Rigorous theology?

I was quite dumbfounded reading an op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times today, and for this reason the following post is a bit of a rant, so please excuse me for a moment!

Brooks discusses the Broadway show “The Book of Mormon”, and although he mostly praises it, he takes umbrage at how it short changes what he calls “rigorous theology”. According to Brooks, we have rigorous theology to thank for several things:

Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.

I must confess I laughed out loud when I first read this. A map of reality? Rigorous theology is not a map of reality. It is a blueprint of fantasy, of castles in the air. It is a treatise on the number of angels able to dance on the head of a pin.

Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally. Many people want to understand the eternal logic of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete assertions and teachings.

Theology has revealed the eternal logic of the universe? I fear Brooks must be off his rocker at this point. Theology, at best, scrabbles in vain for a logical explanation of its own poorly invented ideas about the supernatural, and how these can be stretched and twisted so as to clash with reality as little as possible.

If we want to find an eternal logic to the universe, we need to look to physics, astronomy, biology, and countless other fields that have revealed how the contents of the universe fit and work together.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

At this point, I strongly suspect that Brooks has been pulling a fast one on us. Perhaps I missed the sarcasm in his first two statements, but it is impossible to miss here. Theology helps people avoid mindless conformity? Tell that to the Catholic Church, which relies daily on mindless conformity among its “flock”. Religion, supported by theology, is precisely the sort of thing that works best under the stifling blanket of mindless conformity. One reason for this is because theology melts into nonsense upon close inspection, so it is in the church’s interest to discourage people from asking too many questions.

Brooks is, however, right on one thing: many theologies are counter-cultural. For instance, some theologies advocate the view that homosexuals should be treated as sinners, and denied the rights other people enjoy, or that women should be covered from head to toe in public, and should not be allowed to drive cars.

Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us. For example, in her essay, “Creed or Chaos,” Dorothy Sayers argues that Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.” This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition.

If this is what Brooks thinks is “complicated thought”, then I really wonder if he has ever stepped foot onto a university campus. This is kindergarten material, not something that is “beyond most of us”.  Again, I feel that I’m falling for a prank here. If so, then well played Mr. Brooks, I just hope that others see the joke!


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