Castles in the air

An ongoing discussion with a Christian friend of mine has emphasized, to me, the non-scientific nature of theology. In our discussion, my friend places great importance on the internal consistency of his beliefs, but seems little perturbed about whether these beliefs are supported by evidence in the outside world.  I offered the analogy of a castle in the air: it may be an exceedingly well-constructed, beautiful castle, but it is imaginary nonetheless. Of course, there is nothing wrong with devoting time to studying complex but imaginary ideas. The problem with theology, though, is that the people studying these ideas aren’t actually aware of how weakly these ideas are supported by the evidence.

It is quite astounding to behold the complex theologies that have been proposed and debated over the centuries. The idea of atonement, for instance, can supposedly be explained by at least one of three theories: ransom theory, satisfaction theory, and moral influence theory. All quite complex and subtle, and deadly serious. Yet all of this academic cogitation is based on nothing more than fragments of millennia-old texts. Seminaries all over the world are filled with studious men and women with Masters Degrees and Doctorates poring over the details of esoteric theodicy theory, hamartiology, and ecclesiology, all based on the writings of an ancient, pre-scientific Middle Eastern culture steeped in superstition.

(If you are not convinced of the superstitious nature of Biblical culture, look no further than Acts 8:9-11: “Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, ‘This man is the divine power known as the Great Power.’ They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his magic.”)

Perhaps theology can be seen as man’s attempt to fit the square peg of an ancient superstition into the round hole of everyday, modern reality. Certainly the field of theodicy fits this description: it attempts to explain how a powerful and beneficent creator could allow unnecessary suffering to proceed unfettered. The obvious solution is that no such creator exists, but unsurprisingly most theologians are reluctant to explore this idea. (Aside: the long fascination mankind has had with interpreting the Bible as a true, accurate account of events, is probably a good experiment for what would happen if any normal work of fiction were subjected to the same analysis: imagine people spending century after century trying to interpret the “truth” of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You would probably end up with the same ever-expanding array of contradictory viewpoints and traditions, with perhaps one or two main camps – Gandalfics and Reformed Bagginsians, perhaps?)

With such a flimsy grounding in reality, the seriousness and complexity of theological study is almost amusing until one is reminded of the enormous amount of time and talent spent pursuing it. And after 2000 years of this, there is not even any real consensus over theological ideas in the Christian community (see this interesting post).

In many parts of the world it seems, at last, that the filigree of missiology, eschatology, pneumatology, and the rest of the theological edifice is slowly becoming recognized as obsolete. My guess is that it will eventually appear in the museum of creative, sincere, but ultimately failed human enterprises – a reminder that we’ve moved on to a deeper understanding of the world as it really is.

Update:  Today I found a related discussion of theology at the No Forbidden Questions blog.

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