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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Is Theology Bullshit? 
1st-Sep-2009 09:48 pm
What Is A Theologian?
Each semester that I teach Introduction To Theology, I begin with raising the question, "Is Theology Make-Believe?" (This is the English translation of the Irish form of the question as I have it in the title of this entry.) I do this for one simple reason: all of us have grown up in a culture defined philosophically by the movement called The Enlightenment, an 18th-century philosophical movement that is at the root of contemporary European and American thinking. Having graced itself with this name, "the Enlightenment," which more than implies the correctness of its own positions, this movement was radically anti-spiritual, effectively dismissing all of religious faith as a matter of personal, subjective, "belief" that has nothing to do with any actual facts about the universe. Since those kind of ideas are – whether accepted or resisted – saturating the brains of my students, I prefer to address them directly, and to examine whether there is in fact good reason to consider Theology as a discipline a science that produces knowledge, and not a kind of mental self-pleasuring for those who are interested in "that sort of thing."

To this end, I open up with an article that I know will be too difficult for most of my beginning students, but which I will help them through. This article is a symposium, a conversation by four scholars: a Political Science professor from Louisiana State University, a Methodist Ethics professor from Duke University, a Catholic Studies professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and an Orthodox theologian. Entitled " Theology as Knowledge: A Symposium", this conversation takes on the question of whether Theology as a discipline truly produces knowledge (just like, say, history, sociology, or chemistry) and whether it properly belongs in the university. Although all of these participants reject the Enlightenment's decree that Theology no longer counts as a real discipline, they represent a diversity of perspectives on Theology's relation to knowledge and its place in the contemporary university. As I said, I guide my students through this material and through the new vocabulary and concepts, but I want them to see what an informed person with a reasonable university education should be able to read regarding matters religious or theological. This is not USA Today, designed for sixth-grade readers. At the end of the semester, the students revisit this article for a final exam essay, and in that way I give them an experiential insight into how much their own capacity to read this subject intelligently has developed over the length of the course.

I was struck today by our opening-of-the-year Department of Theology convocation today, where, as it turned out, this very question was addressed in a public discussion by the faculty. This attitude toward Theology as a discipline is not just a problem among under-read and under-educated freshmen, but is also the general way of thinking among the bulk of the faculty in the other departments, even at a Catholic university. This has been recently highlighted for us by the feature article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, "The Ethics of Being A Theologian". The author, K.L. Noll, a Canadian professor of Religious Studies, took for granted that his discipline, secular Religious Studies, produced real knowledge, while Theology does not. This was an article published in the primary journal for the university community as a whole, and is so full of the sort of ill-considered stereotypes that the scholars in the "Theology as Knowledge" symposium attempt to address that it fills me with dismay to see the kind of obstinate avoidance of any thought that can challenge Enlightenment dogma – and this among university educators. Despite being a Religious Studies professor, he had no idea of what theologians actually do, and the variety of methodologies by which they conduct their research and produce their conclusions. In the face of contemporary atheist critiques, he says, all theologians are just dismissive. Maybe that's what I sound like I am being here, but I'm not here going to try to reproduce in print an exhaustive and book-length explanation of everything that theologians do. But I can make that case.

At the convocation, Kurz responded with a detailed examination of the variety of methods he employs as a biblical theologian, highlighting the vast intellectual requirements necessary to do his work, and the sorts of results they produce. Masson addressed a variety of points in response to Noll, one of which specifically addressed the engagement with reason and sense-data incumbent upon the theologian, specifically in his case coming from the Scholasticism of Thomas Aquinas: the same medieval affirmation of the truth of sense-data that helped give rise to the modern physical sciences. Long waded into Noll's basing his argument on the philosophy known as Logical Positivism, as almost all of today's "scientific fact versus religious faith" arguments are, despite the repeated discrediting of this philosophical approach in recent decades, as well noting how Noll's article persists in believing that one can separate "reason" from "faith" in human thinking, as though any system of thought does not depend on first principles, presuppositions, or dogmas. That insight is one of the most basic insights in post-Modern thinking, but is absent in this kind of recycled 18th century Enlightenment anti-religious folk wisdom. Barnes was the quietest and yet most damning. He took issue with Noll's characterization that
In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to "kill" the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.
The idea, Barnes argued, that in this illustration, one can get at the truth of a thing by the examination of its corpse was as false for the frog as it is for as complex a human reality as religion. (I couldn't help but be reminded of the passage in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings where Gandalf says to Saruman that, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.") More than that, though, Barnes was quietly outraged at the cheek of an atheist to even employ the metaphor of vivasection as a path to truth. (And despite his claim to be personally a theist and professionally an agnostic, Noll's methods assume and necessarily conclude the reality of atheism – another major problem with his approach.) If Christians today, Barnes argued, have to always answer for incidents of the past where Christianity as a whole is held responsible for any crimes of past individuals – excesses in the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Galileo trial – then atheists today cannot be excused from answering for the crimes of organized atheist regimes: the vast genocides of the French Revolution, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the People's Republic of China. Programmatic atheism repeatedly ends in death; vast, organized, death. Barnes argued that an atheistic argument which would here casually employ a metaphor of killing the subject in order to get at the truth of it, without the slightest shame by the author of that argument, had come to the limits of tolerance in educated conversation. Christians, Barnes believed, have too long been too generous in letting atheists be treated as individual and noble conversation-partners, without ever raising an issue of atheist complicity in atheist social atrocities. As I said, that made for a sobering end to the four panelists who responded to the article.

The last question, then, it seemed to me, was whether this response would be heard beyond those who came to the convocation. Would theologians push the matter, into a wider Marquette publication, or, even better yet, an attempt to print a version of the convocation as a response in the Chronicle of Higher Education itself? That seems to me the most important of goals, as it is there that the distortions and stereotypes were being most widely distributed among academics who didn't have the necessary education specialities to be able to locate the weaknesses in the article by themselves.
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