Theological Nonsense

Over at The Atlantic, Tara Isabella Burton makes the best possible case for studying theology. As she describes her studies at Oxford (where she is working on a doctorate), a good portion transgresses traditional theological boundaries:

I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism.

In other words, she is studying anthropology, philology, literature, and philosophy. This sounds excellent and does not seem much different from studying general humanities.

But as Burton describes other aspects of her degree, it sounds much more like traditional theology:

I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two…The difference between whether—as was the case in the Arian controversy of the fourth-century AD—the Godhead should be thought of as powerful first, and loving second, or loving first and powerful second, might seem utterly pedantic in a world where plenty of people see no need to think about God at all.

This is traditional theology. It is mind-numbing and I can’t think of many good reasons to study it. Theologians (and scholars) have been analyzing the Arian controversy for 1,600 years. When issues can’t be resolved or settled after that amount of time and effort, it tells us something important about the subject of study: there is nothing there. It is devoid of substance. The Arian controversy is interesting for historical reasons, not theological ones.

Burton claims that by studying this sort of theological arcana, she can get inside the heads of 12th century French monks, Byzantine mystics, and others like them who “shaped so much of our history.” While we can question whether it is worth getting inside such heads, theological analyses of these kinds of issues don’t get us very far: they have minimal explanatory power. To explain nonsensical issues like the Arian controversy, we have to get outside the idealist world of theology. While many disciplinary approaches might allow us to understand or explain this and similar controversies, theological approaches are probably the least enlightening. Power does not exist inside heads.


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5 thoughts on “Theological Nonsense

  1. jayarava

    I often say this about philosophical debates. I think 1000 years ought to be the cut off. If we’re still arguing after a millennia then we need to step back an reframe the problem or just ask a different question. Buddhism is rife with 2000 year old disputes that are just basic confusion about how to think about a problem. It’s very frustrating, as often an earlier stage of development does not have the confusion! Chronology does not imply progress in religion.

    I’ve wondered in the past whether the reason most PhD dissertations are so boring is that the people writing them have nothing to say. They’re bright and enjoy reading a lot, and like the academic environment but have no passion for their subject or for communicating. They end up researching something suggested by a supervisor and get absorbed in the minutiae in order to avoid having to think.

    Hoping to do a PhD myself if I can wangle some funds – I’ve been writing obsessively for years now and want to see if someone will give me money to do it.

  2. Onoosh

    Did I once care about, and find something important in, debates over points like this? Yes, and I now feel like I should stand up and say “Hi! I’m Onoosh, and I’m a recovering traditional theology junkie.”

    Now, I read pieces like Burton’s–sometimes, when I feel the need for aggravation–and mentally compare them to listening to a reading from Dr. Suess on Capitol Hill. Both events (but not Suess’ books!) are irrelevant, boring, and a waste of time.

    Get into the minds of 12th-century monks through theology? We stand to learn a lot more by digging up monastery latrines.

  3. Bob Cranmer

    And now that many of the writings of Charles Darwin are turning out to be extreme “faith-based” suppositions do you view him with the same contempt?
    There were many great minds present and participating at the Council of Cahledon Cris, to label it as irrelevant and boring is pretty narrow-minded.

  4. Cris Post author

    If you could specify which of the “many” writings of Darwin are “extreme faith-based suppositions,” I would be much obliged.

    I’ve been studying Darwin for years and this thought has never occurred to me. What have I missed?

    I’d also like your personal explanation (not the Discovery Institute’s) as to why those specific writings are “extreme” and “faith-based.”

  5. Larry Stout

    Darwin’s “faith” was what we all fundamentally share by evolved instinct: belief that the world of our MUTUALLY INTELLIGIBLE perception is real, and susceptible to MUTUALLY INTELLIGIBLE rational explanation in terms of cause and effect.

    The seven historically enumerated general, or ecumenical, councils were essentially political conventions, aimed at conformity and central control. As discussed elsewhere, religion and politics were born joined at the hip. Christianity evolved by political process.

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