Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Value of Theological Education part 2

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An atheist on CARM recently went into a tirad complaing about theology. He didn't even know the proper term for a theologian he called the thread "stupid things theologists say." Theologists! Anyway, Here' a sample of his rant:


I'm not going to start this with an insult, just to differentiate myself from some of my theist "friends".

I was searching for a theological article that made some sense to me such that I could try and enter into a meaningful debate with Metacrock. I searched various sources - I looked at a number of publicly available journals eg.

http://dlibrary.acu.edu.au/research/theology/ejournal/
http://journals.cambridge.org/action...ournal?jid=SJT

And read through a number of the articles, but they are all the same. Each author simply puts forward their own views, without any reference to research or evidence to support their points.

Even accepting that the subject matter doesn't really lend itself to evidence, most of this stuff just looks like shameless invention.

I think the biggest paradox in reading this rubbish is that for authors who must (by nature) start with a premise that there is a deity, they don't appear to take any backward step in presuming to know the mind & motives of their particular deity. Wouldn't that in itself be the height of arrogance?


After this he said my writing is so bad he can't tell that I ever went to school. I confronted him with an article from my journal, Negations, the academic journal I published, peer reviewed and indexed and the whole nine yards. Then then somewhat changed his tune:

So I start reading (and I must say that for a dyslexic, the writing
is a credit to you),


But his admiration was short lived because he can't accept the fact that there are other forms of knowledge than the one he's been trained in. He's been brain washed to believe that only empirical scientific data is knowledge so he wont accept anything else. He goes on carping how stupid the article is aside from being well written because it isn't crammed full of facts:


and I cant get more than a few paragraphs into the article with hitting a point that as a fact driven person I can read past

You state "In so arguing, he anticipated much of Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man, and C. Wright Mill's notion of the "cheerful robot," as well as the decline which now besets our society"

What "decline" is that? Why is it that theology seems to be riddled with unsupported statement where the authors don't seem to make any effort to given even that veneer of fact?


You are talking about ideas and using thought categoreis instead of number crunching we can't have that!

"The next generation grows up thinking of civilization as freeways and flush toilets, with no concept that it could be an ideal of behavior or of individual thought, and with no concept that spare time might be a source of intellectual renewal, rather than the chance to play"

Yet here am I, discussing the merits of theology...

As though that's all there is to ethics, just the fact that you are discussing this, however badly is somehow supposed to prove that the idea of civilization hasn't moved away from ethical thinking!

Admittedly I haven't finished reading the entire article, but that's partly due to the fact that I don't think it's heading toward a conclusion that would be supported with reference to facts supporting an argument.


That statement I can't help but hear as meaning "i just can't force myself to think in terms not involved in number crunching and and I'm too uncertain in the world of ideas to mess with it." I've always suspected that these reductionist types use data to hide behind because they can't deal with ideas. This guy didn't do anything to change that impression. This guy's view point represents the major thrust of atheist thinking now days. That's very ironic because way back in the early 70s as an undergraduate I began my crusade against reductionism, as an atheist. I identified poetry, art and literature with atheism. Back then you could because the major atheist are thinkers, philosophers and novelists not scientists. Although the scientific world had its share of them. Since I left the atheist world it went whole hog into the direction of one-denominational man. Even a large portion of scientists have seen through the reductionist bs but not the atheists. The atheists on CARM thought that Thomas Kuhn was a creationist!

Stanton Jones, professor of psychology at Wheaten college, observes that philosophers were the first to notice the sciences over dependence upon positivism and it's ideological entrapment for the assumptions scientists were making. This goes back to C. Wright Mills warnings about the priesthood of knowledge that sociology was turning itself into (The Sociological Imagination). Jones observes:

The traditional posativistic view of science has been eroding since the late 1950s. Although, preceded by a substantial amount of work in the philosophy and sociology of science (Laudan 84), The analysis of science promulgated by historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn (1970) were the first to really catch the attention of the scientific world, and especially the psychological world. Since that time awareness of positivistic, postmdoern or "historicist" trneds in the philosophy of science on the part of psychologists has increased (e.g., Bevan, 1991; Gergen, 1985; Gholson and Barker, 85; Howard, 85; Manicas and Secord, 83; O'Donohue, 1989; the trend in understanding science might be as follows.

Posativisistic philosophy of science has tuaght us that data are theory laden. A simplistic empirical foundationaliam or naive realism, the view that empirical data are unsullied and indubitable, is no longer tenable. Philosophers were the fist to clearly see this. Results of contemporary perceptual and cognaive psychology clearly support the contention that data are sorted or processed from their first entry into the human organism's first sensory equipment. For instance, expectations have a profound impact upon on the perceiving process (the famous Postman studies sited by Kuhn)and these findings have made their way into the philosophy of science literature. It is commonly noted that all seeing is "seeing as." (Stanton L. Jones, "On the Suppossed Incomensurability of Scinece and Religion" in Religion an the Clinical Practice of Psychology. ed Edward P.Shafranske American Pssycholgoical Asociation Washington DC 1996, 118."


This view that empirical data is pure truth and can't be questioned is the stack and trade of the message broad atheists. It's also the reason why I say there is no objectivity. Even the most diligent scientist still has his biases and the psychological data confirms that no one ever approaches data from the standpoint of pure unbiased devotion to truth alone. Atheists are hiding behind data. They had behind the mystique of the pure unblemished truth of science to give them the illusion of total objectivity. Their standard cry, "that's subjective" leveled against all theological argument is a joke and demonstrates total naivete. When I was a sociology major, back in the stone age (undergraduate), a professor talked about and had us read a famous article that was already a classic sociology. It was by a guy named Lundberg called "Knowledge for What?" In this article Lundberg argues that the idea of pure passionless data collection with no social agenda and no idea of one's own concerns is nothing more than the ditty bag of an idiot, like a village idiot collection strings and sticks and dead birds and shiny things that mean nothing. He was countered by a sociologist named Lynde who argued that data must be pure and they had a famous journal debate that was so legendary it was in an anthology textbook. This debate was in the 30s, so those ideas were around long before Kuhn. But that stuck with me. I still believe it now, all research has not only its biases but its ulterior motives, it's assumptions, its ideologies. As Lundberg expressed it sociologists do not count the bricks in tenement buildings just for the fun of knowing how many there are. Economists do not maintain such a purse love of truth and data for sake of pure data that they research dates on coins in the economy. All of this research has a point to it. Someone has a social agenda, all scientific research winds up in someone's political platform.

It took philosophers and historians to see it because the scientists were too rooted in the data to ever step back from it and look at what they were doing. Even though these were secular philosophers and historians such as Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994 CE) and Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996), they point up two major contributions that theologians also make to the world of thought. Just as philosophers without providing tons of data and number crunching provided a valuable insight by dealing with the structure of ideas,so theologians as well provide that same function. What actually produced the observation was the very thing our atheist at the top of the essay complains about, "they are just making stuff up," dealing with the sweeping structure of ideas rather than hiding behind the body of data. To do this requires stepping back from the data and form the data collecting process, the very thing out atheist friend complains that theologians don't do (keep reading) which is exactly what do do. The process of dealing with frames of thought and engagement with ideas rather than numbers is essential to understand that the numbers can be a smoke screen hiding the ideas, which are the real driving force.

Knowledge must be global. Each discipline has a part to play. We need to be interdisciplinary in our outlook (which I learned from the History of ideas program in my doctoral work). Theology is too sequestered. The two spheres of academia (secular and sacred) work at keeping apart form each other. In spite of this theology has a part to play. It does this in two ways: First in terms of thought categories that can be used to critique all thought on a higher level, not just theological. Secondly, by providing the same function in terms of religious traditions.

(1) Critical methods and global function

One example of this sort of critique is what Matthew Lamb called "the praxis enlightenment." In the 80s theologians, far from reinforcing drab teachings or clinging to Orthodoxy, rooted out the hopeless pie in the sky thinking, Hegelian or otherwise in favor of "praxis" which involves political action, analysis and action and doing things in the world and having pragmatic impact. Revolutions in Latin America produced a lot ferment about what is really making a concrete difference in the lives of the poor rather than just blessing their poverty. This sort of criticism can be taken to secular thought and even science and was in Nicaragua. Science was used as justification for exploitation until the theologically minded members of the frente began to apply praxis to it. That is in terms of sociological number crunching and pollution and other uses ot data to justify what was being done to the poor.

Theology can charge the scene with ethical thinking and provide means of understanding the full global perspective of learning. It's far too limiting to pretend that knowledge is only scientific. We need to use global resources, all disciplines. We need to be multidisciplinary. Theology has a place in that scheme. There is a conversation in civilization. the conversation in the world of thought has been going on for over a thousand years. To take part one has to understand what's been said before. We don't need necessarily to infuse the discuss with more data, we need to understand the sweeping structures of thought and how they relate to us and to the world. Theology lends itself to this task by bringing the view of faith, which has been a crucial and central part of human experience for 65,000 years. Anesthetist try to reject theological view points as imaginary and stupid, but all they are really doing is resenting the established structures and trying to take over and control them through their own ideology.

Atheists can complain that they are "making stuff up" but these are empirical matters. The material analysis of the human conditions (liberation theology) is going to require numbers and empirical research. But it's not supplied by theologians, it has be collected and understood by theologians along with the analysis of the social scientist and the social critic. In the doing of liberation theology things can get dangerous. Many theologically based workers gave their lives for the poor in the struggles of Central America in the 70s-90s. This also requires an engagement with the people first hand, living with them, risking death with them, dying with them. This is no job for a pie in the sky sort of academic arm chair dreamer or a passionless positivist. But an army of theology students decended upon Latin America, inspired by theologians such as Moltmann, Miguse Bonino and Arch Bishop Romero, and Gustavo Gutierrez.

This function is not limited to liberal theology. The fact of doing theology at all, the fact that it offers a sens of transcendence from the paradigms of crunching and social engineering makes it a valuable blast to counter the reductionist robot making. Now the atheist can whine "they are just making stuff up" but they are taking part in a conversation. Western thought and letters are a conversation. They have been around for a long time, over a thousand years and a lot has been said. To continue the conversation one must be aware of what's been said and how it relates to the current scene and the future. That's why we need people to deal with the thought frame rather than to lose themselves hiding behind a body of data.

Since God is not given in sense data, talk about God is always going to be analogical. We have to approach it indirectly when te talk about God because there is no way to approach directly except in forms that are beyond talk (mystical experience). Therefore, theological talk will always be analogical, metaphorical, indirect, and it would be absurd to try and produce any kind of data directly relate to observations of God. That does not mean they are just making it up and it doesn't mean it can't relate to anything real or empirical. In making this grand set of metaphors that are interrelated we can we understand the sweeping structures of thoguht the frames of ideas and how they interrelate. Without that data is just the ditty bag of an idiot, odds and ends collected from nature that mean nothing.

None of this means they are just making things up. you can't just make things up you have to relate them to what's already been framed in the structure of the conversation. Maybe that stuff was made up but you have to tread upon it as though it matters and deal with it in such a way as to do a lot of thinking about it. There's automatic limit on just making stuff up. Since most people want their beliefs to relate to reality you would have to do a lot of relating of the made up stuff to reality. Look at the reader of this blog, Loren, who protests my poo pooing of her "thought experiments" in history. She can see the value of creativity in history when she uses it but can't the value of creativity when those of the hated target group that her ideology tells her is her enemy uses it. When she does it it's a clever thought experiment like Einstein, when theologians do it's just "mak'n stuff up." Even if all of those frame works and sweeping structures of thought prove to mere moon beams it's going to be the process of understanding the framework that exposes it as such, not merely the lack of data. All the lack of data will do is illicit attempts to find data to confirm what one already believes. That is the case with all sides and ideologies.

(2) within traditions themselves

Theology can illuminate religious traditions and enable them to understand themselves better. The primary task of theology is as the traditional understanding defines it (St. Anselm) "faith seeking understanding." This is the basis of theological method. The atheist quoted above carps because

I think the biggest paradox in reading this rubbish is that for authors who must (by nature) start with a premise that there is a deity, they don't appear to take any backward step in presuming to know the mind & motives of their particular deity.


The sheer stupidity of this illiterate fool misses the point that this is exactly what they are doing. They don't do it in the comic fashion that he's expecting because they are not fundie yokels. He doesn't recognize what they are doing because all he knows is number crunching. For him they are not stepping back and look at it form the big picture because they don't find it to be stupid. They don't find it to be stupid as he does because they know something about it, and he's too lazy to learn anything about it. The modern definition of theology is "participation in and study of a religious tradition." The point is the theologians strives to enable the tradition to understand itself. He/she seeks to enable those who wish to participate in the conversation what's been said and how it figures into a modern scene. It's not necessary that it be another exercise in number crunching we don't need tons of data to hide behind. Theologians deal with the sweeping structure of ideas rather than the fiddly bits of empirical data.

Theology can also be empirical. Just because we don't have mathematical equations proving the trajectory of an idea or empirical observations through microscopes showing God's DNA or something doesn't mean there's nothing empirical to deal with. We can't have empirical data of God but we can have empirical data of the co-determinate. Hence the 350 empirical studies that I use for my God arguments. We can have and do have a science of textual criticism. Atheists have no understanding of textual criticism. It's not part of science so it must be stupid. It can be demonstrated to work on secular literature. It has developed as a science, especially lower criticism. Higher criticism is the determination of authorship and dating of a text. The lower criticism is the determination of errors in a text and tracing their origins and reconstructing the original text. This has all been worked to a science and it empirical. Just as modern history thrives on texts, so theology in this sense is in line with modern historical methods. This is certainly not "mak'n stuff up."

Since theology is participation in and study of a religious tradition it invovles understanding what exactly the tradition says and why, and what that means in a modern context. The basic theological method at root is about filling in blanks. Philosophy is about asking interesting questions more than it is about answering them. By the same token theology has the answer at the end. It knows where its going but it wants to fill in the blank left by faith and show how we get there. Sometimes that has to mean re defining where are going because the imagined end result is no longer meaningful in a modern context. This would be the case with process theologians for example. They realize that the Greek based philosophy of the Orthodox was no longer tenable in a world in process so they redefined the end result, God is not static and unchanging but in process with creation and di polar. They didn't just say "I know I'll make up that God is di polar, why not it's mak'n stuff up." First there was a tradition going back the Greeks. There was Heraclitus. There was Hegel. Then there was Whitehead, who influenced modern science somewhat and the modern study of logic a great deal. There's a tradition, you have to work in relation to the tradition. Tradition doesn't mean in the academic sense just accept something uncritically it means a conversation. You have to know what's been said, to understand the sweeping structures, and demonstrate how can fit into that.

Modern theology has kept pace with modern thought. It's not making stuff up and it's not pie in the sky. It's practical and theoretical. It's empirical and idealist but it's not idealism. It's a valuable discipline, part ethics, part social criticism, part philosophy. You have to have a broad basis in the modern academy to do theology well in the postmodern age. That's exactly what the critics of theology lack. They don't have the exposure in the academy to understand the basics. They spend every day of their lives flapping their gums about how stupid theology is because one guy who tells them what to think (Dawkins) says it's stupid. He says that because he doesn't know anything about it. That's been demonstrated by his attempts to deal with it. He gave up and just started bad mouthing it and his groupies regurgitate what he says because they are "free thinkers" so they think think what they told to think.

13 comments:

A Hermit said...

Honestly though Joe, are you surprised that many people aren't all that interested in a subject which has no relevance for their lives?

As you admit yourself your beliefs about God are a figment of your own imagination; your theology can't produce a God for me which is worthy of my worship or has any purpose for my life, so why should take theology seriously? It has meaning for you, and that's fine, but for me it's a waste of time.

J.L. Hinman said...

Honestly though Joe, are you surprised that many people aren't all that interested in a subject which has no relevance for their lives?


part of the challenge to show them why they should be.

As you admit yourself your beliefs about God are a figment of your own imagination; your theology can't produce a God for me which is worthy of my worship or has any purpose for my life, so why should take theology seriously? It has meaning for you, and that's fine, but for me it's a waste of time.

there's a problem here. I made a mistake and forgot to quote box around hat part. That was what Tom said. But tom believes in God he wasn't saying there's no God. It' just part of his idiomatic way of speaking that frankly find bewildering.

A Hermit said...

"part of the challenge to show them why they should be."

Well, good luck with that...;-)

"there's a problem here. I made a mistake and forgot to quote box around hat part. That was what Tom said."

Is he wrong?

"But tom believes in God he wasn't saying there's no God. It' just part of his idiomatic way of speaking that frankly find bewildering."

Idiomatic and bewildering is a good description of theological reasoning generally, don't you think? That may be why you have a hard time convincing people it's relevant to their lives...

J.L. Hinman said...

part of the challenge to show them why they should be."

Well, good luck with that...;-)

"there's a problem here. I made a mistake and forgot to quote box around hat part. That was what Tom said."

Is he wrong?

"But tom believes in God he wasn't saying there's no God. It' just part of his idiomatic way of speaking that frankly find bewildering."

Idiomatic and bewildering is a good description of theological reasoning generally, don't you think? That may be why you have a hard time convincing people it's relevant to their lives...


when you decide to actually learn something about it you wil be surprised.

Knowing you there's a chance you might have read some theology at some point. What have you read?

Kristen said...

How could something that's "part ethics, part social criticism, part philosophy" have no relevance to our lives?

We all have ethics; we all have ways that we view and criticize the structures of society; we all have philosophies of living. To not have these is to not be human. To have them but never think about them is the action of an uneducated, unthinking person.

Even the guy in the Appalachians with a fourth-grade education has a philosophy of living and a system of ethics, though he may never think about them beyond "always do your duty," or conversely, "if it feels good, do it." Each uses his system (whether one of traditional morals or one of hedonism) to decide how he thinks of others in his society. How could these things not be relevant?

Metaphysical assumptions are implicit even in the systems of those who reject metaphysics. It seems to me that theological assumptions are also implicit in the minds of those who reject theology.

A Hermit said...

"How could something that's "part ethics, part social criticism, part philosophy" have no relevance to our lives?"

It's the idea of God that's irrelevant to me. None of those things requires God.

It seems to me that the liberal theologians' version of God is so so vague, so broadly qualified that it is indistinguishable from no God at all.

"Even the guy in the Appalachians with a fourth-grade education has a philosophy of living and a system of ethics..."

That's because he's a human being and all of those things, like the idea of God itself, are a product of our humanity.

A Hermit said...

"when you decide to actually learn something about it you wil be surprised."

I haven't been yet...

"Knowing you there's a chance you might have read some theology at some point. What have you read?"

I haven't "read" much in the sense of having formally studied it;
most of my exposure to theology has admittedly been second hand through my Grandfather's sermons (and later my Mother's), and the teaching of the Churches I atended so of course I'm pretty heavily influenced by the Mennonite tradition and the thinking of people like Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, David Yoder and later thinkers like Rudy Wiebe.

Here's an essay on Mennonite Theolgians

That actually represents a pretty broad range of thought, mind you, but the general thrust of it all is a sense of personal commitment and discipleship in the context of a community of believers. There's a lot of emphasis on personal revelation and individual responsibility to seek and understand God's will, so I think it's a tradition that's rather resistant to defining itself too systematically.

On the atheist/agnostic side, I've also read some of Russell, the Huxleys, (pre-senility) Antony Flew and recently discovered Comte-Sponville.

J.L. Hinman said...

"How could something that's "part ethics, part social criticism, part philosophy" have no relevance to our lives?"

It's the idea of God that's irrelevant to me. None of those things requires God.

yea but its not. you don't have to believe for it to be relevant. 90%of humanity does believe so it will effect your life. You might as well know what they say.

It seems to me that the liberal theologians' version of God is so so vague, so broadly qualified that it is indistinguishable from no God at all.

there is absolutely nothing at all veg about process theology. If anything they try to answer too much.

"Even the guy in the Appalachians with a fourth-grade education has a philosophy of living and a system of ethics..."

yea, wellllll dogies!

That's because he's a human being and all of those things, like the idea of God itself, are a product of our humanity.

but liberal theology is well thought out, draws upon the global understanding of human education, doesn't involve living in a trailer part.

J.L. Hinman said...

so you were Mennonite. Interesting. See that's just one of the interesting side line traditions. There are hundreds.

I like Mennonites. I knew one once at a mission training thing he and I were there while Reagan was getting nominated in 80. He was the only other one besides me who thought it was a Travesty.

He and I agaisnt the whole compound over Reagan. Also one other guy who sympathized was Barry McGuire the famous 60s folksinger (On the Eve Destruction). He was there, he was a Jesus freak.

I was in that missionary training thing for American street missions, (it was not about going to South America and teaching the Native to wear clothes). But I wound up not using the training and never went out on a street mission.

But that Mennonite guys was really cool and a great guy. Very socially conscious. I also went to one of their churches in Dallas a few times, they took part in the Central America movement so they came to our events sometimes (Inter religious task force on Central America),

A Hermit said...

"yea but its not. you don't have to believe for it to be relevant. 90%of humanity does believe so it will effect your life. You might as well know what they say."

Sure, it's important to understand other people's points of view, but for me personally the idea of God is irrelevant.

I have a friend who is a big Star Trek fan; I'm actually impressed by his commitment to the whole "Trekkie" world, and I'm interested in it up to a point, especially in terms of understanding him as a person.

But I'm not going to learn to speak fluent Klingon, like he does...;-)

"there is absolutely nothing at all veg about process theology. If anything they try to answer too much."

And in doing so they end up answering nothing...in the end that looks like vagueness to me.

J.L. Hinman said...

Meta:"yea but its not. you don't have to believe for it to be relevant. 90%of humanity does believe so it will effect your life. You might as well know what they say."

Sure, it's important to understand other people's points of view, but for me personally the idea of God is irrelevant.

you don't have to believe in God to learn about theology. TI's important to know what people believe. I don't believe in Buddhism but I learn about it.

I have a friend who is a big Star Trek fan; I'm actually impressed by his commitment to the whole "Trekkie" world, and I'm interested in it up to a point, especially in terms of understanding him as a person.

But I'm not going to learn to speak fluent Klingon, like he does...;-)


another one of your big mistakes! you are really stickin the mud! ;-)

Meta:"there is absolutely nothing at all veg about process theology. If anything they try to answer too much."

And in doing so they end up answering nothing...in the end that looks like vagueness to me.

How would you know if you don't read it?

J.L. Hinman said...

If your standard of truth is 100% agreement why are you an atheist?

You seem to assume well process theology can't be true because if it was what?

everyone would agree with it?

you would know about it? how? if you don't read it how will you know?

A Hermit said...

"How would you know if you don't read it?"

Why do you think I continue read your blog, even after all the insults, abuse and drama? Between work, family and other commitments I don't have time to embark on a through academic course of study; I thought you were someone who could explain some of these ideas for me. When I read stuff like your TS argument this is what I'm left with; a vague, generalized, mushy definition of God that doesn't sound to me like anything relevant to my experience.

"If your standard of truth is 100% agreement why are you an atheist?"

Where did I say that?!

"You seem to assume well process theology can't be true because if it was what?"

And that last bit is incoherent...what is it you imagine I'm assuming???