What good are theologians?

Richard Dawkins, aggressive atheist and author of the bestselling The God Delusion, asks of what value are theologians anyway:

“What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels, work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”

Professor John Stackhouse of Regent College has a few thoughts for Mr. Dawkins at his blog.  What do you think of the task of the theologian?

Dr. Jeremy Berg is the founding and Lead Pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Minnetonka Beach, MN, where he has served since 2010. He an Adjunct Professor of Theology at North Central University (Minneapolis) and Professor of Bible & Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy earned a doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary. He and his wife, Kjerstin, have three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

5 comments on “What good are theologians?

  1. Hmmm… Stackhouse’s response was okay, in an “assuming-you’re-Christian-already” sort of way. My response to the challenge: “What useful thing has theology ever provided to the world compared to the bounty of science?” would be, for one thing:

    “Theology has provided science.” Because the assumptions of science were conceived on the shoulders of theological assumptions. Such as, “the world was designed, therefore there must be order.”

    Sure, science acknowledges order NOW. But without the theologically charged assumptions, science would not have come very far.

  2. ~

    Yeah, I agree. I took the first hard shot at Stackhouse over there. And backed off after he demurred to individualism. And to immeasurable discreteness of religious experience. So he makes theology his playground of unique subjectivism which makes theology is “useful” ipse dixit. Which is why theologians must keep saying so. To get mileage out of otherwise useless theology. The better answer to Dawkins is to agree. Which makes the next steps in theology the real ones. Empirically and pragmatically speaking. Theology can be as useful or useless as theologians want it to be. Alas.

    • Jeremy Berg

      Theology is useless to the atheist, as he or she does not believe in the existence of the object of inquiry; just as anthropology would be absurd if human beings did not exist. So also the atheist would find all God-talk to be inherently subjective. For theists who believe there is evidence of God outside oneself (objective) and that this God has revealed himself in history (divinely inspired Scripture, historical events such as the resurrection), theology is no longer purely subjective fantasy. It becomes the quest to know the God who is. Let’s be fair, Jim, and think consistently through our arguments from the established starting points. Our starting point (whether atheist or theist) will determine our valuation of the theological quest.

      By the way, the theist who believes the evidence points toward the existence of God hold that all human beings “do theology” – even the atheist whose theology amounts to “You’re not real.” IF God exists and he has communicated his plans and purposes for his creation through the prophets and holy writ, then theology really is an admirable undertaking. But there’s a great big IF that divides us. If God does not exist, as Dawkins believes, then theology is useless. The Apostle Paul even admits that if God isn’t real, and He didn’t raise Jesus from the dead then “your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor 15:17).

      Some believe the verdict is already in (e.g., Dawkins), and therefore many like him already openly pity us. But I’m convinced the final verdict is still out and the evidence is pointing in the other direction. Jim, I skimmed your profile and admire the work you’re doing on behalf of the poor. And I have to ask about the Gospel of John being one of your favorite books: What value do you, an atheist, find in this most robustly theological of all biblical writings? I’m very curious. Peace, JB

  3. ~

    Whoa. Major miscue.

    Let’s start over. I’m Christian. With a very robust and personal sense of the Spirit. With an extremely active prayer life. And with a useful and pragmatic database of several thousands of prayers asked and with many of them answered on behalf of my clients. I work daily with pastors from over a dozen denominations. In about three times that many local churches. I visit local churches regularly to meet with pastors because of my work in over a 500 mile radius – at the far edges. I do have personal preferences for where I like to worship. All my work for the poor is faith-based. I should have linked to my blog and not to my profile (my blog is linked inside my profile) So this is not a game to me. But I don’t push my faith on non-believers. I deal with the fallen, the lost, the downtrodden, druggies, prostitutes, pimps, pushers – all of them – all the time. I take agnostics and atheists as profoundly valuable critics of the foibles of many forms of faith. So the Gospel of John and Ecclesiastes three are pure grounds for me. Not academic abstract concepts. My comments here on your blog are not about my faith. Nor about my theology. My comments here are only about the meaning of the word “useless” when Dawkins calls theology useless. And as Dawkins and others use the term – “useless.”

    Second point to start over. The words – “useless/useful” as Dawkins and almost every other academic and scientists (who are Christians) use the terms – “useless/useful” have both exact and precise meanings. So when Dawkins says that theology is “useless” he is using a word with a broadly understood meaning. And every Christian who is a scientist and almost every professional would understand this meaning. Theologians can say that theology is “useful” to them. But this claim (as a mere claim) by theologians is not any more meaningful than the claim of Tantric Buddhists. These Vajrayana Buddhists too have gods. A bunch of them. They confine their gods into the spectrum of mere mental images. Like cartoon characters for the purpose of self-reflection toward their concept of enlightenment. These Buddhist gods have no external existence. Not outside of mental fiction. Tantric Buddhists will say that their gods are “useful” to them – for purposes of enlightenment. Dawkins would agree with this. Dawkins could agree with this special kind of theological definition of usefulness. Dawkins would say that this kind of mental game playing with internal images of gods is just about all that Christian theology is useful for too. So when Dawkins says that Christian theology is “useless,” then he is using a commonly accepted definition of useless, and not a special definition just to excuse theology.

    Now, back to my point. My point is that when we respond to Dawkins by saying nothing more (key: nothing more) than that our theology is useful to us (and just because we say so), then we prove Dawkins’s point. And we’re no different from Vajrayana Buddhists who just make up fictional gods. We would be better off saying nothing. Or admitting that Dawkins is correct in saying that theology is useless.

    I’m won’t fully define how Dawkins uses “useless” here. It’s not a secret. It’s well defined. And commonly understood. Usefulness goes beyond definitions and examples from ‘useful’ professions. Like medicine, law, counseling, carpentry, plumbing, roofing, and so on. These useful professions are starters. And derivatives. Dawkins’s definition of “useful/useless” goes more to the observable value of any practice. Dawkins is challenging theologians to show how theology alone has contributed anything of useful value that cannot be accounted for by non-theological sources. And that is an honest test. It’s not inherently an atheistic test. It’s one we should use to test ourselves. Whether we like it or not. Something to think about.

    • Jeremy Berg

      Wow. Sorry for the misunderstanding, Jim. You’ve given me a lot to think about here. Thanks again!

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