What theology knows and how it knows it

Naturally in the wake of the video suppression-and-unsuppression I’ve been thinking again about the “what” of theology. I’ve been thinking about theology as an academic discipline and department, and how that works, and relatedly, about how it knows what it claims to know, and how it knows it knows it. Yes really: both of those: because surely that’s a minimal requirement for an academic: not just to know things, but to know (and be able to explain) how you know them.

I always think about that when reading or listening to (listening to being a much slower and thus more squirmy frustrating process) John Haught and theologians like him (Alister McGrath for instance). I also think about it when reading Paul Tillich. I think about the “minimal requirement for an academic” aspect. How does he get away with it? How does this work? Is theology just exempt from that minimal requirement, and if so why? Just a hangover from the past, when theology was central as opposed to marginal-bizarre?

What are the criteria for theology as an academic discipline? How do practitioners tell good theology from bad? Is there such a thing as “wrong”? Is there falsification? Is there peer review? Are there any boundaries – any checks on what we outsiders see as making stuff up?

Does it have an epistemology at all? Does it pay any attention to how it knows what it claims to know? Does it have clear standards? Is knowledge of the field all it takes? Is it hermetic and insular: internally consistent (or not) but of no interest otherwise?

Does Haught think about any of this? He argues against what he calls “scientism” (which may or may not agree with what philosophers mean by it), but even if “scientism” is wrong does that make theology right? Even if science is not the only way to find things out, does it follow that theology is another way to find things out? (I know the answer to that, because it’s so obvious. I know only obvious things. No, it doesn’t follow, because theology is not the only alternative to science.) Can you get from the error of scientism to the reliability of theology? No.

Is theology a form of knowledge? If so, what kind? What is its methodology? How does it know what it claims to know? Does it have peer review? If so, what do the peers review? What makes theology better or worse?

Haught talked about personal transformation (as necessary for getting at the truths of religion, or something along those lines). That’s a strange idea. Usually the more reliable way to get at knowledge, facts, truth, good evidence, is to learn the appropriate methods and unlearn the other kind. It entails learning not to trust your gut or your guesses, let alone your wishes. “Personal transformation” sounds like learning the opposite. Being “carried away” sounds like surrender to one’s own existing biases and wishes.

This is all very puzzling to me.




  1. David Leech says

    Just posted this on Jerry’s site but I’ll post it here as well.

    Though it is easy for anybody who doesn’t accept the priori ‘god exists’ can see theology is useless. This is not the same for theists though as I have a friend who has a degree in biochemistry from Manchester university no less, yet doesn’t accept the theory of evolution:-( He started doing a theology course and you won’t believe how happy this made him, he kept going on about the wonderful arguments for god. Guess what book he was getting so excited about, ‘Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath.’ When I ask for all these great arguments they simply turned out to be the usual apologetics which I easily refuted but still he was having none of it. To the theist this is really sophisticated stuff that shores up their belief. The pernicious influence of the said priori is its negating effect of one’s critical thinking ability.

  2. jacobfromlost says

    They know because they know, and since they know that they know that they are right, they also know that they know that all the other people who know (something different) because they know (that different thing) are wrong.

    Now, all those other people (with other religions) might SAY they know they know they are right, but we know they are wrong. How? Because we know that we know that we are right, and BOTH of us can’t be right. That would be illogical and contradictory, of course, and logic must be strictly adhered to in everything except our beliefs, and nothing can be contradictory unless it has a secret interpretation or meaning beyond human understanding that we (humans) claim is not understandable by humans because we know what cannot be known by humans.

    What’s so puzzling about it? lol

  3. Ken Pidcock says

    Eric MacDonald once said something on this topic that I found especially clear. (Well, anyway, clear in that crystalline manner with which Eric is so adept.)

    Yet in what sense is theology an “intellectual discipline”? The phrasing is significant, for Polkinghorne is past master at the art of misdirection. Astrology, for instance, or alchemy, could justly be called intellectual disciplines. Anything with an esoteric vocabulary, and transformation rules for using that vocabulary in well-formed expressions, is an intellectual discipline; and until someone asks whether the words actually refer to anything that can confirm the truth, or establish the falsity, of those expressions, it can seem as though participants in the language game are actually talking about important matters, when, in fact, the whole activity might be entirely self-contained, a very complex, intellectual jeu d’esprit in which many enjoyable hours may be spent. Religion is, in my view, such a language, and the question whether it can have any relationship to an intellectual discipline which actually confirms or disconfirms propositions on the basis of things external to the manipulation of expressions within the discipline is the point at issue.

  4. Ryan says

    I attended the talk, and wondered many of the same things. Mulling it over afterwards, I realized that (aside from the usual accusations that atheists are fundamentalists practicing scientism, and religion is all really quite liberal and just a metaphor and how could you be so gauche etc.) Haught’s main unique claim was that all of history and evolution is really just God “inviting the whole universe toward unity from up ahead”.

    While that perhaps sounds nice and he seemed quite proud and confident of it, how on earth do we know it’s true? More importantly, how do we know what it actually says about the world? What does it prohibit? What would he accept as conditions for its falsification? What predictions does it make, so that we can interrogate it? Note that like evolution, these don’t have to be predictions about the future – in fact, even better if they’re predictions about things-we-don’t-know-but-can-expect-to-find in the past or present, so that we don’t have to wait for a confirming case to come along and shine a light on its gnomic veracity.

    I wish I had tried to take the opportunity to ask him those things, but for some reason I doubt his answers would have been very satisfying to me.

  5. says

    Damn fine quote, Ken, thanks! That may describe theology, but it also pretty well describes the manipulative word-games played by evangelists trying to convert people outside of academia too. Their entire spiel is scripted from start to finish, and if you, the mark/unbeliever, say something off-script, they either ignore your off-script response and keep plodding away through the script, or blatantly distort what you say to fit their script, then respond on-script to what the script says you said.

    Ever notice how Christian academics always seem to treat “reason” and “rhetoric” together, as if they’re the same thing (*COUGH*Martin Cothran*COUGH*)? To them, they are the same: propaganda tools to reinforce their beliefs.

  6. Roger says

    An interesting aspect of theology is the theological response to standard basic arguments against religious belief- Dawkins’ arguments or Russell’s view in Why I am not a Christian. Believers explain that these are simple-minded and easily and obviously refuted. The problem is that they are so easily ref futed that as far as I can tell no believer has ever actually felt the need to actually refute them.

  7. Grendels Dad says

    If secular knowledge is justified, true belief, then theological knowledge is rationalized, comforting belief.

    Ta-da! A different way of “knowing”.

  8. timberwoof says

    Eric MacDonald’s words immediately brought to my mind a subset of Trekkies. They devote a lot of time and effort to watching and reading everything about some aspect of Federation technology such as warp drive or transporters. There is an esoteric vocabulary and an extensive set of transformational rules from which people have even deduced heretofore unknown principles of operation of Warp Drive. However, the whole construct is parallel to nothing in the real world, and although it appears to be very enjoyable and satisfactory to those Trekkies engaged in that activity, it seems to me less useful than producing the original translation of Hamlet into Klingon.

  9. Lurker #753 says

    I came across this idea as the “triangle of meaning” – labels (“computer”), thoughts (what the label brings to mind – specifically your mind) and referents (the physical object in front of you).
    The Star Trek devotees are playing in a complex sandbox of labels and thoughts for which no referents exist. The difference between this and theology is that the Star Trek fans do not pretend otherwise.

    “Show me the referent!”

  10. Michael Fugate says

    I asked the commenters over at Biologos this question and got back that one just needs to read the Bible. Theology accepts that a god exists and this god wrote the Bible.

  11. says

    Just read the bible.

    Does that work with all books, any book? And any claim? Or is it just god + bible? If the latter…how come?

    I don’t seem to catch on very well.

  12. RJW says

    Why bother considering theology? There’s no proof that the subject matter even exists,it’s rather like exobiology.

  13. says

    Curiosity. I’m curious about how it manages to maintain a kind of prestige and standing as an academic discipline, and exactly what kind of prestige and standing that is.

    That’s a good enough reason isn’t it? I don’t restrict myself to Really Important Things.

  14. NewEnglandBob says

    Theologians don’t know squat. It is all a house of cards. They are really good, though, at making stuff up, even on the spur of the moment. Haught also told several outright bald-faced lies.

  15. Digital Canary says

    Similarly, playing Devil’s Advocate, couldn’t one ask about the merits of (for lack of awareness of a clearer term) “aesthetic” – as opposed to applied – aspects of studies in other Humanities?

    Other than Theology purporting to tell us ALL something about how and what we should believe and act (clearly problematic, to say the least, in the absence of supporting evidence!), it seems to me that Theology fulfills a cultural role similar to artistic or literary criticism: neither offers scientific Truth, but both (could/should) strive to provide a lens through which to understand human nature and culture more clearly.

    That said, for Theology to achieve that level of intellectual value (and honesty), its proponents and practitioners would have to recognize that they are dealing in aesthetics alone – which I recognize is fundamentally opposed to the root propositions upon which its practitioners work …

  16. says

    And the thing about theology as aesthetics is that it’s not clear what the “theo” part adds. Or the “the” part, since “ology” is the second part, but “the” is too confusing.

  17. Nick says

    Theology, as I’ve been taught, is only truly theology if it is a revelation from God himself. The “theology” you speak of in your post is more likely speculation and subjective interpretation. At its root, the word means “a word about God.” Who can claim to know something about God if it has not been revealed to him by God himself? Anything other than this type of theology is fluff.

  18. says

    No religion bursts fully formed into the marketplace of ideas. All of them arose by modification from pre-existing religion or system of of belief. In this they mirror the evolutionary processes of the biosphere.

    One possible exception is Scientology, whose founder appears to have found financial rather than divine inspiration in the preceding religions. But then again, I don’t know enough sabout it to judge.

    Theology can only be literally the study of God, if we accept the premise that God is revealed in religious texts. But it is actually the study of those texts, and commentaries on those texts, and of commentaries on the commentaries to infinity.

    As such, it is a closed system, carried out by believers in the main. Theology should not be confused with Biblical scholarship, which can be done by anyone.

    And David: “I have a friend who has a degree in biochemistry from Manchester university no less, yet doesn’t accept the theory of evolution…”

    There are a few palaeontologists around who manage simultaneously to be Young Earth Creationists. That puts them in much the same category as chemists who reject the Periodic Table. (There are possibly one or two of those about as well.)

    Find them at:




  19. RJW says


    Yes, of course, however, it would probably be more fruitful to examine the psychology behind religious belief, rather than trying to make sense of theology itself. I’m also curious as to why people believe and then waste their intellects on making sense of their loony assumptions.

    Whatever sparks the neurones.

  20. David Leech says


    Exactly, as you put it: ‘it would probably be more fruitful to examine the psychology behind religious belief, rather than trying to make sense of theology itself.’ While the belief in god exist and by the majority of the planet then any fairy tale proposed by anybody with a PhD is a affirmation that they are not unreasonable. It is sad that a proportional representation of the world’s intellect is given to shore up the beliefs of the gullible.

  21. says


    Hopefully you saw this coming: How does one differentiate true (revelation from God) theology from fake (speculation & interpretation) theology?

  22. says

    David Leech @#2:

    A propos of my last post (presently awaiting moderation [?] at #21) the geologist Andrew A Snelling appears to have found a way to reconcile his Young Earth Creationism (YEC) with his mainstream science. It appears to have been by the adoption of two divergent Andrew A Snelling personas, neither publicly recognising or referring to the other.

    The geologist Alex Ritchie says:

    “One Dr Snelling is a young-earth creationist missionary who follows the CSF’s Statement of Faith to the letter. The other Dr Snelling writes scientific articles on rocks at least hundreds or thousand of millions of years old and openly contradicting the Statement of Faith. The CSF clearly has a credibility problem. Are they aware they have an apostate in their midst and have they informed their members?

    “Of course there may well be a simple explanation, eg that the two Drs Snelling are one and the same. Perhaps the Board of the CSF has given Andrew Snelling a special dispensation to break his Statement of Faith. Why would they do this? Well, every creation ‘scientist’ needs to gain scientific credibility by publishing papers in refereed scientific journals and books and the sort of nonsense Dr Snelling publishes in Creation Ex Nihilo is unlikely to be accepted in any credible scientific journal.

    “I think that both Dr Snelling and the CSF owe us all an explanation. WILL THE REAL DR ANDREW SNELLING PLEASE STAND UP?


    “Several years ago, in the Sydney Morning Herald, as one geologist to another, I publicly challenged Dr Snelling (the young-earth creationist version) to a public debate, before our geological peers, on a subject close to his heart – Noah’s Flood – The Geological Case For and Against.

    “I’ve repeated the challenge several times since then and it still stands.

    “For reasons best known only to himself, Dr Snelling has declined to defend the creationist cause.

    “In the light of the above I suggest the reason is obvious. In his heart, and as a trained geologist, he knows that the young-earth model is a load of old codswallop and is totally indefensible.”

    Which adds a whole new psychological dimension to theology. Eat your heart out, RL Stevenson! Jekyll and Hyde were small beer beside this.

  23. RJW says

    #22 David Leech,

    Yes, some atheists just don’t seem (1) to accept the idea that there are probably evolutionary reasons for religious belief and (2) that high IQ, highly educated people can be believers. I’d suspect that people who don’t have the ‘gene for religion’ (like me) would be in the minority.

    Even those who reject institutionalized religion as being “mostly crap”, often say “there must be a purpose to existence”.

  24. Roger says

    Ian MacGougall:
    Perhaps Snelling is a follower of Philip Gosse, who maintained in his book Omphalos that god created the universe according to biblical claims with its studyable history built in.

  25. sailor1031 says

    “These primary sources, therefore, will be Scripture and Tradition. How Scripture and Tradition are related as the source of revealed understanding is a question of some moment m its own right, but the first thing to realise is that they are our primary materials. Whether they are seen as two separate but complementary sources or as two aspects of a single source is a relatively minor question compared with the basic point: Scripture and Tradition are the fount of theological knowledge.” – Fr. Aidan Nichols OP

    Plenty more at:


    You might think that it’s all bullshit; I couldn’t possibly comment.

  26. Gingerbaker says

    “…Haught’s main unique claim was that all of history and evolution is really just God “inviting the whole universe toward unity from up ahead”.

    While that perhaps sounds nice and he seemed quite proud and confident of it, how on earth do we know it’s true?…”

    You should not be so dismissive of this statement by Haught. As a matter of fact, I can demonstrate that what he says is true, at least for millions of people.

    You see, my wife and I have started viewing the BattleStar Galactica series anew, and “inviting the whole universe toward unity from up ahead” is EXACTLY what the Gods of Cobol (in conjunction with the Cylons who DO have, you know, ‘a Plan’) have accomplished with their prophecy.

    You just need to drink the KoolAid. There is chamalla in the KoolAid.

  27. Bruce S. Springsteen says

    The answer to Ophelia’s title query is straightforward: Theology don’t know a thing, and it don’t know what it don’t know. And it really resents having that pointed out.

    Well, maybe that’s unfair. It does know how easy it is to deploy poetic rhetoric, emotional bias, and fuzzy language in the pursuit of self-deception and mass manipulation. It also knows that, where the possibility of “offense” arises, blame will always be assigned to the “giver” of offense, and none assigned to the “taker,” when religious sensitivities are in play.

    It seems certain that religion and theology arise from and exploit some natural inclination to demand and discover purpose in the random and impersonal, even at the expense of twisting or dismissing our critical intelligence. But that’s no excuse to let it ride unchallenged. Quite the contrary, it gives us a special reason for diligence and vigilance against this natural-born failing. That’s how science elevates us and helps us arise from the muck of our mere suspicions. Unaccountable, insupportable, blatantly self-serving and wastefully distracting claims to knowledge cause much of the trouble in the world, and we always do well to debunk this particularly grandiose manifestation called “theology.”

  28. jacobfromlost says

    I think the points about “Star Trek” have merit, and extend to all mythological cosmologies.

    People are drawn to myths because they reinvent reality in a way that helps us easily understand ourselves and the world of our everyday experience. They don’t necessarily reflect reality as it is, since a mythmaker is in no way restricted to including literal events, literal phenomena, etc. In fact, mythmakers usually include fantastic, unusual, “not found in everyday experience” elements to make their cosmologies compelling and interesting (hence the “easier to understand” part, because it’s fun).

    SOME people, however, find such things SO compelling and interesting (and fun) that the lines between the cosmology in the story and reality around them blur. Now, that might be done in a healthy way, in that fans of Trek might end up designing cell phones that look remarkably like old-style communicators, or Kindle readers that (at least at first) looked remarkably like the “PADDs” from Next Gen. Or they might take a lesson about friendship, or logic, or determination, or teamwork, or whatever. In any case, they’ve taken fictional elements in a fantastical cosmology and applied it to the real world in a way that was useful in reality–in effect, the myth was a useful TOOL to understanding, not the understanding itself.

    But the lines can also be blurred in an unhealthy way, given more weight to the mythical elements than reality itself–in effect, confusing the metaphor for what it represents. Anyone can read the bible as literature, and recognize a lesson of self-sacrifice in service of a greater good (given the fictional cosmology of the myth), and that self-sacrifice can often be noble. That doesn’t mean I have to believe Jesus is literally real (much less divine, magic, etc). In fact, if I’m going to do a lot of reading of fiction, religious texts, and other myths, there is no way I could take them all literally…unless I do what C.S. Lewis did: Claim the Jesus metaphor in the bible is literally real, claim that is why it is the so effective, and somehow suggest that all other myths are trying to reflect the reality of that one real metaphor (which is why they are found in archetypes everywhere).

    The problem is that these claims just don’t stand up to minor examination. The very same archetypes that made the Jesus myth compelling are found in older myths (where the audience obviously had never heard of Jesus) and newer myths (where, even when the parallels are OBVIOUS, the audience is still unaware–and, ironically, I know of many people who read C.S. Lewis’s books and never made any Jesus connection at all).

  29. says

    it would probably be more fruitful to examine the psychology behind religious belief, rather than trying to make sense of theology itself.

    It would certainly be more fruitful to do any number of things. There are a zillion things to do that would be more fruitful than it was to write this post. But I was and am interested in the questions I asked in this post, so I chose to write it. The criterion for what I write about isn’t always “what would be most fruitful?” I write about what’s on my mind at the given moment. It would be more fruitful to do a lot of things than it is to tell me what it would be more fruitful to do.

  30. RJW says


    Of course Ophelia, it’s your bat and ball after all. However I didn’t tell you to do anything, actually I was simply expressing a dissenting opinion.

  31. says

    Not really. You weren’t disagreeing, you were saying it would be better to do something else altogether. I think that’s a ridiculous thing to say to anyone, for the reasons indicated. I write about what interests me; what interests me isn’t always going to be whatever it would be most “fruitful” to write about. Sometimes I do write about the psychology of religion, but in this post I wrote about something else. It’s just otiose to point out that you think that’s less fruitful than something else would have been. Ok I’m being harsh, but your #15 was rude and dismissive, especially since the post says why bother considering it.

  32. Ken Browning says

    The theological project starts when someone so inclined asks, How did everything get here? The nascent theologian deductively decides that the only answer that fits is ‘God’. That initial impulse is buttressed by further deductive arguments and syllogisms. They have to proceed this way as there can really be no inductive logic concerning the supernatural or transcendent. Haught admits this in his argument when he says we should expect human understanding of God to be confused. But this deductive dependence leads to a trap as deductive logic is only correct if the premises are attached to reality. Unfortunately for the religious, deduction is subject to the possibility of intuitive error and bias. The way that thinkers like Haught attempt to get out of the deductive bias trap is by providing inductive ‘evidence’ in the form of personal transformation and the chain of transformations through religious tradition. The defeat of this untenable work around based on psychological states of individuals and groups (as sufficient evidence) and the resultant stifling of independent analysis may be the engine that drove the rise of science and modern skepticism. And it’s precisely the point where science and religion are in absolute conflict. If some muckity-muck says that and the three amigos say this and everybody on earth says, IT”S TRUE!!!!— none of that makes it so. Science and skepticism is a blending of deductive hypotheses with protective inductive analysis. For religion, faith (deductive commitment), is a virtue but with science it’s a vice.

  33. RJW says


    Now you’re being dismissive, as you have been in the past in reference to comments I’ve made. I don’t expect you to remember, you once told me not to be ‘silly’, I found that more offensive than some of the personal attacks I’ve experienced.

    I was indeed expressing a dissenting opinion as to the value of the discussion in the first place, obviously I misunderstood the parameters.

    You’ve explained the rules and it’s your arena.

  34. says

    Well come on, Arr, what do you expect? Do you really not see that it’s rather rude to tell a blogger she should write about something different? It’s not as if this is a magazine or a book, that you had to pay for. It’s not as if you hired me.

    And it seems to me that the post makes clear what it is that’s interesting about these questions. If they don’t interest you, fine, but I don’t see the point of saying so. And it’s rude.

  35. Katkinkate says

    PhiloKGB says @ 24 “… How does one differentiate true (revelation from God) theology from fake (speculation & interpretation) theology?”

    I think the theologist thinks the bright sparks of their own imaginative speculations and their interpretations is revelation from their god. In the end, it’s all opinion. They think they have a direct connection to the ‘infinite’ and we think they are delusional.

  36. Marella says

    Theology knows nothing, and I think that its practitioners suspect that it’s so but are trying desperately to convince themselves and others that they really do know something. I think the clergy project needs to expand its horizons and include theologists who have finally realised that they have spent their lives studying nonsense. It must be difficult for them to accept this and make a new life, they need help.


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