Theology Is Not About God: An Open Letter to Jerry A. Coyne

One day, New Atheists may convert the world to reason and usher in a thousand years of humanistic peace. When that happens, sure, let's get theology out of colleges and universities.
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Dear Dr. Coyne,

As a general rule, I avoid arguments with kitchen appliances, Christian fundamentalists, and atheists who think Dawkins makes sense. But I feel obliged to make an exception in this case. You pride yourself on being a reasonable person and on giving Christian theology a fair hearing, so I feel a scholarly duty, as one intellectual to another, to critique your recent screed against Sara Isabella Burton. She wrote an article in the Atlantic about why theology is useful for humanities scholars, whether or not they believe in God. You say you have spent the past several years reading Christian theology. Thank you for your efforts. It is important that we try to understand each other, which is why I am writing, because I think you still don't know what theology actually is.

Before continuing, let me pause for a moment to say that I am not picking on you because you are an atheist. This is not personal. I actually like some atheisms. Marx and Nietzsche are fantastic, Feuerbach is okay too sometimes, but my favorite atheist (if you can really call him that) is the fictional character, Ivan Karamazov. His case for rebellion against God still fills me with cold terror and doubt. These philosophical heavy hitters make me think. But I will admit that I can be a bit impatient with the atheism "lite" you seem to espouse. David Bentley Hart was right when he said that "New Atheism" (otherwise known as atheism that lacks a sense of irony) often confuses science with philosophy and thus fails to take actual philosophical/theology questions seriously. I think that might be what's happening in your reading of Burton. You do admit that you read theology with a highly critical eye, but I cannot shake the feeling that you have confused "critical reading" with confirmation bias. How else could someone of your obvious intellect, who has attempted to educate himself about this subject, get it so very wrong?

Dr. Coyne, you are correct when you distinguish between biblical scholars and theologians. You also correctly define biblical scholars as people who study ancient religious texts. But you go off course when you add that theologians "try to figure out what God is telling us through those texts." This description of theology makes me wonder how much you were paying attention to what Burton actually wrote. For her, "[Theology provides] an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who--in the world outside the ivory tower--still shape plenty of the world today" (emphasis added). In other words, theology is not about trying to figure out the will of God from religious texts. Theology, in a sense, is not really about God at all. It's about people!

For example, according to my own tradition (Eastern Orthodoxy), I am not really a theologian. Theology means "God talk," and so the truest theologian is one who is so close to God that she can no longer tell the difference between God's words and her own. But Burton was describing "academic theology." When I explain this "lesser theology" to my children, I do not use your definition. Instead, I say, "Daddy reads old books and writes a lot." Theological studies is not about trying to figure out what God wants; it's the study of how human beings respond to what they think God wants. That is why some theologians are atheists. To do what I do, belief in God is kind of irrelevant.

Theologians sometimes focus exclusively on a narrow swath of the tradition, in the past, but many of us also work to explain to others how our tradition should shape the way we act in the present. Maybe this seems pointless to you. After all, the New Atheist mantra is that religion is dangerous. Okay! Let's go with that for a minute. Let's suppose the final solution to religion is to do away with it, but that does not really solve any immediate problems. Trying to convince Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al-Qaeda) to become an atheist is like trying to turn water into wine when you don't believe in miracles. It is a pointless exercise. A Muslim theologian who can teach others about orthodox Islam is a more effective opponent of religious extremism than an irate evangelist for New Atheism.

You go on to say that theology might serve a purpose in history or philosophy departments, but this only confirms my suspicion that you do not understand what you are attempting to dismantle. Theological studies is too interdisciplinary to fit into any of those departments. We do read historical documents (often in the original languages), study artistic and archaeological evidence, engage ancient and contemporary philosophy, and utilize a variety of other critical theoretical tools, but theology is not really about religion as sets of ideas, artifacts, or cultural-historical phenomena. (That is more the purview of religious studies departments.) Religion, as you rightly say, is something people kill and die for, but you only half understand why that is the case. History, anthropology, psychology, etc. can help explain the psychopathic corruption of religion as an instrument of murder, but it cannot do justice to Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teressa of Calcutta, or St. Maria of Paris. For the record, I am not trying to make this a competition between religion and atheism or faith and science. My point is that only theology can begin to unravel the mystery of how these human beings could suffer and die for the love of a God they cannot see, and for people they can only believe are God's handiwork. Ideology will make murderers, but it cannot make martyrs. Only love can do that! Only love can make a person give her life for the condemned, embrace the untouchables, and expose injustice by suffering violence without retaliation.

Christians believe that God is love. So we academic theologians are not really studying God, because you cannot see love. We can only see the effects of love in the people who love God. Maybe God is imaginary. Maybe love is too. So what? The imagination matters. It shapes civilizations and the saints (and even the tyrants) they produce. Understanding what people imagine God to be demands an interdisciplinary approach that is only preserved in theological studies.

One day, New Atheists may convert the world to reason and usher in a thousand years of humanistic peace. When that happens, sure, let's get theology out of colleges and universities. But until then, the academy needs theology precisely for what you fail to understand about it: theology is about people. So if theology does not matter, then your problem is not with an "imaginary" God. It is with human beings - marvelously flawed humans! Perhaps you wish, Dr. Coyne, that we were imaginary too.

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