Theologians Vs. Professors Of Religion

A terrific article from The Chronicle from K.L. Noll, (via a not-surprisingly miffed An und für sich) that addresses the issues that I covered here.  Noll brings considerably more depth and distinctions than I did and on some points may disagree with me, but has the same basic perspective at many essential points.  Check it out:

In sum, the religion researcher is related to the theologian as the biologist is related to the frog in her lab. Theologians try to invigorate their own religion, perpetuate it, expound it, defend it, or explain its relationship to other religions. Religion researchers select sample religions, slice them open, and poke around inside, which tends to “kill” the religion, or at least to kill the romantic or magical aspects of the religion and focus instead on how that religion actually works.

Little wonder that many academics—and Richard Dawkins is merely the most vocal among them—dismiss the discipline of theology as “talk about nothing.” A number of theologians have taken issue with Dawkins, but all of them seem to miss his central point, which is that talk about a god is, necessarily, talk that never advances knowledge. Regardless of one’s opinion of him, Dawkins has done academe a great service by providing a quick way to identify a theologian in our midst. If you are uncertain with whom you are speaking, just inject the name of Richard Dawkins into the conversation. The theologian will be dismissive of him; the religion researcher will not.

But most importantly, I think Noll shares my ethical critique of sophisticated theologians for being complicit in the poor thinking of religious laypeople since they do not vigorously enough correct their errors.  Noll writes:

Theologians’ failure to meet their ethical obligations is particularly significant with respect to the Bible and other sacred writings. The field of biblical studies includes a great many religion researchers but remains dominated by theologians whose pronouncements about the Bible routinely lead the less informed astray. Not infrequently, theological concepts are packaged as the conclusions of historical research. The problem is not merely that biblical characters like Moses or Jesus are presented to the public as figures of history on the slimmest of evidence, but, more insidiously, that biblical claims about human obligation to a god are presented as though they are supported by some kind of evidence.

Theologians who do not think of themselves as unethical nevertheless sell their pew-sitting laity a bill of goods. The failure of theologians to remind the members of their churches and synagogues that the Bible is an anthology of ancient literature composed by ancient people in an ancient culture has consequences. The laity are entitled to know that any god described in a biblical text is an ancient god, a byproduct of the ancient culture that produced the text. The god of the Bible is the sum total of the words in the text and has no independent existence. It would be reasonable to begin every theological discussion with the disclaimer “the god described in this sacred text is fictional, and any resemblance to an actual god is purely coincidental.” This is not an outsider’s dismissive opinion, but the reality, and theologians have an ethical obligation to teach that truth even if they also want to believe and teach, as is their right, that a god exists.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    This is quite interesting; I happen to agree that it is better to call a theologian a professor of religion, but for obviously different reasons. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the title of theologian is so important that it is reserved for only 3 exceptional saints because their work was exceptional and was treated as actual discourse revealing salient things on God. In my opinion, this is an appropriate approach to theology, because talking about a being as so supernatural and unknowable as God, assuming that God exists of course, is so difficult (hence the preference in Orthodoxy for apophatic discourse) that it takes a very gifted mind to do this well.

    If you notice this comment, (I’m not sure how WordPress works, but Blogger doesn’t tell me when someone comments on a post) I’ve been commenting on some of your older posts that I’ve only now had a chance to read slowly and carefully, so you may want to check back to around two weeks ago for them.

  • Dan Fincke

    That’s really interesting, Evangelos, I hadn’t known of that distinction in the Orthodox church. It seems a judicious way of keeping their doctrine of revelation from opening the door to anarchy.

    I’m not really sure though if it’s the same distinction this professor of religion is getting at. He is not advocating just refraining claiming to “do” theology but also to teach theological concepts as though they are literally true (and not only mythically so) in the first place.

  • Dan Fincke

    oh yes, and wordpress gives me the heads up on every comment.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X