“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?” – Richard Dawkins
One cannot be a Christian college president or seminary trustee (your essayist is both) without wondering if Richard Dawkins’s notorious take-down of theology as a discipline may have become a majority view, even among Christians. Religion and theology as disciplines are regularly offered up as prime examples of irrelevant or frivolous courses of study that do not yield sufficient returns on investment via remunerative careers or practical skills—and the dwindling numbers in these programs reflect that. Outside the academy, in churches, where one might expect a warmer embrace of theology, one too often finds doctrine and creeds denigrated and catechesis ignored, with focus instead primarily on the relational, emotional, and supposedly therapeutic aspects of the Christian faith—or exclusively on social concerns that lack any articulated theological tether.
Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and strident atheist, made his well-known denunciation of theology in a 1998 essay entitled “The Emptiness of Theology.”[i] Dawkins goes well beyond a pragmatic argument about theology. He insists that were science taken away from humanity, we would all find ourselves notably impoverished, but were the same to happen with theology, there would be no effect whatsoever. In effect, theology is useless at best, and likely even harmful. While Dawkins later walked back his criticism somewhat by segregating from theology that scholarship pertaining to language, literature, and history, he did not retract his trenchant words about theology qua theology.[ii]
Dawkins’s condemnation of what was once with admiration called “the Queen of the Sciences” invites a response. One must admit at the outset, however, that his critique has a ring of truth to it, whatever one’s faith or lack of faith. And, in fact, Professor Dawkins has got it both very wrong and (unintentionally) very right. Indeed, there is a fundamental truth to be found in Dawkins’s (versus some other person’s) reaching the conclusion he does, a truth that ultimately will—for the Christian—underscore the value of theological inquiry.
But first, let us consider what Dawkins plainly got wrong in his sweeping condemnation. Most obvious are the dramatic consequences in history of theological discussion, theological conclusions, and a theological outlook. Literacy, for example, was brought about largely as a function of people wishing to learn more about God through scripture—a direct outgrowth of a very theological point. Dawkins might counter that curiosity about some other endeavor or a general yearning for learning would have resulted eventually in a quest for literacy, but the point is that it did not: only the great desire to learn about matters of the soul—by the reading of the Bible—was sufficient to drive the production of the printed word in works religious and secular. Indeed, the work Dawkins does today in evolutionary biology would very likely be many, many decades (if not centuries) behind where it is had the William Tyndales of the world not won out over the Thomas Mores in what was, in essence, a theological controversy.
This is but a subset of a larger quest for knowledge that is traceable, again, to theology. The imperative to learn more about the world and more about ourselves historically sprang from a theological reflex. Institutions of learning, including Dawkins’s own Oxford University[iii]—came about implicitly from theological premises, including that God desired that we increase our knowledge, that we love God with all our minds, that we exercise stewardship over the dominion he entrusted to us, and that we use our knowledge to improve the created world. Likewise, America’s most prestigious institutions of learning—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.—came about as religious undertakings, as did a substantial percentage of other American private colleges and universities. Dawkins can assert this would have happened anyway, but he can offer no proof for such an assertion. He would likely have to admit that, as with the printed word, such learning would have been delayed for many years without the religious impulse that drove it.
Many of history’s most notably positive events and advances were theological in their beginnings, at least partially, just as many of history’s most notorious events found their justification in science. The whole notion of human freedom, freedom from tyranny, and freedom from enforced belief came from a religious and theological impulse—a knowledge of the nature of God and humanity. To be sure, Dawkins could offer examples of where religion has gone horribly awry (apartheid, anti-Semitism, defense of slavery, etc.). But those examples do not erase the good done by such theologically motivated and mediated events as the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself (which, by the way, had a so-called “scientific” basis), or the American civil rights movement, whose emphasis on non-violence was explicitly theological in origin.
These are but a few of the improvements in the human condition that science alone would not have brought about—indeed may well have forestalled. Dawkins can assert that such movements might have happened anyway, born of some other motivation, but there is ample evidence that when science alone dictates responses to issues of human dignity, the answer is often—perhaps usually—quite wrong. Eugenics, partial-birth abortion, forced sterilization, lobotomies, and euthanasia are just some of the scientific “solutions” embraced in the past century that have had chillingly dehumanizing effects. Auschwitz and Dachau “worked” scientifically but could hardly be said to have contributed positively to civilization, save in demonstrating conclusively the grotesque dangers of unbridled faith in utilitarian science.
The improvements brought to humanity by scientific undertaking have many times themselves been prompted by a theological premise, directly or indirectly. Curing disease, when no self-preservation is involved, is at its core a moral endeavor springing from a theological belief about the worth of human beings. Often the distribution of medical care and knowledge has been done by those motivated not by mere science, but by that same theological imperative. The very best of science has often been inexorably linked to the very best of religious impulse.
In short, all that Dawkins holds most dear about scientific inquiry and human progress—all that has enabled his work—has at some level sprung from a theologically informed predicate. Even if one were to accept that science—without any influence of theology—was responsible for more knowledge of the empirical variety, such knowledge is by no means is the only sort, or even necessarily the sort of knowledge that invariably results in human progress (stopping war, for instance). And while he would be quick to deny it, could it be that Dawkins’s own desire for greater knowledge about the origins of humankind springs from that desire in all of us to discover our Creator?
However flawed his denigration of theology, there is in Dawkins’s observations a very good point about weaknesses in much theology. Theological inquiry can include much musing and positing of an abstract nature, disconnected from reality as we know it to be, detached from what we observe in ourselves and the world around us. These how-many-archangels-can-dance-on-the-tip-of-a-needle inquiries tend to make theology distant and seemingly irrelevant to where we are as people, confronting the problems we face, and trying to make sense of our place in creation. On the other hand, self-serving and trendy boutique theologies tend to undercut the credibility of a discipline that should have some objectivity about it, focusing as it purports to do first and foremost on God and not merely some discrete or shifting social constituency or context. Given both of these inclinations, it is hard to quibble with Dawkins’s cynical conclusion that much theology simply wouldn’t be noticed if it were extinguished tomorrow.
But are these weaknesses truly a distinctive trait of theology? Much scientific inquiry (and success) comes from those willing to think in new ways, from new perspectives—who reassess assumptions, and consider untraditional possibilities. Still, many, even most, of these endeavors come to naught, producing neither direct nor indirect positive results. When Dawkins asserts that “Even the bad achievements of science . . . work,”[iv] he ignores the many non-achievements of science, the analogues to the unproductive theological inquiry he finds so worthless. These failures in science, of course, serve to narrow the field of inquiry, rejecting those avenues of unfruitful inquiry that distract from finding genuine answers. Thus, even the more fringe endeavors in either field ultimately serve a purpose. His criticism of theology is a criticism equally applicable to his own field, if not more so.
Dawkins’s real disability in considering the worth of theological inquiry, though, springs from his own disbelief, because at its core theological inquiry is a quest for knowing God, something that one who denies the existence of God cannot by definition find value in or incentive to pursue. If Anselm was correct that theology is “faith seeking understanding,”[v] then faith is a sine qua non, a condition precedent, for genuine theological study. And as with Christology in Bonhoeffer’s view,[vi] theology ultimately is an endeavor that can only be done and understood in the context of a community of believers, because only they know Christ. In his excoriation of theology, then, Dawkins better than most drives home the truth that theology is an inquiry inseparable from faith. He is in fact quite right in his implicit assertion that theology to the atheist is useless, and the difference theology makes is indiscernible and unintelligible.
What then, for the Christian, for the person for whom theology is useful, is the purpose of theology? Quite simply it must be, like all of our endeavors, to give glory to God. To worship God one must know him. To love God, one must know him—both in relationship and in discovering his nature and work. To proclaim the Good News of God in Christ, one must know the God whose News is proclaimed. Such knowledge requires study and reflection—ergo theology (whether one calls it that or not). And far from being drudgery done from obligation, knowing God is part-and-parcel of seeking to love him more and adore him. The desire to know the one we love is itself best evidence of genuine love. And genuine love prompts and propels one towards still greater knowledge, not only of the “other” but thereby also of oneself.[vii]
“There can be no doxology without theology,” John R. W. Stott observed.[viii] We worship only that which we know, that which has been revealed to us in scripture, or we descend into idolatry. Likewise, Stott observed, “there should be no theology without doxology,” as true knowledge will always lead us to worship.[ix] Knowledge of God, Migliore agrees, (citing Calvin) is inseparable from worship and service.[x]
At some level, every Christian is thus a theologian, a studier of God. Certainly one can have a life of piety and devotion without knowing the nuances of homoousios, or the finer points of the Docetist heresy or the relative merits of feminist theology. But every Christian’s “I believe” must have an intellectual component in order for it to be belief. It is that intellectual component, however basic, that is the germ of theology. The love we have for God should be reflex enough to learn about him more and more, to delve into the mystery that is God, and to make ourselves receptive to God’s revelation of himself. Nonetheless, Jesus reminds us that we are to love God with “all our minds,” in addition to our hearts (Matt 22:37), or, as Paul admonishes us, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. (Rom 12:2). Our glorifying God requires every aspect of our being, our mind as well as our emotion. Likewise, our knowledge and study of God informs every part of being, and our every action, individually and as a community of believers. It is this “faith seeking understanding”—this study of our Creator—that that is a source of joy and satisfaction transcending any study of mere creation.
This is what Richard Dawkins—at least for now—cannot grasp and cannot appreciate. This is why theology for him is so useless. This uselessness of theology for the atheist is the reverse of what theology is for the Christian. For the Christian, it is a quintessentially useful and necessary and fulfilling endeavor, integral to the joyful worship and love of God and the understanding of creation and oneself. For the atheist, theology is without meaning or purpose or accomplishment—tragically, given the atheist’s vantage point, like life itself.
Alexander Whitaker is president of King University in Bristol, TN.
[i]Dawkins, Richard, “The Emptiness of Theology,” Free Inquiry, Spring 1998, v.18, n.2, p.6.
[ii] PBS “Faith and Reason” interview of Richard Dawkins, undated, at http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/transcript/dawk-body.html (accessed 17 Jan 2020)
[iii] Oxford’s motto is Dominus illuminatio mea (“The Lord is my light,” the opening words of Psalm 27).
[iv] “Bombs and sonar-guided whaling vessels” are the “bad” achievements of science he offers as examples. This essentially moral judgment from an atheist seeking to prove the futility of theology is rather ironic.
[v] Migliore, Daniel L., Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 2.
[vi] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Christ the Center, San Francisco: Harper, 1978, 27-28.
[vii] Calvin in his 1539 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion said “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” with true self-knowledge dependent on knowledge of God. Institutes 1.1.1 and 1.1.2.
[viii] Stott, John R. W., Romans: God’s Good News for the World, Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1994, 311.
[x] Migliore 7, note 12.
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