What Would Be the Alternatives (To Theology Explaining Things?)

What Would Be the Alternatives (To Theology Explaining Things?) September 17, 2019

What Would Be the Alternatives (To Theology Explaining Things)?

My immediately preceding blog post was about theology’s explanatory power. It was a response to a snarky comment posted here that I, as owner and moderator, deleted. The writer simply said that theology doesn’t explain anything because there is no evidence backing it up. I have said here numerous times and I expect intelligent people to know that what counts as evidence depends on one’s worldview.

But I assume by “no evidence” that snarky commenter meant what he considers evidence and, if I’m guessing correctly, he probably only considers empirically observed things and events as evidence. But that is a very narrow view of “evidence.” It’s a common one, but one that doesn’t really hold up. Almost everyone I know believes in some things for which they have no empirical evidence. But that is a rabbit trail I won’t go down here and now.

I write as a Christian to Christians. Others are welcome to listen and learn, but this is not a space for non-Christians to preach their views. This is not a discussion board. It is my space for expressing my opinions, explaining them, and then inviting others to respond—respectfully and with a mind open to learning new things. I’m the teacher; this is one of my classrooms.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

So back to the question that is the title of this blog post. What are alternatives to saying that theology explains things? Well, I suppose there are many alternatives but I will focus on two.

First, there is the alternative that theology doesn’t explain anything because “explain” is restricted to what can be proven intersubjectively by empirical data—that that everyone can see if they come to the right place and use the right equipment. But, of course, that would rule out as non-explanatory many disciplines taught in universities such as literary studies. By that alternative the best university lecture on the meaning of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet would not count as explanatory. It’s a very narrow, cramped definition of “explain.” It just won’t work.

Second, among Christians there are many who, for whatever reasons, a variety of reasons, treat theology as non-explanatory. How, then, do they view theology? Well, of course, many Christians do not really regard theology as anything but a waste of time and energy and ink (or bytes). And yet, whether they know it or not, they do theology. They do it whenever they talk about the meaning of the Bible, for example, or make truth claims about God. Theology has many levels and types, but in the broadest sense every Christian is a theologian (as Stan Grenz and I argue in Who Needs Theology? published by InterVarsity Press).

But, still with “second,” even many Christian theologians—and here I mean people whose job it is to teach theology in some academic setting—do not think theology really explains anything. In fact, it  has become extremely popular to treat theology as non-explanatory. In fact, I will argue that this is perhaps the “continental divide” in modern theology—between theologians who still believe theology has explanatory power (or ought to have it) and theologians who do not believe theology has explanatory power (although they may not be completely consistent with that idea of theology when they expound).

This trend among Christian theologians, to believe that theology does not really explain anything, was launched by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the “father of modern Christian theology.” He lived in Germany from 1768 to 1834. He was a Prussian patriot and cultural hero, founder of the University of Berlin, translator of Plato into German, popular preacher and teacher and author of numerous books mostly about religion and theology.

I am not claiming that Schleiermacher was always completely consistent, but in some of his explanations of theology (irony) he seemed to say that theology does not really explain anything; it expresses feelings. It puts religious feelings into words but for him all doctrines and dogmas are really alien, foreign, to religion itself. They are like necessary evils, evil insofar as people treat them as actually true. There are better and worse ways of expressing religious experience, “God consciousness,” but those don’t really explain anything. They are, as theologian George Lindbeck called them, “experiential-expressivist” speech acts.

Now, as I said (and nobody had better forget this!), Schleiermacher was not always consistent in this; he wrote The Christian Faith, a massive tome of systematic theology as if theology explains things. But if one goes back to his basic teachings about what theology really is and reads The Christian Faith in that light it’s easy to regard it as essentially different than former Christian theologies like it. All the doctrines in it can be read as nothing more than Schleiermacher’s own attempts to express what he regarded as authentically religious and Christian feelings in speech.

Now I could go on about Schleiermacher, but I want to move on to his legacy in contemporary theology—even where his name is not mentioned or possibly known. (Although I think any theologian after him at least knows his name!)

Much of modern and contemporary theology can be read as non-explanatory. And here comes an ironic punch line that I can’t resist: I have very little interest in that type of theology except to explain it. There, take that! As a scholar of modern Christian theology I explain what’s really going on in modern and contemporary theology. Of course, my explanation is my opinion, but that does not make it not explanation. Others are free to agree or disagree but first I want to know if they have studied modern and contemporary Christian theology as I have these past forty years. I have written quite a lot of books, book chapters, and articles about the subject. And read hundreds of books and articles and actually spent much time with world class Christian theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, Hans Küng, and others.

Here is my thesis: Much of modern, contemporary Christian theology has no intention of actually explaining anything. Whether its authors know it or not, what they are actually doing is expressing feelings and advocating social change. In other words, much modern, contemporary theology is really about spiritual formation and social ethics. Of course, these come “wrapped” in facts drawn from the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology, but the real thrust of the theology is not to actually explain anything but to express things.

Let me give an example. Many years ago I attended a professional society of theologians. All of the members were and are people with doctoral degrees in theology and most of them teach theology in universities and seminaries. At one such meeting the president of a well-known and highly regarded Protestant seminary read a paper entitled “God and Her Survival in a Nuclear Age.” This theologian and seminary president, who has written many books and articles, “argued” that in the past we, Christians, thought of God as our savior but we need to change that and now think of ourselves as God’s saviors. How can we save God? (This was during the last gasps of the Cold War.) By advocating nuclear disarmament. If the world should be destroyed by a nuclear holocaust, the theologian said, God would die. We must save God. (Later, as I recall, this theologian adopted deep ecology as our way of saving God.)

During the discussion after her presentation a theologian stood and asked the presenter, the seminary president, the theologian, “What is your idea of God?” The presenter’s immediate response, said with some not of exasperation, was “I don’t know anything about God.” At that moment I realized, and I’m sure most in the room realized, that the theologian-presenter was not explaining anything. Some of her expression of feelings and ethical aspirations and declarations contained explanations about nuclear war and its possibilities, but nothing she said as a Christian theologian was explanatory. It was experiential-expressivist.

This kind of theology, taking many forms, has largely replaced theology as explanation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who still thinks theology itself, as theology, explains anything is widely considered a dinosaur in mainline Protestant (and some Catholic) theological circles.

I will give one more example. I attended a meeting of theologians and a well-known and influential Protestant theologian laid it out bluntly and I suspect many in the room agreed. There was really very little expression of disagreement during the discussion time. He argued that theology has only one task—to deconstruct itself. This was and is the last gasp of theology—theology that has no explanatory power. Of course, he explained why theology must deconstruct itself but he was not really talking then as a theologian but as a philosopher and social scientist.

To me, this is the most important watershed, a continental divide, among theologians. And it is why I have real trouble taking much of modern and contemporary theology seriously.

Why do so many theologians adopt this view—that theology has no explanatory power but still must go on doing something? With that “something” being to express feelings and ethical commitments?

I think the answer is simple. I think it goes back to the “Copernican revolution” introduced into theology by Schleiermacher. It is what I call the “fear of Galileo.” Not of the man himself but of what he represents in theology—the defeat of church doctrine and dogma by observable science. Many theologians, beginning at least with Schleiermacher, looked for a way to assure that there could never be another “Galileo affair.” One way to assure that was to redefine theology as expressivist rather than as explanatory.

But, of course, this has come at a great cost to theology. In this expressivist mode theology really has nothing to do that can’t be done as well or better by some other discipline. And in this mode “theology” becomes something other than it has ever been—before Schleiermacher.

I already explained in my immediately preceding post here what I think theology explains—better than any other discipline, more adequately than any other discipline. I do not think evil can really be explained outside of theology without sucking something out of the concept such that some other word would be better than “evil.” But I don’t expect everyone to agree. I still stand by my claim anyway. The mere existence of disagreement does not signal lack of truth.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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