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Theology as religious foam

April 28, 2013

Razib Khan, in correspondence with Dreher discussing the nature of Islam and Christianity, writes a good post on the relationship between theology and religion. Let me highlight a couple of points:

Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit. This is a difficult issue to approach, because even believers who are vague on peculiarities of the details of theology (i.e., nearly all of them!) nevertheless espouse that theology as true. Very few Christians that I have spoken to actually understand the substance of the elements of the Athanasian Creed, though they accept it on faith. Similarly, very few Sunni Muslims could explain with any level of coherency why al-Ghazali‘s refutation of the Hellenistic tendency within early Islam shaped their own theology (if they are Sunni it by definition does!). Conversely, very few Shia could explain why their own tradition retains within its intellectual toolkit the esoteric Hellenistic philosophy which the Sunni have rejected. That’s because almost no believers actually make recourse to their own religion’s intellectual toolkit. ..

The key insight of cognitive scientists is that for the vast majority of human beings religion is about psychological intuition and social identification, and not theology. A deductive theory of religion derived from axioms of creed fails in large part because there is no evidence that the vast majority of religious believers have internalized the sophisticated aspects of their theologies and scriptures in any deep and substantive sense.

Which raises the question: what is the point of theology? Why is it done? Razib posits ” Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena.”

And there, I disagree, at least with regard to Christianity. It seems to me a strong part of mainstream Christianity is that it wants to view itself, at least potentially, as the result of rational belief, rather than mere faith. That is part of Catholic doctrine. (Though the Church is wise enough not to detail the specific route for that, so it must be believed on faith!) Arguably, this desire began when Paul encountered Athens. For the desire to be met, Christian theology would have to stand to Christian practice as physics does to electrical engineering practice and as biology does to medical practice. This generates an interest in theology, and so a demand for it, and so the production of it. More, it shapes the kind of theology that is generated, one that tries to fit the pretense of having reasoned explanation, rather than something that just claims institutional authority or stands on its own without an epistemology. Which is why so much of Christian theology is apologetics. Razib is right that theology is little more than “religious foam,” in intellectual substance. But foam takes on a particular shape because of the container into which it is blown.

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