Towards A Proper Theology

I suspect the question only popped into my head because I’ve been reading too much Borges lately, but it occurred to me to wonder if it would be possible in principle to develop a worthwhile, intellectually respectable form of theology. After all, theologians over the centuries have engaged in a great deal of complex, rigorous and even beautiful thinking, only to have their efforts dismissed as worthless because their premises – the existence of a single omnipotent deity, for example, or the fundamental truth of the New Testament – are so obviously dodgy.

Philosophers realized long ago that the way to deal with this kind of problem was simply to come clean. Admit that your crazy premise may not be reflected in empirical reality, and you’re suddenly “doing a thought experiment” rather than engaging in unwarranted speculation. One can play with an idea, work out its implications, and use it as the foundation for a spectacular edifice of logical deduction, all without ever seriously engaging with the tiresome issue of whether the idea is correct. I’m describing the procedure in rather flippant terms, of course, but I do think it has real value. This kind of intellectual work can clarify the implications of particular ideas: if you’re going to believe A, then B, C and D follow, as implacably as bloodhounds on the scent, while E and F are firmly excluded. If you yearn for E and F or can’t stand B, C and D, then you’d better find a worldview that doesn’t include A as an essential component.

If A is something directly testable, like the infamous statement “all ravens are black”, the next step is to go out and collect evidence. Cases in which A is not directly testable, but B, C, D, E and F are, will probably prove more interesting to a scientist, detective or historian. Philosophers come into their own when testability doesn’t even enter the picture – when A is something like “we ought to always act in a way that minimizes the amount of suffering in the world” or “the entire cosmos was created two minutes ago, complete with misleading evidence of a long prior history” – or when A is patently false but still interesting enough that contemplation of what would follow if it happened to be true can comfortably fill a few academic papers.

Theological values of A are statements along the lines of “one benevolent god exists” and “humans have a soul that persists after death”. Many of them are basically untestable, but others are at least vaguely susceptible to refutation on the basis of facts and logic. If this one god is so benevolent, for example, then why is prayer hardly more useful than buying a lottery ticket, and why is indiscriminately distributed suffering so much a feature of mortal existence?

A proper theology would be a skeptical philosophy and science of religion. Theologians would devote some of their time to testing testable claims about gods and souls, and some to playing around with untestable ones in the way that philosophers play around with other moral and metaphysical propositions. Actually believing in gods, in the absence (likely to be maintained indefinitely) of a damn good reason, would be highly detrimental to such a theologian’s career.

9 thoughts on “Towards A Proper Theology

  1. Theology isn’t anything close to a proper field of study. Some practitioners attempt to psychoanalyze two or three named deities. This is what they think theology is.
    Theology is more of a highly restricted form of literary criticism. A form of criticism where literal understanding is not necessarily the goal. It isn’t history, philosophy or archeology.

    Understanding the mind of the ‘creator of the crocodile’ is the challenge. He or She or It must have had a morbid sense of humor in respect to us versus big reptiles.
    Also, theology has little to do with human ethics. This is the most surprising aspect of the study of the scriptures. It is about the vagaries of mandated behavior.

    Any attributes theologians attach to any of their deities would be bereft of any ability to force deities into compliance.

    People have to give up on theology as a legitimate exercise. We have to help people clearly see that theologians have imagined that their god has painted Itself into a corner. This is an absurd delusion and like all delusions it is very emotionally experiential.

    Theology is simply a form of applied madness.

    • Understanding the mind of the ‘creator of the crocodile’ is the challenge.

      I love crocodiles, and crocodilians in general. I think they’re impressive, fascinating animals, and they’re also tasty (or at least, the American alligator is – I haven’t tried any other kinds). If I were a deity, I’d create them all over the place.

      We have to help people clearly see that theologians have imagined that their god has painted Itself into a corner.

      I’m not totally sure what you mean by “painted Itself into a corner”, but what you’re proposing sounds like a sceptical analysis of theological claims. I suppose that could come from philosophers, historians of religion, or anyone else with an interest in the matter, but I’d be delighted if some university somewhere established a Department of Critical Theology that was specifically devoted to that kind of thing. The faculty members would be called theologians, because theology would after all be their main field of study, but they’d be expected to approach the subject with an unusual degree of rigour and scepticism.

  2. When Yahweh signed the deal with the Jews and later when Jesus signed the second deal with the Gentiles what were the consequences if the Deities defaulted? Never mind how the signing took place.

    There is some understanding of what will transpire if the Jews or the Gentiles default.

    Will the Pope call The Father up on the carpet?

    You certainly would have to have a background in Applied Madness to take on this case.

    • Well, yes. That’s exactly the kind of problem that I’d expect an enlightened and properly critical theologian to point out!

  3. Theology was created to support a belief in God(s), it is nonsense piled upon nonsense. The theologians goal is to support their particular religion and god(s) in general.

    A theologian who actually seeks evidence for the veracity of religious claims would be called a skeptic and soon an atheist.

    Another word for theologian is apologist.

    What about transforming bigfootology? Maybe there is
    something of value there?

    • “Bigfootology” is an interesting case. As far as I know, all full-time cryptozoologists are cranks, but there absolutely are serious biologists who pay attention to cryptozoological claims and take some of them seriously. After all, large and interesting animals (not many cryptozoological claims concern small and boring ones) that are new to science turn up occasionally, so blanket scepticism isn’t justified.

      Theological claims are different in that they are all false, to a high degree of certainty, but refuting them from a position of expertise could be considered an exercise in theology of the critical variety. In principle, you don’t have to believe in theology to know a lot about it – and what do you call someone who knows a lot about theology, if not a theologian? I’m being a little facetious here, but only a little.

  4. Well no, the testable statement is “all observed ravens are black”, and this has been proven false, there are white ravens. 🙂

    Your link is classic example of how mind bending and unintuitive logic can be. Induction be damned.

    I don’t really buy the omni benevolent criticism… Because omni things are always ill defined. A benevolent god who views creation of souls as a good, and earthly suffering as a momentary act of creation, wouldn’t really be bound by our more myopic view of suffering. Growth… Even birth often involves lots of pain, but pain is not a force of nature, just a necessary survival mechanism.

    Pain keeps us alive after all.

    But, as to theology, yes more emphasis on more modern thinking would help advance any theology, thing is, it would also severely degrade the power of the churches and other religious power structures. Some will say that this is just priests clinging to their traditional power, but the fact is tradition provides a foundation that many people crave. Without universal truth… There is only relativism and chaos… Muhahahah.

    • It’s always possible to argue for the existence of gods that are benevolent in some subtle way, however callous the universe might appear, but at least it’s possible to rule out certain kinds of divine benevolence – in particular, the straightforward ones that many believers probably have in mind when they assert that Jesus loves them. Taking simple benevolence off the table is something.

      But, as to theology, yes more emphasis on more modern thinking would help advance any theology, thing is, it would also severely degrade the power of the churches and other religious power structures.

      Hmm. You say that almost like it’s a bad thing. 🙂

      Though it didn’t occur to me when I originally wrote the post, the prospect of undermining those power structures seems like a good reason for critics of religion to acquire expertise in theology. Pointing out the more glaring flaws from outside the whole enterprise may be less persuasive than meeting the religious on their own intellectual ground and getting into details.

  5. “Though it didn’t occur to me when I originally wrote the post, the prospect of undermining those power structures seems like a good reason for critics of religion to acquire expertise in theology. Pointing out the more glaring flaws from outside the whole enterprise may be less persuasive than meeting the religious on their own intellectual ground and getting into details.”

    You ever talked directly to a true believer? The bible could say “and Jesus ate the little children with syrup and toast” and they would ignore or reinterpret it as Jesus getting rid of pesky cildren who taunted him “THEY DESERVED IT”

    Read some William Lane Craig he is bonkers.

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