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Everyone can use a little theology

Who needs theology?

That was the question raised last month by Bob Russell in a letter to the editor of the Free Press. In it he quoted well-known atheist Richard Dawkins, who asked: "What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?"

Theologians, Dawkins went on to say, "don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that 'theology' is a subject at all?"

Russell's letter elicited a few replies, but none were from theologians, as far as I could tell. So I thought I would ask some to respond. Since they all sent me much more than I could use in a short column, you can find their full replies at winnipegfreepress.com

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/9/2009 (2953 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Who needs theology?

That was the question raised last month by Bob Russell in a letter to the editor of the Free Press. In it he quoted well-known atheist Richard Dawkins, who asked: "What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?"

Theologians, Dawkins went on to say, "don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that 'theology' is a subject at all?"

Russell's letter elicited a few replies, but none were from theologians, as far as I could tell. So I thought I would ask some to respond. Since they all sent me much more than I could use in a short column, you can find their full replies at winnipegfreepress.com

First up is Jamie Howison, who actively delves into the study of God as pastor of St. Bendedict's Table here in Winnipeg.

"Theology, St. Anselm famously wrote, is 'faith seeking understanding,' and here we bump up against the real issue. Faith comes prior to understanding; comes prior to theology.

"But — and this is a very important but — it does not necessarily follow that Christian faith is irrational or that the quest to speak truly and coherently of God and humanity is without reason or purpose. Over the ages, great thinkers — people with skeptical, searching and educated minds — have found themselves pressed up against the need to embrace faith."

"For those of us who have been pressed in such a manner, as well as for those for whom faith seems a gift rather than hard work, to engage in 'words about God' is finally to speak of what it means to be human. Such an enterprise grounds us, inspires us, fills us and humbles us."

Here's what Christopher Holmes, who teaches theology and ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, has to say.

"The great myth of the modern age is that we are all islands. Indeed, we have managed to convince ourselves that it is only we who decide what works and does not work, what is useful and what is not, and what is true and what is false. Reason and science are all we need.

"This myth deserves to be disrupted. Herein theology is of great help. It unsettles the notion that our world is what we make of it... the assumption that Mr. Russell embraces is that we live in a closed world. Accordingly, he regards theology and religion as human constructs. My concern with such a view is that it does violence to what given religions actually believe and practise.

"My challenge to Mr. Russell would be to investigate more closely his own faith. Indeed, his assumptions about reality and truth are theological. They are rooted in a particular view of the world that dictates what he sees, and what a narrow world it is."

Next is John Stackhouse, a former Winnipegger who is a professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver.

"Theologians tell us exactly what God promises to us, what God requires of us, and of what God warns us. If Prof. Dawkins paid proper attention to theologians, he would not be putting his eternal destiny at risk by his adamant and aggressive atheism, which, from the point of view of theological expertise, he is doing.

"Theologians tell their fellow believers what God is truly saying to them and what he is not. Thus theologians help people avoid 'prosperity gospel' heresies on the one hand and harmful asceticism on the other. They help people make use of both medicine and prayer. They help people read the Bible properly and read it in concert with science, history, philosophy and common sense. At least, that's what good theologians do."

Last to share is Tom Faulkner, a professor of theology at the faculty of theology at the University of Winnipeg.

"A clichéd response to Prof. Dawkins is the abolition of slavery, usually presented as an achievement of the Christian community. But recent scholarship is giving us a different picture of how slavery was ended than the one that is widely held by the public.

"For example, slavery turns out to be surprisingly widespread in human history. When the Christian community entered history 2,000 years ago, Christians and the Christian Church and the Christian scriptures all supported slavery — just as Prof. Dawkins' heroes Voltaire and David Hume later did. But starting with the Middle Ages, there were Christian theologians who argued against slavery.

"They were doing what theologians do. They started with the revelations that their religious community holds dear, just as scientists start with the world of nature. And the theologians applied human reason to those revelations, just as scientists apply human reason to what they observe in nature. To put it briefly, the medieval theologians reasoned that the revelation that all human beings are children of God means that the traditional approval of slavery is an evil mistake.

"It was only after slavery was abolished in the Western world that the Christian majority and secular humanists started to say, 'Every right-thinking person knows that slavery is evil.' The point is that 'right-thinking' persons knew nothing of the sort, despite the challenging position of theologians down through the centuries.

"Scientists and theologians start with different materials but both use human reason to sort those materials into something that we can understand with the minds that we have been given."

So, who needs theology? Maybe we all do, if we accept that theology is about asking the big questions about the world in which we live and what our purpose in it might be.

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