2010-12-07

Theology: a Vestigial Course in the Universities

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by Neil Godfrey

Why is theology with its arcane scripts from ages long dead still even tolerated in twenty-first-century institutions of higher learning alongside geochemistry and biotechnology and disciplines that use synchrotrons and things? In Australia at least public universities rely on funding that is awarded in response to the research output that can be demonstrated to provide some socio-economic benefit to the community.

Unless academics can demonstrate such a benefit for their research proposals they get no public funding. What socio-economic benefit can theology offer? Why is theology even considered a respectable discipline in a scientific age when many westerners look aghast across at the dominance of mullahs in less industrialized societies? We think we should keep faith-based science out of schools, so why do we even tolerate a faith-based history discipline in a modern public institution of higher-learning?

I was re-reading an old book from my student days, The Social Sciences as Sorcery by Andreski, and came across this interesting passage explaining how it was that science appeared in universities without at the same time getting rid of theology:

The natural sciences did not advance in virtue of the universal appeal of rationality. Their theological, classicist and metaphysical opponents were not converted but displaced. All the ancient universities had to be compelled by outside pressure to make room for science; and most nations began to appreciate it only after succumbing to the weapons produced with its aid. To cut a long story short, scientific method has triumphed throughout the world because it bestowed upon those who practised it power over those who did not. Sorcery lost, not because of any waning of its intrinsic appeal to the human mind, but because it failed to match the power created by science. But, though abandoned as a tool for controlling nature, incantations remain more effective for manipulating crowds than logical arguments, so that in the conduct of human affairs sorcery continues to be stronger than science. (p. 92)

By sorcery Andreski means any of the “disciplines” that thrive on obscurity of language, vagueness and mediocrity dressed in verbiage designed to awe and intimidate, and that bombastically appears to exude great knowledge yet in reality hides much ignorance. Here is one of his examples:

You only have to look at the language of politics to see the advantage of vagueness and obscurity in the struggle for popularity, where the secret of success lies in appearing to be on everybody’s side, and to lave oneself a way out of any commitment which become embarrassing. An especially valuable asset is a doctrine which provides an outlet for wickedness in pursuit of a noble ideal; and all successful and enduring ideologies have to appeal to the base and the noble propensities of mankind at the same time – which can be done only under the cover of doctrinal obscurity. (p. 93)

Isn’t that appeal to the base and noble also what we find among theologians who try to turn people to God while peddling ignorance and bigotry, just as politicians attempt to unite people behind them while playing on the strings of public ill-will to the “undeserving” and “other side”?

Public intellectuals have for many decades now proven themselves to be, as a class, defenders of the institutional pillars on which society has come to depend or at least to which it has become subservient. Theologians are sometimes found to be theatrically parading themselves as modern-day prophets “calling truth to power”, but the reality is they usually are backing one institutional pillar and ideology against another, just as politicians squabble over Left and Right.

They look back on past sins and can smugly proclaim they are far more enlightened than their predecessors, but they are blind to the prejudices of their current vision today. They can see how they would never be like their ancestors who fought against science in the past, but fully justify campaigns against a range of scientific programs today, especially in the field of genetics.

Real scientists can defend their power today from the position of securely assured social acceptance. They only need to reply to opponents with the tools of their trade to justify their social status. Creationists are not a threat to biologists. Biologists can methodically and through civil social discourse demonstrate with clear argument and the evidence the justification for public funding and support for biological sciences, including the teaching of evolution in schools. The same standing enables them to persuade most public authorities that creationism has no place in a publicly funded classroom.

Theologians, on the other hand, must feel somewhat ethereal, vestigial even, beside these modern disciplines. They still need sorcery to hold on to public loyalties. Like politicians they need to learn the art of obfuscation, to appear to be relevant while hiding their truly irrelevant core beliefs. In a minor way, we have seen even in blog-land their appeal to the base side of human nature in their opposition to critics of their core assumptions upon which their whole theology rests. Critics who question the reality of the historical events in which they have faith are deemed threats to their survival and public support. Theologians attack these threats as viscerally as an imperial power ravages a small country that challenges its authority by openly defying its will. Even the pre-invasion tactic is the same: isolate any challengers by painting them totally black. Truth is whatever works to achieve this goal.

Andreski also speaks of bombastic proclamations of knowledge by such sorcerers serve to hide dark holes of ignorance. On a minor scale we see this in theologians and their students reacting with pique at the suggestion — let alone the reasoned argument — that they do not understand normal processes of historical inquiry. And no wonder, given that their faith is ultimately faith in a certain historical event, and that this historical event has been “established” in their world-view through a process totally unlike the way other scholars come to accept the reality of past historical events.

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Theology: a Vestigial Course in the Universities”

  1. “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”

    –Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

  2. Neil, from your article I clicked on the link in —

    “In Australia at least public universities rely on funding that is awarded in response to the research output that can be demonstrated to provide some socio-economic benefit to the community.”

    As expected, I found “religion and ethics” in Section 95 CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING. I’m curious whether any biased theological influence has permeated this ostensibly more objective area.

    1. The SEO classifications are a measurement tool. It is for the purpose of measuring benefits of funded research. And that means identifying specific beneficiaries.

      That broad heading is broken down into subsections: http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/603A517E5B220419CA257418000523BA?opendocument

      There is a catch-all-else that does not fit into any of the practical and real (e.g. anthropological) ethical and religious studies: “950499 Religion and Ethics not elsewhere classified”

      But what goes into that “not elsewhere classified” basket would normally include the following:

      This group covers R&D directed towards the understanding and analysis of religion and ethics.
      It includes:

      * understanding and analysis of ethical and religious issues of concern to social, scientific or technological development;
      * applying ethical or moral theory to such issues; and
      * developing codes of behaviour and standards of practice for businesses, professions and trades.

      If one wanted to justify a claim on public funds to research a book about the finer nuances of definitions of ancient divinities among early Jews and Christians, one would need to demonstrate who/what social sectors would benefit and how. I suspect — hope — this would relegate a lot of theology “work” to a teaching-only (non-research funded) role within universities.

  3. I must read that book. For years I’ve regarded theology-especially the really rarified, “academic” theology-to be an empty sophistic talking shop, creating categories for discussion that keeps one talking but not about anything real.

    There was a great cartoon I found (which I’ve since lost) that explained the history of theology. It showed a modern theologian wittering on with a load of pretensious, abstract waffle while the ancient theologian just said “God wants more goats”. How one regards both as speaking about the same god is beyond me. The history of these ideas shows more than anything else what a human construct it all is.

      1. Actually, we see variations of both kinds of concepts in both ancient and modern times. In general, in spite of what is portrayed in the cartoon, many modern people still have a more material focus, and we can see some ancients thinking very abstractly.

        Yes, even goats still make the news.

        And how very abstract is ”The Inexpressible One” in The Secret Book of John, not to mention the following attributed to Basilides:

        There was when naught was: nay, even that “naught” was not aught of things that are. But nakedly, conjecture and mental quibbling apart, there was absolutely not even the one. And when I use the term “was” I do not mean to say that it was; but merely to give some suggestion of what I wish to indicate, I use the expression “there was absolutely naught”. Naught was, neither matter, nor substance, nor voidness of substance, nor simplicity, nor impossibility of composition, nor inconceptibility, imperceptibility, neither man, nor angel, nor God; in fine, anything at all for which man has ever found a name, nor by any operation which falls within range of his perception or conception.

    1. Dr Jim’s blog [Link //drjimsthinkingshop.com/” and blog is no longer active. … Neil, 23rd Sept, 2015] is active again, and absolutely compulsory regular viewing and re-viewing (just to be sure some of the pics and innuendo he posts should not be restricted to 18’s and over) for anyone who who needs a comic break after reading this blog!

  4. Theology of the basis of books should not be taught. Instead theology on the basis of innate morality, or as atheists call it these days “moral intuitionism” should be taught. It would amount very much to the kind of thing you find in Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. Paine is able to criticize the theology of “revealed religion” or “book religion” as resting on no principles, precisely because it just asserts about God whatever it infers from a book written by men who made all that stuff up for money and power. But if God has made a revelation of any sort to us by which we are supposed to think theological thoughts, that revelation must be “open to all” as Paine says, and therefore must be in creation itself. What better place than our innate sense of morality? (especially for moderns who clearly have a higher morality than ancient barbarians who wrote these books.) Theology on the basis of moral axioms that are unquestionable because innate. That’s the only theology that can proceed on any certain principles.

  5. Woot! That’s the cartoon! Thanks!
    Yeah, the cartoon is something of a false dichotomy, but still says a lot, especially in terms of modern believers wanting to distance themselves from the sacrifice-craving O.T. god (while maintaining other ideas of god being a bit of a materialist).

    There is, I think, often a great disjunction between what Christian theologians are saying and doing and what folks in the pews think and do. I ended up in one church service once where the fellow preaching (just longstanding member of the congregation: no official clergy at all) said that true Christianity was the faith held by the common folk, and not the theologians and their endless books.

    This does raise the question for scholars and teachers in Religious Studies. What do we teach the students? The great intellectual traditions or doctrines of a faith as the “authentic” statements, or what we can reconstruct about how the majority of people actually live their lives?

    Oh, and thanks for the plug for the Thinking Shop!

    1. That reminds me of a question somebody asked the Bible Geek awhile back. If the Jerusalem Temple should be restored at some point in the future, will Jews once again start sacrificing animals? Will the priests regain dominance over the religion (signaling an end to Rabbinic Judaism)?

      It would be quite strange to see Judaism change from its centuries-old tradition of contemplation and close-reading of the Torah back into a blood cult.

  6. With theology I’m always reminded of a passage in Van A. Harvey’s ‘The Historian and the Believer’, which is a book I admire a lot. In the passage, where Harvey is talking about the process of historical investigation, he calls for the suppression of ‘obscurantism, special pleading and wishful thinking.’ It kind of struck me how important those three things are for the study of theology. Where would it be without those three things? Those are essential weapons in any theologian’s arsenal. It’s the only way they can combat the unfortunate and inconvenient fact of reality.

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