Theography and Theology

Theography is a term that’s been used in various contexts. The common thread is in rhetorical purpose rather than meaning: it refers to something that the author wants to distinguish from theology. Etymologically it means to write or create visual marks about God.

I want to co-opt the term for an important distinction. As far as I know this use of the term is original, but I’m more than happy to be corrected.

Theology is discourse about a particular view of God, as such it is distinct from Philosophy of Religion, Comparative Religion, or the various Religious sciences (religious history, historical criticism, sociology of religion, religious anthropology, etc.). If you do orthodox Christian theology, you start with some notion of the triune orthodox Christian God, and use that to work out implications for doctrine, for practice, for liturgy, for social justice, or whatever else you are concerned about. One can talk about ‘a theology’ as being such a consistent working out from a single concept of God and some set of concerns. We might produce ‘a feminist theology of grace’, for example.

Theography is the study of theological thought. To publish a commentary on Barth is to do theography. One could talk about western theography: the cultural legacy of nearly 2000 years of theological thought and writing. Which allows us to see that theographies too might be specific nouns: western theography, liberation theography, feminist theography. Each of which is a set of methods, shared assumptions and structures that form the infrastructure of any amount of theological work.

Why is this distinction important? Because it brings to theology a distinction that I find important in historical thought. Very much the same distinction arises between history and historiography.

Theography provides a term for the meta-level of theology: consideration of method, of voice, of scope and of purpose. Having a word for this is important, because theography has been, by and large, folded into theological thought. So much so that often Theologians don’t seem to understand themselves whether they are doing theology or writing about theology.

There is a job of theography to do before you can start to do theology. One has to understand and relate one’s own position to the work that has gone before. If one is bringing new methods to bear, then one has to elucidate and criticize the methods they are replacing or augmenting. Theography is the hard business of being a theologian.

There are armchair theologians by the million. It is as easy to do theology as it is to do history. It is easy to wax lyrical on the causes of the second world war or who shot JFK. But it is much harder to do history based on a consistent, compelling and rigorous historiography. The same is true of theology. There is lots of theology around. The web is full of it. But it is only at the level of its theography that we have the tools for sorting out what is good theology, and what is opinionated piffle.

I majored in theology for my undergraduate degree (actually it was a dual major, the other half being Artificial Intelligence), my wife majored in History. She didn’t get taught much history in her course, but she was inducted (inculcated, even?) into academic Historiography. The historical questions she was lead to consider were merely training grounds for learning the historiographical rules. Likewise, I didn’t get taught much theology either, in hindsight. But I was exposed to theography.

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11 responses to “Theography and Theology

  1. Even when doing Theology, don’t theologians at least make a pretense to use a “solid” touchstone to prove their lofty theology is “grounded”, namely, The Bible? Theologians of each religion often use “revelation” as one of their treasured forms of knowledge (epistemology) to act as guidance in triangulating their theology’s geography, no? For this “theography”, then, I would think such a consideration of method is crucial. So what shall you use?

  2. Ian

    In most theographies, scripture is a valid resource on which to draw. It could be combined with ‘tradition’, for example, particularly if you are going to talk about the orthodox triune God of Christianity (who is an invention of tradition and is not found in scripture).

    Those kinds of determinations – what resources to draw upon and what epistemic role they are allowed to play, are exactly what I mean by theography. It is *very* difficult to be intentional about them, even more so to be consistent. I think it might help to have a word for that process.

  3. I think they call it “epistomological stance”

  4. Adonais

    Hello Ian,

    I have a curious question for you. You claim to be “atheist” and state the following: “I study the bible, with bits of Christian theology and early Christianity thrown in. I’m also an atheist, both in the sense of not-believing-there-is-a-God, and believing-there-is-no-God.”.

    I am fascinated by people, such as yourself, who claim to be atheists, saying they don’t believe in God or as you so eloquently put it: “believing-there-is-no-God.”

    Atheism, from my understanding in the broad sense, is simply the concept of rejecting the belief in the existence of God/Higher power.

    Now, if you reject the belief in the existence of said “higher power”, how can you use the name “God” or anything pertaining to a deity of sorts in the description of what you “believe/don’t believe”.

    Isn’t it much easier to state that you have belief in yourself, rather than denying the existence of “what is” by saying “it isn’t”? In saying that “it isn’t” or that you don’t believe that “it is”, isn’t it true that you have thus acknowledged the existence of God?

    I’d like to know your thoughts.

    Thanks.

    A.S.

  5. Ian

    Hello Adonais, welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting!

    Atheism, from my understanding in the broad sense, is simply the concept of rejecting the belief in the existence of God/Higher power. … denying the existence

    Well atheism can mean a lot of different things to different people. It is just a label that one chooses to adopt.

    One thing it can mean is a lack of belief in God (not a rejection, or denial, since by definition it claims there is nothing there to reject). That is sometimes called ‘weak atheism’. Lots of people just don’t feel the need to adopt that particular belief. In the same way lots of people don’t believe in faeries (though some do), or in the visitation of aliens on earth.

    If that is weak atheism then strong atheism would mean that a person held an active belief in the non-existence of God. That is what I mean when I call myself an atheist. It is not just that I don’t happen to have a belief in God, I have thought about the issues, and studied the arguments and I find that the arguments against the existence of the kinds of being that Christians (particularly) think they mean by ‘God’ are overwhelming.

    The Christian notion of God is unevidenced, internally inconsistent, historically contingent, and culturally diverse. The phenomena of God (by which I mean things that Christians suggest are God acting or speaking or otherwise interacting with the world or with people) are all better explained by regular processes that we see and can study in other contexts: there are no phenomena of the Christian God that aren’t also present in other cultural and social contexts. For all those reasons, the existence of God seems to me to be a hypothesis is fundamentally unsound.

    isn’t it true that you have thus acknowledged the existence of God

    When I refer to God I am talking about the God-of-the-stories or the God-of-the-belief. I sometimes say “the God of the bible” or the “God of orthodox Christianity”, by which I mean something like “the Protagonist of the novel” or “the hero of the movie”. Clearly this character has some kind of existence – the same kind of existence that a character in fiction has – there are stories about this character and the character is meant to be understood as the same character across many stories. So I am quite comfortable in discussing this God. In the way that we’d all be comfortable discussing Hamlet, or the God Rama, or Cthulhu.

    What I mean when I say “God doesn’t exist” is that this character in the story doesn’t exist independently from the story and the people who rehearse that. God is no more ‘real’ than Hamlet. One doesn’t deny the existence of Hamlet, or reject Hamlet, one just doesn’t believe that Hamlet is real.

    So it is with God. We can talk about God, discuss his characteristics, his stories. We can talk about different Gods (I talk often about the Jesus of different early Christian groups – the community behind John’s gospel had a very different imagining of Jesus from that behind Mark’s gospel, for example). I can talk about God to believers, and have productive theological discussions, because we are both operating from the same stories and using the same techniques to interpret those stories. I am happy to talk about lots of Gods, or to talk at a different level about one God. But ultimately I’m acknowledging characters in stories (and this being a bible blog, often the stories are contained in the biblical record) rather than any external reality.

    When I talk about Jesus this gets more complex. Because I do think there most likely was a historical person Jesus. But I (along with the vast majority of Jesus scholars) don’t think that this man was anything like the character portrayed in the gospels. So we sometimes talk about the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith, the latter being a character in a story, the former being a Semitic preacher of the first century. The latter, of course, having no existence beyond the story and the people that rehearse it.

  6. Adonais

    Hello again Ian,

    You are certainly a master of stirring up controversy. Let me say that if you are solely interested in drawing more responses here, I will bite.

    Let me say this simple thing to you though… and I will only loosely paraphrase from what you have said in your earlier response…. your citations of “vast majority of Jesus or Christian scholars, don’t believe that He was anything like the Gospels spoke about” is absolute nonsense.

    I do not mean to say you are not smart or intelligent in the least, however you must understand when you say something as bold as that, you must back it with absolute proof of some sort or it cannot hold water. For instance if you say something like President Obama is ruining this nation… that may well be a fact (according to many people), however it is not true simply because you said it’s true without verification from at least 3 other major resources. On a side note, I personally find Obama doing a fantastic job, because God knows that he is more qualified to be the president of the US than I am!!! So I don’t say negative things about him, nor do it concern myself with politics of the sort.

    Anyhow, back to the subject…

    In regard to “atheism” or the “atheist”…

    I quote from your words:

    ” One thing it can mean is a lack of belief in God (not a rejection, or denial, since by definition it claims there is nothing there to reject)…”

    isolating what you have said here in pieces, I see this:

    “lack of belief in God”

    lack meaning without or insufficient amount or less than average or deficit in fact. Many similar yet individual meanings… still all pointing at one concept “not having”

    … which in fact begs the question… if one is not having and lacking, how did he/she get that way? Well, let’s say this… if it was lacking because of ‘not knowing of’ or ‘absolute and true ignorance’ then it is not a rejection… it’s just a true lack. Now if the ‘lack’ is because the person does ‘know of’ but chooses not to have, then this is not true lack, rather stupidity.

    Now again I am not calling ‘you’ stupid. In fact , nobody is stupid as a person… even though we as people do stupid things…. yours truly included!!! Lord knows I’ve done and probably will do stupid things in the future. This is how we learn.

    So, I sum this up by saying this… a lack of belief leads to a belief. This is true because when you dwell on that lack… you will certainly find more of that lack, but you will eventually begin to surround yourself with those who do not share that lack as you define it, and therefore if you are surrounding yourself with the opposite of what you lack, you are now abundant in that!!!

    God bless my friend.

  7. Ian

    “you must back it with absolute proof of some sort”

    No, really I have no such compulsion.

    But here’s a counter – can you point to any mainstream historical Jesus scholar that has argued that the NT is an accurate record of the historical Jesus?

    You could go as far as N T Wright, I guess (St Andrews University) who argues that some of the miracles in the NT could be accurate. And he is reknowned for being out on the evangelical end of mainstream scholarship. Then you’ve got Dale Allison, who for example, (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary), who with his new book is arguing for more historicity in memory than had been previously argued (but still way, way short of absolute historicity). But still this is based on a career of far more mainstream views about the lack of historicity. Most historical Jesus scholars are far more skeptical.

    What about resources, well care to name the most important books on the historical Jesus of the last 200 years? From the 19th century Schweitzer, Wrede, Strauss, through the pre-war Bultmann (who would have agreed with you about who God is, but understood that Jesus the main was quite different), through the second half of the 20th century in Funk, Crossan, Borg, Mack, Smith, the Jesus seminar. Go to survey works such as Meier and Powell. Really, just pick up *any* book by a mainstream scholar on the historical Jesus. I’ve left out literally hundreds of names.

    I suspect you’ve read very little scholarship on the subject at all. Most churches don’t encourage their devotees to read mainstream scholarship on the subject, preferring them to read confessional books that don’t deal with scholarly questions, written by people at evangelical institutions who aren’t part of the academic cut-and-thrust of the field.

    The second half of your post is just one big word game. I get the trick you’re trying to play, but its a silly one. Because my atheism is really very simple.

    I don’t believe in the existence of God in *exactly* the same way that I don’t believe in the existence of Santa Claus, Hamlet, fairies, or extra-terrestrial abductions. God is a fictional character who exists only in stories.

    I don’t understand why, even though you disagree, you find that hard to understand.

  8. Adonais Salvare

    Hello once again Ian,

    Well… I won’t bore you with , what you consider “trickery” and “word games”…. so I will just copy/paste and comment directly. By the way, it is what I have been doing, however, many people, including yourself, tend to want to “read into things” rather than simply looking at them at face value, for what they are.

    One thing I want to point out clearly is this… what I just said about “face value” is just that. See, this is the world we live in… people are always trying to put on fronts, appearances, and facades of what they “think” other people will like about them, or what they “think” is the best way to word something, or “think” is the best way to do something.

    The key word in the preceding paragraph is “think”. People just use their brains in all the wrong way. I will go back to my point, in which I must say that you are evidently not a deceptive person by nature, from what I can tell, just a bit confused, and that’s not a bad thing in the least. You have a true desire to want something you don’t currently have possession of.

    What is that thing you do not have??? Faith in God. You have belief that God exists, even though you say you don’t, throwing that word atheist around like it actually means what you think it does…. but it really does not mean that concept you have firmly held it to mean.

    Understand something new here… and this new I mean something you do not know, because, we as human beings…. mortals, can not ever know everything. It is impossible. Words change their meanings constantly. Usually by the way the mass interprets it for the best interest of the mass.

    No “word games” by me… the mass plays that “game” well enough… and gets the losing end of it. I choose not to play that game. What I do play is the game of God winning always!!!

    So, with all that said… I will now copy/paste for you and help you in your desire to know God, believe that He exists-the way you’d like Him to- and ultimately have faith in Him as you deem necessary.

    So, here we go…

    —————————-

    “I suspect you’ve read very little scholarship on the subject at all. ”
    I choose to read on many subjects and many levels of those subjects, so I’m not quite sure what you are ‘trying’ to say about the arsenal of literature I have perused over my lifetime.

    ” Most churches don’t encourage their devotees to read mainstream scholarship on the subject, preferring them to read confessional books that don’t deal with scholarly questions, written by people at evangelical institutions who aren’t part of the academic cut-and-thrust of the field.”

    What ‘churches’ could you possibly be referring to? As a ‘self-admitted atheist’ how would you know 1. the book selection a random number of pastors encourage attendees to read and 2. the actual idea that any pastors recommend any books for reading at all and 3. the idea of your ‘knowing’ what actually happens inside churches on a regular basis

    Understand this Ian, people who don’t ‘believe in’ something or ‘believe that something doesn’t exist’ or whatever way you really want to state your atheism…. these people do not go to church, temple, mosque, read the Bible, study anything pertaining to theology or God and don’t have frequent discussions/blogs about the subject.

    “The second half of your post is just one big word game. I get the trick you’re trying to play, but its a silly one. Because my atheism is really very simple.

    I don’t believe in the existence of God in *exactly* the same way that I don’t believe in the existence of Santa Claus, Hamlet, fairies, or extra-terrestrial abductions. God is a fictional character who exists only in stories.

    I don’t understand why, even though you disagree, you find that hard to understand.”

    And finally… I honestly don’t find this hard to understand…. It is impossible. So, as a conclusion, there is no understanding of what is impossible to justify. However, you do have a sincere desire to know God.

    Let’s just say this…. Since you speak of God and The Bible in many different ways, it’s obvious that God – The Creator has been following you, your entire life. And that being so… since we are discussing God right here and now… that means, God is with you, as you read this. So, the best thing I can say to you is this:
    I would absolutely encourage you to not listen to others for a good month in regard to the Bible or God. See if 2 weeks works, but I would seriously take some time off of controversial matters pertaining this subject. Why? Because, the more you entertain this notion…. the further Satan wins. Let’s put it another way. You cannot understand how the Bible and God really can work for your benefit if you push “away” from the belief. If you read the Bible, and have some faith that you are not alone in this life and there is something, someone out there GREATER than you…. not a human, but a Force, no and not THEE FORCE!! 🙂 but anyhow you get the meaning I am more than sure.

    So do this…. spend the next week with the Bible and just read the first 12 chapters of Genesis and TAKE YOUR TIME…. meditate,… meaning stop every now and again. And, work your best on “drawing Spirit to help guide you in your understanding of what you read”.

    See, we are not meant to interpret with our brains, rather our heart… and this is where Spirit comes into the equation. It is an entirely different ball game when you understand the power that God really has in your life and how He will work for you to gain His advantage, which is the Greater Good, so you will become joyous and not rebellious.

    Sleep on that my friend…. I must rest now. God bless you and keep moving toward Him.

  9. Ian

    Oh Adonais.

    No “word games” by me… … You have belief that God exists, even though you say you don’t, throwing that word atheist around like it actually means what you think it does….

    Oh dear. This is worse than I thought for you.

    I don’t believe in the existence of God in *exactly* the same way that I don’t believe in the existence of Santa Claus, Hamlet, fairies, or extra-terrestrial abductions. God is a fictional character who exists only in stories.

    And finally… I honestly don’t find this hard to understand…. It is impossible.

    !

    “I suspect you’ve read very little scholarship on the subject at all. ”
    … I’m not quite sure what you are ‘trying’ to say about the arsenal of literature I have perused over my lifetime.

    Sorry if I gave the impression I was talking about the ‘arsenal of literature you have perused’. I was being specific here: I said “on the subject” (i.e. of the historical Jesus). I can directly infer that you haven’t read much scholarship on the historical Jesus. I cannot tell what else you’ve read in your life.

    So do this…. spend the next week with the Bible and just read the first 12 chapters of Genesis and TAKE YOUR TIME…

    I think the piece you’re missing is that I know what you mean, Adonais. I know you will find it almost impossible to believe me, but I do.

    I understand the God you are talking about. I understand the relationship you have with that God. I understand the Holy Spirit that indwells you. I understand the Jesus you know. I understand your prayer life, how your soul is uplifted in worship, and how in God you find solace, rest and grace. I understand fully the ways in which you experience God and the consequences of those experiences for you. I get it.

    I am not behind you in this journey, fumbling to keep up, catching glimpses of light. I’ve come through where you are, and gone beyond, I’ve seen the light. Like you I was once convinced by the words of Paul in 1 Cor 12:13, that we can now only see dimly as through a mirror. But I am here to tell you the good news: the dim mirror is a damn lie. You can see for yourself. The real world is bright, if you can but open your eyes.

    By focussing everything on a story, you’ve made the mythology into your reality; a base idol, made of words and doctrines rather than stone and metal. You see the story, but not what the story signifies. Every conclusion you draw from it is expressed in terms of the story, you mentally can’t go beyond it. This mythology about God is limiting you from really understanding, really relating to the world, and really finding what is significant and meaningful. I know this because I too have been there.

    Let me suggest you read the bible again, more carefully this time, and in some detail. Given the season we’re fast approaching, read the two birth narratives of Jesus side by side, and try to understand what is going on. It is hard, and I know after a long time of focussing on the fiction it will be doubly hard – your mind will keep being drawn to the surface things. You will be tempted to think always in terms of the story, to think about what you are reading tells you about the character of God. I fear that you may just glide over things of significance, because you have been trained to do so. You’ve been told (and perhaps you’ve told others) to listen deeply for the voice of God in the bible. And you’re probably pretty good at that. But that is hindering you, because that too is part of the story. It brings your mind always to the story, always back to the surface, with just the illusion that you’ve been deeper.

    But it is worth it. Please try it. Take it slowly. Try to hear the actual voices behind the story (yes, there are more than one). Try to understand what they are saying. Listen to the tone of their voice. Use your intuition to understand them. Hear the echos of other stories behind their words, and feel the narrative rise under your gaze until you can see it in its naked form, and finally understand it for what it is.

    You might not be able to do it. Not everyone can. Many who come from deep indoctrination just cannot. All they see is surface. All they see is the story. They don’t see the reality behind it, they don’t see the why, the how, the where. But maybe you can. I hope so.

    I fear, though, that you won’t even try. That you’ll merely dismiss everything I say. Or decide that I’m simply naive, or deluded, or stupid, or a tool of Satan seeking to attack your faith. If you can never stray from that bastion of certainty, then I’m afraid you are truly lost, and nobody can help you. You are condemned to live your whole life in twilight, convinced it is noon.

    How do you convince a blind-man that there is a world of sight to be had? Much less someone convinced that they are the only sighted one.

    I can only hope that you can find any spark in you to try. Really to try. Not to dismiss, or to try with a condescending amusement. But to really try. Even the effort may not be enough. I’ve seen some who’ve tried and failed, though most shun even the trying. But if you do, it will be the hardest, but truly the best thing you will ever do.

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  11. Ian

    I’m closing these comments, because I’ve picked up this thread here. Please reply in those comments.