Theology As Lifeboat


Please pardon my brutal candor in venturing the following statement: after several decades of earnestly studying the subject, often to a point just short -- I hope! -- of clinical obsession, I have finally given up on theology as an intellectual discipline. Good, bad, or indifferent, right or wrong, and for better or for worse, I have come to the conclusion that theology is best understood as a form of “DIY” psychotherapy instead of as a logos, a coherent field of study capable of yielding defensible conclusions.

There is a wonderful German word for which there is no single-word English equivalent: wissenschaft. Wissenschaft is usually – and misleadingly – translated as “science”. But in reality, a wissenschaft in the German understanding simply means an organized and coherent body of knowledge acquired by a specific methodology whose principles are known to its practitioners. So the “hard” sciences are certainly wissenschaften, as are the engineering disciplines. (Maybe "discipline" would be a good candidate for an English equivalent, were it not for the unfortunate synonym of "punishment". Stephen Colbert might say a wissenschaft is "science-y", i.e., sorta-kinda like science but without actually being science.) But so are, e.g., art history, philosophy, literature, etc. So we may ask … is theology a wissenschaft? A logos? I believe the answer is “No” And for rather specific reasons of methodology. Theology is not at bottom wissenschaftlich.


All theology is, usually implicitly and by inference, theodicy with the usually covert purpose of preemptively absolving God of, and indemnifying God against, all blame. This is true regardless of whether God is conceived of (1) as active in history, as “doing stuff”; or (2) as a "Bystander" who advocates without intervening. Advocates of the former type-(1) theology spend centuries of time and spill oceans of ink advancing byzantine arguments explaining how a Being to Whom orthodoxy ascribes infinite power and infinite knowledge -- that is, Who knows everything and Who can do anything -- is nevertheless responsible for nothing -- at least, nothing bad -- resulting in an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole reversal of the conventional human intuition that knowledge plus power equals responsibility. Advocates of the latter type-(2) theology, which sometimes includes mystically or contemplatively inclined scientists like Blaise Pascal and (arguably though not certainly) Albert Einstein, exert themselves to a similar extent explaining why a God Who does nothing is worth taking seriously, except perhaps arguably as a "Role Model" or "Supreme Example" or "Absent Architect" or "Suggester-In-Chief".

My question – however naïve and simple-minded it may be -- is just this: "Why?" That is, why, in either case, go to all that discursive, forensic trouble?

My theory is that, in both cases -- the "interventionist” / type (1) God and the "isolationist” / type (2) God respectively (for want of better terms) -- the real concern is not God but us. I.e., it depends on the kind of God the believer in God needs, not on the way God actually is. Theology -- both types -- is risky business. The "interventionist" / type (1) God may intervene inappropriately, even abusively. (See David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God or the God of Mark Twain's short story "The Mysterious Stranger" or the book of Job.) Or the "interventionist" God may not intervene when S/He should. (See the Holocaust and the 9/11 attacks.) For people who build their moral and "existential" lives around belief in an "interventionist" God, either possibility -- a God Who intervenes abusively or Who fails to intervene when even finite human morality requires it -- would be catastrophic. (David Blumenthal and many other Jewish Holocaust theologians like Eliezer Berkovits and Richard Rubinstein have my unqualified admiration for biting the dialectical bullet and concluding that sometimes God is indeed abusive, though I do demur from Blumenthal's insistence that, nevertheless, one's relationship with such an abusive God must be maintained.) There are many people who literally could not live in such a universe presided over by such a God, and for whom such a prospect would be suicidal. They need a God Who intervenes in such a way that such intervention is appropriate and invariably "omni-benevolent", and when such intervention is neither, they equally need an explanation / justification as to why. Hence theodicy.

Martin Luther's German Bible

Similarly, advocates of an "isolationist" / type (2) God need a justification as to why such a God merits any attention at all, and most of all devotion. In other words, why bother? The concern here is, not abusiveness or failure to act, since the "isolationist" God does not do anything, but the wicked sharpness of Ockham's Razor. Do we really need a God Who does nothing? Honestly … some do, some don’t. For the former group, belief in an "isolationist" God scratches the itch of a certain very human nostalgia for someone to be "in charge" -- yet preserves God from blame by isolating Her / Him from action: a God Who does nothing can be blamed for nothing. (Such a God can also be praised for nothing, but this latter consequence is seldom acknowledged, much less practiced. People who subscribe to an "isolationist" theology tend to be as effusive in their praise of God as their "interventionist" siblings when something good happens, e.g., a plane crash where everyone survives unharmed, and also tend to articulate their prayers with plentiful sprinklings of imperative-mood requests for God to act, for God to ... dammit all! ... do something! Perhaps consistently "isolationist" theologians are as scarce in foxholes as atheists. At least, such has been my personal experience.) But such a God is also -- as Ockham-esque considerations would suggest -- always vulnerable to the objection of being superfluous. The "isolationist" God is also, and more implicitly, open to the objection of being patronizing and paternalistic, like a "helicopter Parent" hovering over – yet without helping or touching -- a child learning to walk or to ride a bike. Again, the primary concern is, not with the way God actually is, but with the way humans of different temperaments need God to be.

In the previous two paragraphs lies the essence of my belief that theology is not a logos, not a wissenschaft. For both logoi and wissenschaften – coherent bodies of disciplined knowledge – require a methodology, which means that both are determined to avoid promoting hidden agendas in favor of the disinterested search for truth. Part of the methodology of true logoi / wissenschaften, different as those methodologies may be in other ways, is that the conclusions are never “baked into” the methodology from the get-go. (In that respect, all wissenschaften are indeed like the “hard” sciences. Not that science is pristinely objective and "observer-free". But the principles of science are not such as to "bake" the conclusions "into" the first principles. See my "Skeptic's Collection" column about the place of faith in science.) But, on the contrary, the whole purpose of theology – “interventionist” or “isolationist” – is “always already” to “bake into” the methodology precisely the kind of God the believer in God needs. “Interventionist” theologies reason in such a way that God always comes out “looking good”, i.e., is invariably and perfectly good and kindly disposed toward humans. (An excellent example of this kind of reasoning is Fr. Ron Rolheiser's 8 February column on "difficult" passages of the Bible -- about which more next week.) “Isolationist” theologies reason in such a way that, even though God does nothing, God’s existence and providential, though detached, oversight are essential parts of the world. My conclusion: theology is not a description of God but a mirror we hold up to ourselves. But neither the "interventionists" nor the "isolationists" can afford, psychologically or emotionally, to acquiesce to that,  because both need God to be objectively real, like the speed of light or the value of pi, their differing theologies notwithstanding.

Sigmund Freud

I think that a much more productive way to conceive of theology is to think of it as a kind of do-it-yourself psychotherapy: as a kind of emotional ballast that keeps us afloat ethically and “existentially”. Theology is a pragmatic strategy for “getting us through the night”. In that regard, the “always-already-baked-into” nature of theological conclusions morphs from an embarrassing vice into a positive virtue. (This point is latent in St. Anselm's definition of "theology":  fides quaerens intellectum -- "faith seeking understanding".) As anyone knows who has undergone any kind of psychoanalysis – Freudian, Adlerian, Jungian … you name it – there are always ends-in-view up front. Certain psychotherapeutic outcomes, both the ones we begin with and others we may discover as the analysis proceeds, are "always already" "baked into" the therapeutic process.  That is as it should be. I want to refrain from washing my hands obsessively, to learn to accept that my mother is an incorrigible fundamentalist dingbat, to reframe and get past my miserable childhood, etc., etc. – plus other desired outcomes that often come to light as the years in analysis pass.

Toward that end, human temperaments being as plastic and as variable as they are, some people will require an “interventionist” God, while others would find such a God like living in North Korea, and so need a much more detached, hands-off “isolationist” God. The kind of vehicle one chooses depends critically on where one wants to go: one cannot drive from Seattle to Honolulu. Even the methodological pretensions of theology-as-wissenschaft are useful. Some kinds of fakery and snake-oil-ism are therapeutic. Both “interventionist” and “isolationist” theologies work only on the strict condition that God is believed to be real, i.e., actually the way those theologies represent God, in the sense of being observer-independent ... much like the value of pi or the speed of light. Once become conscious of the artifice of theology, once see behind the curtain and discover that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is really just a little man speaking into a microphone and moving levers … and the artifice of theology becomes … well … not just artifice but artificial in a pejorative sense. As Camus says at one point in The Myth of Sisyphus: “It happens that the stage sets collapse … [and] one day the ‘Why?’ arises”. The methodological rigor of theology-as-wissenschaft drapes a kind of faux veil of “para”-scientific rigor over theology, lending it an aura of objectivity about the “world out there”. It is easier to believe that theology is a wissenschaft if we talk about it as if it were.


Seen in this light, religious bigotry and warfare become doubly tragic, both because they are really founded on between-the-ears-inside-the-skull differences in individual and cultural temperament, and because the nature of the subject is such that there are -- and, even in principle, could be -- no “proofs” that one is right and all (or any) others wrong. One advocates an “interventionist” theology and anathematizes all others, not because “interventionism” is objectively right -- though one sincerely believes it to be objectively right -- but because, in reality, one personally needs an “interventionist” God. Ditto “isolationist” theologies. So fighting over religion is like the Titanic survivors of 1912 fighting over which group had the “best” lifeboat, or the "real" lifeboat, or the "One True Lifeboat". By the time the Carpathia arrived to pick up survivors, it would have found only a floating graveyard.

It is equally important, however, to avoid engaging in Pharisee-in-the-Temple arrogance. Everyone – without exception, everyone … even Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, et al. – needs a lifeboat, whether theologically grounded or not. For there ain’t no Titanic. And there sure-as-hell ain't no Carpathia.  I don't know, but I strongly suspect, there never was.  There are only groups of survivors grouped into various shared lifeboats, and all that is really required is that one's own lifeboat floats and that one does not attempt to sink the lifeboats of others. "Rightness" is determined by whether one's own boat floats and does not require the sinking of the boats of others. That's all. That just is "rightness".  Per omnia saecula saeculorum.  "Here endeth the lesson".

So I close with the words spoken to Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster) in the movie Contact by the extraterrestrial being benevolently posing as her late father: The only thing we’ve found that makes the darkness bearable is one another.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

All images public domain


  1. Profile photo of Thurneysen
    Thurneysen said on April 28, 2016
    Hello James Cowles, even if you're right about everything you've said, you still don't address the issue which has challenged theologians -- which is: the church exists. The church has proclamation. What should be proclaimed? Lived? Witnessed? This is the hinge point which made Karl Barth change his mind -- that his work was not Christian Dogmatics, i.e., theology about Christianity, but Church Dogmatics -- the study of proclamation, helping preachers do what they do. For instance how do you preach "reconciliation", with a text, say, 2nd Corinthians 5.19, "that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ." It's perfectly fine to say no one should need to do that, that the text is superfluous, that there is no need to address "Christ" as reconciler, that reconciliation simply IS, no need to preach at all -- that accepting the task of preaching that text is not necessary for anything that humanity needs. Be as iconoclastic as you want. But someone who says that is not a preacher. One might have the opinion that preachers are not necessary, that no one needs to be one anymore, that the church itself is not needed anymore, and maybe never was. But that would be a different starting point also. Theology begins with the reality of the earthly church doing what it does. Part of that is preaching. Until such a day as there is no church, there will always be a lively, joyful, and positive need for study of theology, to help preachers do what they do better.
  2. Profile photo of jrcowles
    jrcowles said on April 28, 2016
    "What should be proclaimed? Lived? Witnessed?" The Pew Foundation published a survey a few years ago saying they counted over 40 THOUSAND different Christian denominations, each with its own idiosyncratic reading / interpretation of the Bible: 40 THOUSAND different proclamations, 40 THOUSAND different ways of living, 40 THOUSAND different "witnessings" ... many of which were inconsistent with the other 39,999. Which one is true? IMHO that's precisely the wrong question to ask. The most you can do is identify different sets of attitudes and felt needs, different temperaments, different psychologies -- each requiring a different (type / kind of) God, a different (type / kind of) Bible / Gospel. That's what gets proclaimed, and that is the CONTENT of the proclamation. Is reconciliation through Christ necessary? It isn't possible to answer that question at that level of generality. As it stands, that question is like asking "How long is a piece of rope?" or "What color hair does a human being have?" I.e., it all depends. Does the person experience a felt need for reconciliation ... and what does that word MEAN to the person, anyway? For some, "reconciliation" might mean something like the Buddha's "bo-tree moment". It might mean Jibril's command to Muhammad: "Recite!" It might mean the angel's command to Augustine: "Take and read". It might mean something like Dr. Kekule's dream that revealed the chemical structure of the benzine ring. It might mean the flash of insight that gave Watson & Crick the structure of the DNA molecule. It might be the conflagration of creativity Handel experienced while writing "The Messiah". It might mean Eugene O'Neill stumbling out of his study after half-killing himself writing "Long Days Journey Into Night". I repeat: it all depends on the person. The mere fact of proclamation is not self-validating, and least of all normative for everyone else -- unless one's covert assumptions "always already" "bake" validity and normativity into the conclusions. Which is exactly what I was talking about: theologians pulling a rabbit out of a hat, AFTER HAVING PUT THE RABBIT THERE in the first place. As for not being a "preacher" ... well, depending on your definition of that term, I may or may not be. I do not claim to be. I'm just a blogger. If that means I'm a preacher, I won't quibble. Nor have I any objection to the Church proclaiming and defining itself in terms of the content of its proclamation -- PROVIDED ONLY that it not attempt to make its proclamatory content normative for EVERYone -- thus sinking others' lifeboats. And that goes double these days for attempting to make one proclamation the basis for CIVIL law a la prayer in the schools, prohibiting abortion, and the denial of constitutional rights to LGBTQ people based on sectarian theology. The quickest way to make sure there are no "Titanic" survivors is to attempt to fit everyone into the same lifeboat.
  3. Profile photo of Thurneysen
    Thurneysen said on April 28, 2016
    All of this is fun and irenic and serious at the same time for me James Cowles. Thanks for the dialog. “The mere fact of proclamation is not self-validating, and least of all normative for everyone else -- unless one's covert assumptions "always already" "bake" validity and normativity into the conclusions.” Absolutely not self-validating. But self-evidently existing, yes. One of my favorite words, selbstverständlich. People will be doing this. The existence of Beguine Again is one instance of it. Whether it’s someone in jeans and a T-shirt addressing a group of 12 seated in folding chairs, or Billy Graham at a football stadium, or Bishop in purple climbing up steep stairs to an ornate high pulpit. Proclamation in the Bible is never self-validating. Only cult leaders say, ‘you MUST believe it’s true because I say it’s true.’ The ancient Hebrews did not think of themselves as the Chosen People because they chose themselves. They are making proclamation, and their proclamation is that there was a “chooser.” It’s theology’s job to investigate how they came to say that, and if it’s to be said well, how that might be done. “each with its own idiosyncratic reading / interpretation of the Bible: 40 THOUSAND different proclamations, 40 THOUSAND different ways of living, 40 THOUSAND different "witnessings" Yes, that’s why theology will always have work to do. Theology is the self-critical work of the church putting it’s own proclamation under the microscope. Anyone who went to an historical-critical steeped seminary knows that the 40 thousands started before, and then continued with the Bible itself. Different communities, the 4 Gospels, Paul, the post-Pauline writings, just name a few. And then the thread of the historical Jesus, who it seems (from what can be known of him) had his own activity in proclamation. “Nor have I any objection to the Church proclaiming and defining itself in terms of the content of its proclamation -- PROVIDED ONLY that it not attempt to make its proclamatory content normative for EVERYone -- thus sinking others' lifeboats. […]” People can and do object to universal truth claims. And yet proclamation has the character of universalism. The split between the Calvinists and the Arminians was a split over the nature of universalism. Is God’s love universally offered to all of all? Arminius said yes. Calvin said no. John Wesley an Arminian believed he had to sink the Calvinists’ lifeboat. He had to, he believed, or the entire Methodist movement would lose it’s steam and fade away into nothing. “Is reconciliation through Christ necessary?” If you say, “no”, then I think you at least need to admit the source of your “no” is not Christian proclamation. It’s perfectly rational to say no. But it doesn’t “preach”. Unless you’re UU. I could be a UU. Maybe someday I will be. But for now I have to be able to take a text like that, 2nd Corinthians 5, and preach it, and know why I preach it the way I do. From my perspective, I agree with you, that the “sinking of others’ lifeboats” TODAY mostly is bad proclamation. But even saying that means I’m doing theology. I’m being critical of my own proclamation. It means I don’t HAVE to sink others’ lifeboats very often. And yet I’m glad The Rev Dr Martin Luther King sank a few lifeboats. I’m glad Dietrich Bonhoeffer sank a few. Martin Luther’s own 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Door was an attempt to sink the lifeboat of Roman Catholic proclamation. And as a Protestant, I’m glad he took that on. And isn’t it true that the persecutors of LGBTQ freedom and acceptance base much of their stony “no” on their theology? So how’s that to be combatted without criticizing the “no” proclamation, and then going on to proclaim the “yes” which the proclamation says comes from the universal God.

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