Study Methodology, Even If You Believe in God

A friend of mine recently posted an article from The Atlantic (“Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God“) and I just wanted to address something that I found a little irritating. In brief, the author, Tara Isabella Burton, argues that we should mourn the decline of theology programs in both the US and UK since they are by their nature interdisciplinary.

As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.”

After explaining how she would compare contradictory texts in multiple languages, nit-picking ambiguous words, she takes her argument so far as to say that theology gave her an insight she couldn’t have gotten elsewhere.

While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own. The difference between whether—as was the case in the Arian controversy of the fourth-century AD—the Godhead should be thought of as powerful first, and loving second, or loving first and powerful second, might seem utterly pedantic in a world where plenty of people see no need to think about God at all. But when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs—hardly a merely historical phenomenon—it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers.

While I agree with the spirit of her argument – it’s a defense of intensive, critical scholarship – the author conflates two very important but different ideas. The first is the methodology of historical analysis and the second is the question of what we know (or can know) to be True.

First, what the author is advocating for is already what historians (and many others) do. It’s disingenuous for Burton to state that history can only teach us “the story of humanity on a broader scale” while it’s only in the domain of theology to grant us “insights into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances … so wildly different from our own.” It’s a presumptuous assertion, and already I can hear historians grinding their teeth (but don’t worry – we’re weak). Any historian who refuses to study their subjects on their subjects’ own terms – this includes all of the complexities of their milieu – is a bad historian. That’s all there is to it.

Second, the author also goes on to use Richard Dawkins as a foil to her argument given a 2007 letter he wrote where he “argues for the abolishment of theology in academia.” Her use of Dawkins is, I think, a little ridiculous since Burton’s implication is that Dawkins would somehow be opposed to the methodology she defends. Now, I’m sure Dawkins has no gripe with history, philosophy, linguistics, and critical analysis. Rather, it’s the theology part that’s upsetting – it’s not the study of people as people (as an historian must do), it’s the study of God. It’s the application of the aforementioned approach minus the skepticism (How can you study any religious writing without considering that maybe the author is just fundamentally wrong?).

The problem is that some (I won’t say all) theology and divinity programs are infused with the presumption that they’re getting to the truth of some grand metaphysical problem: Why does God allow evil? Is it really a Holy Trinity? Can He make a burrito so hot He can’t even eat it? These are the questions Dawkins groans over when he writes that “a positive case now needs to be made [whether theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.” When taken as serious questions these are all red herrings into the nature of reality.

Now I’m welcome to the criticism that I’ve very narrowly confined what constitutes theological inquiry, but it’s really no different than what the author just did to every other discipline.

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