A couple of posts ago, I replied to Richard Dawkins’s charge that theologians don’t do anything useful. I replied in a couple of respects to that charge, but under friendly pressure from some of you it emerges more clearly that there are at least two more kinds of things to be said and argued.
First, is there something there that theologians describe? I argued the other way: If there is a God, and theologians know something about that God, then their/our work is useful. But of course many people wonder about the premise: Is there indeed a God and is that God the God of the (Christian) theologians?
Second, if theology somehow disappeared tonight, has it contributed something useful anyhow? This is a bit of an odd question Dawkins poses. I could reply in a qualifiedly positive way, and I do in the next paragraph, but I would say instead that the work of Christian theologians is fundamentally an all-or-nothing proposition: Either what we theologians say is true, and therefore useful, or it isn’t, and therefore isn’t.
Theology in fact has been used to motivate people to do good things (like abolish slavery or campaign for women’s rights) or to prompt enjoyable mystical feelings or to patch up various social divisions. I suppose those are the sort of thing Dawkins seeks as he wonders what good has been accomplished by theologians beyond the work of theology itself. But Christian theologians would say that the main thing we do is try to acquaint people with God and with the main information we can have about God. If we’re wrong, then yes, it’s good that people have used our wrong ideas to press for positive political change or stimulate happy spiritual feelings or heal ethnic or other social divisions. But it’s also also rather pathetic, since they depend upon a mistake, and once no one believes in the truth of that theology anymore, those good effects will unravel with their justification gone.
So let’s turn to the matter of fact: What are the grounds–and by “grounds” here I’m going to mean “publicly accessible and decidable grounds”–for Christian belief (and therefore for the work of theologians)?
There are lots of grounds on which Christians do in fact believe in the truth of Christian teaching. Christians believe they see evidence of answered prayer. Christians believe that they have spiritual experiences that are best accounted for by labeling them as genuine encounters with God. Christians believe that Christian teaching prompts them to live more virtuously than they otherwise would–or did. And so on.
In this series, however, I’m going to respond to Dawkins-types in a mode of public science, namely, history. I hope you’ll stay tuned.