Under the tutelage of the estimable Eric MacDonald, I have spent several weeks reading Christian theology. And so far, I have learned only three things:
1. I am spending my middle age reading drivel about beliefs that have no basis in fact. This seems a total waste of time. I could be reading books about real things instead.
2. Theologians can’t write. A lot of what they have to say is postmodern or obscure bafflegab, and I’m starting to believe that this obscurantism is deliberate because of reason 3 (below). I have for example, just opened my book (An Introduction to Christian Theology, edited by Roger A. Badham) to a random chapter, which turned out to be “Process theology and the current church struggle” by John B. Cobb, Jr. (Process theology holds that god is not immutable but changes over time, and so does his creation, not totally under his direction.) And there I find this, in a discussion of Alfred North Whitehead (one of the founders of this “school”):
But each occasion transcends the causality of the past by responding to it with more or less originality. This requires that physical prehensions are supplemented by “conceptual” ones. Thus, in addition to prehending past events, an occasion also takes account of possibilities ingredient in those events or closely related to them. Just how it relates these possibilities to the actualities it feels is its “decision.” That means that in a situation that is inherently indeterminate, there is a determinate outcome Other possibilities are cut off.
Believe me, the book contains paragraphs far more obscure and pretentious than this one. Can you imagine reading this stuff night after night? Do you see why my head feels about to explode? Eric, why are you doing this to me?
3. There seems to be no “knowledge” behind theology, and I haven’t learned anything—not even any clever philosophy. One gets the strong sense when reading theology (and granted, I am biased) that everyone is just making stuff up.
I’m trying to learn theology so I can meet head-on the argument that atheists are ignorant of theology and hence unqualified to combat religion. But it doesn’t take much reading to realize that we already know the best way to challenge theologians: ask them “how do you know that what you’re saying describes anything about reality?” and “How do you know that your take on reality is better than that of other theologians?”
But I persist, and am asking readers, particularly if they have some knowledge of theology, if they have any insight into the following questions. I am dead serious here, and not looking for sarcastic answers. I’m even hoping that some real theologians will read this and provide some answers.
- What are the arguments for god’s existence in the new sophisticated theology that aren’t taken up and refuted in The God Delusion? I must say that I haven’t found any; in fact, there are few arguments for god’s existence at all in what I read: people just assume he/she/it is real and go from there.
- Has theology really “progressed”? That is, has it gotten closer to some deeper and more accurate understanding of the nature of god, how that god operated, what that god is like, and what it wants? As far as I can see, theology “progresses” only when it has to quickly regroup to deal with either scientific advances or changes in secular morality (e.g., it’s wrong to have slaves and oppress women). So the idea—adumbrated by Francis Collins in yesterday’s post—that god uses evolution as his means of creating humans, is not an advance in theology. It is a change in theology confected to accommodate an advance in science. Ditto with the 1978 “revelation” by Mormon bigwigs that it was okay after all for blacks to enter its priesthood.
- What knowledge about the world (or about god) has theology produced? By “knowledge”, I mean “truths about the way things are”, and here I explicitly rule out philosophical advances that aren’t directly rooted in faith.
- Is theology anything more than a bunch of smart people making stuff up and couching it in academic language? If it isn’t, then we already have the armamentarium to combat it: requests for evidence. If it is, what are its major accomplishments?
I know I’m repeating the frustration I’ve expressed in earlier posts, but I don’t want to waste months of my life reading this stuff if there’s nothing to be gained from it except the ability to say to my opponents, “Yes, I do know about theological schools X, Y, and Z.” Why bother to torture our brains if we can simply ask theologians to prove, using evidence and reason, that their viewpoint is correct, and better than that of either atheists or other theologians?
I’m starting to think that modern theology is simply postmodern literary criticism applied to a single book of fiction.