Is theology a subject?

Ch.1, §1: ‘Deserved Respect’ (pp.31–41), continued

Discussing a clergyman who had criticised Einstein for not knowing what he was talking about, Dawkins comments:

The notion that religion is a proper field, in which one might claim expertise, is one that should not go unquestioned. That clergyman presumably would not have deferred to the expertise of a claimed ‘fairyologist’ on the exact shape and colour of fairy wings…. [He] thought that Einstein, being theologically untrained, had misunderstood the nature of God. On the contrary, Einstein understood very well exactly what he was denying.

I find that comment about the ‘fairyologist’ very illuminating. It exposes the model Dawkins has in mind when he talks about ‘theology’, and explains comments that would otherwise be completely baffling. Dawkins sees theologians, I think, as a strange kind of failed botanist. They are botanists who study the habitat and foliage of an entirely non-existent plant – so what could they possibly have to say that would be of any interest (except the interest that comes from deluded people revealing the nature of the twists that distort their minds)? Or perhaps they are more like failed particle physicists, who devote their time to analysing the properties of the strange particle whose interactions they believe dictate the course of the universe – but who refuse to listen to their more sober colleagues who repeatedly explain the mathematical errors in their theoretical proofs, and point out the ways in which all the instrumental readings that are supposed to confirm the existence of this particle are far more easily explained by the properties and quirks of the instruments themselves.

The only trouble with this sort of model of what it is to be a theologian is that it would not allow you to make any sense at all of what actually goes on in a theology department. In other words, it is a model that can itself be tested against empirical reality, and shown to have as much substance as those fairy wings.

Let me talk about my own department (the Department of Theology at the University of Exeter). Suppose Dawkins were to decide, perhaps in order to fill a segment in a new television programme, that he was going to sit in on a degree course here, or join in the research discussions of our staff.

For a start, he would be welcome: there is no requirement that staff or students believe in God (and, yes, we do already have atheist members of staff, and we do already have atheist students). Then he would find himself engaged in a whole set of intellectual pursuits, none of which looks like the failed botanist/physicist model.

He would, for instance, find out a great deal about the history of the Christian tradition, and about the contexts in which the Biblical texts used in Christianity were produced. Part of this study would involve learning about the history of Judaeo-Christian talk about God: how did it arise, what function did it play in the various contexts in which it flourished, what different things have been meant by it? What reasons have been given for and against its different forms? How have different forms of belief in God shaped lives, individually and socially? None of this would require him to believe it himself, but it would require him to become a careful observer – not of God, but of believers in God.

Then, alongside this broadly historical study, he would find himself pursuing philosophical discussion of the claims involved: ‘philosophy of religion’. To take just one example (because it will come up again later): having studied the theology of Anselm of Canterbury in his historical context, Dawkins would in the more philosophical part of the course examine the premises and structure of Anselm’s argument philosophically: seeking as much intellectual clarity and rigour as possible about whether it works, and what the errors are if it does not. (As we shall see, this is a portion of the course I’d recommend wholeheartedly to Dawkins, not because I think Anselm’s argument works as a proof of the existence of God, but because I think Dawkins has misunderstood it). He would end up examining in detail the main arguments for and against the existence of God; he would end up examining in similar detail the coherence and implications of some of the main claims that have been made about God, and so on. He would end up doing quite a bit of moral philosophy: examining the different ways that people have gone about justifiying moral claims, the arguments that religious people have made about those ways, and so on. He would get marks for the clarity and cogency of his arguments, not for whether his conclusions matched any pre-defined religious set of answers.

I suspect that, so far, there is nothing that Dawkins could object to. His book is, after all, packed with precisely these kinds of discussion – claims about what religious believers have believed and do believe (and why), claims about how it shapes their lives and our world, claims about what sense it makes, and the robust rational testing of whether any of it is coherent or justified.

There is, however, a third kind of intellectual work involved – and it is this one which I suspect Dawkins dislikes. This is the kind of intellectual work that does not simply investigate and subject to rational critique the past and present claims made by religious believers, but rather works with those claims to see what can be made of them. It is the kind of intellectual work that can look most like deluded botany or loony physics – until one looks a little closer. It is the kind of work that

  1. starts with the results of the kind of historical investigation that exposes the differing things that Christians (for example) have meant by God, and their differing reasons for saying them,
  2. tries to give as charitable an interpretation of contemporary Christian belief as possible (with the help of the philosophy of religion where necessary) – i.e., it proposes a ‘take’ on those claims, a way of making sense of them, that is as faithful as possible to what Christians have believed and do believe, but also as coherent and intelligble as possible, and then
  3. asks about the implications of Christian belief if it is understood this way. What else does it appear to commit Christians to believing? What practices cohere with it? What challenges are appropriate to it? What questions does it raise?

What this kind of study works on is still Christian believing. What the theologian-botanist thinks he has in his jars, or the theologian-physicist thinks she has in her particle accelerator, is not God, but what Christians say and believe about God. To undertake this kind of study, you do not have to believe in God, but you do have to believe that there are people who do believe in God. And you do not have to believe that they are right in what they believe – but you do have to believe that at least some of them, some of the time, think about their faith and are open to argument, and you do have to believe that those who are thoughtful and open to argument would do well to think as carefully as possible, to understand the implications of what they say, to know more about alternative ways of making sense of the things they talk about, to see what kinds of claim they are implicitly making about the world in which they live, and so on.

Let me take an example from my own Department (simplified for the sake of presentation). A theologian might examine some of the things that Christians say about what was going on on Jesus’s cross. This theologian might examine in historical and contemporary Christianity the development of the relevant ideas, and note the connections between those ideas and Christian attitudes to crime and punishment. He might then point out that what is now regularly taken in some prominent strands of Christianity to be the main or only way of making sense of the cross (a) has a strong link to some questionable aspects of Christian (and wider) views about the punishment of criminals, and (b) is not the only way of making sense of the cross that has been prominent in the Christian tradition. He might then demonstrate (c) that there are good reasons based on some of the other beliefs and commitments that these same contemporary Christians have – i.e., reasons that those Christians themselves should in principle accept – to see flaws in both the ideas about the cross they currently have, and the attitudes to penal policy, and he might then argue (d) that to shift to another way of understanding the cross that will do better justice to their other convictions, and (e) that it might have rather different implications for their understanding of crime and punishment.

Note several things about this example. (1) One would not need oneself to be a believer to undertake this study – though one would need to be a thoughtful and sensitive interpreter of belief – tuned in not just to the surface details of what Christian people say and do, but to the deeper patterns of thought and sensibility that underlie those details. One would need, as it were, to be something like a good ethnographer of Christian culture. (I should add, just in case any one identifies the example, that the real theologian I am using as an example is a Christian believer, as it happens.) (2) Each step of this can be pursued with intellectual rigour. Is this what a dominant group of contemporary Christians really think? Did earlier Christians really believe rather different things? Are the connections between theological belief and social attitudes real? Are there really reasons amongst the other convictions of those contemporary Christians for critiquing this view, and preferring another? And so on. (3) Even if one thinks of this as an investigation of, and a making of suggestions about, the false beliefs of deluded people, it might well be worth doing, and worth doing well: it has the potential to make an impact for the better on what those people say and do. (4) None of this involves the theologian in making the kinds of claim that a theologian-as-quasi-botanist would make: if the theologian says, ‘God is not like that, but like this’, that is not based on him having taken some kind of measurement of God, or having simply made one up in the absence of such measurements – it is always a way of saying ‘The God that you believe in is, according to what you believe, to the sources you base your belief on, and to the other things you say you believe, not like that, but like this’: it is always, always, always an attempted repair of an existing pattern of thought and belief.

Even an atheist should be able to agree both that there is a real subject matter here, and that there is the possibility of real rigour and intellectual integrity in this discussion. The only points which seem to me controversial are (a) the claim that at least some religious people do think about what they believe, have reasons for it, and are open to discussing those reasons and their implications; and (b) the claim that even if Dawkins is right, and the central premise of these Christians’ belief is wrong, it would still be a good thing if (until they saw the wider error of their ways) they thought carefully and argued intelligently about what they believed.

For (a), you can rest assured: I know from experience that this is true.

And (b)? Well, I guess I just have a touching faith in the importance of careful thinking.

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