What is Non-Realist Theology?

April 2024

Non-realist theology refers to approaches within theological discourse that do not necessarily adhere to a realist understanding of religious language and concepts. Unlike traditional or realist theology, which often posits that theological statements correspond to objective truths about the nature of God or the divine, non-realist theology rejects the idea that theological statements have a one-to-one correspondence with objective, independent truths. It challenges the notion that theological language directly represents or describes a transcendent reality.

Non-realist theologians often use symbolic, metaphorical, or analogical language to convey religious ideas. They may argue that such language is more appropriate for expressing the ineffable nature of the divine and the limits of human understanding. Similarly, non-realist theology may be characterised as ‘expressivist’ in nature, emphasizing that religious language primarily expresses the religious experiences, emotions, and commitments of individuals rather than making truth claims about an external reality.

 Non-realist theology is often influenced by postmodern thought, which questions the possibility of accessing objective, universal truths. Instead, it recognizes the diversity of perspectives and the role of language in shaping our understanding of reality. The focus is on the personal and communal expression of faith.

Non-realist theology may shift the emphasis from speculative or theoretical concerns about the nature of God to the practical or ethical aspects of religious faith. It may focus on the pragmatic impact of religious beliefs on individuals and communities rather than the ontological status of theological propositions. It explores how religious beliefs can contribute to ethical living and social justice without necessarily relying on metaphysical claims about God’s nature.

Non-realist theology is related to other contemporary theological movements. For example, narrative theology is often aligned with non-realist perspectives. It sees religious truths embedded in the narratives and stories of religious traditions rather than in doctrinal formulations. The emphasis is on the meaning-making function of stories within faith communities. Some non-realist theologians draw on immanence and process theology, emphasizing the presence of the divine within the ongoing processes of the world. This contrasts with more transcendent and realist views that posit a distant, separate God.

 Non-realist theology tends to be open to pluralism and the coexistence of multiple religious perspectives. It may reject exclusivist claims and instead foster an attitude of openness to diverse religious traditions and interpretations. It may also engage in dialogue with secular and non-religious perspectives without insisting on the truth claims of traditional theology. This openness allows for a more inclusive and constructive conversation in a pluralistic society.