Although the study of Theology introduces the thoughtful Christian to some novel and often helpful ways of looking at faith issues the first thing we notice is the sheer range of theological propositions assumed by different Christians as evidenced by different conclusions across denominations. Even the changes in theological teachings down through the centuries should warn any serious student against assuming any current theological teaching is somehow commonly accepted as of right and the more radical changes should stop thinking that earlier insights were somehow complete and immutable.
What do the scholars tell us God is like? It depends which scholar you ask. Which Bible teachings still apply today? Um……..Well perhaps not the entire 613 list of Old Testament Commandments. There aren’t enough stones.
Although theology by tradition is loosely defined as the study of God, if we are guided by the various journals of theology, many of the articles appear to attempt to systematize particular versions of faith rather than seek evidence based knowledge about whatever God is thought to be like or is intended to represent. An added problem is that we are not very good at listening to those whose insights run counter to our preferred faith position.
Some of the presumptions are supported by large numbers of followers but the degree of certainty in theological ideas often seems totally unrelated to objective evidence. Is our life really a consequence of predestination or should we feel we have a choice? Why do many Catholics accept that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the literal body and blood of Jesus? And why do some insist on the literal nature of the Virgin birth or the assumption of Mary (the bodily ascension of Mary) to heaven.
Part of the range of attitudes to theological attitudes comes about because people arrive with expectations based on their own past background experiences. Those steeped in history would approach a Biblical text like the Book of Revelation looking for historical markers. Knowing the events that were the background to the writer’s situation the figures like the beast would then seem more likely to stand for someone like a persecuting Emperor already known to the writer. Prior events to the wetting down of the gospel stories like the dispersal of Jews from Jerusalem would be seen as influences on the story.
Those, sometimes called preterists would see present events of the author’s time leading to a conclusion in which the bad guys would get their just deserts and those currently involved in a struggle for survival would be encouraged by notions of a just reward in heaven. Some of the more extreme futurists of the type who, even today, are currently fascinated by the prospects of some sort of Armageddon heralding the return of Jesus, hold to the Book of Revelation as an urgent call to attend to the signs of the approaching end. These are very different to those looking at the book as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil and who see Revelation as providing a set of symbolic and idealistic markers to guide us through the key issues of life.
Again the weakness of many of these interpretations is that without allowing for a reality check we can allow our theological interpretations to multiply and remaining at risk of staying in the realm of total fantasy.
When, just a few years ago, a group of 30 top Catholic theologians gathered in Rome to discuss the vexed puzzle of why a loving God would countenance babies dying before baptism and have them facing limbo instead of going to heaven, a cynical observer from another faith could be excused for wondering how on earth they thought their deliberations had meaning.
Yet such untested speculation is not unique to the Catholics. For example unquestioning acceptance of untested prophecy about yet to be observed phenomena associated with end times , total reliance on different contradictory scriptural sources (eg the Bible versus the Koran) and insistence that speculation about what might happen after death will somehow morph into what will actually happen regardless of the evidence are all beyond any normal form of testing. As Richard Holloway put it in his book Looking in the Distance (p 9)
“The root of the difficulty lies in the nature of the claims religions make about matters that are beyond verification. This uncertainty which lies at the heart of all religious systems, famously produces compensating protestations of absolute certainty about matters that are intrinsically unknowable.”
Although in earlier years the comparatively small number of educated and authoritative religious leaders encouraged poorly educated followers to accept whatever those in power identified as unquestionable truths, settling religious truth by edict is now much more problematic. Quite apart from the increasing number of potential religious critics as a consequence of improved education, the inevitable encounter with alternative ideas as modern folk travel and those who now find ready access to the internet combine to open old ideas to more question.
Although some Church adherents claim the problems go away if we treat the Bible as the inspired and literalistic word of God from cover to cover, a more measured approach might suggest first we have to disentangle the teachings of the Bible from the various cultures and styles of writing from which the scriptures emerged. The pre-scientific notions of the world and the heavens may allow for a literal Genesis cosmology and a literal acceptance of stories like the Great flood and the miracles in the Bible, but modern education means that an increasing proportion of the population now accept mainstream scientific understandings and eventually are forced to abandon a literalist position.
Some guided by past theology have continued to refuse to allow inconvenient truths to get in the way of what the theologians of a previous day thought to be as a set of inspired revelations. Perhaps the problem for many of us is that we are so used to thinking of theology as a subject which excludes standard ways of establishing knowledge we forget even to try.
Because it is always easier to criticize others than apply the same standards to ourselves, think for a moment about the Church of Latter Day Saints (aka the Mormons) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both the Mormons and the JWs strongly discourage their followers from reading outside the literature approved by the leaders of their respective faiths. This means that many of their followers are genuinely unaware of critical objections which are readily accessible to any modern scholar trained in modern methods of literature search.
In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses many articles sponsored by the Watchtower Association make some dramatic claims about what is promised in the Bible relating to judgement and selection for heaven, yet the same articles downplay past examples of failed JW prophecy. Those “dis-fellowshipped” for questioning prophecy are not reinstated when the prophecy fails to materialise.
The Latter Day Saints derive much of their teaching from the Book of Mormon and other supporting documents like the Book of Abraham. There are two difficulties with the books. The first is that archaeology does not support the description of the New World history as set out in their faith documents. The second is the Joseph Smith who claimed to have produced an inspired translation of some Egyptian Papyrii fragments to give the Book of Abraham has a radically different translation to that given by a number of Egyptian scholars who insist that the fragments were mistranslated by Smith and instead were standard instructions for laying out the dead. The reader can check out the Wikipedia article on the Book of Abraham outlining such criticisms for themselves but the point I would like to emphasise is that since the Mormon Missionaries with whom I have discussed the matter, appear unaware of the criticisms on such a key document, I can only assume they are steered away from looking at criticism of their faith. Similarly when at last a young Mormon is presented to the Temple for the ceremony bringing them into full membership, they appear unprepared for the ritual which is so clearly Masonic in its formulation and therefore unaware that the ritual has an ancient basis which must have been borrowed by Joseph Smith and the other founders of the Church of Latter Day Saints.
While it is easy to criticise those like the Mormons and JWs for not having a faith that squares with observable reality, it is fair to ask if those of us who are not Mormons or JWs have a theology which is somehow more objective, trustworthy and more helpful to the advantage of the human race.