Liberalism versus Postliberalism

Divide in 20th century theology is subject of Professor John A. Knight's first book

From corporate law to religious study: Knight's unusual path to academe 

By Deana Hasandjekaj '15, Office of Media Relations

POUGHKEEPSIE (Oct. 30, 2013) – John Allan Knight, associate professor of Religious Studies and coordinator of both the Catholic Studies Program and the Academic Affairs Lecture Series, recently had his first book published and is already in the early stages of writing a new one, which will address the proper role of religion in politics.

The new book, "Liberalism versus Postliberalism: The Great Divide in Twentieth Century Theology" (Oxford University Press, 2012), uses developments in analytic philosophy of language as a lens through which to analyze the differences between liberal theologians and those known as postliberals.John Knight

"One of the questions that has interested me is the role of traditional teachings and revelation," Knight says, which is the question that began the investigation that produced the book. 

Knight explains the difference between general revelation and special revelation: "General revelation is things we can learn about God through our everyday experience with the world," Knight said. Special revelation consists of events that people take to reveal something about God but that are not generally available to everyone. 

The book has received excellent reviews so far from prominent members of the field. "This was one of the most interesting, thought provoking, and well-written books I have had the pleasure of reading in quite a while," Mary Doak, author of "Reclaiming Narrative for Public Theology" said of Knight's book.

From corporate law to answering "the bigger questions"
Knight was born in Nashville, Tenn. and lived there for some ten years. Since then, he has moved often. Originally a member of the Church of Nazarene, Knight attended Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma for his undergraduate studies. Initially, Knight was a pre-med major and planned to attend medical school.

"I got very interested in theology from a class or two I took and also…I was a religious guy," Knight says. "I found the subject was too interesting to ignore."

Although Knight took these classes, he chose a different career path at first. "I ended up doing well on the LSATS so I decided to go to law school," he says. He practiced law for seven years, working with large clients in litigation cases that focused on anti-trust and trademark infringement through his private practice. He also worked at the general counsel's office at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.

During this period, Knight took a couple of classes at Catholic University of America.

"I was practicing law in Washington D.C., so I decided to take classes at the school of philosophy to see if it really was as interesting as I imagined it was," Knight recalls. "I really loved those classes, but it was difficult to do on a part time basis while I was practicing law." 

When the studies and his day job together became too time consuming, Knight ended up applying to master’s programs in religious studies at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago and gave himself an ultimatum: If he got into any of the programs and was offered enough financial aid, he would quit law and focus on religious studies. If not, he would continue practicing law.

He was accepted and received excellent financial aid offers from all three programs. "I wanted to go to the University of Chicago, I thought it had the best programs and I wanted to study with David Tracy who was at Chicago," Knight says, speaking of the prominent Roman Catholic theologian.

Knight started his teaching career as a visiting instructor at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. in 2000. He became a full-time professor there after four years, before leaving for Marist in 2007.

"Students are interested in the bigger questions," Knight says of the appeal of teaching. "The church’s social teachings are things that affect students in their own lives now."

Knight often teaches Christianity, Philosophy of Religion (the focus of his research), and Film and The Bible. Occasionally, Knight will co-teach Religion and U.S. Law with Professor Lynn Eckert.

Now a Catholic, Knight converted for several reasons, chief among them, influential professors. "One of them was named Paul Griffths, who teaches at Duke now," Knight says. "The other was my advisor, David Tracy, who I admire more than I can say. He’s a very prominent theologian and a priest. He is also the most gracious person I have ever met in my life." These mentors, along with friends and important writings all convinced Knight that Catholicism was "an intellectual tradition" of which he wanted to be a part.