Debate Magazine

Theological Nonsense

By Cris

Over at The Atlantic, Tara Isabella Burton makes the best possible case for studying theology. As she describes her studies at Oxford (where she is working on a doctorate), a good portion transgresses traditional theological boundaries:

I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism.

In other words, she is studying anthropology, philology, literature, and philosophy. This sounds excellent and does not seem much different from studying general humanities.

But as Burton describes other aspects of her degree, it sounds much more like traditional theology:

I learned to read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew, to analyze the minutiae of language that allows us to distinguish “person” from “nature,” “substance” from “essence.” I read “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts alike of the nature of the Godhead, and learned about the convoluted and often arbitrary historical processes that delineated the two…The difference between whether—as was the case in the Arian controversy of the fourth-century AD—the Godhead should be thought of as powerful first, and loving second, or loving first and powerful second, might seem utterly pedantic in a world where plenty of people see no need to think about God at all.

This is traditional theology. It is mind-numbing and I can’t think of many good reasons to study it. Theologians (and scholars) have been analyzing the Arian controversy for 1,600 years. When issues can’t be resolved or settled after that amount of time and effort, it tells us something important about the subject of study: there is nothing there. It is devoid of substance. The Arian controversy is interesting for historical reasons, not theological ones.

Burton claims that by studying this sort of theological arcana, she can get inside the heads of 12th century French monks, Byzantine mystics, and others like them who “shaped so much of our history.” While we can question whether it is worth getting inside such heads, theological analyses of these kinds of issues don’t get take us very far: they have minimal explanatory power. To explain nonsensical issues like the Arian controversy, we have to get outside the idealist world of theology. While many disciplinary approaches might allow us to understand or explain this and similar controversies, theological approaches are probably the least enlightening. Power does not exist inside heads.


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