A theologian at HuffPo informs me that theology “is not about God”

It is with a heavy heart that I sit down at my keyboard this morning, for I must spend the next hour locking horns (see previous post) with a theologian—one suffering so severely from cognitive dissonance that he argues that theology is not about God. Something is wrong on the Internet.

The misguided theologian, David Dunn, is described by HuffPo as an “Eastern Orthodox Christian, independent researcher, lay theologian, blogger, and dad” (his website is here).  And he’s ticked off because I criticized a piece in The Atlantic by Sara Isabella Burton arguing that we all need to study more theology.  And so Dunn sat down and wrote a longish piece for HuffPo called “Theology is not about God: An open letter to Jerry A. Coyne.” It even starts with “Dear Dr. Coyne.”

I really should stop here by saying simply, “Are you nuts? Of course it’s about God.”  But, as General Patton said, all true Americans love the sting of battle, and so I must engage Dunn in a bit more detail, if for no other reason than to show how a smart theologian, who has obviously spent years in his profession, tries to justify his existence by arguing that theology is about something different from what everyone thinks.  Further, Dunn’s piece is larded with humorous deepities.

I’ll pass over Dunn’s ad hominems; he clearly doesn’t like atheists except for ones like Marx and Nietzsche (whose atheism he calls “fantastic”). But he has no use for Dawkins and the New Atheists:

As a general rule, I avoid arguments with kitchen appliances, Christian fundamentalists, and atheists who think Dawkins makes sense. But I feel obliged to make an exception in this case. You pride yourself on being a reasonable person and on giving Christian theology a fair hearing, so I feel a scholarly duty, as one intellectual to another, to critique your recent screed against Sara Isabella Burton. She wrote an article in the Atlantic about why theology is useful for humanities scholars, whether or not they believe in God. You say you have spent the past several years reading Christian theology. Thank you for your efforts. It is important that we try to understand each other, which is why I am writing, because I think you still don’t know what theology actually is.

His argument is that theology is not about God, but about people, and takes me to task for that egregious mistake:

Dr. Coyne, you are correct when you distinguish between biblical scholars and theologians. You also correctly define biblical scholars as people who study ancient religious texts. But you go off course when you add that theologians “try to figure out what God is telling us through those texts.” This description of theology makes me wonder how much you were paying attention to what Burton actually wrote. For her, “[Theology provides] an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who–in the world outside the ivory tower–still shape plenty of the world today” (emphasis added). In other words, theology is not about trying to figure out the will of God from religious texts. Theology, in a sense, is not really about God at all. It’s about people!

. . . Theological studies is not about trying to figure out what God wants; it’s the study of how human beings respond to what they think God wants. That is why some theologians are atheists. To do what I do, belief in God is kind of irrelevant.

Well, that came as a surprise to me after two years of reading about theology, including theodicy, eschatology, and apologetics. What are those except attempts to analyze why God is doing what he does, what he wants, and how we should conceive of God and behave according to his will or his nature?

In fact, “studying how human beings respond to what they think what God wants” is to a large extent “figuring out the will of God from religious texts.” If it’s not, then what were people like C. S. Lewis, Whitehead, Plantinga, Karen Armstrong, Kierkegaard, Tillich, and so on doing? Theology is certainly more than studying how people act when they believe in God. The latter involves psychology and sociology, and while those may form a part of classical theology, you won’t find a lot of psychology and sociology in Aquinas or Augustine.

Now if you argue that theology is “about people” because it involves arguments about God filtered through the brains of theologians, then yes, it is about how humans respond to the idea of God. But Plantinga is not about sociology; he’s about apologetics: how we know God exists, why it’s rational to believe in him, and why God allows things like suffering. These people don’t write a lot about how the minds of medieval monks were affected by their beliefs.

And really, how many atheist theologians are there? I can’t think of one, except, perhaps, Shelby Spong.

I did in fact look up “theology” in the Oxford English Dictionary and found the following two definitions (the first ones):

 a. The study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relations with man and the universe; ‘the science of things divine’ (Hooker); divinity.

b. A particular theological system or theory.

Where are the “responses of people” in there?

Perhaps Dunn spends his time, as does Burton, pondering the history of how people act when they think that there’s a God, but that’s certainly not the bulk of theology—at least not the sort I’ve read. What I think Dunn is up to is avoiding all the exegesis and apologetics because he senses that the arguments for God and the interpretations of his will are weak, confused, and conflicting. It’s much easier, and less controversial, to talk about how religious people have behaved—and martyred themselves—through history.

Dunn’s cognitive dissonance, resolved by arguing that theology isn’t about God, leads him down some strange paths:

Theologians sometimes focus exclusively on a narrow swath of the tradition, in the past, but many of us also work to explain to others how our tradition should shape the way we act in the present. Maybe this seems pointless to you. After all, the New Atheist mantra is that religion is dangerous. Okay! Let’s go with that for a minute. Let’s suppose the final solution to religion is to do away with it, but that does not really solve any immediate problems. Trying to convince Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al-Qaeda) to become an atheist is like trying to turn water into wine when you don’t believe in miracles. It is a pointless exercise. A Muslim theologian who can teach others about orthodox Islam is a more effective opponent of religious extremism than an irate evangelist for New Atheism.

Does that last sentence strike you as strange? After all, it is the imams and Islamic clerics who incite and justify much of the violence of extremist Muslims.  We don’t see a lot of “Muslim theologians” decrying the censorship of The Satanic Verses or the violence that followed publication of the Danish cartoons. And how stupid is it to claim that we atheists are trying to change the minds of peolpe like al-Zawahiri, Pat Robertson, or Ken Ham? We aren’t going after them, but after the doubters and the people on the fence.

Dunn appears to see theology as a branch of history: the branch that explains how people behaved because they believed in God. Where I come from we call that “psychology”:

We do read historical documents (often in the original languages), study artistic and archaeological evidence, engage ancient and contemporary philosophy, and utilize a variety of other critical theoretical tools, but theology is not really about religion as sets of ideas, artifacts, or cultural-historical phenomena. (That is more the purview of religious studies departments.) Religion, as you rightly say, is something people kill and die for, but you only half understand why that is the case. History, anthropology, psychology, etc. can help explain the psychopathic corruption of religion as an instrument of murder, but it cannot do justice to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teressa of Calcutta, or St. Maria of Paris. For the record, I am not trying to make this a competition between religion and atheism or faith and science. My point is that only theology can begin to unravel the mystery of how these human beings could suffer and die for the love of a God they cannot see, and for people they can only believe are God’s handiwork. Ideology will make murderers, but it cannot make martyrs. Only love can do that! Only love can make a person give her life for the condemned, embrace the untouchables, and expose injustice by suffering violence without retaliation.

Only love can make martyrs? Really? Does he truly believe that? Because if he does, he’s ignorant of all the history behind martyrdom. Did the people of Jonestown kill themselves out of love? Did the 9/11 bombers act out of love? One might consider other factors, including ideology, group pressure, indoctrination and, yes, as in the case of the 9/11 “martyrs,” hatred. And, most of all, the belief that if you die for your faith—the right faith—you’re going to join God, Jesus, or Allah in the hereafter. These things are not love, but groupthink, fear, and indoctrination.

Now you might be able to twist the word “love” in such cases so it becomes the same thing as “conformity,” “indoctrination,” or even “hatred,” but that’s Orwellian doublespeak. But theologians are good at that.

And then comes Dunn’s most hilarious deepity:

Christians believe that God is love. So we academic theologians are not really studying God, because you cannot see love.

That is so amusingly puerile that it merits not a response, but a horselaugh. Suffice it to say that millions of believers throughout the world see God as more than the emotion of “love.” If Dunn simply means that God is a loving God, then he’s committed a deepity—one that completely sabotages his argument. This kind of argument wouldn’t pass muster in one of our introductory philosophy classes.

Dunn finishes off by reiterating his thesis, as if repeating it several times makes it true. (Geneticist J. B. S. Haldane’s armamentarium of wrongheaded arguments included what he called Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem: “What I say three times must be true.”) Dunn also adds a bit of snark:

Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce. Understanding what people imagine God to be demands an interdisciplinary approach that is only preserved in theological studies.

One day, New Atheists may convert the world to reason and usher in a thousand years of humanistic peace. When that happens, sure, let’s get theology out of colleges and universities. But until then, the academy needs theology precisely for what you fail to understand about it: theology is about people. So if theology does not matter, then your problem is not with an “imaginary” God. It is with human beings – marvelously flawed humans! Perhaps you wish, Dr. Coyne, that we were imaginary too.

I would suggest that if you want to understand why people martyr themselves over an imaginary God, you need to study psychology, especially ideology, indoctrination, and wish-thinking—not just theology. By all means let us teach religious history and the philosophy of religion in the academy. But what we don’t need are entire schools of theology, staffed largely by believers who occupy themselves with justifying God’s ways to man. Schools of theology do not, for instance, teach courses on “why people believe crazy things.” We don’t need schools of theology any more than we need schools of Marxism, homeopathy, or pseudoscience. Those schools are a waste of money and brainpower. Put the biblical scholars in history departments, and add a couple of philosophers of religion to the philosophy department. But deep-six most of the theologians.

In the end, any sensible person who actually reads theology can see that it is based largely on the idea that God exists. Given that belief, it falls to theologians to explain what kind of God it is, how he acts in the world, and how we should behave according to those lights. For it is God’s will, and his perceived nature, that determines how believers behave.  If you don’t believe that, look at how Catholicism has promoted the denigration of women and gays, played hob with people’s sex lives, and tortured them with threats of hell.  And don’t tell me these have nothing to do with God or his nature.

Liberal theologians claim the opposite, but the basis is still a belief in God and an interpretation of what his existence means for us. For this is what theologians are paid to do.

Maybe Dunn isn’t that kind of theologian, but he has no basis for claiming that he represents the whole baying pack.


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