Professor Ryan Haecker plans to renew theology in the heart of Texas
Founding Faculty
May 24, 2024

Professor Ryan Haecker plans to renew theology in the heart of Texas

‘Just as one does not live on bread alone, the wealth of a nation is nothing without reflection on its highest ideals.'

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

Welcome to Meet the Founding Faculty, a series of interviews introducing the world-class teachers and scholars building the University of Austin's academic culture and shaping its intellectual life.

Assistant Professor of Theology and University Librarian Ryan Haecker hails from San Antonio, Texas. He received his Ph.D. in theology and religious studies from Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. His doctoral research, supervised by Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, explored theological interpretations of logic in the writings of Origen of Alexandria as a critical resource for modern Christian theology. Dr. Haecker has published over 50 articles and presented hundreds of talks at conferences around the world. 

UATX: You are joining UATX as Assistant Professor of Theology. Could you offer a brief introduction to the field in general and to your areas of research?

Dr. Ryan Haecker: Yes, I am a theologian whose job is to ask the absolute questions of why people should hold certain beliefs about God. Theology shares with philosophy the task of asking questions of the basic presuppositions of every science. Yet theology distinctly responds from within a community of believers to the special call of myth and revelation to know of God in the way that God has shown us how we can learn some aspect of the mysterious, the holy, and the divine.

Today, theology is often dismissed as unscientific, illiberal, and inappropriate for a pluralistic society of many faiths and none. Yet to neglect theology would be to refuse to consider the higher questions of the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life. Against these trends, I argue that theology should be celebrated as the "Queen of the Sciences," for in contrast to the experimental sciences of the natural world, which cannot explain how necessary truth can be discovered among ephemeral appearances, and the abstract sciences of pure reason, which cannot explain the origin and purpose of the universal forms of logic and mathematics, theology recalls the oldest ground of science from within a community that seeks to answer to the call of myth and revelation.

I approach this subject in a style that is called philosophical theology. In contrast to systematic and historical theology, the dialectical method of philosophy asks questions so as to formulate arguments for and against religious beliefs. My research focuses particularly on questions concerning logic, science, and technology. 

You are a native Texan. Where did you grow up and complete your undergraduate degree? What are some of your fondest memories of your time in college?

After a somewhat idyllic childhood in San Antonio Texas, I studied for a bachelor's in history and philosophy, first at Texas State University in San Marcos, and then at the University of Texas at Austin. When I would enter the lecture hall or open an old book, I felt like I could see through a window of flat writing to a hidden world of invisible ideas. Reading the stories of the trial of Socrates, the history of the Peloponnesian War, and the Passion of Jesus left me with an enduring conviction that imagination rules the world. When I measured the world against a grander vision of what could be, I sought to emulate the example, not only of my teachers, but also of their teachers, and ultimately the great minds whose thoughts had been dimly preserved in these books, from which the great questions could still be raised.

What led you to your scholarship and work in theology?

I came to study theology to learn whether and how religious beliefs could be shown to be true. I was inspired by Socrates, who, in Plato’s dialogues, teaches us, with divine ignorance, how to argue for and against unexamined opinions. I was led by this line of questioning to move, first from history to philosophy, and finally from philosophy to theology, where, from traditions of responses to divine revelation, we could begin to construct an absolute system of philosophy and narrate the story of universal history.  

Why is theology an essential part of a modern liberal education?

Until recently, the highest purpose of a liberal education had been understood to be the emancipation of the intellect to contemplate that which is universally and eternally true. The crisis of liberal education today can arguably be traced to its neglect of precisely this theological vision of truth as the “North Star” of scientific inquiry.

An increasingly dogmatic confidence in natural science has colluded with a more virulent skepticism of truth to undermine our shared criteria of rational inquiry and collective action. The consequences of these intellectual mistakes have corroded the shared beliefs that sustain trust in civic institutions, in business, and in forms of collective action for the common good. If, however, truth is still desirable, and it should be sought in communities of shared belief and action, then, I suggest, we should seek to restore theology to the center of a modern liberal education.

Why do you think some people are hesitant to discuss religion or God at universities? How would you respond to that hesitation? 

Sadly, it often seems today that nothing is more intolerable than questions concerning religion. The old adage that "one should not discuss religion and politics at the dinner table" has lately been shortened to exclude only religion from public conversation. And, even among professional scholars, an anxiety of offense against dissenting minorities has become a source of intellectual paralysis. 

The origins of this hesitancy can arguably be traced beyond the secular constitution of American civil society to the early-modern wars of religion that had convulsed Western Europe, to a late-medieval swerve away from belief in the reality of universal forms, and, in a mythic way, to the primordial fall of the human spirit from its original satisfaction with the contemplation of divine Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. 

In practice, we should guide students to ask for themselves these original questions of whether and how to believe or disbelieve in the claims of religious faith. We should, in short, seek to rekindle that fire of conviction in truth that had once moved mountains of stone, and built temples of shared belief to our highest hopes

In June 2024, you will deliver a paper at the Nicaea 2025 Catholic-Orthodox conference. Could you say a few words about your presentation and the significance of this conference?

The Nicaea and the Church of the Third Millennium conference is scheduled to take place in Rome on June 4-8, 2025. In commemoration of the 1700th anniversary of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (AD 325), this “third council” of Nicaea in Rome aims to inaugurate a renewed theological vision of the common faith of Christians. For this conference, I have been invited to give a new paper, “From God to God: The Trinitarian Ontology of Gregory of Nyssa”, which seeks to recall how ‘being’ (ousia) is a relation that is shared from the Son to the Father, from the Father and the Son with the Spirit, and, by a free gift, in the creation of all finite things. 

You completed your Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England and studied at the American Academy in Rome, but you are no stranger to Austin. What attracted you to the University of Austin? What about living and working in Austin most excites you?

After working for a few years as a librarian in Austin, I departed Texas in 2015 to study theology in England, taught theology in London, and held a series of postdoctoral positions, culminating in a 2023 fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. As a native Texan, I was thrilled to receive a call to assume the role of Assistant Professor of theology at the University of Austin where I will teach a new generation of students how to ask for themselves the absolute questions of theology.  

The study of Theology has never been more urgently needed. For just as one does not live on bread alone, the wealth of a nation is nothing without reflection on its highest ideals. Yet, outside of a few seminaries and bible colleges, theology has rarely been taught in Austin. 

With its signature commitment to the fearless pursuit of truth, the University of Austin now offers an outstanding opportunity to fill the intellectual void left by our recent neglect of theology.  Because it is neither a religious institution restricted by denominational beliefs nor a state university that is compelled to police the boundaries of the secular, UATX promises to provide a more welcome home for the passionate exploration of the arguments for and against our shared beliefs in our highest ideals.  

As a pioneering new university, UATX can respond to the decline of the humanities by developing an innovative new curriculum for a dedicated group of founding students and scholars. At the corner of 6th Street and Congress Avenue, the University of Austin stands ready to assume this long-awaited role of leading the burgeoning intellectual renaissance of Austin, and with this great city, of the spiritual vitality of our nation.

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