Does theology have a reason to exist?

deal with itThe following is semi-formal discussion of theology and philosophy. While I am passionate about the subject matter, it could come across as stuffy and impersonal compared to my usual posts. I will use words like “situatedness.” Deal with it.

Theology is both wrong and harmful in its common use

This came up in a private conversation: I would contend that theology is simply harmful in general or at least as people usually go about working in the discipline. Outside of a very select group of claims, any time that theology tries to make metaphysical assertions, it both fails and harms.

Theology fails because it does not provide justification for its beliefs beyond the pure assertion of those beliefs, the assertions usually taking the guise of direct revelation from God. The guise fades when one asks theology to defend the status of revelation.

Theology harms because these unjustified claims then go on to become boundary markers which delineate the shape of the in-group or the tribe, thus excluding and marking as “heathen” and “other” those who take up alternate positions.

Theology fails in making metaphysical claims

So, then, does theology have continued relevance? As a discipline similar to the sciences or philosophy, which aspire to answer questions of truth, my answer is quite simply “no.” Theology certainly has no (or few) shared interests with science, and whatever it shares with philosophy, philosophy does better. The only plausible claim to truth which theology might hold over philosophy is divine revelation; yet, so far as I am aware, all instances of supposed divine revelation are suspect. Such instances are much more easily explained in human terms.

If theology were to attempt to continue investigating metaphysics in the same or similar manner as philosophy, then it would do so as though it were trying to describe the universe using a translated ancient vocabulary with its meanings mangled by a centuries-long game of telephone.

Foremost among the metaphysical failures of theology is, I believe, that theological meta-ethics frequently settles on divine command theory.* Divine command theory gives special metaphysical status to every moral command, supposing it to be a fundamental part of the moral fabric of the universe. For example, from now til the end of time will sex before marriage be forbidden; this is what God has commanded.** To the theologian, it is as true as the laws of physics. Yet by taking this approach, the theologian forgets the historical situatedness of the Biblical prescriptions for sexuality, firstly in the ancient near eastern world and secondly in Roman-occupied Hellenistic Israel.

* Thomas Aquinas approached ethics from the vantage point of natural law and virtue theory, which are decidedly philosophical positions. This excuses Aquinas and others like him from my criticisms here.
**This presupposes that the theologian assumes both divine command theory and the eternal unchanging nature of God, which are fairly common beliefs to hold in tandem. If one were to hold DCT but not God’s unchanging nature, I would criticize DCT differently, but I exclude this argument for brevity’s sake and to criticize the more common position.

Treating morality this way, the meanings of the various Biblical prescriptions regarding sexuality or any subject, then, take on bizarre shades that may or may not share any attributes with their original contexts, even though they may pretend at this status: because God supposedly commanded various things through Scripture, they must apply in the same fashion even today. Additionally, the theologian assumes that the prescriptions were appropriate in the first place, i.e. that the Bible always gives good moral advice, which is questionable if not simply incorrect. For all of the Bible’s many merits, it is the product of sexist, homophobic people. It follows that theology attempted in such a manner should fail miserably to meet the moral challenges of the present generation.

In other areas of metaphysics, such as in claiming attributes about God, theology fails similarly. Among other things, one cannot provide any sort of justification, including revelation, that God exists as a Trinity. Even supposing that (a) Jesus was God and that (b) the Gospels accurately record his sayings (at least (b) is dubious), one must contend with Jesus’ statement in John 3 that he has revealed things to us by analogy so that we may understand and relate to them. Theology is thus impotent to make claims which extend beyond analogy, yet it demands more than analogy if it wishes to make strong claims about morality, a seeming necessity to those who hold theology most dear.

Theology creates hostility

Among those who approach theology as a metaphysics, there is a decidedly strong tendency to cast dissent in a combative light. Because the theologian tries to say that some things about God are right and some are wrong — and this without justification, as previously discussed — contrasting opinions are not simply wrong but also dangerous. The fates of immortal souls hang in the balance.

Contrasted with, say, differences between the opinions of virtue theorists and consequentialists, differences of opinion between theologians and the laypeople who ascribe to various schools of thought are not merely differing perspectives, each with their merits. Rather, each theologian supposes that the others are making some grievous mistake which will have horrendous results in the eternal scheme. Depending on exactly how grievous this mistake may be, the theologians may either forge an uneasy alliance or engage in outright verbal or, if society should allow, physical combat.

And because theology as a metaphysics relies on the false assumption of revelation, differences between theologians are intractable. The conversation boils down to the arbitrary selection of which passages are definitive out of the contradictory whole of the Bible, as even the best hermeneutics can only interpret a passage, not resolve a contradiction. One camp places importance on one set of texts, whereas another camp reveres another set. They duke it out in various arenas until one camp silences the other, usually by some means of coercion. Then another group decides a different set of texts to be most important, and this cycle continues ad nauseum.

The only solution for a sustainable theology as metaphysics is to establish a governing body which imposes its arbitrary selections on all others. Thus, the authority of the Catholic and Orthodox churches seems momentarily inviting to the bedraggled Protestant who tires of constant inter- and intra-denominational bickering. It resolves by force, under the guise of apostolic authority and not by reasoned justification, the otherwise endless debate. Yet, because no human authority is omnipotent, the occasional dissent may still arise, resulting in the various schisms.

Theology must abandon metaphysics and embrace mythology

If one looks at the earliest myths prior to their later misinterpretation and misuse by later generations (one could consider this the earliest theology), one sees various people-groups attempting to define themselves and their cultural values. Whereas Jewish theologians pretending to metaphysics in the first century AD and immediately prior supposed themselves to be good because of their actual lineage to Abraham, the myth-makers who invented Abraham (or at the very least mythologized him) did so to carve out an identity around which their people could gather. Historicity was of secondary importance to establishing a culture.

Theology must reclaim myth-making and myth-telling to retain its importance in society. Myth affords us both a common set of values at the same time as it allows for flexibility within those values. Myth can hold high stories of virtuous or flawed heroes without requiring that we emulate those heroes precisely. It gives us the freedom to consider philosophy individually while also tying us to our neighbor.

Yet one could very easily question why myth-making and -telling should be theological; there is nothing which explicitly forbids secular myths. Here, we should say two things: first, it would be widely beneficial for secularists to craft or select their own myths, preferably in tandem with those of theists in order that the competing but similar myths should give us a sense in which we are both participating in the same human experience. Second, I should point out that the original question was for the future of theology, not culture in general, thus presuming that there is at least some agreement that God probably exists (or at least is a useful concept) among those to whom this question is relevant.*

*Such an agreement would be either philosophical or historical in nature, not theological, deferring either to strong arguments for the existence of a god in general, such as those by Aquinas (though they fail to support Christianity in specific), or to arguments for the divinity of Jesus, which are less widely-supported but which I personally hold to have at least a modicum of plausibility.

In myth and its close cousins analogy, allegory, and metaphor, theological concepts like the Trinity may regain significance. While one has little reason to believe that God exists metaphysically as the Trinity, the Trinity can exist as part of our cultural identity as a descriptive metaphor for how God desires cooperation and unity (among other things).

Another natural question which arises is why we should engage in mythology rather than, say, theistic philosophy. The latter is important and should continue; however, mythology is not just simplified philosophy in story form. Mythology may partially be this, but it is also a common framework for understanding cultural identity and value. I draw heavily from MacIntyre here (After Virtue) in suggesting that virtue in society consists of excelling in those things which the culture values, and mythology is an excellent way to frame cultural values: something like Harry Potter can capture the values of a society not just for the philosopher but also for the doctor, the salesman, the engineer, and the janitor. It may be up to the philosopher to help us refine or reconsider our values, but he/she cannot simply decide what we find valuable, and mythology helps us decide our values together by engaging us with a single narrative.

Theology has a future but perhaps not the future it wants

I sincerely doubt that my contentions here will resonate very strongly with the majority of people engaged in the discipline of theology at present. And of course, with this being a blog post and not a paper or book, I am sure I have made some oversights, and I would welcome discussion on anything I may have missed. Still, I do believe that the future of theology lies in reintroducing society to the mythic mindset, no matter what its current practitioners may desire. Theology as metaphysics is dead just as speculative metaphysics in general is dead, though perhaps some have tied puppet strings to its lifeless limbs. We should instead embrace the mystery of God and learn new ways of relating to Him and to each other.

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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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7 Responses to Does theology have a reason to exist?

  1. There is, of course, a big argument as to whether or not theology should try to be intelligible to those who are not – speaking from own location – Christians. Christian theology that bows before secular philosophy and science ends up looking like the kind of work that Bultmann and Tillich did, which is only nominally Christian anyway. Ultimately it is the community of the church that makes the claims of theology valid or not; theology ought not be divorced from the church but seen as a form of prayer and worship (as the East views it). Lindbeck and the other postliberals have helped me to see doctrine and the practice of theology as a communal practice that doesn’t necessarily need outside verification to make it viable.

  2. FiveCentFather says:

    I agree with Drew above. We need to keep theology within the church. Too often we are trying to apply our theology to the world in general,, and not surprisingly the world will have none of it. I also think we tend to divorce theology from the rest of our faith. We make it an intellectual exercise or the mind alone, rather than taking a more holistic approach to it. I think that’s because of our propensity as humans to catalog and control information. Since we have to KNOW how it all works we can’t accept that maybe we can’t know or SHOULDN’T know.

    While I understand your frustration with our current method of handling theology, Chris, I’m not sure that a mythological approach would work in these modern times. People tend to reject ANYTHING that smacks of legend or myth these days. In fact, we see a HUGE push to expose every possible “untruth” that used to be acceptable as myth. Just look at Mythbuster, for instance. Things that it used to be OK to believe (because we just don’t really know, one way or the other) are now no longer acceptable to believe in the name of “education”. We want to confine all our myths to entertainment media. In fact, I’ve had people go so far as to deny that the reason we see mythological ideas so often in media is because we have a basic need to believe these stories as truth — that they resonate within our very souls. People not only don’t want to be told what to believe (and certainly not when it comes to mythology), but won’t even allow others to believe them in peace (well, at least not without a proper amount of name-calling and derision for their “backwards ideas”.)

    Unless people (and here I speak mostly of Western cultures), both Christians and those who have yet to embrace faith, can somehow learn that’s it’s OK NOT to KNOW everything, but just believe because it feels right, I don’t know if the Spirit will be able to make much headway against the never-ending tide of know-it-alls.

  3. I would encourage you to read some theological classics like Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith. You seem like you are trying to reinvent a wheel that others have been riding around on for a good half a century. 🙂

    • I’ve read part of that book! I have always intended to finish. I may even try tonight, since it’s pretty short. But I can see that. I’ll give more thought to it after I read.

  4. shon says:

    If the Gospels are dubious should not A that Jesus was God be considered dubious as well? I am very confused as to how your belief system works, it does not seem like Christianity has any basis to be considered as having any truth besides a Asop type fables.

    • There are lots of issues to consider, to be sure, but Aesop wrote simple morality tales. Christianity is identify-forming. Now I wouldn’t consider the Gospels dubious in general — just insofar as we would consider them direct historical accounts. But I will be writing more in coming days on myth, I hope. Might help clear up some of the differences.

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