Theology may be thought of more narrowly as the more formal types of conceptual expression of a religion. It does not have the same importance or character in all of them. Theologies set forth beliefs about God or the gods and associated matters of meaning, morality, duty, and destiny. Anybody who has a set of convictions about the ultimate framework of human existence believed to determine the success or failure of life with regard to the most important matters has a theology in the largest sense of the term, no matter how simple or unsophisticated it may be. We frequently reserve the term, however, for the more conceptually explicit and precise statements of the creeds and of scholars engaged in religious inquiry. Theologians are trained experts who can say with accuracy and in some depth what their communities have believed, believe now, and frequently what they themselves believe. They describe, analyze, compare, and engage in constructive thought. Some see their task simply as articulating the faith of the community to which they belong. Others take a more individualistic approach and indicate their own personal credo as an inheritor and contemporary adherent of a tradition. In the largest frame of reference a “theology” need not even refer to God as long as it articulates the “ultimate concern” (Paul Tillich) of a community or person. However, since theology literally means “reasoning about God,” it might be better to refer to non-theistic expressions as philosophy of religion or religious thought.
A theology defines what is regarded as fundamental in reality in so far as it affects human life and specifies a normative way of relating to God, nature, and other people. In particular, it spells out what it is that has a supreme claim on our loyalty, love, and obedience. Generally, a theology will indicate the promise of living in accordance with these ultimate demands and the perils of disregarding them. Theologies speak of salvation and of judgment, of our origin, duty, and destiny. They witness to the good life that can be had by relating properly to God, the world, and other people and of the dangers to body and soul in trying to thwart the final realities that gave us birth and determine our lot. They make claims about good and evil, specify normative ways of living, and, in general, view human existence in relation to what is regarded as ultimate in power, goodness, and importance.
While the thesis concerning theology as belief pertains to all religions in so far as they have a significant conceptual component, I am focusing on Western Christianity generally with particular reference to Protestant thought. In these traditions crucial issues have arisen especially in the last few centuries regarding the nature and location of authentic religious belief. In pre-modern times Christians, leaving aside a few heretics and skeptics, simply assumed that their own version of the faith was true. Frequently, this led both Protestants and Catholics to ostracize, persecute, and even kill the bearers of false witness. It was not a pretty sight. My Baptist forbears were in one setting or another hounded by adherents to Rome and to an infallible Protestant Bible. The Enlightenment, disgusted with religious wars and perpetual controversy, was imbued with the confidence that reason attuned to nature would lead us into liberating truth. If only we would abandon confidence in ancient authorities, divine revelations, the eccentric inspirations of seers and visionaries and rely on the deliverances of an enlightened mind, knowledge and the power to shape the future to our heart's delight would be progressively ours. The harmony of insights produced by science, technology, and the inquiries of free, unbiased minds would produce material and moral progress never before known to humankind. Subsequent centuries, however, failed to set us on the sure road to utopia and generated new forms of skepticism about the virtue, scope, and limits of objective reason. The historical consciousness that flowered in European civilization in the 19th century produced a new recognition of the relativity of all human creations, including the findings of reason. History produces a series of cultural outlooks, each relative to its time, place, and the past out of which it emerged. If Enlightenment confidence in universal reason producing harmonies of outlook and progressive victories over ignorance, violence, and disorder represented one end of a polarity, recent deconstructionism represents the bankrupt mentality at the other extreme in which all is dissolved in a perpetual production of different interpretations signifying and adding up to very little.
Religious communities have been subject to these cultural influences as they sought to define for themselves where the truth that saves could be found. Generally speaking, three different major conceptions of the quest for authentic belief can be usefully contrasted, with numerous subspecies that could be spelled out. I will call them the conservative, the liberal, and the modernist ways. The differences run along a continuum between two poles that define the extreme options. At one extreme is the notion of a pure Christianity that is identical in form and content, in substance and expression, over the centuries in every location. At the other end is a view that Christianity is identical with all its various manifestations over time and in every place with no essential unity or normative formulation. The only identifiable feature that holds this variety together is a discernible trajectory that leads back to its origins. The differences between all the possible positions along this continuum flow into each other but create a set of definable perspectives across the spectrum. Numerous subtypes of the three major types and versions in-between them could be added but are not necessary for present purposes.
Put in very broad terms, a conservative thinks that truth has been given in some past expression. The contemporary task is to recover and restate this treasure, perhaps in terms suitable for the age, but containing the substance of the historical deposit of correct doctrine and practice. The ultimate ideal never met in fact was stated in the year 434 by Vincent of Lerins: "That which has been believed always, by everybody, and everywhere." There are always varieties of opinion even among the orthodox, but definitions of what must be believed by everybody everywhere are common. The historic creeds defining the equality of the three distinct persons of the Trinity in the divine unity and the full humanity and full divinity of Christ are prominent examples. Some conservatives may explicitly allow for a evolution of doctrine over time and for modifications that are in harmony with the past that do not alter basic matters of form and content. Such developments are typically thought of as the unfolding or gradual emergence of what was already there at least in principle and not the appearance of the fundamentally new. Roman Catholics located authentic truth in Scripture and tradition as mediated through the magisterium, the officially authorized teachers of the church. Classical Protestants referred to the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice, the final norm of truth, sola Scriptura. Both agreed on the reality of an orthodoxy, a body of right, correct, and true teachings and practices mandatory for all believers, even if varieties of expression were permitted on the details. Creeds were set forth to define the essential substance of the faith.
A liberal is open to more thoroughgoing reconstructions of the elemental tradition as it moves through a succession of culturally-relative intellectual frameworks. Typically it distinguishes between normative content and its changing expressions. Most important for liberals is the definition of an abiding essence that must be preserved in patterns of thought that are relative to a particular time and place. This vital core of the faith is located in some embodiment or formulation but must be reconstructed in contemporary language to guarantee its credibility and relevance. This allows for a variety of modifications of the received doctrine, some with far-reaching implications, precipitating many a controversy over what is essential to the historic faith and what may be relegated to the dustbin as outmoded, implausible, or unworthy. Doubts as to whether an abiding essence could be convincingly defined or credibly separated from its relative expressions gave rise to a third, more revolutionary perspective.
Modernists took a more radical stance and gave up the notion of an enduring core or substance that had to be preserved. Henry Nelson Wieman noted that modernists retain only the highest and best of the Christian tradition, not its essence. What is worthy of belief from the past must be determined by us in the light of contemporary reason and experience. Shailer Mathews, Wieman's colleague at the University of Chicago, stated the most radical implications of the modernist view in suggesting that Christianity is whatever it has become and that a Christian is anyone who claims to be one. Obviously, such a permissive outlook risks loss of Christian identity, although modernists insist that their reconstructions stand in recognizable continuity with the historic faith. Otherwise they would not identify themselves as Christians. Some attempted to locate some markers of "generic Christianity" that moved them closer to the liberals. Christianity is seen as a religious-social movement that embodies itself in the changing cultural settings through which it moves, producing an astonishing variety of doctrines and practices. What holds it all together is a traceable historical path that leads back to Jesus and the New Testament that gives it whatever unity may persist throughout these shifting patterns.
In light of this historical survey, I want to develop in more detail the thesis that theologies contain the religious beliefs of communities and of their members. They are this whether or not they may be something else as well. For example, whether the beliefs are true, i. e., accurately depict reality is a dimension yet to be discussed. Belief is a category that applies universally, to one and all. Theologies differ in method and content. They rely on an assortment of authorities as the basis for their claims - Scripture, tradition, divine revelation, experience, reason, and the like. Some quote the Bible, others the Pope or the creeds, or a variety of other thinkers past and present, or usually some combination thereof. They may cite poets, philosophers, scientists, sociologists, psychologists, and anyone else thought to cast light on their subject matter. In all their diverse ways, theologies are all answers to the question: What must I believe and do in relation to the ultimate powers that determine human destiny? But however they go about it and whatever they come out with, the result is an organization of beliefs about God, the universe, people and other living creatures that add up to a manifesto for living, thinking, feeling, acting, and dying that tell us what is to be loved, served, and feared beyond all else.
Belief is a general category that includes any sort of positive affirmation about God and ultimate matters of human concern that can be put in words. In most cases those who have them believe them to be true, i. e., in correspondence with objective reality. But a person or community can hold a belief as a matter of faith but acknowledge that it cannot shown to be true in the sense defined. How a belief is regarded with regard to truth or knowledge is variously specified by different communities or persons. Belief is a category that applies universally to all theologies regardless of the methods employed, the content derived from their use, or the alleged truth status of its propositions. Some will admit to their creed only what the most exacting standards of reason permit. Others resort to experience of the divine interpreted in the light of ruling criteria. Still others will appeal to direct revelations of God preserved authoritatively in oral witness and written traditions that may be codified in holy scriptures. However and wherever they get the received and accepted dogmas, doctrines, traditions, and creeds, theologies are bodies of belief about the supreme reality and the human quest for ultimate meaning and hope, including deliverance from the most fundamental threats to human existence and well-being.
This may seem innocent enough, even obvious in one sense, but the implications I draw are considerable. Moreover, in most cases my conception will differ from what theologies and religious communities have to say about their own conceptions of ultimate reality and human salvation. Many liberals who are convinced of the historical and cultural relativity come close to the views I espouse here, although I state it more explicitly than is typical and carry the point further than most. One can hardly deny that theology consists of beliefs, but most people imply or assume that their beliefs are true, except perhaps when forced to say so categorically. What others might keep in the background or admit only under pressure, I am making fundamental to my understanding of theology. I am asserting forthrightly that religious beliefs carry no guarantees that they correspond to reality. What is true in this regard holds as well for the authorities they cite as justifying their claims. Neither revelation reason, exceptional experiences, Bible, creed, alleged theophanies, scientist, philosopher, or saint can authenticate beliefs as accurate representations of ultimate facts. There are ways, of course, to show that an assertion is in accord with the norms recognized by a particular body of believers. Hence, a theology may be a valid expression of the faith of a community, but that says nothing about the truth of its doctrines. All talk of God, but none speak for God or come with a stamp of divine approval that can be authenticated with objective certainty. It will become clear that what I mean precisely is that we cannot be sure that religious beliefs are true in the sense of correctly representing reality. For now I simply state that theologies consist of the beliefs of some community or some individual. To put it differently, theologies are human constructions that reflect the time, place, and cultural setting of their authors. What authenticity they may have in terms of their truth value cannot be unmistakably determined. Methods of justifying belief with respect to reality are part of the belief system itself and not a separate factor with powers of independent corroboration. Declarations that the content of belief has the sanction of reason and not simply faith or authority have exactly the same status, since reason itself is relative to context and reflective of a particular time, place, and mode of thought.
What we deal with in practical terms is what people actually believe. The unavoidable fact is that diverse communities of belief exist, and they all must come to terms with each other somehow. We all have to decide whether to oppose other perspectives in our own public witness or ignore them and go about our own business. We may make alliances with others on particular points of common concern, e. g., to support or contest policies in the political arena, witness for certain moral standards in society, and so on through a long list. We may engage in ecumenical efforts to express the unity of some particular faith or create interfaith partnerships as desired. The point is that contrary systems of belief and action are real, and some form or interaction is inescapable.
Any and all types of relationship among religious groups are permissible that are useful. What is not helpful is to pronounce as a fact that the beliefs of others are in error and only ours are right, true, and trustworthy. We can, of course, say that we believe that they are mistaken and indicate why we think so. Does truth not matter in religion as well as in everything else? Of course, it does. The problem is that nobody knows for sure what the truth about God is. We cannot be certain we are right and others are wrong. All of us can only state what we believe, why we believe it, and how we came to have the beliefs we do. If people want to engage in debate about the relative merits of their claims and seek to convert others to their point of view, let them do so in mutual respect. But when the day is over, let no one condemn anyone else as the certain bearer of falsehood. That serves no useful purpose and is a waste of time. We can in our own hearts presume them to be misguided and act accordingly in all appropriate ways. I say this with full knowledge that whatever stance I may take, some theologians will pronounce their enemies, including me and my companions, to be sadly and even tragically mistaken to the point of endangering the eternal welfare of wicked and erring souls. I cannot control what others do, but I can act and respond in modesty and humility in respect to them.
The notion that all theologies state the beliefs of religious communities and their members is not fideism in the usual sense. Fideism holds that religious belief is based on faith and not reason. The fideist, however, may be confident that faith has grasped a reality or a truth unavailable to reason but that nevertheless provides absolute assurance to the believer, although a variety of opinions may be present regarding this point. Faith may be considered to be a response to divine revelation that grasps us in immediate experience or through some authority such as a creed, a church body, or a sacred book. Faith simply does not require the authentication of reason, which may be thought to be corrupted by sin or simply impotent in the face of the ultimate mysteries. Fideism is typically the confession of some community that their belief rests on faith and not reason, but they may (or may not) be absolutely certain that they are in possession of the truth.
In contrast to this, my thesis is that all theologies are bodies of belief, whether they claim to be based on faith or reason or some combination of the two. Some similarity does obtain in that I maintain that all religious beliefs are matters of faith in the epistemological sense even if they profess to be based on reason in part or entirely. A thoroughly rationalistic philosophy or religion or theology is itself one perspective among many that can be justified only by the resources available and convincing to some religious community or individual believer. We can only confess our beliefs and give the reasons why we believe as we do. What we cannot do is demonstrate them to be true in the sense of conforming to reality, although in fact they may be. Theologies have the status of belief not of knowledge, and they are relative to the time and place of their origin. Justification is a function of the belief system itself and not an independent means of corroborating it. Hence, I am not a fideist in the sense of insisting that belief rests on faith not reason. Belief can rest on all sorts of things including reason. Even if they claim to be totally justified by reason, they are still confessions of faith. Faith for me is a general term applying to all perspectives and not a response to authority or to revelation or to Scripture or anything else asserted to be the guarantor of the beliefs involved. I think we must use reason to the fullest extent possible, reject what is inconceivable to us, and go with the best we can figure out on the basis of our experience, observation, and critical reflection.
The advantage of regarding theology in this fashion is that no one is under necessity to argue about who has the truth, but all can proceed in a practical way to witness to their convictions in word and deed. It allows believers of all persuasions in all religion to do all that is necessary to express their vision of reality and to live out their faith in the world. It permits them to do all that is required to be and to perpetuate a community with shared beliefs. They can work out theologies, create rituals and symbols, engage in corporate acts of worship and of private devotion. They can do all that is necessary and desired among themselves, limited only by the laws and customs of the culture that already function everywhere anyway under any conception of what theology is. They can under my outlook engage in mission activities, including the effort to convert others and reform the secular society in accordance with their own ideals. Believers can to anything and everything under my thesis that they can do now. What is precluded are exclusive claims to truth and coercive efforts to make others conform. Modesty of outlook and humility of stance are encouraged as they worship God in according to the dictates of conscience. Mutual respect among diverse conceptions of the sacred and of human duty, virtue, and destiny is the rule of public encounter, discourse, and interaction. They can do anything and everything that is necessary or desired to maintain their way of thinking and living among themselves and in reference to other groups.
While great latitude is appropriate in terms of the witness of communities and individuals to their religious conceptions, realism compels us to say that occasions may arise when it is necessary to resist even with force and violence practices that are deeply offensive to justice and human dignity. We must act on our vision of reality and goodness with all appropriate forcefulness and strength when fundamental matters of human well-being are at stake, even in extreme cases taking the life of another. We have to do so in order to combat what we regard as despicable evil and establish a common order that honors in accordance with our insight the freedom, equality and worth of every person and insures to all just access to the means of human fulfillment. Even when we act with coercion, we must do so always in humility and in sorrow when other human beings must be forcibly constrained, and in the recognition that we could be wrong. Whether a deep commitment to a vision of justice and forthright coercive action can be combined with the kind of modesty and respect for others I advocate is, in my view, the greatest challenge this conception of theology as belief. Whether it can done perfectly, I don't know, but I believe we must try as hard as we can to do it as well as we can. The notion that theology is religious belief is intended both as a description of all efforts to articulate a conception of God in relation to the supreme end of life and as a confession of how I regard my own conceptual efforts. I believe the thesis can be sustained as a theory, and it can be defended as having merit in practice. What, then, does it amount to in terms of consequences, since it seems that under my conception communities and individuals can do almost anything they presently do? In the end two things are crucial. One consequence is theoretical, the other is practical.
The theoretical point is has to do with epistemology. Religious claims cannot be established with certainty, i. e., can provide no guarantees that they correspond with reality. The statement "God loves us" is simply not in the same category with "The broom is in the hall closet" when it comes to verification. It is of a different sort for which no decisive tests are available. All attempts at justification of religious belief are relative to the time, place, and outlook of the interpreters. They have only the resources available to them given their social, historical, and cultural location. The means of justification are part of the total belief system and not an independent source of verification. Epistemology and ontology form a seamless unity. While some set of justifying procedures may indeed put their users in touch with reality in definitive fashion, there is no guarantee that they do and hence no certainty for them or others who might consider them at possible options. Religious belief is a matter of belief not of knowledge. Theologies are matters of faith. Faith here means epistemological perspective, not trust, loyalty, and confident assurance in the religious sense. In the immediate context faith is the conceptual perspective of a community or individual.
The practical point is simply that religious communities and their members will not engage in fruitless arguments about who has the objective truth that is universally valid. They will confess their faith and go about the internal business of being what they are and external activities of mission with confidence in the worth of what they believe and do but without dogmatic proclamations that others are in error, even as they pursue their own convictions with enthusiasm and vigor. This obviously has implications for encounters and interactions with communities and persons who march to a different drummer. It has more to do with the spirit of these engagements rather than the substance and does not rule out disputations , conflicts, and efforts to convert others. As I indicated earlier controversy and conflict will continue, no matter what points of view one holds. Some moderation, however, would be helpful, and any diminution of mean-spiritedness would be welcome.
I will conclude by making more explicit the stance associated with the thesis that theology is religious belief. First of all, I am a modernist. While I find the heart of New Testament Christianity in the love of God toward us and the love of God and neighbor required of us, I stop short of insisting that its essence is to be found in this or in any other formulation. Definitions of essence always reflect the mentality of the interpreter. I am content to speak of what is highest and best in the New Testament as I interpret it. Moreover, the love of God toward us and the love of God and neighbor required of us is normative for me not because it is in the Bible but because I am persuaded of its inherent value as the highest truth about life, a truth rooted in ultimate reality that points the way toward human fulfillment. In agree with the modernists I maintain that we are the functional authorities who determine what is most worthy of belief here and now. I claim to be a Christian because what I regard as the highest and best that reason and experience can discern is also basic to the biblical witness, especially in its New Testament expression. This simply means that divine and human love and their implications as found in the Bible are both credible as a description of reality and relevant as a guide to life. Formally put, the norm of religious belief for me is the best that I have discovered from all sources, the Bible being chief among them.
In addition to being a modernist, I am a skeptic, a relativist, and a pragmatist. Skepticism means we cannot know for sure whether our beliefs about God or the gods are true. Relativism means that theologies can justify their claims only by making use of the resources available and convincing to the communities and individuals who espouse them. Neither precludes some perspective from being true or more true than some others, but no procedure or set of criteria establishes it with certainty as reflecting the objective order of things. Believing with all ones heart does not make it so, even though the belief may in fact be true. If it did contrary things would be true since fanatics of many persuasions are absolutely sure of the correctness of their doctrines and refute all claims contrary to their own. In any case all statements that are not true are false. Therefore, since contradictory doctrines abound, most are false, and at most one is true. None may be true. Yet they all serve the purposes of those who affirm them.
Young Palestinian men at this moment in the year 2001 go on suicide missions into Israel with bombs strapped to them. They have been taught that if they die as a martyr for their faith, they will instantly enter paradise and have available to a bevy of virgins. Presumably, at their death instant testing of this belief takes place. Alas, we cannot know the result, and neither can the next set of volunteers who go to their death in this hope. The religious beliefs of us all have exactly the same epistemological status. They function effectively for us, but here and now we have no definitive tests by which we can measure them against what is real and objectively true. The reason is simple: we have no direct access to uninterpreted reality as it is independently of us. We have reality only in some experienced and interpreted version of it. I do not mean we have no immediate access to reality but only that such access is always filtered through experience and a framework of interpretation that we bring to the encounter. Even if it leads to a change of interpretation, what we now have is not a version guaranteed to conform to the experienced reality as it is in itself but only a new interpretation of it that will guide any new engagements with what is.
Skepticism and relativism lead to pragmatism. This means that we use the best resources we have from all sources to discover the truth about ultimate matters. We test them by whatever standards are functionally convincing. We cannot believe what will not meet the tests that we cannot help but employ, that actually are so compelling to us that we cannot deny the results we obtain with them. If a belief is justified in these terms, it must be accepted. But this does not mean that it is positively established as being true. It only means that it is unavoidable for us or at least permissible. Moreover, if a belief so established is useful to us in providing a helpful and satisfactory way of relating to what we regard as ultimate and helps us to cope it life, it is legitimate even necessary to live as it is were true. This is especially the case if no alternative known to us meets the rational and pragmatic test as well. Pragmatism, then, maintains that while we cannot certain of the objective truth of our beliefs, they can be useful in orienting us to the world and helping us to cope with life in a satisfactory manner. Beliefs that meet all the tests we know to employ, contradict nothing we do not doubt, and are in harmony with everything else we are convinced of can serve us well in practical ways despite our inability to prove them true.
One final question must be treated. Is my thesis that theology is religious belief itself set forth as a theory claimed to be objectively true and universally valid? Is it the one theory that can be known to represent things as they are? The answer is that I do not insist that the thesis describes reality like it is but only that I believe it does. My belief about belief is another belief that has the same epistemological status as other beliefs. It is subject to all the constraints and held in the context of the skepticism, relativism, and pragmatism I have just described. It is convincing to me as a theory about religious theory. The thesis is useful to me as a way of conceiving of my own efforts and of those of everybody else as well. I do not believe the thesis can be demonstrated to be false, although I could be mistaken. It is consistent with everything else I know or believe, and it works as well or better in practice than any other conception of theology known to me. While I cannot be sure my belief about religious belief is true in the sense of corresponding to reality, I act in practice as if it were. We all have beliefs, and we act on them. In that sense I am no different from anybody else.
I invite responses.
For fun I have rewritten some Mother Goose Rhymes for an electronic age.
Having a Web site is becoming a family enterprise. First to have a Page was my son.