The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Few topics are as contentious, or as rich, as that of divinity.

We have discussed religion here at the journal before. It may therefore seem redundant to have a piece on theology as well. Why did Adler include both in his list of the great ideas in the Syntopicon?

Two salient traits distinguish religion from theology. One is that the academic study of religion tends to approach the subject from the outside, as it were—it is a study of human behaviors, and brings in belief as an explanation of those things (if at all). Theology, by contrast, centers upon the divine itself as its subject matter, rather than our response to it.

The other is that theology tends to be rational. The kinds of reasoning theologies employ diverge: a Buddhist description of karma and reincarnation both starts with radically differing premises from an Orthodox Christian description of the Last Judgment, and proceeds by differing methods. These differences are not always irreconcilable contradictions, though they sometimes are. But at least as often, they represent changes of emphasis, experience, and style between one culture and another, or between one tradition and another.

In what is loosely called Western civilization, theology typically means Christian theology. Ancient paganism was not normally theological; a Platonist or a Stoic might set forth a rational system explaining the nature of the gods, but these were the exception, not the rule. Edward Gibbon wrote in Decline and Fall that “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. … The superstition of the people was not embittered by theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system.” But Jewish and Christian beliefs, especially the latter, were defined precisely by theology—and therefore by discussions, disputes, and anathemas.

Disputes raise the problem of authority. Unless a community reaches a unanimous opinion—which is rare in communities larger than one—someone or something has to resolve serious disagreements. Various kinds of authority define theology. Many faiths have a holy book: the Christian New Testament, the Quran in Islam, the Vedas among Hindus, the Gurū Granth Sāhib in Sikhism. This may come paired with some authoritative interpreter. The most famous of these authoritative interpreters is the Pope, considered by Catholics to be the successor of St. Peter and the final definer of all Catholic theology. The Mormon tradition takes a similar view of their church’s President; Shia Islam affirms a dynasty of imams descended from the prophet Muhammad, who like him are considered sinless and infallible.

The proper question to be asked about any creed is not, "Is it pleasant?" but, "Is it true?"

Other traditions reject institutional authority, or at the least refuse it any absolute claim. Most Protestant Christians subscribe to sola Scriptura, a doctrine which specifically states that only the Bible is infallible. Symbols of Christian faith like the Nicene Creed may still be used, but they are treated as useful summaries, without inherent authority. Along similar lines, most Jewish denominations will uphold the Tanakh (known to Christians as the Old Testament), but will not claim divine inspiration for their rabbis. They possess only the force of tradition and scholarly expertise—which are admittedly forces to be reckoned with in their own right.

Other theologies are far simpler, sometimes because they subscribe to no revelation. Atheism, if we choose to view it as a theology, is the simplest of all! Deism also merits mention here, being a rational and religious system that normally rejects the existence (and sometimes even the possibility) of divine revelation. The Founding Fathers of the United States ranged largely on a spectrum between Protestantism and Deism; with some, like Franklin, it is surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly where on that spectrum they fall.

We have called theology rational. However, a celebrated problem in many theologies is that of the relation between religious faith and reason. Some, among both believers and skeptics, consider faith positively irrational, while many who do not go quite that far maintain that it cannot be proven. On the skeptics’ side, these views are often expressed with derision; believers, from Tertullian to Karl Barth, are apt by contrast to flaunt their paradoxes It was Tertullian who coined the defiant phrase Credo quia absurdum, “I believe it because it is stupid.”

But many theologians have argued that faith and reason are fully compatible. None, perhaps, surpasses St. Thomas Aquinas. His encyclopedic knowledge of Aristotelian logic and philosophy, combined with the Catholic tradition, yielded the Summa Theologiæ, one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of thought. At a homelier level, C. S. Lewis (arguably one of the most popular figures on our author bank) gained fame largely through apologetic works like Mere Christianity and Miracles, which set forth in plain, non-technical language a rational statement of Christian faith.

Suggested reading:

St Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana
Martin Luther, Table Talk
Voltaire, Toleration and Other Essays
Martin Buber, I and Thou
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, The Bhagavad Gītā As It Is
St John Paul II, Fides et Ratio


If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this profile of Sophocles, this student essay on the significance of history, or this essay on Catholic education and the liberal arts.

Published on 3rd December, 2020.

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