At the “Imagine No Religion” meetings in Kamloops, British Columbia, I was discussing “Sophisticated Theology”™ with ex-preacher and current Freedom from Religion co-President Dan Barker. And Dan made two quips: “Theology is a subject without an object” (that’s a grammatical double entendre, which I didn’t catch till later), and “Theologians don’t have an object to study, so they just study what other theologians say.” That sounds snarky, but it’s absolutely right. What good is a discipline that tries to tell us about the qualities of a nonexistent object? It’s as useful as a bunch of scholars trying to tell us about the characteristics of the Loch Ness Monster, or Paul Bunyan. Worse—the scholars want to tell us what kind of behavior Paul Bunyan requires of us.
Well, I thought I’d heard it all until reader Nick sent me a link to an article by John Dickson at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Drum site, a piece called “Why theology matters even if there’s no God.”
Yes, that’s right: the title perfectly sums up the content. The Theology Express has finally jumped the rails. On the occasion of the death of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Drum is inspired to defend theology:
It’s as good a time as any, then, to offer a brief defence of this “queen of the sciences” against the taunts of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, who say that theology is not even a “subject”, let alone a discipline in a modern university.
“Queen of the sciences”? It’s hardly a science, so what loon thought up that Middle-Age monicker? It may have been okay before there really was science, but it’s laughable to use the term now.
And then Dickson shows why theology matters (his quotes are indented):
1. Theology requires lots of skills.
I have found ancient history much easier – as a discipline – than theology. Why? Because theology incorporates pretty much all of the basic skills of the historian plus a ton more. Today’s professional theologian will have a good knowledge of ancient languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as full reading fluency in modern English and German (a requirement for all theologians today, regardless of nationality).
Not only must they be across the history of both the Old and New Testaments – that’s ancient near eastern history and Graeco-Roman history – they will have a thorough knowledge of church history, that is, the history of thought from Augustine, through Aquinas, to the modern day greats like Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf, and the incomparable Wolfhart Pannenberg.
That’s just the beginning.
Virtually all academic theologians today have advanced training in philosophy. They are happy to talk to you about how the Aristotelian world view established and impeded medieval learning, or why empiricism flourished in 15th-16th century Europe under the influence of Augustinianism, or how the latest philosophy of mind impacts the Western notion of the “person”. I only know enough of these things to mention them, briefly, in an opinion piece, but my theologian friends could write you an essay and prepare you a reading list on all these topics and more.
All this shows is that some of theology’s practitioners are educated. It does not show that they are doing anything useful. True, Biblical scholars unravel the history of that document, and “church historians” can tell us about, well, church history; but neither of these areas are theology proper: they are history and literary archaeology. I looked up “theology” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and here are pretty much all the definitions:
That’s pretty much it. There’s no mention of Church history of Biblical scholarship here. Theology is the study of God and his attributes, i.e., the study of the unevidenced divine. Insofar as it includes “philosophy,” that philosophy is useful only as long as it’s not about God.
2. And theologians know a lot about the history and philosophy of science, too!
Some of the best theologians today also have expert knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. Yes, science. When my atheist friends have challenged me over the years about the “conflict” between science and Christianity, I’ve usually directed them to the three-volume Systematic Theology by Pannenberg, where readers will find an interlocutor thoroughly at ease with the questions thrown up by modern physics and biology.
Give me a break. There is an entire secular discipline devoted to the history and philosophy of science. Most of its advocates are nonbelievers, and it includes people who, unlike John Polkinghorne and Alister McGrath, don’t try to show how the disciplines are compatible, how they can be mutually supportive, or engage in other kinds of shady accommodationism. Can you seriously maintain that theologians make more of a contribution to the history of science (or any contribution to the history of science) than do real historians of science.? No—no more than theologians make real contributions to philosophy.
3. Theology makes real contributions to other academic areas. To wit:
Practically no important field is untouched by the discipline of theology. How does brain science challenge the Western notion of the self? How was the Graeco-Roman notion of honour subverted by the New Testament emphasis on humility? In what ways do ancient and modern notions of martyrdom differ? How does the doctrine of the Trinity find expression in some of the great classical composers? How does time relate to eternity? What does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom, and vice-versa? Can innate human rights be grounded without a theistic framework? How does the biblical view of forgiveness contribute to modern attempts at reconciliation? All of these and more are proper theological topics.
I’m sorry, but we have no need of theology to answer these questions: they are the purview of the history of religion, secular philosophy, history by itself, musical history, and physics. As for questions like “what does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom?”, the answer is this: NOTHING. Likewise about whether innate human rights require God for grounding, a question long ago answered in the negative secular philosophers. Remember the definition of theology above: it is the study of God and his nature.
4. Theology is “integrative”.
Theology is perhaps the most comprehensive integrative discipline around. It explores all important forms of human knowledge and probes how they shed light on Christian belief and, indeed, how Christian belief might shed light on them. And given that more than two billion people today identify as Christian, these attempts to integrate human knowledge are perfectly relevant and academically sound.
Christian belief is a fact; it is a phenomenon of the real world – just as Australian history is, or Shakespearean literature, or Aristotelian philosophy, or feminist studies, or anthropology, or musicology.
Christian belief as a phenomenon, as is any religious belief, is the purview of the history and sociology of religion, not of theology. Dickson takes great care to conflate all of these areas, so that anything involving the study of religion as a phenomenon, or or religious books and their origin, becomes “theology.” I suppose, then, that Dan Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell:Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a work of theology, too. As is the work of many Biblical historians or scholars of religion, many of whom are atheists. In Dickson’s world, but not in anyone else’s, atheists can be theologians.
In the end, theology as defined above—the study of the nature and characteristics of God, and how he supposedly interacts with the universe—can reveal nothing that is true. What it can tell us is only what theologians think is true, and those views, of course, are in conflict with one another. There is no way to adjudicate between Muslim theology, Hindu theology, and Christian theology, all of which contradict each other.
Theology, in short, is a useless discipline—as useless as Paul Bunyan-ology. Theologians practicing the craft I’ve defined have contributed not one iota to human knowledge. They are useless intellectual appendages: as vestigial in modern times as are the muscles that move the human ears, muscles that serve no purpose but testify to the activities of our ancestors.
How sad that smart people, and many theologians really are smart, are wasting their time in such pursuits, and that respectable universities have schools of theology that are largely devoted to explicating and interpreting God. But now it’s time to put away our childish things and study areas that really matter. Even fields where there is little objective “truth”, like the arts and humanities, are far more valuable than theology, for they can bring some beauty into our lives and enrich our experience of the Universe. Theology does none of that; rather, it pretends to find truth. Think of how much more we’d know if theologians gave up their futile scribblings and went into truly meaningful disciplines!
The fatuity of Dickson’s thesis is summed up in its last line:
Even if there is no god, in other words, theology remains one of the most subtle and sophisticated academic pursuits on the planet.
That is no more a justification of theology than if a bunch of smart and educated people engaged in “Ancient Greek theology,” trying to discern the nature and will of Zeus, and how he interacted with the world. Or if there was a school of “Scientological theology,” studying the nature of Xenu, and and its implications for our behavior. We would see such endeavors for what they were: a waste of time. We should see Abrahamic theology as a similarly useless endeavor. To paraphrase Laplace, we have no need of that discipline.
Do note that Dickson is described on his website as “a founding director of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), an independent research and media company promoting informed discussion about social, ethical and religious issues in modern life. . “. The page also extols “[Dickson’s] passion for promoting the public understanding of the Christian faith.” He also has a degree in theology. Is his assessment unbiased, then, or merely a defense of how he’s chosen to spend his life? I smell vocational apologetics.