Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cleverly defined theology as a “subject without an object”. That presupposes that there is no evidence for the “subject”: gods, prophets like Jesus, and so on, and I think most of us agree with that. So does the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives this as a definition:
I find the word “science” in the above definition offensive.
But some people consider “religious studies” or “Biblical history” as part of theology as well, and those areas don’t presuppose the truth of religious beliefs. Further, those areas can be wide-ranging. Have a look at last year’s course list at the University of Chicago’s theology school, which includes courses like “Anthropology and Sociology of Religion,” “History of Religions,” “Islamic Philosophy”, “History of Judaism,” “Christian Iconography,” and so on. Since religion has been an enormous influence on history, art, and sociology, I have no problems with these, though I don’t see why they can’t be folded into history, anthropology, philosophy, and art departments. And of course studies of the history of the Bible and Qur’an, as well as Hindu scriptures, are also useful since these books have been so influential and connect Christianity and Judiasm with Islam and the myths of other faiths and early non-Abrahamic religions.
But there are also courses like “God and the Good Life” and many courses on “Religious leadership and practice,” which appear to be courses preparing one for a life in the ministry. These, of course, presuppose the truth of gods and of the dicta of specific religions. Here’s one that looks a bit suspect (my emphasis):
RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus
This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).
I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”
RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III
The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.
Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.
I’m sure I’ll get pushback from the people at the Divinity School (and I like some of them, having talked to them when I was writing Faith Versus Fact), but I’ll pose my own view on theology in the next three paragraphs in bold (I’m taking “theology” here to apply only to Abrahamic religions):
Insofar as “theology” encompasses philosophical, sociological, and historical studies of religion, which do not presuppose the existence of anything divine or supernatural, these studies can be valuable and should be taught in universities. But I don’t think they need to be lumped together in a divinity school. Remember that Thomas Jefferson, when establishing the University of Virginia, specified that it would be a nonsectarian school lacking both schools of theology or even places of worship. (And yet there is a Department of Religious Studies at U.Va, though it seems to exist to produce academic scholars of religion, much like a virus that uses a larger organism to facilitate its own replication.)
In other words, “theological” studies that have bearing on secular issues like philosophy and history, or reveal something about human actions and beliefs, or discuss religious influences on literature, art, and music, are justifiable—so long as nobody argues that the objects of theology, gods and prophets and unsubstantiated and unevidenced religious claims, should be taken seriously. Likewise, “theology” that is like “New Biblical Criticism”, dissecting Scripture as a human document, examining its genesis (so to speak), its influences, and its connections with history and other faiths, is also justifiable.
Insofar as “theology” includes courses that presuppose the existence of the divine, take seriously the existence of God or Jesus, or prepare people for the ministry or to promulgate religious beliefs, then those courses not only have no place in a University, but are exercises in delusion. Now I think the higher-class divinity schools, like Chicago’s and Harvard’s, have very few of those courses, but there are some. They should not be part of a secular university.
Maybe I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that Hitchens’s razor is correct: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” That applies to any form of theology that takes gods or superstitions as real. Universities should not be in the business of taking seriously those myths that have no evidence behind them. They can, of course, teach myths, but at no point should they imply that there is evidence for their truth.
I’m sure others disagree here. Some will say I don’t go far enough in dismissing theology; others will say that I don’t give theology enough credit. And expressing your view is what the comments are for on this Christian Sabbath.