What is theology? Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief. My own enrollment as a student in theology, philosophy and psychology at university has shown me that theology, as an academic discipline, is a fairly large and complex field. Theology can be broken down into separate fields, for instance, you’ll find comparative theology (the study of different world religions), Christian theology (the study of specifically Christian belief), systematic theology, publicly theology, and other kinds of theologies.
However, for many theology seems to be failing to make the case for its ongoing existence as an academic discipline that is worth studying. For example, a number of universities are cutting down on their Religion and Theological departments, with some even closing them altogether (1). Some atheists have argued that theology is a worthless subject, according to the New Atheist Richard Dawkins “The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?” (2). In agreement with Dawkins is Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, who says that ”if theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice” (3). I find this claim to be slightly odd, after all, if everyone forgot about theology then how would they ever notice that it was gone? But Sanderson’s point is clear; he goes on to say that “Theology is an excuse for grown men to spend their lives trying to convince themselves, and others, that ridiculous fairy tales are true. Some of them get paid for it.”
According to these critics any proposed theological fact is not worth learning. Sanderson laments the fact that theology departments receive funding at university level, and that that such funding should be used elsewhere. I like how historian Sophia Deboick succinctly sums up these critics, “Many will argue that if anything is going to be cut, theology departments are a pretty obvious target. Theology doesn’t cure cancer, build skyscrapers or even produce books that anyone in their right mind would want to read” (4).
But many intellectuals continue to find value in theology as an academic pursuit. The irony, I’d argue, in this story is that some of these people are in fact the critics, especially atheists. Take Dawkins, for example. I am quite familiar with Dawkins’ work. I’ve read his book, The God Delusion, twice, watched several of his well-known debates, read his articles, and have visited his website numerous times. What I have found is that although Dawkins obviously disbelieves in theological matters, he nonetheless writes, talks, and debates them in hope to convert people to his cause. And he arguably does so more than many religious believers simply because he is so dogmatically committed to his atheism. In other words, theology does mean something to him. If Dawkins put his money where his mouth is then he wouldn’t dedicate entire chapters in his books to refuting theological arguments, making arguments in favour of his atheism, and so on.
But what I have found is that theology includes a number of subjects that have immense value. These include, though are not limited to, to things like church history (analyzing the thoughts and views from Augustine, through Aquinas, to the modern day greats like Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf), philosophy of religion, comparative religion, and Bible studies. Even Bible Studies, a module I’ve been enrolled in for the last few years, is both deep and complex. There’s New and Old Testament Studies, with both testaments chronicling a diverse number of ancient cultures, peoples, and their beliefs. These are valuable historical documents that give us a glimpse into the ancient past. This is not to mention the intricate fields of textual criticism, the other fields of criticism (literary, source, philology etc.), archaeology, and all that goes with it. The point being is that if you’re a theological student you are going to have to get to know something about these academic fields because they are a part of the package. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology at Oxford, sees this and says that a good theologian “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides” (5).
In fact, recently I found a remark from my lecturer quite informative. After going through South African history and colonialism, and how Christian theology intertwined with Apartheid, he said, “You can’t understand the history of South Africa if you don’t understand Christian theology. If you want to know the history of this country then you need to have a basic idea about Christian beliefs.”
From a historical perspective my lecture’s words are absolutely true. Some of South Africa’s best theologians of the 20th century developed a biblical case for Apartheid (6). They believed that God and the Bible endorsed the separation of the races. But although the Bible was seen in favour of Apartheid by these theologians, it was in fact also theologians who condemned Apartheid and the claim that the Bible endorsed racial separation. There is so much more to this story, but how is one to ever have a comprehensive understanding of the life of Apartheid and its dismantlement if they do not know how theology played its role? One could argue the same about American history where the best theologians in the 19th century argued that God instituted slavery and approved of it. Thus, it is no secret that if one wishes to learn about the history and the development of some of the most powerful nations on the planet, you will have to engage theology. Theology is important.
According to Mike Higton, a Professor of Theology and Ministry at Durham University, theology, Christian theology specifically, is valuable because through studying it academically we “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?” (7). Higton says that these are all legitimate academics avenues, and that one doesn’t have to be a believer in God to engage them.
Ancient historian John Dickson agrees writing that “theology incorporates pretty much all of the basic skills of the historian plus a ton more. Today’s professional theologian will have a good knowledge of ancient languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as full reading fluency in modern English and German (a requirement for all theologians today, regardless of nationality… Some of the best theologians today also have expert knowledge of the history and philosophy of science” (8). Alister McGrath would be an apt example of a sophisticated theologian. McGrath is a priest with a doctorate in biochemistry and another in historical theology from Oxford.
Higton further contends that theology is about pursuing philosophical discussion, especially that of the philosophy of religion and moral philosophy. As I’ve looked at elsewhere, the philosophy of religion entails some of the most important questions human beings could ever ask. One of these being, “Does God exist?” Other big philosophical questions such as: Why are we here? What comes after death? What is the meaning of life? are also asked. The irony here is that these theological, philosophical questions are what shapes atheists and their atheism. It is precisely because God does not exist that the atheist has to pursue other ways to explain and account for meaning, value, and morality. Even Dawkins sees this, “The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer” (9). But going about answering that question is an exercise in theology, and Dawkins therefore contradicts his own view. Higton observes this and explains that “Even skeptics find importance in these subjects 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.”
So, is theology an important, valuable, and real academic subject? You bet.
1. Church Times. 2010. Axe hovers over world of academic theology. Available.
2. Cupp, K. 2014. Richard Dawkins on the Emptiness of Theology. Available.
3. Sanderson, T. 2010. Theology – truly a naked emperor. Available.
4. Deboick, S. 2010. Theology is a crucial academic subject. Available.
5. Burton, T. 2013. Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God. Available.
6. Giles, K. 2016. Justifying Injustice with the Bible: Apartheid. Available.
7. Higton, M. 2007. Is theology a subject? Available.
8. Dickson, J. 2014. Why theology matters even if there’s no god. Available.
9. Van Biema, D. 2006. God vs. Science. Available.