Is Theology A Worthwhile Academic Discipline?

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Theology is the study of the nature of God and religious belief. As an academic discipline, theology is a fairly large and complex field. Like most disciplines, it can be broken down into separate fields. One finds 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.

For many, theology is failing to make its case for its ongoing existence as an academic discipline worth studying. A number of universities are cutting down on their theological departments, with some even closing them altogether (1). Some skeptics of religion have argued that theology is a worthless subject; according to 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). Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, finds agreement with Dawkins and says that “if theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice” (3).  Sanderson’s point is clear: “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 that theology departments receive funding at university level; such funding, he believes, could be better used elsewhere. Historian Sophia Deboick sums up what these critics argue,

“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. As noted earlier,  theology includes a number of subjects that possess value. These include, but are not limited to, 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 biblical studies. Within biblical studies one is required to study a diverse range of ancient cultures and beliefs. It is discipline that seeks to reconstruct the ancient past. Many scholars in theology have gone on to specialize in other intricate fields like textual criticism and various other criticisms (literary, source, philology, etc.). Any student of theology is going to have to engage these various fields during the course of his or her studies. William Wood, who specializes in Philosophical Theology at Oxford, explains that the competent 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). Ancient historian John Dickson argues similarly 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” (6).

Understanding theology is an essential ingredient to understanding human history. One cannot, for example, understand South African history and the history of colonialism if he does not know anything about Christian theology in particular. If one intends to know the history of a people and a country, he then needs to have a basic idea about theological beliefs. As theology professor Mike Higton rightly observes, by studying theology 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).

Few knowledgeable people would claim that given just how historically influential Judaeo-Christian theology has been on the West, that such a study is pointless or not worth the time. To the contrary, if we want to understand swathes of Western history, we need to know theology. Higton also says that to engage in theology one need not even have to believe in God or religion to contribute to the field.

One could further argue that theology is even important to those who are critical of its place in the academic world. Even though Dawkins criticizes theology he yet maintains that “The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God, is one of the most important that we have to answer” (8). We know on which side of the fence Dawkins falls on this question, but such a question is, of course, theological. Higton also picks up this oddity writing 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.”

Theology is clearly important to religious skeptics too. It is also important to many academics and students entering into universities and seminaries. Although some universities are indeed cutting down on their theological departments, we should expect theology to continue to be, for many, a worthwhile academic discipline.

References.

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. Dickson, J. 2014. Why theology matters even if there’s no god. Available.

6. Burton, T. 2013. Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God. Available.

7. Higton, M. 2007. Is theology a subject? Available.

8. Van Biema, D. 2006. God vs. Science. Available.

7 comments

  1. Any serious Christian should study theology, and not just theology that already agrees with yours. I frankly don’t even trust Christians who don’t have any formal theological training, unless they can show significant self-reading that’s more than just opinionating on how they personally read the scriptures.

  2. Are you enjoying your echo chamber? From the article and comments it reads like a group telling itself that its pet subject is pertinent and worth studying and the critics are silly ignorant people anyway. Try to be more objective. For example, “…… 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……….” Wow!! That is immense value!! Immense value to whom? Those in the echo chamber? I clearly assess value very differently.
    I can’t resist a little dig. The earlier comments seem to lack a little of the “turn the other cheek”, “love thine enemy”………. But that is typical of religion. The only time religion stops doing horrible things to people is when the power to do those things is taken away.
    Enjoy the echos.

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