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Who needs theology? Full submissions from theologians

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/9/2009 (3976 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 a few to respond. Excerpts from their submissions were carried in my Sept. 20 column on the Faith Page; here are their full replies.

Jamie Howison, pastor of St. Bendedict’s Table in Winnipeg

"The article of July 19, ‘U of M helps keep religious studies students here,’ generated a little flurry of letters, each of which in different ways raised questions regarding the point of the whole theological enterprise. Bob Russell’s letter of August 21 quoted Richard Dawkins as some length, which rather neatly summarizes what lies at the heart of the question of who needs theology—of why theology might matter.

"If one follows the reasoning of Dawkins and of the other currently fashionable roster of new atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Philip Pullman, et al), the theological enterprise is absurd. Etymologically, ‘theology’ is God-talk or words (logos) about God (theos), yet if God’s existence is not rationally necessary, much less demonstrable, what is the point? According to these thinkers, when it comes to God not only is there a lack of good hard data, but there is also a sordid history of all manner of evil perpetrated by the church in the name of this God.

"This view, however, is not without its challengers. For instance, in his recent book Atheist Delusions, David Bentley Hart launches a convincing case against the broad brush approach of Dawkins and company, reminding the reader that even modern science can be shown to have deep roots in the Christian theological tradition; to cite just one of many examples, Johannes Kepler’s groundbreaking scientific work all related back to his desire ‘to discover how the life of the Trinity was reflected in the beautiful harmonies with which God had marked every level of his creation.’ And for every example of outrage perpetrated by the church in the name of God, there are many, many examples of how this faith in fact introduced a generous and humane spirit into the life of what was often a brutalizing and violent world.

"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. And as Thomas Aquinas discovered near the end of his life, theology ultimately will fold back into faith, for our words and categories and systematic classifications will never completely do when measured against the ineffable character of the divine. 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. The formerly agnostic Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis characterized himself as ‘the most reluctant convert in England,’ and in many respects his story is but an echo of that of Augustine of Hippo in the 5th century and of the great mathematician Blaise Pascal in the 17th.

"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. It humbles us not by beating us down with a message that says we are lesser creatures or debased ‘sinners,’ but rather by positioning us within a creation that has a meaning and a purpose and a set of responsibilities much bigger than our own individual lives and comforts.

"It is thus not an enterprise of the intellect so much as an extended conversation that touches on, and shapes, the whole of one's life; and that includes—at least potentially—the life of the scientist, philosopher, poet and artist, and not merely that of the pastor or the missionary.

Christopher Holmes, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary

"One of the more truthful insights of the notoriously slippery term "postmodernity" is that every person speaks from a particular place. Knowledge is about perspective: everyone comes from somewhere. Therefore, none of us make judgements about what is good, true, or beautiful in a vacuum. As John Donne wrote, ‘No man is an island.’

"But 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. This is because theology has a subject. Its subject is the story Holy Scripture tells.

"What is parochial about Russell’s assumptions is that there seems to be a lack of self-awareness regarding the origins of his assumptions. He assumes that he occupies a neutral place. Russell casts himself as a person of science and of reason. Science deals with the facts, he argues. Science and reason are therefore objective. But beliefs are subjective, to be regarded with suspicion for they concern values. Facts are demonstratable, but belief is not.

"But is this really the case? I would suggest otherwise. The assumption that Mr. Russell embraces is that we live in a closed world. Accordingly, he regards theology and religion as human constructs. They are nothing but fanciful wishes and thinking. My concern with such view is that it does violence to what given religions actually believe and practice.

"Russell’s scathing criticism of theology invokes words like "false." But he never tells us where he stands when he makes such judgments. As a Christian theologian, I do believe that theology offers ways of describing the world that are unique. For example, the theological tradition believes that the world is an enchanted place. That science arose on the grounds of theological convictions regarding the goodness and sacredness of the world is not therefore an accident.

"Theological dialogue is important and interesting precisely because it encourages open and honest discussion about matters of ultimate concern. 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.

John Stackhouse, Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver

"The knowledge of God (theology and mysticism) is not like the knowledge of technology precisely because God is personal, not mechanical. So how useful is it that there are experts who probe the knowledge of the Supreme Being? I should think it would be highly useful indeed.

"For one thing, it's good to know that there is a Supreme Being who is personal and who governs the world in goodness. Otherwise, we waste time and resources and emotion trying to placate other sorts of deities or, conversely, failing to spend the appropriate time and resources and emotion relating properly to the God whose existence and character we have failed to ascertain.

"For another, it's good to know that God has made himself clear through particular histories (Israel, the Church), books (the Bible), and spokespersons so that we have a rich array of reliable data. This data is so rich, in fact, that we need trained experts to sort it all out, much as we need trained biologists to sort out the rich data of natural science.

"For a third, it's good to know that prayer, in particular, is worthwhile and to know how to engage in it properly. Knowing that we have the ear of the Almighty and knowing what to say into it has got to be among the most valuable discoveries in history.

"For a fourth, theologians tell us exactly what God promises to us, what God requires of us, and of what God warns us. If Professor 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.

"For a final example, 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.

"To dismiss theology as worthless is analogous to having been named an ambassador of your nation to the court of an overwhelmingly powerful emperor and to refuse to pay attention to experts who have spent years understanding the writings, speeches, and actions of that ruler. The lack of such knowledge would not, as Dawkins rightly says, mean that your society would be without any of its technologies. The lack of such knowledge would mean, however, that you would fail to relate properly to that monarch and thus fail to benefit from all that that superior being and culture could offer you and yours. Worse, you might alienate that emperor through your stubborn ignorance and put yourself and your people in peril.

"Ignoring theology is, to pick different images, like refusing to pay attention to what anyone else could tell you about a suitor, or a prospective adoptive parent, who is offering to make a lifelong covenant with you. Is it a good idea to engage in that relationship? A terrible idea? What sort of relationship would be best? How ought one to conduct oneself in that relationship? To disparage such information is patently foolish.

"Which, alas, is what Professor Dawkins and his kind continue to be, as the Bible says: "Respect for YHWH is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 1:7) while "The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God'" (Ps. 14:1).

Tom Faulkner, professor of theology at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Winnipeg

"John Russell quotes Richard Dawkins, asking, "What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody?" And then Professor Dawkins reminds us of all the achievements of scientists—achievements that work, from agriculture to nuclear weapons.

"But theology has always been useful in the same way that science is useful. Scientists without engineers to make their ideas practical and without entrepreneurs to market them are as "useless" as theologians.

"The clichéd response to Professor 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 Professor 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 mediaeval theologians reasoned that the revelation that all human beings are children of God means that the traditional approval of slavery is an evil mistake.

"The trouble is that no one listened to the theologians. They were like scientists who say, ‘Look at how clean the steam engine and wind power are!’ when everyone is happily manufacturing and marketing internal combustion engines.

"Slavery did not end until a few small Christian minorities started to bump up against the brutal fact of slavery in the late eighteenth century and started to interpret slavery as the evil that theologians had been calling it for a thousand years before.

"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.

"I repeat that theologians use human reason to work through the tangle of divine revelation and human practice, striving to explain what is the right thing to do in difficult situations. Even when you know intellectually what is the right thing to do, human ego and social convention usually prove more powerful than "right thinking." As Cardinal Newman said in The Idea of a University, relying on human reason in the face of human passion is like trying to carve a rock with a razor.

"Which brings me back to Professor Dawkins. He is a brilliant man! I have learned much in my work from his groundbreaking scholarship on "memes" in the study of human society. But Dawkins doesn’t sound much like a scientist in the fiery words that Mr. Russell quoted.

"P.B. Medawar won the Nobel Prize and famously warned that the passion with which scientists desire a particular outcome has absolutely nothing to do with the truth of their theories. I have to say that when Professor Dawkins speaks of religion he sounds more like a person driven by the passions of his ego than a scientist driven to reason out what is there whether we want it to be or not.

"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. The results often challenge our egos, and our egos fight back with whatever weapons they can lay their hands on. But that doesn’t mean that theologians and scientists are useless. It just means that taming the ego requires more than knowing the truths that scientists and theologians map for us."


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