Note: the following is a response to Tara Isabella Burton’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God.”
Theology has lost its academic credibility.
As an aspiring theologian myself, these words carry an immediate and weighty significance. That theology has lost its academic credibility–among other things–means that my life as a Religion major will not be as easy as it may have been otherwise, that my eventual MDiv (if I can afford seminary) will be flatly dismissed by many of my peers, and that my chances of landing a job with a comfortable wage are tremendously low (if not non-existent).
Theology has lost its academic credibility, indeed. And in order to recover this lost credibility, Christian academics are once again on the defensive. In an attempt to justify the study of God on the terms of the modern university, many theologians claim that when we study God today we are still doing “important work” because that work is marked by the engagement of ancient religious texts and communities which–if we are to engage well–necessitate an interpretive empathy not otherwise required for historical thought. Moreover, such theologians report that the study of God requires advanced interdisciplinary knowledge. As such, society can supposedly rest assured that the continuation of theology is a worthwhile endeavor. For while it may be tedious, inapplicable, convoluted, and unfounded, it still enables us to explore various “historical mindset[s]” in greater depth. Surely, because of that (we can all agree) theology ought to be studied.
While I certainly would not deny that good theology today requires advanced interdisciplinary knowledge, I cannot accept the argument that this requirement is what renders theology worthwhile. For in order to do theology–to formulate truthful words about God–we must begin with the conviction that God has revealed himself to us. And in order to do Christian theology we must begin with the even more offensive conviction that God did exactly that through the birth, death, and resurrection of a Jew in first century Palestine. That, I take it, is what makes Christian theology especially significant.
Appealing to the doctrine of revelation, however, is unlikely to secure a place for theology as a legitimate academic enterprise in the modern university. If anything, it will only further exacerbate the dismissal of the study of God as little but the fantastical ramblings of religious fanatics. As Richard Dawkins has argued, “a positive case now needs to be made that [theology] has any real content at all, or that it has any place whatsoever in today’s university culture.”
But to respond to this charge by claiming that theology is necessary simply in order to “get inside” the mind of a historical people, or to master the ins-and-outs of another discipline, is exactly the sort of move that makes me question theology’s legitimacy. For in so doing, theology is ironically reduced to a parasitic discipline–relevant and truthful only insofar as it takes up the tasks of other academic fields. As such, theology becomes devoid of any real content because to insist on that content (i.e. that Jesus Christ is the Son of God) would be a refusal to play by the rules of modern liberal democratic societies whereby the particularities of our traditions must be sorted through the filter of a qualified “neutrality.” Instead of being re-established as the “Queen of Humanities,” then, theology becomes the “Chameleon of the Academy”–useful only as a means to ends that are other than its own.
As such, I’d like suggest that perhaps theologians should welcome the loss of our academic credibility. For, as Stanley Hauerwas has argued, theologians are now free to write as though we have “nothing to lose,” about a God who has never needed our protection; today theologians can write “without apology.” Moreover, that is precisely what we must do, at least insofar as we seek to make known the “real content” of our discipline (i.e. God). It is unlikely, then, that Dawkins will ever agree with my reasons for doing theology–after all, we are starting from very different places.
Indeed, I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, but I am most certainly not sorry for that.