Thinking about “Theology”

17 May

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Price’s lectures and podcasts recently, largely for entertainment purposes, but in so doing I’ve been led by him to think about some semantic distinctions that are well worth making. This is going to be a pedantic essay, and probably a very boring one, so consider yourself warned.

Really, the question I want to attempt to answer here is, how can I simultaneously agree with the sentiment expressed by Richard Dawkins and those like him that “theology isn’t even a subject at all”, or with Hector Avalos, whose book The End of Biblical Studies [amazon] quite convincingly argues that academic biblical studies as currently practised are most often not undertaken in good faith (or, to put it another way, involve too much “good faith”), and simultaneously find value in the kind of study that Price does?

The answer I’ve come to is that I think a distinction needs to be drawn between “doing theology” and “studying theology”. (I told you this was going to be a semantic argument!)

By this I mean that a distinction needs to be drawn between theology as a form of religious praxis, or a first-order engagement with the ideas (e.g. theorising about the nature of gods and supernatural entities from the standpoint that such things exist), and the study of theology as a second-order engagement with these ideas (looking at the thinking of various people as they do theology from a first-order level, and trying to parse out the kinds of distinctions they are drawing and what it says about how people think about religious ideas). The latter is what I think Price does (and, for that matter, so does Avalos), and it seems clear to me that that can have value from, e.g., an anthropological or sociological perspective, in understanding the history and development of belief systems, and so on. In a world which is populated in majority by believers, understanding these kinds of thought can be an important tool in attempting to navigate such a world. The former, meanwhile, is the type of thing derided by Dawkins et al, and I can simultaneously agree with this – when there is no evidence such beings exist at all, there can obviously be no value in attempting to make statements about their nature. So in that sense, I agree that theology is not a subject. Or in the terms I’ve proposed, “doing theology” in the first-order sense is futile, but “studying theology” in the second-order sense can be deeply useful.

Of course, there is also a sense in which even “studying theology” is of limited use – in some ways I do think Avalos is right when he argues in The End of Biblical Studies that even this is largely a leisure pursuit for privileged intellectuals. I am not sure I agree with him that it is as equally pointless (outside of personal gratification) as solving sudoku puzzles – as I said earlier, in navigating a world filled with religious people, understanding religious thought is not useless. But that does not necessarily mean, at the same time, that it is important to dig into long-buried minutia which are almost completely irrelevant to modern believers unless you are somebody like me (or, presumably, like Bob Price) who enjoys overanalysing things.

I’m not sure if I have a conclusive point to make after saying all of this, except that I think the “doing/studying” distinction is a useful one to keep in mind. Or to put it another way, the distinction between a “theologian” and a “scholar of theology”.

And if you do happen to be interested in listening to Bob Price analysing the minutia of Biblical history and Christian thought, The Human Bible is a great place to start.


Posted by on May 17, 2014 in mitchell


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2 responses to “Thinking about “Theology”

    • mcbender

      May 19, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Looks like there’s a site called “Christians Anonymous” that is yanking full text of posts about atheism from various blogs… lovely. I’ve let the trackback comment out of the spam filter to make it perfectly clear what’s happened here. They’ve linked back so I’m not sure there’s anything I can technically do about it, and maybe I should be happy about getting more visibility, but to say the least I’m rather annoyed. Just for the record, they do not have my permission to do this.


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