area, whether in the sciences or the humanities.
This is the realm of theology, and this is why theology is Queen of the Sciences. Theology is precisely how we talk about what we are most committed to, our faiths and beliefs and creeds. It is not essential to be a Christian in order to study theology – that is the same as saying you need to be a student of 19th Century novels in order to study English literature. What is essential is to have the capacity to engage in a discussion about these matters with an awareness of one’s own commitments and assumptions. This is why atheists can study theology without being committed to a particular devotional stance, and why people of all faiths and none can explore the subject.