Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Why theology isn’t for laypeople

Not a church this time … just a few reflections

The arguments against the existence of a supernatural god are compelling. The arguments against the existence of the Christian god in particular are practically unassailable. I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion again last week and I’ve got to hand it to him, it would be extremely difficult for any reasonable person to arrive at an alternative conclusion without compromising their logic or contriving some kind of compartmentalisation that allows them to believe the patently unbelievable Sunday stuff as well as the mundanely quotidian. 

And yet ... and yet, there's that God-shaped hole that cries out to be filled. 

An awful lot of Christians claim that the existence of God is obvious to them and that his presence and beneficence are real and palpable in their lives. And if it isn’t obvious to the rest of us and we don’t feel him moving and shaking us, then it’s our lack of faith, our sin, our doubt, our whatever-we’re-not-doing-that-they’re-doing that leaves us in this awful state of abandonment. There’s no sensible answer to that, so there can be no discussion on the point. How convenient.

It’s interesting to see what Jonathan Sacks says about doubt“We don’t for a moment believe that the existence of God is so obvious and overwhelming that you’ve got to be crazy not to believe in God.” This seems to me a better starting point for an intelligent debate. Begin with the doubt, acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling failure and suffering and the problem of evil in the world with the hope that there’s a purpose to life and a reason to live a good one, and see how you get on from there. If nothing else, we can enjoy the cut and thrust of the theological debate.

Theology is the application of logic to the illogical, an attempt to rationalise belief in the unbelievable. It seems strange to me that most Christians (and perhaps people of other faiths too, although I haven’t met them in large enough numbers to generalise) have such a profound lack of interest in theology. “Just have faith” cuts off any further lines of inquiry and no doubt leaves them feeling all warm and glowing and holier-than-others inside. If you have enough faith, you don’t need to be logical. Or theological.

No one should shy away from examining their beliefs, but a typical Christian reaction to a sceptical question or a simple thought experiment is to act offended, to go on the defensive and to disengage, or to do the smug, pitying thing and earnestly wish for the as-yet-unsaved sinner to see the light. And it’s not just ordinary churchgoers who avoid theology; it’s the clergy too.

I remember asking my first awkward theological question at about the age of twelve when a minister came to visit us at school. I don’t recall the question now, but the answer was more or less, “Don’t worry your little head about that.” I was annoyed to say the least, the teacher was embarrassed and quite cross with me, and I came away suspecting that perhaps this clever and important man didn’t actually know the answer. Maybe that’s what led me to a degree in philosophy, where I could enjoy a good argument with people who didn’t assume that every intellectual challenge was an affront to their sincere and deeply held beliefs.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Vatican, in New College and in every theology department in the world there will be people (mostly men, I’d wager) delving with great academic rigour into the kind of debates that underpin Christian doctrine, but by the time the message is spun and sound-bitten it will have been put beyond debate, so that regular clergy and ordinary folk in the pews are not required to consider it too deeply. All they have to do is believe it.

The beleaguered food industry might provide us with an analogy here. Most people in the developed world don’t grow their own food. It’s grown and packaged and marketed and distributed by processes that we don’t usually think about, and all we have to do is pop along to the supermarket and buy it. We’ve all got to eat, and the supermarket’s convenient. It’s only when beef products are discovered to contain horse flesh that we question the process. The industry investigates, offers its reassurances and pretty soon we’re happily scoffing frozen lasagne again. Those who opt out of the commercial food industry entirely will be branded mad hippies and treated with mild disdain; surely they’re just making life harder for themselves by growing their own lentils.

Growing your own theology is undoubtedly harder than lapping up ready made Christianity, so I’m not surprised it’s a minority pursuit. And you pretty much have to grow your own because churches don’t encourage theological debate among their members, adherents, visitors, etc. Far too dangerous!

Churches don’t like people who ask too many questions; it threatens the status quo, scares the horses (I'm all out of horse jokes), sows doubt where they’d prefer some nice, cosy certainty, and could leave a priest or pastor or bible study leader looking foolish if they can’t immediately produce a trump card. So what happens? People with questions find themselves sidelined, or they simply absent themselves and look elsewhere, and the great harvest of souls continues to gather the low-hanging fruit, the pliable, biddable, gullible and meek who will inherit the earth because it never occurred to them to think otherwise.

People like me are a problem for most churches. They fear we’re the thorns that spring up and choke the crops in Matthew 13. Of course, if we’re to take Matthew at his word then the tares are the children of the wicked one and will be allowed to grow until the moment of harvest and then thrown into the fire. What a prospect! All we did was express a little bit of doubt, but there’s so little room for doubt in Christianity that it’s easier to condemn than to accommodate. So I guess I'm just going to burn. 

I’m twelve churches into my mission so far, and I’m not encouraged. Of course, I’m only scratching the surface – a snapshot here and there, a wee taste of other people’s religious practices – but I’ve seen little that makes me want to go deeper, if indeed there’s anywhere deeper to go. 


  1. " The arguments against the existence of the Christian god in particular are practically unassailable"........Not that long ago, I had an unexpected liaison with a scientist who introduced himself to me as a life-long atheist. After describing some of what and who he was involved with professionally, he continued to tell me that, in light of on-going scientific discovery, he could not maintain his atheistic position. Not only that, he went on to state that any god or creator would, in his view, probably need to be of the personal variety. His previously held claims that could not be doubted or argued with had "crumbled". (his word).

    Arguments, unassailable or otherwise, appear in many cases to shine brightly or dimly depending on any number of factors. One day a scientist of considerable intellect and learning finds faith, citing advances in science; the next, a poor soul devastated by tragedy loses theirs. I've witnessed both. It seems to me that human experiences, and perhaps even the afore-mentioned "God-shaped hole" make most arguments, practically at least, far from impregnable.

    The most surprising argument I heard against the existence of God came in a conversation with a particularly determined atheist. I asked him for the primary reason why he no longer believed in God (backtracking - meant to say he'd been brought up in a christian family). "The way people in church treat each other" was his immediate response. How sad. That gave me more to think about than all the Dawkins, Grayling and Harris that I've digested.

  2. You know, only this morning I found myself stating in conversation the very opposite to the point that you've picked up on, saying that I didn't see why science and faith had to be incompatible after all. So my own argument is burning more dimly, it would seem.

    How people behave in church is another kettle of fish entirely. What's worrying is that some of them believe it's only their faith in God that stops them being even worse than they already are, while out there among the unchurched there are people treating one another charmingly without any divine goading or threats of punishment for doing otherwise.