I’ve spent much of the last several years reading theology of all stripes, from the most fundamentalist version (e.g. Ken Ham), to versions slightly more sophisticated, like William Lane Craig, to the most rarefied and “sophisticated” versions, like those of Karen Armstrong, Alvin Plantinga, and Søren Kierkegaard. Now I admit I’m an atheist and have read these people’s work extremely critically, but it’s no different from the way I read scientific books and papers.
And what I’ve found has been appalling. “Sophisticated” theology is not sophisticated, but a misuse of intelligence and eloquence to make really bad arguments. These range from Karen Armstrong’s argument that God is a symbol for the ineffable, but yet He really exists, and is good (how the hell can she be apophatic and yet know something about God?), to Alvin Plantinga’s laughable claim that we’re endowed with a sensus divinitatis that is all that allows us humans to perceive truth—not just the “truth” of the Christian God, but scientific truths as well. (The sensus divinitatis is apparently broken in non-Christians and atheists, and God forgot to install it in anyone living more than two thousand years ago.) You don’t learn anything from this stuff, except about the endless ability of our big brains to rationalize the most appalling kind of nonsense. It’s a mug’s game: a bunch of smart people discoursing endlessly about things they can’t possibly know about. It is a group of scholars making stuff up. And it’s a waste of time, and money—the money of those people who pay theologians or buy their books.
If you’re a scientist, and schooled to doubt—to ask, whether it be scientific claims or other claims, “How do you know that?”—reading theology is an exercise in masochism. There’s nothing to learn about reality, except how smart people pull an intellectual con game, selling their delusions to others. I am a bad person for saying this, but I despise the “sophisticated” theologians like Plantinga more than I do fundamentalists like Ken Ham. For Plantinga is a very smart guy, and yet misuses his intelligence to deceive others and give “sophisticated” Christians justification for their beliefs. In contrast, Ham simple-mindedly advocates what he finds in the Bible; he’s not smart enough to use modal logic and the tools of philosophy to deceive smart Christians. One sometimes gets the feeling that the Sophisticated Theologians™don’t fully believe what they say: that they’re engaged in some kind of academic exercise to see how clever they can be. But I may be wrong. What is certain is that Ken Ham really believes what he says.
But enough ranting. I suppose I’ve derived some benefit from my two years of torture, if only that I’ve earned the credibility of having come to grips with “sophisticated” theology and witnessed first hand its absence of clothes. Nobody can accuse me of not having read theology’s “best” arguments. (By “best,” of course, they mean “those arguments couched in the fanciest language and most tortuous logic.” The “best” arguments for the existence of natural evil in a world supposedly run by an omnibenevolent God are no more convincing than the worst arguments.)
Yet in the continuing defense of theology, writer Tara Isabella Burton, who is doing a doctorate in theology at Oxford, extols the field’s virtues in a new piece at The Atlantic, “Study theology, even if you don’t believe in God.” Burton concludes that dismantling schools of theology is “throwing out the baby along with the bathwater,” and “an unfortunate example of blindness.” She gives two reasons:
1. Theology is a discipline that encompasses everything in the humanities. It’s the best way to get a broad education.
Richard Dawkins would do well to look at the skills imparted by the Theology department of his own alma mater, Oxford (also my own). The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism. As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”
The problem with this is that theology filters everything through God, so that any secular contributions to humanities are ignored. All nonreligious art, literature (most of it), and any history that doesn’t involve religion is ignored. What about reading the parts of The Brothers Karamazov (or, for that matter, Anna Karenina) which don’t deal with religion at all? Is there any theology in The Great Gatsby? And of course just studying theology, or even getting a degree in it, doesn’t require you to be a historian, philosopher, linguist, and textual interpreter. That, of course, depends on what aspect of theology you study, how smart you are, and how hard you apply yourself.
Remember, too, that schools of theology embrace two type of scholars: BIblical scholars, who figure out how ancient texts were constructed (many of these are atheists), and theologians, who try to figure out what God is telling us through those texts. The former are involved in understanding how people came to believe in a nonexistent being, the latter are paid to rationalize the existence of that nonexistent being and to figure out what He wants. Only the former is a useful exercise, as it’s part of human history. But it’s by no means the only part of human history and human culture.
Unlike Burton, I don’t see studying theology as the best way to embrace all of human culture. If you want to do that, study literature, history (including religious history if you must), psychology, and diverse courses in the humanities. Unlike theology, that will give you a balanced education.
In my view, schools of theology or divinity shouldn’t exist. The Biblical scholars can be put in history departments, and any theologians (and there shouldn’t be more than one or two in any university) put in philosophy departments, where they will have to justify their activities in competition with people who actually practice rational discourse. If you want to train preachers, by all means send them to seminaries. But studying a nonexistent being is not a proper subject for a modern university, and there shouldn’t be departments for that. Recognizing this, Thomas Jefferson banned the teaching of theology at the school he founded: The University of Virgina. U. Va. should be proud of that. In contrast, schools like Harvard (and my own) simply harbor divinity schools as useless vestiges of bygone days, like scholarly wisdom teeth.
2. Theology helps us engage the mindset of medieval people.
Yet, for me, the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth. I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two.
But for me, it allowed me access into the fundamental building blocks of the mentality, say, of a 12th-century French monk, or a mystic from besieged Byzantium. While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own. The difference between whether—as was the case in the Arian controversy of the fourth-century AD—the Godhead should be thought of as powerful first, and loving second, or loving first and powerful second, might seem utterly pedantic in a world where plenty of people see no need to think about God at all. But when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs—hardly a merely historical phenomenon—it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers. How does that 12th-century French monk’s view of the nature of God affect the way he sees himself, his relationship with others, his relationship with the natural world, his relationship with his own mortality? How does that Byzantine mystic conceive of space and time in a world he envisions as imbued with the sacred? To find such questions integral to any study of the past is not restricted to those who agree with the answers. To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy.
The “historical mindset” Burton is discussing here is the mindset of a very few educated people: monks, ministers, and Church Fathers like Aquinas and Origen. It has no bearing on the minds of the vast majority of people who were too busy scraping out a living to even think about theology. Yes, they believed in God, Jesus, Heaven, and Hell, but only because their parents and ministers told them to believe that stuff, and their society was soaked in it. But to understand their willingness to kill or die for it involves understanding not religion, but the totalitarian mentality that undergirds not just religion, but ideologies like Marxism and Nazism, which might well be considered “religious ideologies.” It involves psychology: the way people can manipulate the minds of others.
As for how a 12th-century monk views the nature of God, really, is that more interesting than figuring out how 12th century French peasants viewed their existence? I don’t think so. Try reading Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, or William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire, and see if you think those don’t give a far more interesting—and balanced—view of medieval life. Both book are excellent, and the first a masterpiece.
Perhaps there’s room in academia for someone who studies religion to see how it affects the behavior of others, but that’s no justification for creating entire schools of these people, for they only serve to lend an air of scholarly verisimilitude to an otherwise bald, unconvincing, and entirely false narrative.
To study theology might not require faith, but I doubt it requires empathy, either. The main requirement is an infinite tolerance for reading stuff that’s simply made up by people with fancy degrees. Oh, and you have to be able to wade through the worst prose, and the worst logic, in the world.