What Good Are Theologians?

Richard Dawkins has been quoted to me recently as such (without a citation, alas: Can anyone supply it?):

“What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels, work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”

Now, the very last question is different than the point made in the bulk of the quotation. Whether theology is a “science,” whether it is indeed a body of knowledge about aspects of reality, is a good question. But let’s suppose for now (since one blog post ought to be about one thing, no?) that it is at least possible that theology does what it says it does. What good would it be?

The knowledge of God (theology–and also mysticism, but let’s stick with theology for now, especially since all good theologians are also spiritual people) is not like the knowledge of technology precisely because God is personal, not mechanical. So the comparison is immediately wrong-footed. How useful, then, is it that there are experts who probe the knowledge of the Supreme Being? I should think it would be highly useful indeed.

For one thing, it’s good to know that there is a Supreme Being and one who is personal and who governs the world in goodness. Otherwise, we waste time and resources and emotion trying to placate other sorts of deities or, conversely, we fail to spend the appropriate time and resources and emotion relating properly to the God whose existence and character we have failed to ascertain.

For another, it’s good to know that God has made himself clear through particular histories (Israel, the Church), books (the Bible), and spokespersons (prophets, apostles) so that we have a rich array of reliable data. This data is so rich, in fact, that we need trained experts (theologians) to sort it all out, much as we need trained biologists to sort out the rich data of natural science.

For a third, it’s good to know that prayer, in particular, is worthwhile and to know how to engage in it properly. Knowing that we have the ear of the Almighty and knowing what to say into it has got to be among the most valuable discoveries in history.

For a fourth, theologians tell us exactly what God promises to us, what God requires of us, and of what God warns us. If Professor Dawkins paid proper attention to theologians, he would not be putting his eternal destiny at risk by his adamant and aggressive atheism, which, from the point of view of theological expertise, he is doing.

For a final example, theologians tell their fellow believers what God is truly saying to them and what he is not. Thus theologians help people avoid “prosperity gospel” heresies on the one hand and harmful asceticism on the other. They help people make use of both medicine and prayer. They help people read the Bible properly and read it in concert with science, history, philosophy, and common sense. At least, that’s what good theologians do.

To dismiss theology as worthless is analogous to having been named an ambassador of your nation to the court of an overwhelmingly powerful emperor and to refuse to pay attention to experts who have spent years understanding the writings, speeches, and actions of that ruler. The lack of such knowledge would not, as Dawkins rightly says, mean that your society would be without any of its technologies. The lack of such knowledge would mean, however, that you would fail to relate properly to that monarch and thus fail to benefit from all that that superior being and culture could offer you and yours. Worse, you might alienate that emperor through your stubborn ignorance and put yourself and your people in peril.

Ignoring theology is, to pick different images, like refusing to pay attention to what anyone else could tell you about a suitor, or a prospective adoptive parent, who is offering to make a lifelong covenant with you. Is it a good idea to engage in that relationship? A terrible idea? What sort of relationship would be best? How ought one to conduct oneself in that relationship? To disparage such information is patently foolish.

Which, alas, is what Professor Dawkins and his kind continue to be, as the Bible says: “Respect for YHWH is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) while “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1).