The Limitations of Theology

Although the study of Theology may well introduce 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 setting down of the gospel stories (for example: 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 might 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 a consequence of modern travel or 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.

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5 Responses to The Limitations of Theology

  1. dave says:

    The big limitation of theology is: God is made in the image of the beholder. Scriptures are written by people as they feel or understand whatever events somehow reflect an action of their god. Different cultures will perceive a different god.

    Here is a simple thought experiment. What if there are multiple intelligent beings scattered among different stars in different galaxies. Our society is mostly patriarchal and mostly monogamous, but generally oriented toward communities (extended families and/or groups of families); parents typically have only a single child at a time. Perhaps some of those other beings in the universe live in a society with a matriarchal structure, and maybe they are polygamous, or maybe with less social interaction among adults, or maybe families typically have multiple births. With a little thought there could be other scenarios for alternate structures of society.

    Assuming there is only one god watching over the entire universe, is the God for each of these divergent societies to be described the same? Of course not, because those defining theology within each society will have a different framework for that perception and description.

    Even though much of humanity lives in cultures fairly similar to others (like monogamy is widely the norm, community social structures are also common except for the most nomadic cultures, etc.), the various religions have created different descriptions of their supreme supernatural entity.

    Theology has been defined as the study of the diety, a supernatural entity (or entities in some cultures). As the god is supernatural but people are not, each person truly has no framework or sensory experience to describe that external entity other than in terms of our human nature, so God becomes a projection of our interpretation of the world.

    There are a number of major religions based on a subset of Old Testament scriptures, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and yet there is not a common result of their theology.

    Religion has been defined as the collection of beliefs or world views that relate humanity to a perceived order of existence. Religion can be based on an appreciation of humanity within the natural cycles. Biology and sociology can help understand many of these interactions.

    Religion does not have to be based on seeking this definition of an entity outside of our nature, so theology becomes important only when the religion strongly relies on the description of the god rather than relying on mankind’s intrinsic relationship with nature.

    Of course when religions rely on interpretations of ancient scriptures, which include stories or myths about perceived interactions with the supernatural being, then the loosening of these binds, from a religion based on a god to a religion accepting more of nature, is very difficult. Even more difficult is accepting that one’s religion is not the only special ‘chosen’ religion, but that god surely (or probably – how is one to know for sure?) accepts multiple religions among the diverse cultures on this planet.

    Christians should realize there are many people in the world who follow a religion that is based on an appreciation of nature (without a supreme being) rather than relying on a theology for the foundation of that religion.

    I know this site is about Progressive Christianity and this comment is definitely about more than Christianity but (in light of your last statement) when considering whether a particular theology is more helpful to the human race, a wider scope of humanity should be considered beyond just Christians.

  2. peddiebill says:

    Thanks Dave. You make some persuasive points. My problem is that sorting out what this might mean for followers of other major belief systems is going to need some careful thought. While I would see Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion as offering a sensible attempt to offer a positive theology with appeal across the faiths it is also clear that thus far her work is not accepted by those who are bound by tradition. Since religions develop in historical context I think it is easier for me to communicate by starting with the traditions which are part of my background and this for me means starting with Christianity.

    I am certainly prepared to acknowledge that those who have different traditions will have a different view and sometimes other religions are at least as helpful as Christianity in establishing respect for nature and other people. (eg Jainism) I guess I see this particular post above as moving to open up some lines of communication for those who start with a Christian tradition.. Since the notion of a Supreme Being becomes rather vague when we try to articulate what that term is intended to mean I share your wish to show that there are equally valid ways to describing the mysterious forces behind nature (eg Einstein’s view of religion) and as you correctly imply, many people down through the centuries have constructed belief systems that have plenty of potential for producing helpful outcomes.

    Your comments help clarify some of the wider issues.

  3. dave says:

    I can see I did not make myself clear, in trying to lessen the impact of theology.

    According to Matthew 22:34-39, Jesus said the second greatest commandment is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Though not ascribed directly to Jesus, Galatians 5:14 has: For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

    These are simple directions emphasizing the importance of respect for others.If this were truly at the heart of what every Christian does then this would be a religion that is more objective and more helpful to the human race. Such a religion concentrates on our humanity, on our social relationships, and seeking the betterment of all.

    For example, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and one of its basic concepts is the four immeasurables which can summarized as: may all beings have happiness and its causes, may all beings be free of suffering and its causes, may all beings be without suffering, may all beings be free of bias and free of anger.

    Theology is rooted in man’s natural instinct to learn, in this case about finding a basis for the universe. What I find most alarming about theology is the tendency for it to result in a conclusion stated as ‘God wants xyz.” The religious leaders then emphasize these are God’s wishes and they are paramount, both in our behaviors and even in our laws.

    For example, the clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky claimed ‘God wants me to deny a legal right to those I don’t like, specifically gays trying to get married.’ A number of small business owners have been determined not to serve their products and services to gays because such tolerance within their customer base is in direct conflict with their Christian religion.

    This is not too different than a common practice no too many years ago: ‘God wants only marriages of a single race; interracial marriages are not allowed.’ Apparently enough people saw through that bigotry and eventually such blatant intolerance was no longer acceptable in most areas of the country.

    Another claim is ‘God wants humanity to multiply and replenish the earth through child birth so birth control is not allowed.’ That restriction is most certainly not in the interests of most people (who wish to manage their family growth) but is instead just a rule for those wanting to exert their haughty control over others’ behavior. I feel most would agree humanity has achieved adequate coverage of the earth at this point. I don’t recall ever reading a statement declaring at what % coverage have we satisfied God’s need, but as the Bible does not get new text added one can only conclude that even 99% is not a threshold ‘accepted’ by God.

    The other common claim is ‘God wants every pregnant woman to deliver her baby to term with no exceptions.’ This is not a caring approach for pregnant mothers or their families. For example, Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 while miscarrying because the Catholic hospital in Ireland would not abort under any circumstances, so the mother died shortly after the fetus finally died. Also in 2012, a 16-year old woman died in the Dominican Republic after she was denied chemotherapy treatment because that treatment could terminate the 13-week pregnancy and abortions are banned in that mostly Catholic country, so in the end both the mother and fetus died. Rape is an act of violence and domination; any pregnant woman forced to carry to term a fetus resulting from that act is also being forced to carry a reminder of that atrocity for many months, and then she is also forced to care for an infant (at least initially after the delivery) who is also a reminder of the father who committed the rape. How can any person having some degree of empathy wish to put a pregnant woman through that, other than an uncompromising person who values a fetus infinitely more than the woman carrying that fetus.

    There is the cliche ‘God helps those who helps themselves’ offering the reminder people must rely on themselves and on others. We are social beings and working together more can be achieved than working as individuals.

    I feel there have been many sermons on this web site emphasizing that we (Christians or not) must have as a priority the care for others. There are many (most) religions also emphasizing that priority.

    I feel theology especially when seeking ‘what does God want?’ can be in conflict with that direction, hence there should be an inherent limitation on its practice. After all, a theologian is only a person offering their interpretation and how can that be taken as the word of God?

  4. peddiebill says:

    Fair comment.
    As it happens I have never felt constrained to sign up to the type of theology which seeks to articulate what God wants if that identification of God’s wishes is not evidence based. The sort of theology which I find most attractive is the sort that clarifies aspects of Jesus’ teaching that appear helpful in a modern context – or alternately identifying a concept of God or force behind nature that fits what we can learn by observation, analytical thinking and testing.
    I accept that Christianity is not unique in placing priority on care for others but I would have thought that it is equally obvious that not all who claim to follow Christianity have that as a main priority. Your birth example is a good one.
    I would tentatively propose the only valid way to relate value to a theological concept is to look at the outcome influences on those who follow that particular school or subset of theology. If the theology drives people to behaviour which damages others or their environment it is hard to see a valid justification. Simply claiming without clear evidence that particular anti-social attitudes are what God wants as some so called Christian followers have done at various times in history doesn’t convince me.

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