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Theology Should Get Real

I am often critical of various professions and wonder how much actual reality they involve. For example, I have wondered in the past whether economists genuinely study the real world, whether accountants just work with made up numbers, and whether philosophers are just dabbling with interesting but irrelevant intellectual trivialities. But none of these even begin to approach the level of silliness and just pure pointlessness of theology!

I recently listened to a podcast discussing the Christian “Trinity” of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost (whatever that is, because I still didn’t know even after listening to the podcast). The only thing I could compare it with is some fantasy geeks discussing the finer points and the deeper meaning of The Lord of the Rings, or some similar work of fiction. It really is that silly!

I’m not saying that studying fiction, or fantasy, or mythology is a bad thing, but I am saying that when that discussion sounds exactly like a discourse on something that actually exists in the real world it all becomes somewhat surreal.

I mean the discussion over what the Trinity represents is really quite a simple one and doesn’t deserve all of the deep analysis and intense thought which goes into it. The answer is simple: early Christians were Jews but they had created a figure (Jesus, who was probably loosely based on a real person) which they endowed with the status of a god, so they had to make something up to explain that situation (because monotheism was a prerequisite to them) and voila! the Trinity was created! Yes, as I said, I still can’t figure out where that third component comes from.

I should say at this point that I don’t have any really strong objections to theology, or economics, or accounting, and especially not to philosophy. It’s just that we should be careful about how seriously we take them. And there is another point too: many of these areas are deeply divided between groups which are more firmly based in a real-world, scientific view, and those (usually with more traditional views) who live in what I might rather unkindly suggest is “Cloud-Cuckoo Land”.

For example in philosophy the group who follow analytical philosophy are far more likely (in my opinion – they would probably disagree) to make a useful, practical contribution to knowledge than those who might be seen as Continental philosophers. And theologians who examine religious belief realistically: as an interesting social and psychological phenomenon, or as a highly speculative form of philosophy, are more likely to make useful contributions than those who start with the (apparently false) assumption that a god exists at all.

When you talk to theologians (and I have because I work in a university with a theology department) it’s hard to get a straight answer about anything. For example, I once asked if theology starts with the initial “fact” that god exists. After about half an hour of convoluted explanation I still wasn’t much wiser about the subject.

I agree that not all questions can be answered simply and many require an answer with a certain degree of nuance, but at the same time making a simple question more complicated and obscuring a simple idea with needlessly complex reasoning is sometimes a sign that there’s a certain amount of deliberate obfuscation of the lack of profundity involved.

So theology is fine but it belongs in the same category as mythology, literature, and (at best) highly speculative philosophy. Let’s have the discussion on theological topics but clarify the fictional aspects of it with plenty of phrases like “according to the Biblical myth” and “in the story about Jesus” and “early Christians believed”. That way we can keep the whole topic in the right perspective.

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