What is the value of theology?

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Let’s take a look at the two course examples that Coyne brought up and had problems with:

RLST 20901 – Interpreting Jesus

This course examines the on-going mutability of portrayals, images, and narratives of Jesus in ancient Christian gospels and later art, literature, drama, and film. Our investigation will begin with the New Testament gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We will then discuss the lesser known gospels according to Thomas and Mary. This in turn allows us to consider how literary and dramatic works, art, and films frame, narrate, and interpret Jesus and the stories about this controversial figure as he appears in these later receptions in a variety of guises. Works to be examined likely will include Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ; a variety of artistic portrayals of Jesus at the Art Institute; The Gospel at Colonus (in conjunction with this spring’s production at Court Theater); and films by Scorsesi (The Last Temptation of Christ), Monty Python (Life of Brian), and Van der Put (The First Temptation of Christ).

I mostly object to the part in bold, which assumes that there was a real Jesus-person. I don’t see any courses that are about “The Myth of Jesus,” but I haven’t looked closely. Yes, there’s some interesting stuff in here, but is there any questioning of whether Jesus even existed as a person, divine or otherwise? If he didn’t, then this course is like “Interpreting Paul Bunyan”, “Interpreting Zeus”, or “Interpreting Leprechauns.”

The course description is eminently understandable as the idea that Jesus was a real person is the dominant view of NT scholars today, Christian or not. That Jesus was a myth is a fringe view held by almost no serious scholars and has as much credence as young earth creationism in biology. Coyne is free to personally hold to this fringe view, but to demand it be taught in the university is ridiculous - by that standard then he shouldn’t be too angry at creationists trying to push creationism into schools.

RELP 40800 – Field Work Practicum III

The Practicum sequence complements the MDiv Congregational Placement and offers opportunities for students to engage in critical reflection of their respective practical experiences of ministry leadership. In addition to this element of personal and practical reflections, students will engage a range of readings, written exercises, and classroom conversations to assist in articulating and refining their own practice of ministry.

Why should a university be in the business of helping its students promulgate religious mythology? I hasten to add that ministers serve sociological and psychological functions, and can be a form of social glue, but I doubt that that’s all these field work courses involve.

Because the University of Chicago, like Harvard, Princeton and most other old universities in America, was originally established as having divinity schools meant to train ministers. This is just a remnant of that, and there’s nothing in this course description that presumes the existence of the supernatural.

Overall, Coyne’s posts are oddly turning more and more into an inverted image of the creationists he so harshly criticizes. He’s becoming very puritanical about his atheism and his own views, to the point that even private universities (like U Chicago) should give space to his fringe mythic views about Jesus and they shouldn’t be allowed to let MDiv students from mainline denominations reflect on their own practice of ministry.


I don’t know what those sentences mean, and I think that “theology” is generally not reputable or valuable especially in the context of a major research university. But I really don’t understand the harping on Jesus’ existence. I’ll grant that we don’t know enough about him to assert with confidence that he was a historical figure, at least not with the same confidence that we can do this for Julius Caesar or the Apostle Paul, but that doesn’t add up to a challenge to “theology” and it’s far from reasonably asserting that Jesus never lived. I agree this is starting to look fringe-y and it sure as hell is cringe-y.

Just out of curiosity, what do you base this claim on?
Even Sceptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman accept that there is good evidence for Jesus being a historical figure.
Do you see any particular reason to lack confidence that he was not a historical figure?

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The arbiter of whether Jesus was a historical figure or not should be professionals who study this for a living, instead of scientists with private opinions like you and me or Coyne. The task of a secular research university should be to recruit scholars who are at the forefront of their fields, whether it’s biology, physics, economics, philosophy, or religious studies.

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Of course.

I thought the topic was theology.

Sigh. I compared him to Julius Caesar and Paul, and you turn that into “lack confidence.”

It would be good to find a meaning of theology that would make sense to humanists. If theology is study of the transcendent and ethics and ministry included secular chaplaincy, couldn’t atheists agree that there could be value here?

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Oh I see tremendous value in religious studies, and even agree with Steven Pinker that it should be required in college curricula. And I see tremendous value in the expansion/repurposing of concepts of ministry and chaplaincy. I don’t know whether “theology” can be reasonably redefined to include mere transcendence/ethics but if that’s what we all started to mean by “theology” then I’d be unhesitatingly in favor of it.


If we understand it as an expanded definition, which would still include orthodox Christian theology as subset and/or dialogue partner, then I would be all for that shift in meaning. So this isn’t “mere” transcendence, but all an expanded definition.

Put another way, rather than railing against the uselessness of theology, humanists could ask to be included in the theological dialogue. I already include them, and in fact theology is one of the reasons many of the atheists are here at Peaceful Science.

Another way to understand theology, which I find particular helpful, is as “discourse” or “dialogue” between different viewpoints on the transcendent, and how it might connect with mundane. I mean transcendant in a very open ended way here, including morality, ethics, origins, echatology…

In fact, we could even define theology as “discourse” or “dialogue” around grand questions. What does it mean to be human? What is “good” and the “good” life? Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going?

Doctrine might be how individual camps or individuals themselves canonize what is acceptable or not regarding those questions. That is not what I mean.

Theology would be the dialogue between contrasting doctrines, disagreeing scholars, communities in tensions with one another. By that definition, isn’t theology how we would expect to make sense of the world?


Well again, if that’s theology, then I’m a big fan. Those are the main goals of humanism as I understand it, and many secular humanists pursue training in theology at schools of divinity. I am not so sure that everyone who calls themselves a theologian would join us in defining theology as you just did, but at some point the words don’t matter.

As for “railing against theology,” well that might be an occupational hazard of inviting atheists to a conversation :smiling_imp:, but I for one will agree to forego such railing and point to the broader definition of “theology” that we are discussing here.


Of course not everyone, however many would consider this a good description. Appealing to common grace, some might even say that atheists can do good theology, in a limited but dignified sense, even if it were incomplete in significant ways it might even be complementary to other points of view. And isn’t all theology, just like all science, incomplete any ways? I would say so…

Well, that’s what we are aiming to do differently here.

I’m not sure that theology as a label for such things actually works. It seems like a bad fit, and it seems to me that we already have terms for the disciplines which actually study those things.

That is, I think, a very strange use of the word “theology.” The name really does carry some strong implication that there’s a theos in there somewhere. Why call it a cheese shop, if the one thing it is distinctly lacking is cheese?

I think that what you’re really talking about is a sort of theistic outreach, in which people try to find common ground. But we can always find common ground if we are speaking of human experience and about other things which everyone in the discussion already thinks are real. The difficulty in this sort of outreach is that what you will invariably discover is that nobody who doesn’t share your views of the supernatural will accept those views as a good justification for any particular resolution of any question. They will expect you, in other words, to be able to make your point WITHOUT recourse to doctrines and dogmas that are peculiar to your faith. And if you can do that, I think that it betrays the fact that what you were talking about wasn’t really “theology” in the first place.


That already has a name: philosophy. Only if you answer those questions by appeal to God are you doing theology.


I asked because your comparison sounded strange.
Whether there is more or better evidence that Paul or Ceaser existed doesn’t really answer the question with regard to Jesus’ historicity.
Let me give you an example. At this point of time, there is better evidence that I exist, than whether Julius ceaser did (because you can see me in person while you can’t do that for Julius ceaser).
Does this fact have any bearing on the historicity of Julius ceaser?
It seems a strange comment.

There is certainly an overlap, but academic analytic philosophy in the US is very technical and dry to the average person, even if we’re talking about philosophy of religion or ethics. It also seems very silo-ed to me, which is true of most “technical” disciplines in universities. There’s an opportunity here to have a new “department” (or some sort of program) which investigates “grand questions” in an interdisciplinary manner. It won’t be as rigorous or deep as analytic philosophy, but perhaps it could have more public influence.

The closest thing I can think of are Veritas Forums, but those are limited one-time events run by evangelical Christians.

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I was thinking of classical philosophy. Greeks, Romans, and such.

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I’m not sure it would be a new department. More like a new charter or reinvigorated vision for existing divinity schools.


Sure. But the kind of philosophy done in analytic philosophy departments is different in style compared to what you would read in one of Plato’s dialogues. It’s more rigorous, technical, and narrower in scope. There are of course still philosophers specializing in Greek philosophy, but they tend to be classified as specialists in “history of philosophy”. Perhaps some philosophers might teach a freshman seminar or fun course on the “Meaning of Life”, but that’s it.

Secondly, to come back to your earlier point, many of the Greek philosophers were neither secular nor atheists in the modern sense. Plato believed in the Form of the Good. Aristotle believed in the Unmoved Mover. Were they doing theology? These ideas would later be appropriated by Muslim, Christian, and Jewish philosophers and identified to correspond with the God that they believed in. Ironically, in my opinion these people operated more continuously within the philosophical tradition started by the Greeks compared to later modern philosophers such as Descartes, Hume, Kant, etc., or even worse the 20th century analytic tradition.

Or maybe you zeroed in on one offhand comment and missed my overall point. Oh well.