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A Critical Learning Process - Johannes Aagaard

Theological Studies of Religion

The systematic study of theology is the study of particular expressions of Christianity in the cultural and religious context of our present age.

To relate such studies to the study of other religions involves a wide range of methodological approaches, which all presuppose, however, that religion is a first person reality, not merely a third person object.

The theological research of religious traditions therefore involves a personal search for meaning and truth, as do the studies carried out from within other religious traditions.

Such research from within the religious traditions is possible only as a participation in the religious language about God, the world and human beings. It therefore involves a genuine knowledge of the history and nature of such language. The systematic approach represents the attempt to argue coherently for the comprehensiveness of the Christian interpretation and its truth claims.

Claims to reasonableness and the coherence of the Christian interpretation of God and the world have to be tested in a critical learning process, which pays close attention to fundamental propositions on what is true and right in other religious traditions.

This is so to speak my "credal statement" on the theme. Let us now go into the analysis of that same theme.

NB: Since space is limited, all footnotes are left out. Those who know, do not need them, and those who do not know, will consider them superfluous.


If you want to get to know Aarhus, there are several ways and means to do so. You can try to get an overview, and consequently you climb the City Hall and its tower, or you climb the State-Library and its book tower, or you climb the tower of the Cathedral. Doing so you get an overview, but only one such overview of course. Only a fool will maintain that the City Hall, the State library and the Cathedral are the only ways to get a look at Aarhus, and only a super-fool will maintain that only one of them gives the real perspective.

In the same way with methodologies. Each methodology gives a specific overview, and no one is the only possible way to get insight. That is a futile dream.

The dream of course has been fulfilled as far as the parable goes, for it is possible to get hold of an aeroplane or even better a helicopter, so that you can combine many different perspectives into one insight.

That dream, however, cannot become a reality when it comes to religious studies. No one has helicopter-sight! and those who maintain that they have, are per definition cheaters. We all have our standpoint, from which we see and understand reality , religious reality first of all. And no one has the one perspective, which makes all others unnecessary .

No one can understand religious realities, if one has not taken a standpoint from which one understands. No one can stand in the air and realize helicopter-sight. In scholarly work as in all other sort of work we are all only parts of the game. We all "know in part".


Now let us look at the factual way of theology, systematic theology I mean. How do we deal with the problem of understanding? Let us allow ourselves to be elementary again:

There are two naive and unscholarly approaches, which we reject:

1. You just read all the volumes of a person and then you are able to understand that person. So to speak by addition.

2. You read some of the volumes of the person and some of the volumes which represent your own understanding, and then you criticize him. From your standpoint.

The first approach you can call the naive historical approach, the second you can call the confessionalist approach. None of these approaches will give you real understanding, for both approaches are without a real attempt of understanding.

You always understand from what you have understood. And in a similar way you can only understand another person from what he has understood. There is something before understanding, a Vorverständniss, i.e. an understanding before the understanding, and only in that perspective can you understand in a relevant way.

It is naive to believe that you only understand someone when you have reconstructed his understanding in such a way that he will confirm the understanding. The test of the process of understanding will then be the agreement with the person in question. That sort of understanding is a serious simplification and ends up in conformism and sentimentality.

What is needed is a critical understanding which understands - if possible - the person better than the person understands himself, but from the real presuppositions of the person, not from a standpoint which is irrelevant for the person.

To read a Hindu and criticize him for not being a Muslim, is of course foolish. In the same way it is foolish to read a Theosophical master and point out that he is not a Christian. But here comes a point, for possibly the Theosophical master maintains - and possibly also believes that he is a Christian! Then of course it is part of the critical process of understanding to go into the question and answer it: is his Theosophical system a Christian system. And from where should that be evaluated? from Christian criteria of course, whatever that may be. Here we need a critical differentiation in order to make us understood.


A theological student called X wants to write a thesis on Jes Bertelsen (JB), who is a unique Gnostic master from Denmark, influenced by a number of different sources such as Kierkegaard, Jung, Steiner, Theosophy a la Bob Moore, Tibetan Buddhism etc.

Now, what is the theological task of X's theological teacher and advisor?

It is not enough to let X read JB and reconstruct his writings into a summary. Such "læsefrugter" (fruits from reading) does not make for a theological understanding in itself. You of course must read JB, no question, but you must understand what you read critically. Row do you do that?

You could find theological advisors who will maintain that you must read your Confessio Augustana and your Bible in order to get the tools of critical understanding which can nail JB and make it clear that he is very un-Christian.

Both positions are of course wrong. You cannot understand just by reading the object intensively. And you do not understand the object from your own subject. You must of course read and understand from the presuppositions of JB, even if you cannot cut yourself out. You as the reader is the medium, and that is part of the message.

You cannot simply understand the thought and understanding of another person in general. You must specify .You can for instance choose to make an attempt to understand JB' s concept of "the love to your neighbour". Whatever JB may represent, if he is a Christian, the concept of the love to his neighbour must be a relevant and necessary point of entry into his writings.

The knowledgeable advisor will then concentrate on the understanding of "the love to your neighbour" in the Christian sense of the word. If JB does in fact express that concept which he does, how can we then understand him in the best possible way, i.e. in a way which is relevant for his own thinking. JB is obviously not just responsible to himself when he writes about "the love to your neighbour". He speaks out of a tradition, a Christian tradition, a Lutheran tradition, a Søren Kierkegaard tradition and a tradition in which the meaning of Kierkegaard's understanding of "the love to your neighbour" is an open question to be dealt with.

Therefore, the genuine advisor puts some important books into the bibliography of the student and makes the point clear that those books are to be part of the process of the understanding of the student. Re does of course not tell the student how to understand those books, for they are means, meant to complicate the task of the student in order to open up his ability to understand JB. They are not meant as a direction for the answer as much as a direction to understand the question..

It is necessary for the student to understand the understanding of JB as a historian of ideas, who was brought up in a theological milieu, in which Kierkegaard was part of the orientation, and JB went into that orientation. But Kierkegaard is himself an open question, so apart from having to include "Kærlighedens Gjerninger" of Kierkegaard, the student must also read K.E. Løgstrup's "Opgør med Kierkegaard".

But in order to understand the process of understanding implied in that reading of Kierkegaard, the student must also read Luther' s "Sermon von den Guten Werken" (Luther's standard work on Good Works), for Kierkegaard - and Løgstrup are both explicitly Lutheran.

This may sound as if the advisor is simply using the chance to force the student to read his own confessional texts, and I admit that it can function that way! But in the actual case that is not the meaning of the process.

Having analysed JB' s understanding of the love to one's neighbour and having concluded about the nature of that understanding in relation to a factual and relevant Christian interpretation of the theme, another task has to be taken up:

Is the love to your neighbour a reality which can be incorporated into a system where it is harmonized with the understanding of love as it is formulated by Jung, Steiner and Theosophy, not to speak of Tibetan Buddhism? That question of course depends on the nature of the Christian concept of the love to one's neighbour. But also on the nature of love as expressed in these other contexts.

As a critical theologian you cannot simply accept that the concept of love to one's neighbour is defined by the use of that concept by m. This concept has a meaningfulness in the traditions out of which m speaks and writes. Without that tradition ol meaning it is meaningless, and it is therefore rightly evaluated only ( in its complexity and plurality ) within that tradition of meaning.

m cannot be his own judge concerning the validity of his concept of love to one's neighbour as a Christian concept. But of course the student cannot be the alternative judge. The judge is lound within the tradition of meaning out of which JB himself operates, and therefore that tradition of meaning has to be mobilized. That is the typical systematic approach of a thoughtful theologian.


There is a tendency among theologically oriented researchers to focus on researching such data and such material which originate from the dissenters among the the NRM's people, while the non-theologically oriented researchers tend to consider such data and such material if not irrelevant then at any rate secondary. Similarly, the theologically oriented researchers tend to consider such data and such material if not irrelevant then at any rate secondary . Similarly, the theologically oriented researchers tend to consider data and information coming from the consenters within the NRM' s secondary and more or less of the nature of propaganda, while the nontheological researchers tend to take what they get from the NRMs as relevant and trustworthy.

This difference is probably a major reason for the mutual suspicion between the two parties. There is, of course, bias in both camps, but it is more than bias. It is also a difference in methodology, based on some fundamental attitudes concerning the evaluation of sources and resources.

This situation reminds me of two similar situations. In my youth I was up against a number of my friends in school, who considered all information on concentration camps and Gestapo-terror and torture as propaganda, built on false information from dissenters who had run away from Nazi-Germany. Facts later proved that nearly all information from the refugees was true, and that the refugee dissenters had left out true, but incredible parts of the Nazi-horror story! They could not communicate the whole truth.

In my later youth and during my life as a whole the same situation returned in relation to Communism. The general attitude always was that the dissenters and refugees were not really to be relied on. They were biased and the real study of Communism had to take place on the actual information from the Communist consenters. The result of course was disastrous, and the whole truth about Communism is still not available in all its horror. The anti-communist dissenters, however, have proved to be very reliable. But again not able to communicate the whole truth.

I am sure that the reply to these analogies is ready-made: There is no reason to compare Nazism, Communism and NRM as such! The "status comparitionis" is false and therefore the analogy is false. I admit that I have no full proof, but I am ready to argue and I have done so for a number of years that the anti-democratic tendencies within most NRMs and the Führer syndrome which is a consequence thereof really justifies this comparison.

It is a well known fact that very few NRMs have a democratic constitution with laws and democratic elections. This is the major reason why they cannot get public subsidies directly from the State as many other organisations, first of all Christian youth organisations, do. Democracy and NRMs do not fit, that is a simple fact, as far as I know the situation. I am ready to be corrected, if anyone can disprove my thesis.

This means of course that opposition and dissent within the NRMs has to take place by non-parliamentary opposition. Sects always create new sects, for there is no room for a legitimate opposition.

But back to the real issue, the methodological question in dealing with dissenters and consenters. To my mind there is no either or. I cannot accept, for instance, that it is unjustified when ex-scientologists create their own documentary center for resource-material on ScientoIogy. The ex-Nazis and the ex-Communists did the same, and they were also to a large extent disqualified because they hated the systems they fought as do the ex-Scientologists.

As serious and honest researchers we have to consider the value of all sources, and first of all of course the value of those who have experienced hardships within a movement. We should not neglect the sources of the systems, however, but we must surely bear in mind that they serve the purpose of sustaining the people in power as is always the case where human beings operate. The source material from people who have gone through such authoritarian systems without the mechanism for expressing dissent, such source material of course has to be dealt with in the normal critical way, but should by no means be disqualified beforehand. That would express serious bias from the researchers themselves.

As we have to respect the right of ex-Scientologists to create their own information-systems, and we should be eager to get a working contact to such data, similarly we shall of course be eager to relate to ex-TM people, ex-Children of God, ex-Moonies etc., in order to be able to evaluate the value of their data.

I simply do not understand researchers who as a principle do not use such available material. I know for sure that it has happened that such abstention was caused by the threat thereby to loose contact with the movements, which the ex-people's data-collection was aimed at. That may in certain situations be a valid temporary argument, but is of course not to be upheld as a principle. I hope.


Some of us who study religion and religions and religiosity care about the truth question, other do not. That is probably, when it comes to it, the real point of difference among us. But it is a difference which does not necessarily mean that we have exclusive interests.

Some of us do not care about God or gods, others are crazy for God! Some of us see their research as a study in that curious part of the human nature, which they do register, but not share: the religious quest, but they are curious to understand it from outside, since it is obviously such an inevitable part of the human condition. Some of us, however, see our research as a part of that quest to investigate the spiritual four-dimensional life-process, in which faith and religiosity is the deep and fantastic dimension.

It is obvious that we always understand from what we have understood. That sets our limitation. If we do not understand the quest for God, that is a limitation of course. But if we participate existentially in that same quest - that opens up possibilities without which there is no deep understanding in the real meaning of the religious world.

An old African "Mzæ" asked a young Danish voluntary aid officer: Do you believe in God, young man? He was answered in the affirmative. And answered back: Fine, for if not, how could I find out who you are. Faith and being, belief and soul, belong together in human beings. For you become what you believe! You live by faith.

That is, of course, theology, and as such it is meaningful, but not necessarily understandable. For you understand from what you have understood. Theology does not get its meaning by being understood by people, who do not share its presuppositions. And theology has no duty to make itself understood "from outside". Theology is in fact an affair for insiders, for you only understand "from within" when you deal with matters of life and death.

This "theological arrogance" does not mean, however, that theologians cannot appreciate non-theological approaches to the study of religion and religions. I admit that most theologians are not interested, but that is a fatal mistake, as fatal as the opposite mistake which makes theology just another humanistic approach to the study of religion.

Theologians have to understand that their own specific approach does not exclude, but include the necessity of the humanistic approaches. Within the same faculty we need historians of religion, sociologists of religion, psychologists of religion etc. not as a substitute for the theology of religion, but as partners in the quest to understand what religion is all about.

The theologian in his own right may counterargue that such non-theological approaches are good for nothing, for they cannot - by definition - understand, since they have not understood what religion is all about. Seeing from the outside only, they have no access to the real inside story .The argument may be right, but still not valid, for we need these other approaches as parts of the whole approach to religion.

When the Shah fell from grace, I had a seminar together with a knowledgeable teacher from Political Science. He expressed his great satisfaction. Now life could begin in Iran. I expressed hesitation and reminded him about the curious man sitting in Paris waiting for his time to come. My honoured colleague brushed the argument aside and answered: Religion is not that much important, you see.

I did not see, for I knew that religion is exactly that much important, and as we know now the little known "mullah" in Paris changed the life of Iran from bad to worse under the regime of the Ayatollahs, which still goes on.

Religion is that important! but as theologians we need many different colleagues in order to understand the full meaning of what happened for instance in Iran and still happens. Iran is fundamentally a theological problem, but as such Iran can only be understood when all different methods of research are used in cooperation.


Prof. Regin Prenter, once proposed a definition of "videnskab", " Wissenschaft", "scholarship":

Scholarship comes into being when different methodologies cooperate in a maximizing of the mutual critiquing! Methodologies have to be different... and shall not adapt to one another; they have to cooperate... not to excommunicate one another; they have to go into a critical dialog... not an evasive coexistence.

It is not uncommon to read the phrase "setting the truth question aside" in papers and books dealing with the NRMs. At first one does not react, but gradually it dawns that this sentence somehow is the key to an important dimension in present day research of religions.

If research is the search for truth... and that is a common assumption, then it should be very upsetting to "set the truth question aside". Is not thereby the scientific nature of research set aside?

The evasion of the truth question marks the radical anti-theological stance. The evasive researcher may of course have a personal relation to the truth question, but the sentence "setting the truth question aside" seems to indicate that the researcher will set up watertight, separating walls between the personal and the scientific search. Personally he will go for truth, but in his research he will evade the truth question.

My experience seems to indicate that this is an impossible venture. One understands from what one has understood, and all research in religion includes the personal experiences of the researcher. That is so for theological researchers as well as for non-theological researchers/humanistic researcher. They all - we all understand from what we have understood.

Our attitude to religion is inevitably determined by our personal experiences with religion. If such experiences are positive and integrated experiences they will open up for similar experiences in new forms, but if such experiences are negative and remain unintegrated, this will of course mean a number of negative or evasive attitudes to religious experiences "in the laboratory".

My conclusion is of course that we should agree never to set the truth question aside, but to go for the truth question, as it is the proof of our scientific efforts toward that truth which is our ultimate aim.

We should go for the truth question and at the same time show our credentials. Credentials come from credo, and again indicates that everything comes out of faith. We live by faith - also as scholars and researchers.

But faith can be good faith or bad faith of course. Faith is not just fides qua, the fact of faith. Faith is always also fides quae, the content of faith, the faith content. And that content of course differs from faith to faith. This insight is not done away with by the fact that people can be in good faith, bona fide also when their faith is not a fides bona. You can have a bad faith even when you are in good faith.

These are classical theological distinctions which are still valid; in fact they are more valid than ever. The fact that we acknowledge that people in other religious relations than our own are in good faith does not mean that we can conclude that their faith is a good faith.

The question of the content of faith can not be solved by simply acknowledging the fact of; faith. If that is done then one is operating within a simplistic model of research.


In the history of the church it was rarely questioned and critiqued that theology questions and critiques Christianity. In fact all the hundreds of thousands of theologians who are at work in all churches round the world are using a large part of their time to critique Christianity .It is an obvious and recognized necessity to do so, and it was realized already in the Biblical texts, by the prophets for instance, but certainly also by the apostles. Also the apologetic fathers of the church gave us in the Patristic texts many expressions of such a religious critique.

For them as for the prophets and the apostles it was obvious that such critique was also to be used in relation to religious phenomena outside the church, among others in order to make it clear that they were in fact outside the church and not inside. The apologetic and critical ministry of the church was so obvious that it was hardly questioned at all.

The same was the case in the Medieval period and in the time of the Reformation. To preach the truth also meant to point out its opposites and the negations of it. It is only in the "modem period" that this "Religionskritik" has become problematic and needs a defence.

In this presentation I have chosen to show the impossibility of the approach of those who deny the right of theology to maintain its specificity. The theological "proprium" is for me so obvious that it cannot be proven. But the denial of that "proprium" is on the other hand so obviously improper, that it can be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. And that is what I have tried to do.