Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Once called the "Queen of Sciences", theology has increasingly taken an intellectual back seat in Western academia. The number of scholars devoting their lives to the subject has diminished to a comparative trickle. Rick and Mick here debate the subject of theology in an attempt to make sense of what it means today.

Mick: It's usual to start a discussion of theology by pointing out that the word derives from two Greek words: theos (God) and logos (word). In other words, theology is discourse about God just as biology is about bios (living things).

It's much less usual to go to the heart of the matter and point out that the word "God" is essentially empty of meaning. Christians universally acknowledge that God is "that which is utterly other than ourselves", the Unknown, the Absolute.

So when you or I talk about God we have no referent to attach to the word other than "that which cannot be known". Jesus himself acknowledged this when he used the image of a father to talk of God. In contrast, to take one example, the word "cat" has many millions of living entities as its referent.

Bishop Richard Holloway uses an analogy. Let's suppose, he says, that I have a map of a particular country or region. Before going there I can get a good idea of the lay of the land by studying the map. I will see that if I go northwards out of a certain town, on my left there should be a lake and a range of mountains ahead. And I will expect that the next village lies about ten kilometers away.

To verify the accuracy of the map I have only to visit the country which it portrays.

Similarly, books on human physiology provide verbal and diagrammatic maps of the human body. A trainee doctor will have some idea of the human heart well before the first anatomy practical. Actual dissection of a human corpse will show how good the abstract description was.

But what about theology? It is supposed to be a verbal map of God, in the same way as an anatomy textbook is a verbal map of the human body. But in fact it proves to be something like a map of a country which doesn�t exist. We can argue as much as we like about this or that aspect of theology. But there is no real country or body to refer to. God is absolutely other than us.

Theology turns out to be an artificial construct. In effect, therefore, when we do theology our discourse is about how we are filling the empty word "God". So to say, "God is good" is actually to propose that human beings define God that way, not to say anything about God. Theology is the ultimate form of navel-gazing.

The tragedy is that to this day people abuse and kill each other over theological rights and wrongs which cannot in any sense be verified.

Rick: Similar to most people I enjoy beauty. In particular I am enthralled by poetry and classical music from the romantic period. However, often what I consider beautiful is ugly in other eyes or ears. Actually, I have never seen nor heard beauty. Rather I have seen and heard the vehicles upon which beauty rides. I also have a sense in my mind of what beauty is.

People of knowledge and taste have disagreements about what constitutes universal exemplars of beauty. Despite the lack of concrete referents the subject of beauty has and will always be a subject of discussion and writing.

There is a great body of knowledge or information that is conceptual and abstract, wholly unverifiable by materialist standards. This knowledge resides entirely in the mind. It could well be that this abstract body of knowledge exceeds that of the physical universe. To apportion that is a worthless task.

So it is with God. I know many people to whom the word God is pregnant with meaning. They would disagree that God is the unknown and unknowable. However ridiculous their images of God may be to some observers, those images are real to them. I would think everyone is entitled to think of God as he or she wishes.

In this sense I am not disturbed there is a discipline called theology. In fact I take great pleasure in reading theology. Theology often yields new insights into life and human struggles and successes throughout history.

Of course theology is a human construct. I don�t know what other kinds of constructs there can be. Humans can say "God is good" and many other things. Who but humans can describe or characterize God? If God exists and chooses to make himself known, who will recognize his presence? Certainly it will not be the apes or other animals. As far as I know, humans are the only animate beings on earth who have the consciousness and mental capacity to conceptualize the idea of God and to exchange information about their ideas concerning him. In other words, theology is virtually inevitable and unavoidable.

I am in accord that it is a tragedy people abuse and kill others over some theological principle or dogma. At the same time I am not optimistic that the elimination or disregard of theology will play much of a role in cleansing the world of its problems. I see no harm in letting theology evolve and try to perfect the world as no other disciplines or institutions have been able to do to this point in time.

Mick: Your comparison of theology with beauty is an excellent one. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Each of us has our personal and individual construct of it.

I've noticed, for example, that few share my opinion that snakes are beautiful. On my part, I usually can't see beauty in spiders. Similarly, art may be thought beautiful by one generation and not by another. Theology also has its shifting and changing fashions over successive generations.

However, let's not fail to notice that both art and theology each have an enduring core spanning not only generations, but millennia. Something in us humans seems to recognise that core.

Beauty lingers in Egyptian hieroglyphs and even in the fearsome carvings of blood-soaked Mayan civilisations. Roman and Greek sculptures from the dawn of history still stop most people in their tracks. The best of medieval painting, even though darkened by centuries, continue to stir our emotions.

What is the enduring core of theology?

Let me say first what it is not. It is not doctrine. Teaching about God is essentially static - one might say lifeless. Doctrine is pseudo-theology because it is formulaic and therefore fossilised. Thinking of doctrine as theology is an ongoing error of many Christians.

True theology, in contrast, engages life's great questions. It is done by every living person. When we concern ourselves with the ultimate, we are all theologians. And because theology is lived out and not just written out, it mutates and changes. It cannot be static.

So there are no final theological answers. The only theological finality is each individual's search for the ultimate, since every experience is always in some sense an end point. Yet each experience, though unique, always leads to another. Lived-out theology therefore always grows.

Rick: I picture our theology as an ancient grape vine, planted 4 000 years ago by Abraham. Today its roots and central stem contain the history of generations of evolving understanding of monotheism. There is evidence of conflict and disagreement and there are broad variations of interpretation of scripture. All this and more is contained within the gnarled stem that every spring gives rise to tender shoots. These shoots in turn bear the grapes from which the new wine of theology is derived.

I agree that every person can and should be a theologian. Each believer should come to his own understanding of a unique relationship to God. This may or may not find resonance with an organized church body.

In tracing beliefs of 4 000 years ago and comparing them with the present, it is sometimes hard to believe Christianity came from the same ancient stem of the vine. Yet, there is no question that it did. The common core coursing through the vine from ancient times is the love of God and reverence for him. This is immutable. This is bedrock from which all branches originate. There are some things written in stone.

Mick:  I'm not quite sure what to make of your grapevine analogy. It is most graphic and illustrates a great truth - namely, that the essence of each of us is derived from what has gone before.

Genetically, we are the fruit of those few ancestors whose offspring has survived the rigours of God's creation. Culturally, we are similarly imprinted with thousands of years of social wisdom and learning.

Likewise, Christian theology derives from many generations of our ancestors in the faith. Our theological roots in the West go back to the dawn of time - far beyond our now-distant religious ancestors, the Hebrews and Greeks.

My thesis (not an original one) is based upon the idea, which I first encountered in the writings of Lloyd Geering, that it is possible to observe certain radical change-points in the "history of God" - and therefore in the history of theology. If the resulting "axial ages" are taken into account, your grapevine and bedrock analogies seem to break down.

The idea is that one such radical change happened when humanity conceived the idea that God is "one" rather than "many". At that point one axial age ended and the axial age of monotheism began. It has now ended because it is increasingly difficult for humans to revere a personal deity who, when necessary, intervenes in nature.

Our theology must change accordingly. It is as though the branches, leaves and fruit of the vine have wilted. We can now have wine only if we graft a completely new plant onto the ancient roots which lead to the ultimate. The enlivening sap will still flow, for that is how things work. But the vine itself will look utterly different from its predecessor.

The grafting process has only just begun. Latterly, the work of Christian scholars has been on diagnosing the cause of the death of the Church as the vine. That still goes on. But recently work has begun on finding out what new plant (perhaps a grapevine) can be grafted onto the ancient root-stock.

To sum up: Theology is alive and well as long as debate goes on. It dies as soon as anyone lays down a final, unalterable bedrock of absolute truth. At that point, theology becomes merely a shifting of pieces around a mental chessboard.

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