Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is Theology Important?

Someone older than me may remember Time Magazine's April 20th, 1962 cover featuring Karl Barth.  Someone even older may remember March 16th, 1959 when Paul Tillich was on the cover.  You would not expect to find the face of theologians in today's newsstands.  In fact, most people probably could not name a modern day theologian.  We can name preachers, famous pastors and televangelists, but how many theologians do we talk about in public life?

Why is this the case?  I think trying to explain this away as increasing secularism or bias on the media is insufficient.  Christianity is still the majority religion in America and most media outlets pander to their consumers regardless of their personal beliefs (the blog Marginal Revolution summarizes and links to a study about this here).  Another explanation is that there are no smart Christians anymore, or that theology is an intellectual practice and the intellectual community has expelled Christianity.  This doesn't seem to be the case in Philosophy, where there is a developing Christian presence (article from William Lane Craig here, the Time article Craig mentions is here).

Here are some reasons I think are more likely:
1. The ecumenical nature of the evangelical movement has made theology seem like a waste of time.  We are supposed to stick to the most basic, Biblical form of Christianity and theology muddies the waters.
2. Postmodern Christianity is driving believers to act on their faith without bothering to articulate it in detail.  Theology is mostly an in-house activity and its adherents fully admit to its link to culture and society.  Outsiders have no reason to be interested in it, therefore periodicals targeting mass appeal avoid it.
3. The focus of Christian academics has moved from theology to apologetics given the loud clamor of modern skeptics.  Still, not too many Christian apologists appear on the cover of Time or are mentioned by anyone outside the debate.

If I could somehow verify this I would bet money on number 2.  Postmodernism isn't just a strong element in our society but is growing among and influencing Christians.  If theology is a function of culture then the real leaders are not those who confine themselves to theology but those who represent the cultural aspects of their religion.  These real leaders would be the pastors and clergy who motivate the actions and trends of the believers and not the stuffy academics who sit at a desk writing "if A, then B."  I know that Postmodernism has had its day among philosophers and scientists, but it's still alive in the humanities (art, language arts and anthropology especially) and seems to have left a strong imprint in the public mind.

Is this a bad thing?  I'm not sure.  Different cultures and times have had different ways of expressing their faith in God.  This doesn't mean God changes, but that we do.  On the other hand, articulating the particulars of your faith help get a better understanding of the logical coherence of God's plan.  Wouldn't believers benefit from having that?

Have we lost anything significant now that theologians are no longer media superstars?

Update 2010/05/03: I should say that many popular pastors and preachers are theologians as I would understand theologians (that is, philosophy of religion from inside the religion) but their theology takes a background role to their influence on cultural movements they lead within their religion. No one can preach or lead a religious movement without at least dabbling in the philosophical nature of their belief system. The reason why I still think that theology is not seen as important today is because their theology is not what makes them popular.


  1. The first thing I thought of when I read your intro was exactly what you outlined in your reason #2. The superstar theologians nowadays are simply finding ways to reconcile Postmodernity with Christianity. Why is the rest of the world going to care that a theologian is taking what Derrida did in the 60s, watering it down, and applying it to Christinity? It's old news and it's not even done that well.

    Whereas the more traditional theologians are perceived to have not progressed to the next step with everyone else, having not advanced to Postmodernism.

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  3. Sort of a catch 22 for theology there. Go with the times and be irrelevant or hold to the principles of yesterday and be irrelevant.

    One important point of clarification I should make is that I don't think the reason postmodern theology is unpopular is because people don't want watered down Derrida (though I think that is also true) but that it puts emphasis on the changes in Christian culture over academic discourse. Postmodernists are more interested in the people who affect what the average Christian does than the academic elite. I'm not trying to slam or plug postmodernism, just assess its affect on how mainstream culture views Christianity or at least what they prioritize in religious reporting.

    Note: I deleted my previous comment because it had horrible syntax and was confusing. It basically said the same thing.

  4. Theologians do not know anything more about Real God or anything else that the usual man on the street.

    Or my purring cat,or a giant Redwood tree, or a chameleon sitting motionless on a branch lost in contemplation of the Divine Mystery (or the universal buzz that animates everything).

    They just have more sophisticated word games, or rather towers of babble/babel.

    Jesus was NOT a theologian.

    The Bible is not a theological text.

    None of the Sacred Scriptures of the other faith traditions were written by theologians, nor are they theological texts.

    The founders of the "great" religions were not theologians.

    Neither were the founders of the various practicing schools of Esoteric Spirituality within the various "great" religions".
    Such beings were all Realized saints, yogis, mystics or sages.

    In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions it is tacitly understood that if one is motivated to find the truth then one seeks out the good company and hence the instruction of a Realized saint, yogi or mystic. Or one goes to the temple and participates in the Sacred rituals therein.

    Theologians or other non-Realized big-time talkers are seldom if ever consulted.

  5. @Anonymous,

    What would you define a theologian as? I think you are confining it to vocational theologians or perhaps systematic theologians. I would consider St. Paul to be a theologian. If you don't agree with me, read the Book of Romans. I would also consider Buddha and Jesus to be theologians, although not necessarily systematic theologians. The evangelists are theologians and present events from Jesus' life in a way that conveys that theology.

    I see theology as philosophy of religion from inside the religion. What is your understanding of a theologian that disqualifies Jesus and the works in the Bible?

    I partially agree with you that many theologians do simply play word games and I agree that there is a difference between having an intellectual understanding of God and a supernatural encounter with God. Although I'm not dismissive of intellectual ventures to understand God.

  6. @Anonymous,

    I have to say, however, that my response to your comment has caused me to think about this post. I classify theologians as a different thing than preachers showing that my own view of theologians, without even thinking about it, is vocational. Perhaps I should update the post with an important distinction.