Monday, 24 November 2008

Arguing Theology

Religion has come under a lot of criticism in recent times, it's moved beyond factional wars and now it's come to the point where the institution itself is being questioned. Why do we need religion? What purpose does it serve? What positives and negatives are the outcomes? These seems like legitimate points of contention, but the mere expression of scepticism is met with immense hostility. It's no surprise, any idea that has some personal significance is going to be defended with absolute conviction. What does surprise me is some of the tactics for apologetics is the appeal to the scriptures, that one must be an accomplished theologian in order to criticise any and all aspects of religious belief.

The Courtier's Reply
In response to criticism of The God Delusion, the Mr Pharyngula PZ Myers came up with a great counter called The Courtier's Reply. It's just a fantastic counter to the claim that one cannot dismiss God without being an accomplished theologian. It seems an obvious point, one does not have to be versed on eastern European folklore in order to dismiss the concept of vampires. The realm of studying reality is the scientific realm, and the construct of religion as an explanatory mechanism and the wider effects of the social construct on a population throughout time are best studied with the best tools available.

Modern interpretations of God are nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig, while theologians trump these new philosophical interpretations of God, it's still the same biblical-based entity as before with no evidential backing. No matter what new philosophical justification there is for God, the tenet of the resurrection still remains central to the Christian doctrine. Whether God exists is not going to be determined by philosophical constructs, rather it will be determined by evidence.

To understand the effects of religion on a wider scale, it's absurd to think that reading a holy book would indicate anything beyond a peripheral understanding of the text itself. For behavioural effects, it's best to look at neuroscience and psychology. For societal effects, there's sociology and history. Being an accomplished theologian won't teach anyone about the influence of religion on society, but the social sciences will and that's the place to look to.

Now consider the parallel with something I actually do care about: gaming. One might ask the question "what are the wider effects of gaming on the individual and their role in the community?" Now if there was a study that showed a trend of violence among gamers, would it be more pertinent to question the controlling factors of the study or whether the psychologist in charge had ever beaten Quake on Nightmare difficulty? If there was a sociological study showing anti-social behaviour increasing among online gamers, would the controlling factors of the study be under question or whether the sociologist's World of Warcraft character had reached level 80?

The parallel with gaming is there to show that knowing the content of a subject is not an adequate resource to deal with questions not relating to that content. Knowing the back-story of Zelda universe does not make that person any bit qualified to answer questions on behaviour associated with playing the game. Theology won't answer questions of individual behaviour, it won't answer question of the wider social effects of group behaviour and how that has happened throughout history. The best way to study the inquisition is to look at the historical evidence, not the bible.

Middle-Earth scholarship
What does reading the bible actually tell us? It's like any other piece of literature, it has a message that the author(s) intended. Those who are adept at literary analysis would see even further into the book and be able to understand the authors themselves. But for the layman, the bible is a chance to get immersed in the world of the mythology. They are able to emotionally connect with the characters involved and try to understand the motivations associated therein. In essence studying theology has the academic scholarship of studying Lord Of The Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a masterpiece in the fantasy genre, it's influence today is seen transcending literary fantasy and into the pop culture. Admittedly the adaption to the silver screen helped bring it into the consciousness of an otherwise ignorant mainstream, but it's success still speaks volumes for it's quality. It doesn't stop there either, the appendices, and further books all bring Middle Earth to life and give it a complete mythology.

Now if one were to argue the meaning of Frodo's journey, it would help to read the book. It would give an even better picture by reading the appendices, and given greater context of it's magnitude by delving into the Silmarillion. One who has read the books several times and studied the key passages and themes would have a greater understanding than someone like myself who has only read the book twice. Sure I'd be able to argue a few points on an equal footing, but for most things they would be able to teach me so much.

And in the end that's what being a theologian amounts to. They could tell me so much about the way the bible is presented, they could tell me about what each passage means in the greater context of the whole. But when they do so from a theological perspective, they can only give me theological answers. To read the book as a quasi-historical document would give us an accurate representation of what the bible is. But to read it as the divine word of God, there's as much in theological scholarship as there is in Tolkien's classic. Only Middle-Earth scholars aren't deluding themselves into thinking they are understanding Eru.

1 comment:

Michael Hawkins said...

I'm so glad someone has finally put this into words so well. This is precisely to what these theology arguments boils down.