Let's Take Believers Seriously

I’m reading lots of systematic theology at the moment. And I’ve noticed a worrying trend.

Paul Tillich - Time Magazine

Paul Tillich on the March 16, 1959 cover of Time Magazine. Click the image to visit Time's site for the cover story.

Sophisticated theologians, particularly systematic theologians, like to re-imagine God and redefine God (as well as other religious and spiritual terms). Tillich’s God isn’t Barth’s God. And neither God is the God of Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, or the Pope.

I wrote last week about this tendency among writers on Religious Naturalism. It is particularly pointless there where the notion of a God is redundant, but it is pernicious in Christian theology too.

In my current research project, I’m trying to take the beliefs of believers seriously. On their own terms. The implication of this is that one cannot build a systematic theology around a single concept of God. One has to articulate a theology that can incorporate Pat Robertson’s knowledge of God alongside Paul Tillich’s knowledge, alongside Fred Phelps even. To do anything else is to invent yet another concept of God and attempt to paint over the diversity of belief in a shade that the theologian finds pleasant.

I am (very tentatively) calling this approach ‘objective theology’ – though I understand the problems with the term.

When I first studied theology, Tillich was a white-hot intellect that zinged off the page. I read Tillich’s systematics now and I find a clever and intricate description of a God that I don’t recognize from anywhere except Tillich. Doing systematic theology that way strikes me as intellectual masturbation at best, and at worst extreme narcissism.



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15 responses to “Let's Take Believers Seriously

  1. The churches I was a part of used Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology extensively. It was an enlightening moment for me, when I was leaving the faith, to read reviews for the book on amazon.com. The negative reviews, particularly from Catholics, pointed out that it was simply one systematic theology, a conservative Evangelical one, not *the* systematic theology. I thought, “Hey, why didn’t they tell me that before!”

  2. I am coming more and more to see how important our philosophy of language is (as I wrote in your sandpile post). As you know, I also feel people fundamentally misunderstand “self”. Our commonsense notion of both self and language are instinctive and wrong, I think.

    Language is NOT just ideas. There is no such thing as an idea that exists by itself in our minds. We have emotion-ideas , they are one thing.

    And thus words contain both concepts and feelings.
    I think Tillich and such twist ideas so they can hang on to words which for them are too packed with emotions to surrender.

    Similarly, in a non-religious mode, many European countries (and I guess we can count GB) and Canada, no matter how privatized their health care becomes, they are still attached to calling it socialized, likewise in the USA, no matter how socialized US health care already is, people still want to view it as Private.

    People don’t want to give up “God”, “Faith”, “Truth”, “Beauty” and much more — they are far too packed with good feelings for these folks.

  3. People don’t want to give up “God”, “Faith”, “Truth”, “Beauty” and much more — they are far too packed with good feelings for these folks.(Sabio)

    I dont believe its just because they have good feelings attached. I think it is more to do with the fact that these words mean different things for different people. Im not so sure you can have exact objective meanings that work across the board. So because of that I think the detail type personalities will always experience some frustration with the non detail people.

    Mind you, thats just my “feeling” on the matter. 😉

  4. I took a systematic theology class at Bible College in the early 80s.. I soaked it up because I was a brain-based ideologue. Anymore I think that a static theology is problematic because it causes one to entrench in a complex hierarchy of “positions” and keeps them from spiritually maturing.

    Of course a brain-based theology is pretty insignificant when weighed against the impact of someone living from a new heart 🙂

  5. Ian

    (I’m on holiday at the moment, so apologies I’ve only got one slot to reply each day)

    @attr – I hadn’t even heard of systematic theology until I started my theology degree. The evangelical churches I dallied with as a teenager didn’t approve of theology at all.

    @sabio – I agree, but I’m not sure that is my point (it is on the other thread, absolutely). You see the problem as I see it is that systematic theologians start by defining a God. Regardless of how valid that term is for their definition (sometimes it is highly valid, even Tillich, I think, really does believe that his God is God, unlike the Religious Naturalists), it is still their personal definition or concept. So it excludes the diversity of real belief held by real believers. I started off on this journey (of writing a systematic theology) by doing the same: by positing an (atheistic, fairly Religious Naturalist) God, which allowed me to do systematics. But I’ve come to the point of thinking that what we really need to do is to do theology that takes into account the diversity of belief. Not by trying to find the lowest common denominator, or by picking one arbitrarily.

    So ‘objective theology’, I think, goes beyond a matter of language and definition. It is a qualitatively different approach.

    @t4t – I agree 100%. No definition is going to work across the board. There is a natural tension. The more specific your definition of God, the fewer people for whom it corresponds. The more vague and nebulous, the more people you cover. But I do agree with sabio, as far as religious naturalism goes (for example), the use of God is a throwback, a function of the cultural and emotional associations it has, rather than for any denotational strength.

    @kansas – For the last period in my life when I would have identified as a theist I had a position I called ‘simple faith’. It was living and experience faith that mattered, not rationalizing it. It was a faith that devalued doctrine or theology. Over the last 5 years my interest in theology has rekindled specifically because my atheism was waxing (though I think a lot of ‘simple faith’ was just atheism without wanting to abandon the religious labels). I realised I was interested in the human and creative endevour of theology. I have no illusions that it is a means to any kind of spiritual development. In fact, I don’t think many people find it so. Most believers are relieved that some geek in a university has worked out their faith is rational and they aren’t stupid to believe it. They don’t particularly want to understand or do the theology themselves.

  6. @ Ian
    Sorry, lad, can’t really follow the subtle difference or see their importance. I read your comment 3 times. Maybe I am a bit tired. Or maybe I will have to wait till you post more on your systematic theology. I am looking forward to it.
    BTW – even though I am subscribed to this post, I don’t get e-mail follow-up notification of comments. Thanx

  7. Ian

    You said that Tillich and co twist words so they can hang on to them. I think that’s true to some extent. But I also think that ‘they’ also have a genuine belief in God. So it’s not just a redefinition thing. My concern is that they don’t take believers belief seriously. They feel free to project their highly refined beliefs onto the majority of believers. This problem couldn’t be solved with a different definition of God, as that simply moves the problem. Instead I want to provide a theological account that takes belief (diverse, complex, contradictory) seriously.

    I thought you were saying that they were joining their worldview to terms that meant something different to most believers. I am saying that is a function of God-talk generally. There is no normative definition. So diversity is key. If I misunderstood your comment (language eh?) we might be agreeing!

    Sorry about the comment thing. Dunno how to hack wordpress, not without a big learning curve. I’m getting emails, anyone else got problems?

  8. atimetorend

    Most believers are relieved that some geek in a university has worked out their faith is rational and they aren’t stupid to believe it. They don’t particularly want to understand or do the theology themselves.

    I agree completely, I am sure it makes the job of profession theologians easier. Though I have to watch for the same tendency in myself regarding secular understandings of theology/philosophy.

  9. Ian

    @attr I think the primary audience of theologians is other theologians though, so I’m not sure if they would agree that it is easy because the front-line believers don’t care much what they write. In many ways it is a shame that the disconnect is so great. Other than declarations about liberal theologians by conservative preachers, there is little two-way traffic. So theology, I think, increasingly is unheard of and unregarded. I think that’s a shame, but I don’t think it is resolvable. Strikes me that is a function of working at the leading edge of any field that contains such a mass of content.

  10. New in these parts, thanks to ATTR. And there’s Tillich, a voice from the not-too-distant past that is starting to make an impact in my life.

    So I think I’ll stick around . . .

  11. Ian

    @tysdaddy – You’re most welcome!

  12. “You said that Tillich and co twist words so they can hang on to them. I think that’s true to some extent. But I also think that ‘they’ also have a genuine belief in God. So it’s not just a redefinition thing.” -Ian

    i’ve spent the last few years eating up Tillich and Barth and the thinkers of Neo-Orthodoxy. i really can say that there are two things they’d agree on: 1. God is BIG (too big to be conceptualized) and 2. God is different (so different, we can’t imagine it, and any image we come up with is metaphorical). Way different from Robertson’s “do bad get punished (TAKE THAT HAITI!), do good get rewarded (I can lift a 1,000 pounds!).

    i think that many theologians are very good at articulating their own thoughts about God and their own relationship and understanding of it… but many lay-folk either don’t care or are happy with their “big daddy in the sky” image. it’s not twisting, it’s paying more attention to the variety of metaphor used to describe God. nor is it discounting the lay-folk, but trying to get to a deeper understanding for those willing to go there. i’m looking forward to more about “objective theology” but really really cringe at that name. when you look at beliefs, they are entirely subjective. so unless you just stick to doctrine, you’ll fall into what Sabio accused Tillich of doing 😉

  13. Ian

    Thanks Luke, yes I think a better name is required. Maybe you can help me when I describe more about it.

    I also agree with most of your comment. I don’t think that Tillich and co necessarily have a deeper, more profound or better concept of God though. And that is really what I’m saying in the title of this post. We sometimes treat ‘sky-daddy’ believers as if they are dumb and ignorant of the ‘true’ nature of God. Which skews theology. I want to try harder to take their belief seriously. Not agree with it (I’m an atheist, after all), but I don’t think the Pat Robertson God can be ridiculed out of significance.

  14. but here’s the difference… i WANT to take Tillich’s God seriously. i don’t like Robertson and therefore don’t WANT to take his god seriously. 😉

    dang, you’re right… back to the drawing board.

  15. funny post-script: yesterday i visited some family. one member (we’ll call them One) has a simple faith that is very practical and works. One believes in the rapture, that everything happens for a reason, and that God is a male in the sky. another family member (we’ll call them Two) has a different faith. Two is very social justice oriented, doesn’t know if things happen for a reason but thinks we interpret them as if they do, is rather agnostic about God but loves Jesus as a great teacher and tries to follow the Golden Rule. I have an easier time talking to Two and a harder time talking to One. One seems too simplistic for me. Two gets the fact that things are like the title of this blog, whereas One boils things down to binary concepts.

    which is right? i can tell the one i prefer (Two) but i admire the simplicity and the worry free attitude of One.

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