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.
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.
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
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