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