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).

0 Responses to “What Good Are Theologians?”

  1. Ian

    As Stan Grenz and Roger Olson assert in their invitation to the study of God, Who Needs Theology, “Everyone is a theologian.” (IVP 1996) The only question remains are you a good theologian or a bad theologian. Of course Dawkins is referring to those of us who are or are becoming professional theologians.

    Yet, one also has to wonder about his claims concerning the type of world we have. “For the Glory of God” by Rodney Stark suggests that we would not have many of the technological advances that Dawkins claims for science without Christian theology. Descartes himself found theological ideas significant for his method and science is indeed indebted to him for good or ill.

    Finally, Dawkins has made a career out of theology by pitting himself against a theological worldview and its promoters. One wonders what we he would do without us? Who would read his books?


  2. CJW

    Indeed what good are any of the arts or humanities? Painters either try to paint what science could photgraph (the platitudinously ovious) or what doesn’t exist (the downright false); historians make claims that do not ‘work’ (like sonar or atomic bombs do); musicians don’t add a thing to medicine or mechanics. If theologians are not only fools but evil because of their work, then poets and philosophers must be too.

  3. Rob

    Some very good replies so far, in my opinion.
    Hasn’t Prof Dawkins also been quoted as saying that “science can not tell what is good or evil, it can only tell us what is”? Yet, notice in his quote listed above, he refers to things that are “bad achievements”. How does he know what is bad? I would assert that he “knows” because of a study of philosophy. Theology is more and different than merely Christian (fill in worldview here) philosophy, but it does have that aspect. The study of theology does help us understand God in a coherent set of ideas. Extending the thought above, if nothing else, theology gives Prof Dawkins something coherent to attack. That is, a definable “enemy”.
    Even Bertrand Russel admitted “It is doubtful that the method of Mahatma Gandhi would have succeeded except that he was appealing to the conscience of a Christianized people.” If there is no God, as Prof Dawkins argues, then who but theologians gave the Brits this “Christianized” conscience?

  4. Carolyn Culbertson

    Eric Johnson, a retired Air Force pilot, moved to our small town. Because he was convinced that people matter because God created them (theology) he went to the local food bank to volunteer. He found that most of the clients were families – usually single mothers, and that many were effectively homeless. Because he was convinced that God requires that we care for widows and orphans, (theology) he made it his business to create, build and equip a shelter for them. Because he was convinced that God is a God of beauty, and a home-maker (theology) – he made sure that the shelter was a welcoming and beautiful place. So, because of theologians, women and children in our town are being cared for. Maybe there are just one or two other instances like that around…

  5. Jim

    Stackhouse – “… 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.”


    The subjective experience of personal relationships with God (or your “particular histories”) is exactly the useless retreat into private domains against which Dawkins rightly roils. The “mechanical” dimensions of God are nowhere separable from an objective empirical theology. Just because you personally cannot find the proper metric for teasing out Divine mechanics does not exhaust the state space of theology. And your failure does not justify your unwarranted relegation of theology writ large to the postpile of your subjective anti-mechanical judgments. Dawkins speaks in favor of coalitions of bishops and Christians everywhere who recognize the valid languages of objective (inter-subjective) measurement of human histories (including your “particular histories”). The mechanics of usefulness for theology are too various to cover here. The payoff of useful results, say, as evolutionary biology pays off for clinical medicine in delineating the “particular histories” of sickle cell anemia, has no corresponding precedent in theology. Because theologians opt out of the conversation. Into private retreat.

    There are useful reasons why subjective experience with God produces variation in human experience which can result in mechanical and objective measures for exchanging useful knowledge. There is no reason why theology cannot be useful in this conversation. But the profound variety of experience with God is nowhere non-mechanical, ipse dixit. You are simply using convenient hip-chic in-house theology-speak, the mere jargon of relational theology, as a ruse to cover ignorance of mechanics. And as a feint from all the history of empirical claims embedded inside centuries of your “particular histories.” These very “particular histories” make particular claims, particularly claiming that God in particular interacts in our material, natural world – in particulars. Which is what “particular histories” mean. After all.

    It’s a profoundly odd redaction of “particular histories” to neuter them of claims of God’s interaction and Agency in the natural world. And worse to do so by making subjective relationships with God deny mechanics.

    No one can possibly believe that theology is more than a cultured lie when it pulls such non-sense.

    I would subjectively pray for theological peer review to raise the bar … at least on the Double Blind review to the Spirit. Make subjectivism Work. And this prayer – a particular prayer – from a lover of Madame Guyon, and her “Short and Easy Method of Prayer.”

  6. John Stackhouse

    Brother Jim gives a long and passionate response to something I did not mean. So let me clarify my point as best I can.

    I am not suggesting theology retreat into personal subjectivity. I agree with Jim that this is a fatal strategy with, to be sure, a long and distinguished history stretching back through Schleiermacher and Kant. But this strategy surrenders the ground the Bible itself claims: “This really happened. I am Yhwh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. This Jesus whom you crucified God has raised from the dead and made both Lord and Christ.”

    My point, however, is that knowledge about God is, in the nature of the case, more like knowledge of a person than it is like knowledge of a machine or, indeed, a mechanical system. Thus criteria of historical investigation into once-only events are to be deployed rather than the repeatability and predictability of most bench science.

    So asking whether it is demonstrably useful to have theology is analogous to asking whether it is demonstrably useful to have knowledge of another sort of person, rather than knowledge of a machine (including biological “machines” and ecosystems as “machines” in the basic sense in which I think both Jim and I are using the terms). We have to pick the right sort of investigative criteria for the thing to be investigated.

    From there, I go on. Clearer now, Jim?

  7. Jim


    Great reply.

    Thanks for the upbeat torque on my hard hit. Cheers.

    You nailed my own (to mix metaphors) Buridan’s Ass problem on the head – “Thus criteria of historical investigation into once-only events are to be deployed rather than the repeatability and predictability of most bench science.”

    Ouch. John, I don’t have a good answer for that. Just about a perfect retort. I just don’t have an answer. Not that satisfies me.

    It’s not a cop out that I move to a legal rather than biological metaphor in saying that most common law countries do use the reified legal fiction of a “reasonable person” standard in tort law entrusting ordinary jurors to decide whether a party acted as a “reasonable person” in situ. This is not a good enough answer to your question. Because the legal fiction of a “reasonable person” – a useful fiction – has the capacity to blanch the uniqueness of “once-only” events under its general rubric. There is no “reasonable person” sitting around in churches or bars or anywhere else. So this fiction works subjectively – though usefully – in the minds of jurors. In much the way that theology could work. If theologians saw their task as issuing jury instructions (not a bad idea depending on one’s feelings about theological casuistry?).

    As to mechanics swapped from biological usefulness into theological metaphor, I think the only useful heuristic guide (this is terribly biased) would be to explore biological mechanisms (pro mechanics) in theological overlay, just to see how these conversations would go. In theory. Sorry, not a good answer. But a start.

    As a charismatic hailing to a very minimal conservative creed, I’d say that the best method for approaching the question of re-introducing mechanics into theology would be to err on the side of setting my scope and metric for diversity (as well as in biology), so that we would end up with many mechanisms – very many mechanisms – including some surely “once-only” mechanisms. There and done. Like a song. Or a Psalm. Indeed. But we could metricize this trough an Ecclesiastes Three type multiple-purpose set of mechanisms: mechanisms and mechanics of the Spirit, mechanics drawing us into the relationship with the Spirit (back to your relational subjectivism, after all). Though imperfectly understood.

    See the caution of Jesus to Nicodemus. The Wind of the Spirit as a Stochastic Phenom.

    Sorry, that’s the best I can do. I don’t really have a good answer to your “once-only” question. Because, well – I just don’t.

    A very good reply,



  8. Jim

    Nota Bene:

    … the references to the “reasonable person” standard in law – as a useful fiction – meant to focus on the measurability of its usefulness in many dimensions. The first dimension of the fiction’s measurability is simple: that jurors make pretty good decisions using this fiction. It’s a fiction. It’s useful. Second, this fiction is mechanical too: 1) through jury instructions and, 2) through a host of known and measurable working mechanisms in juror deliberation (see the Chicago Jury Study, and others). But I had in mind a deeper usefulness and measurability – using sociology of law statistics to test the effectiveness – the usefulness – of this legal standard against its stated purpose. It’s not a “once-only” fiction in the sense that we re-invent a new legal fiction for every jury in every case.
    The huge problem we’re running up against now – not a problem, but a profound virtue imho – is that religions of all kinds, in this and the next generations, will experience the most rigorous and relentless scrutiny of empirical sciences ever, all of which aim to measure the effects and vectors of influence of theology itself. For instance, I peer-reviewed an article recently (with gazillions more of these studies in the wings) that ties theology qua theology to social poverty. In short, those lousy (God love them) empiricists will soon know more about the status of the empirical effects of theology, and of theological mechanisms (mechanics, orders, cause/effects) than many theologians know. Whether it’s worth it to theologians to get on board is a matter of subjective personal choice. With risks either way.



  9. santitafarella


    I’m an agnostic, not an atheist, but to be fair to Professor Dawkins’s claim you really should attempt to answer it directly, and not engage in circular reasoning. Dawkins is asking theologians to back their (often very large) claims about God and the universe with evidence and reason. He is questioning your authority to pronounce on issues to which there can be little or no epistemic justification provided.

    Why, for example, should Dawkins believe that God is triune, and not say, quadri-une or bi-une? Because you say so? Because you’re an “expert” on such matters? And why should one worship God as a Father and not a Mother? Again, simply because you know which verses in the Bible command it? Dawkins wants claims supported by evidence, and not arguments from authority.


  10. John Stackhouse

    #15: I’m not aware that I am arguing in a circle. Perhaps you could show that I am, please.

    As for why Richard Dawkins, or anyone else, ought to believe orthodox propositions about God, you ask for evidence, not authority.

    These are deep epistemological matters, so let’s see if I can at least gesture in some helpful directions in a blog comment . . . !

    My main point here is to reply to your declaration that no one should believe a doctrine simply because I say so. Of course, your rhetorical strategy is meant to make me back away humbly and say, “Oh, no! I’m not saying anyone should believe something simply because I say so! Goodness me!”

    But why not believe something because I say so? I am not an “expert,” I’m an expert–by any standard definition of the term. And when audiences listen to me on matters of theology (one of my areas of expertise), they listen for expert teaching so that, they believe, they can learn something.

    In exactly the same way, when Richard Dawkins talks about molecular biology (I understand that is a zone of expertise of his), I listen and normally would believe whatever he would say. Why not? That’s what intelligent people do: Find experts and learn from them.

    As scientist Michael Polanyi argued half a century ago, and many have argued before and since, it is a supremely arrogant and self-defeating position to expect to believe everything one believes on the basis of “evidence and reason.” Who has the time for that, let alone the relevant expertise(s)? Imagine not trusting your plumber, or your car mechanic, or your surgeon, or your florist, or your psychotherapist, or your piano teacher, but rather insisting instead that everything you know about plumbing, automobiles, medicine, botany, mental health, and music must be worked up from evidence by way of reason and pass the bar of your own judgment!

    Now, to be sure, if what one of these experts says seems manifestly wrong to you, you do well to ask for a plausible explanation–otherwise, you are in danger of being taken in by a charlatan. Fair enough. But once you have satisfied yourself that someone is, indeed, an expert, the rational thing to do is trust him or her as such and get on with your life–at least, as I say, until such a time as you have sufficient reason to doubt that person entirely (and expose him or her as a fraud) or to doubt this or that particular teaching (given that experts do disagree with each other and also occasionally are just flat wrong).

    So arguments from authority are simply part of normal human life. The question, then, is how one finds genuine authorities–indeed, the best authorities–to learn from. But that’s another question for another time.

    As for whether there can be epistemic justification for Christian teachings, well, yes, there is: lots of it. Books full. Libraries full. Schools full. Pick your issue and I’ll help you with bibliography.

    Millions and millions of demonstrably smart and highly-educated people believe that Christianity is true. That doesn’t prove categorically that it is true, of course, but it does mean that there has to be SOMETHING there that prompts such conclusions. (I feel that way about religions in which I don’t believe: There must be SOMETHING there to prompt belief by smart, decent people. And usually it doesn’t take long to find what it is, and to find that their beliefs are, so far as I can see, at least partly correct.) Such believers can’t ALL be psychological cripples in the grip of an overwhelming wish-fulfillment fantasy, can they? (Dawkins seems to say so, in fact, but that’s when he’s well outside HIS zones of expertise and sounds simply obnoxious and silly.)

  11. Mariam

    I am no fan of Richard Dawkins- I found his thinking on religion unreasonable, narrow-minded and just plain nasty. Even my husband, who is a staunch atheist, agrees that in general when Dawkins talks about religion he just sounds obnoxious and silly. However, I don’t think your arguments about the usefulness of theology would hold any water with anybody who wasn’t a Christian – and not even a lot of those. I know how unconvincing those arguments would sound to my husband

    When Santi speaks about the circularity of your argument you know what he means. It is like those who claim the Bible is inerrant because the Bible says it is inerrant. There are Christians who cannot see that that is a circular argument but I am sure you are not one of them. So if you claim that theology is useful because it tells us about the nature of God, that is hardly convincing to someone who does not believe in God – particularly when you narrow it down to one particular view of God. If we have a group of people who believes God is a large rabbit-like creature that lives on Planet Xylophone their theologians may have some limited usefulness to that particular group but I probably wouldn’t think they had much use in general, since I don’t believe God is a rabbit and they have no particularly compelling evidence to show me that he or she or it is. I would remain unconvinced whether they claimed to be an expert or not. If pressed into an argument I would say, “I don’t care what you believe and I don’t care if you call yourself an expert. Show me the evidence. Why do you believe it and how can I verify it?” This is what the pursuit of knowledge is about. This is why, for example, the New Testament writers so carefully lay out the eye-witness reports in the Gospels and Acts and refer back to scripture to show how it is fulfilled, this is why Paul argues with us in such varied and complex ways. This is why Jesus performs miracles. It is NOT enough to say, “I’m an expert, so you should believe me,” as you imply. I might accept that you are an expert on the Bible, on Christian history and philosophy just as I might accept that someone who has studied astrology for years is an expert in that subject. But without verifiable proof of your positions OR evidence that while we may not understand why, theology and theologians seem to make people kinder, more loving, healthier and wiser, it is difficult to argue for the usefulness of theologians.

    You yourself say if what a so-called expert tells you seems to you to be manifestly wrong, you must investigate further, otherwise you risk being taken for a charlatan. This is exactly what Dawkins and his followers are doing. They believe theologians are charlatans, or at least self-deluded. They believe what they are saying is manifestly wrong. They are asking for a plausible explanation. They are asking for evidence. They are saying “justify yourselves”. I have been disappointed so far that most of the people who argue against Dawkins don’t address this. It is as if they simply are blind to the non-believers viewpoint.

    You say it is useful to know that there is a Supreme Being who is personal and who rules the universe. How do you “know”this? On what basis are you making this claim?

    In point 2 you claim that God has made himself clear to us through various means and it is useful to have theologians to sort through this rich data for us. I notice you have excluded the “data”from other religions, but let’s leave that aside for now. If God’s purpose is to make himself clear, why do we need theologians to tell us what God’s meaning is? Again what proof is there that any of this data is the work or word of God? You don’t need to tell me – you’d be preaching to the choir. Tell me how I can convince the non-choir members.

    Point 3: I’m sure you’ve read the studies that show that prayer does not in fact result in people getting well – that those who were prayed for did not get better any more frequently than those not prayed for and in fact there was a slight negative effect on those who knew they were being prayed for. Of course I understand the limitations of that study and I know very well that there are many benefits to prayer. Along with the study above, there are studies that show that people who pray or meditate regularly (it does not have to be Christian prayer) are healthier in mind and body. This is an example of theology being useful because it improves lives.
    Point 4: Again, not at all convincing to someone who doesn’t believe in God. Also, theological “experts” are much divided on the nature of our eternal destiny. Why should Mr. Dawkins or any other atheist or agnostic believe you over another theological expert?
    Point 5: Heresy is in the eye of the beholder. Those who preach the “prosperity gospel” and asceticism also have their theologians. You obviously don’t think they are useful so you are undermining your own argment.

    Theology has been important to me, not for any of the reasons you have outlined above, but because it has allowed me to make sense of things that science will never be able to. Believing in a loving and forgiving God has allowed me to become more loving and forgiving. Believing in Jesus’ example and message of mercy, compassion and kindness has prompted me to behave in kinder ways and to see Christ in everyone – even Richard Dawkins. My husband, who initially threatened to divorce me when I began attending church, now encourages me. He thinks that most churches are at best a waste of time and at worst evil, but he makes an exception for some. He says that if all churches (and Christians) were in the business of feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, opening their doors without judgement to those who have lost their way, he would have a lot more time for them. He understands the value of community and appreciates that there is something about our beliefs that motivates us to try and live kinder and more useful lives. Still, he wishes it could all be done “without the ridiculous central premise”. I have told him the “ridiculous central premise” is crucial, and he finds it hard to argue with that.

    Theologians are useful if their theology results in good fruit. When those who call themselves Christians live lives that are really significantly healthier, more loving, more giving, more compassionate, patient, and humbler than non-Christians or people from other faiths – that is when we will convince the non-believers that theology is useful.

  12. Jim

    Since I took a hard punch earlier, I’ll redux.

    I backed off earlier after Stackhouse demurred to individualism. And to immeasurable discreteness of religious experience. When all other “useful” measures of theology fail, make theology a playground of unique subjectivism. Because this makes theology is “useful” ipse dixit. Which is why theologians must keep saying so. To get mileage out of otherwise useless theology.

    It’s not worth arguing. So, I bowed out.

    The better answer to Dawkins is to agree. Which makes the next steps in theology the real ones. Empirically and pragmatically speaking. Theology can be as useful or useless as theologians want it to be. It’s not that Dawkins is saying anything that the rest of the world is not thinking privately about the uselessness of theology. Put up or shut up.

  13. John Stackhouse

    Mariam (#18) and Jim (#19) understandably want evidence and reasons to believe. So should any thoughtful person.

    Since the matter under dispute is rather large and complex (the truth of the basic teachings of Christianity–I’m not here to defend the teachings of any other religion nor generic belief in “God-in-general,” in which I have no interest), let’s bring a little focus to the conversation by way of two questions. Mariam, Jim, or anyone else:

    1. For what Christian teaching in particular would you like grounds?

    2. What would be adequate grounds for you to believe?

    Please take these questions at face value as sincere. I won’t waste your time with pseudo-intellectual games. But I have pretty long experience in these kinds of conversations, and it tells me that such focusing questions will help.

  14. Jim


    Perhaps a major miscue.

    Forbear some throat clearing. Then substance.

    Because of the miscue here, this post is slightly long.

    Throat clearing, but important – I’m Christian. I’ve a robust sense of the Spirit. An extremely active prayer life. And a useful database of several thousands of prayers asked (and many of answered) on behalf of my clients. I work daily with pastors and lawyers from over a dozen denominations. In three times that many local churches. I visit churches regularly and meet with pastors because of my work. My work for the poor in four praxes is faith-based. So usefulness/uselessness (Dawkins’s or otherwise) in praxis is not a game for me. I don’t push my faith on non-believers. But I deal with the fallen, the lost, the downtrodden, the druggies, prostitutes, pimps, pushers – all of them – all the time. This is trench work. In real life. And I take agnostics and atheists as profoundly valuable critics of the foibles of many forms of faith. My faith is not an abstract concept. Nor in need of theological proof. Dawkins’s criticism of the uselessness of theology invokes “uselessness” as a broadly understood and commonly agreed critique of theology. Among atheists. Agnostics. And some theologians too.

    John – it’s not Dawkins. It’s every pimp, pusher, user, prostitute, rambler, gambler, and false preacher – who do not know Dawkins’s name. And who know Dawkins’s critique of theology as – useless – by heart. Better than Dawkins does. On the street.

    So why are people here claiming that your responses are circular? – not useful? – dodging Dawkins’s points?

    Toward substance. The words – “useless/useful” – as Dawkins uses them have fairly exact and precise meanings. Every Christian who is a scientist or a professional can understand this meaning. Theologians can say that theology is “useful” to them. But this claim (as a mere claim) by theologians is not any more meaningful than the claim of Tantric Vajrayana Buddhists. These Buddhists too have gods. A bunch of them. They confine their gods into the spectrum of mere mental images and fictions. Like graphic novel super-characters. They use their gods for the purpose of self-reflection. Toward their concept of enlightenment. And these Buddhist gods have no external existence. None outside of mental fiction. By dogma. Not by accident. Tantric Buddhists say that their gods are “useful” to them. For purposes of enlightenment. Dawkins would agree with this special pleading. Dawkins would agree that this special kind of theological definition of “usefulness” of these gods is a valid form of usefulness. Like the “usefulness” of poetry. Or of reading Moby Dick. Or the usefulness of watching a sunset. But he would say this is a special pleading of the definition of the term – useful. Dawkins would say that this kind of mental game-playing with internal images and myths about fictional gods is just about all that Christian theology is useful for. And it wouldn’t matter if you provided proofs for doctrine. Because proofs for doctrine still lack correlation to usefulness (more below). Which is why people here have called your pleading circular. So when Dawkins says Christian theology is – “useless” – then he is using commonly accepted and very well understood pragmatic, scientific, and technological definitions of useless.

    Now, to real substance.

    My point is that when we respond to Dawkins by saying little more than that our theology is useful to us (just because we say so), then we prove Dawkins’s point. We’re no different from Vajrayana Buddhists. Who just make up fictional gods. We would be better off saying nothing. Or admitting that Dawkins is correct in saying that theology is useless.

    I’m sure you know this. You know the tropes. That usefulness usually gets mocked up in theology in forms of practical theology, field experience, clinicals, or Mother Theresa poster-child-ism. Name your favorite. I’m not keying on the usefulness/uselessness of theology compared to ‘useful’ professions. Like medicine, law, counseling, carpentry, plumbing, roofing, and so on. These useful professions are good contrast points. And the contrasts between them and theology – for usefulness comparisons – are obvious. And painful. But these contrasts are still not the point. You may know, for example, how Don Browning wrote frequently about practical theology – practical theology as a professional praxis it is little more than pastors trotting off to seminars for superficial doses of Perl, Jung, or Freud. Or for superficial doses of any other favorite pseudo-professional praxis. The key is – superficial doses. Not useful. These in-house of critiques of theology by theologians are substantial. Again, you probably know these in-house criticisms. But these are still not my point.

    So what’s left? And why are people like Dawkins, and other people here, still saying that the theological responses are circular? – or otherwise non-responsive?

    Because Dawkins’s definition of “useful/useless” goes more to the observable value of any practice. Dawkins is not singling out theology for this rigorous questioning any more or less than any other profession or discipline.

    At heart – Dawkins is challenging theologians to show how theology alone has contributed anything of useful value that cannot be accounted for by non-theological sources. After all other sources are isolated. And factored. What’s left of theology? For usefulness?

    That’s an honest test. It’s not inherently an atheistic test. It’s a test we should apply to ourselves.

    One last pericope. On usefulness.

    When I worked in a humongous law office on cases that went to court, then the staff had frequent and brutal – and I mean brutal – meetings to test all cases. Before going to court. This case-testing was “useful.” Because this in-house case testing exposed errors and weaknesses in cases. Errors and weaknesses that would have been found out by an adversary in court. This in-house peer review was exceptionally brutal because the purpose was not to massage our egos. The purposes was not to make us individuated maximized characters. The purpose was not to produce isolated and non-repeatable phenomena (one of your prior responses to me). This brutal peer review of testing cases had the purpose of protecting the best interests of the client. In fidelity to the law. That was useful. Not useless.

    Virtually every other discipline has its correspondingly brutal peer review.

    Extraordinarily few (don’t ask me how I know) pastors and theologians have a clue about the rigors of such “useful” peer review. Not because they don’t want to. But because the very definition of “useful” itself is theologically limited perversely – and I mean perversely – to apologetics. Or some other abstract circular reasoning. Or some defensives. Wagon circling. Or to superficial doses of pseudo-useful and wanna-be praxes (see Browning).

    On the empirics of usefulness – time was when pastors judged cases. Before and during the Salem witchcraft trials. And theology and ministry have been retreating – into uselessness – since.

    A bit of peer review – hereabouts.



  15. mariam

    In answer to your first question: My point was not that I needed proof in order to belief. I do not. I believe without any sure evidence (although not NO evidence). That is what faith is. There is no hard proof that God exists and no proof He does not. I think it is therefore almost as valid a choice to believe as to not and I choose to believe because the “theology” (if you will) involved in that choice helps me to live a better, more healthy, more loving and compassionate life. I think that is a good and useful thing, and it would be good and useful even if the “ridiculous central premise”, as my husband calls it, turns out to be wrong. (My husband is an economist and therefore knows quite a bit about ridiculous central premises.) If I am correct about the central premise, eg. that God exists and Jesus is how we know him, then it is also pleasing to God that I believe and have adjusted my life accordingly. I am not asking you to prove to me that God exists – I am simply saying that you have not answered Dawkins’ challenge, because your reply will only make sense to fellow theists, and even then, probably only a small subset of them. For non-believers you might as well be defending spending your time talking to and about fairies. If you challenged say, a leprechaunologist, and told him that what he did was rather pointless as a subject of study since he couldn’t provide you with any tangible evidence that leprechauns even exist and he answered that what he did was quite useful because it was important to know that leprechauns exist and that we can talk to them and maybe find their pot of gold, you would think he was starkers.

    Dawkins challenges the usefulness of theologians on at least 3 grounds:
    1. the central premise of theology, that God exists, is false or, at the very least, unprovable. Theologians are studying something that does not exist. On the usefulness scale this ranks pretty low.
    2. Theologians do not say anything useful. Whatever they say is either blatantly obvious or false. They cannot prove anything that they say and what they say is therefore useless.
    3. Theologians do not produce anything useful. Since none of their claims are verifiable in any observable way they do not contribute to knowledge or truth, in the same way other “logists” do, anymore than say an astrologist or cryptozoologist does. (Although, to be fair, cryptozoologists actually search for proof of the existence of mythical creatures, and present their findings to the “knowledge community” for ridicule) Since they do not produce works of art they do not contribute to beauty. Since the results of theology on human behavior is mixed at best, they cannot lay claim to verifiable benefits on human health and behavior, like for example, meditation. There is no evidence that theology seems to “work” (unlike some alternative medicines, for example, that seem to work even though we don’t know why).

    I believe that you can argue effectively against these 3 points, and I believe, as a scholar, an academic and a theologian you should be able to do it much more effectively than me, as I am none of the above. Dawkins’s “scholarship” seems as thin as the the theology he attacks and I think he also makes assumptions that have no provable basis, ie. God does not exist. In fact, it is only if God does not exist, that his whole argument regarding the uselessness of theologians hangs together. As with the search for truth (or pursuit of knowledge) in many areas, we don’t really know what will eventually be useful knowledge. Like evolution, there are many dead ends but without the freedom to pursue dead ends our body of what we know or believe to be true would be so much poorer. This is the case in many areas of academic knowledge. There are scientists who belong to SETI. Many of them believe that intelligent life must exist somewhere else in the universe. If they succeed in establishing that intelligent life does exist elsewhere that would probably be very useful knowledge. Even though the chances appear slim, based on the evidence so far, it is probably worth having a few people devoting themselves to that search. Similarly it may be that God does not exist, but if He does, that is probably the single most important piece fact of existence, so it is worth having a few theologians who make the assumption that God exists and go from there.

    His second point – that everything that theologians say is blatantly obvious or patently false is, well, patently false. Some theologians speak in simplistic platitudes and some say things which are patently false and other base arguments on assumptions for which they give no evidence. But to say that no theologian has ever said anything useful – surely a ridiculous overstatement.

    Third, something can be useful even if it is based on “false” science – acupuncture springs to mind. Dawkins loves to equate belief in God with a belief in leprechauns, but even a belief in leprechauns can be useful in some circumstances. In my mother-in-laws last weeks of life she was in a great deal of pain. It was hard to watch her suffer. However, the last time I saw her she had a beatific smile on her face. She could see leprechauns and other little people. She point them out to me, chuckling and laughing, obviously delighted that the mythical creatures she had been told about in her childhood and harboured some wishful thinking about had actually turned out to be “real”. She could see and hear them. I told her that obviously she had finally got the Irish gift of second sight because I was not able to see them although she could. Of course, I actually thought it was a hallucination but I believed that hallucination was a gift from God. On the basis of that experience alone I would be willing to cut “leprechaunologists” a little slack. It also speaks to the nature of reality. Even if we could hear and see God how could we be sure He was “real”. She also believed in God and Jesus and believed that she would be reunited with her beloved husband in the hereafter. It was a simple childhood faith that made death less frightening and easier for those who loved her to watch. Whether God exists or not, the belief in him is clearly a comfort to many, to the scorn, no doubt of Dr. Dawkins.

    I am not giving any sort of rigorous answer to Richard Dawkins, but I had hoped that you might.

    You give an analogy of an ambassador visiting a country with a supreme ruler, and theologians being like knowledgeable courtiers (let us call them “rexologians” ) who can fill you in on the character and achievements of that supreme ruler so you might be able to better understand him and his people. The obvious stumbling block, however, is what if the so-called supreme ruler is invisible? What if his throne appears empty, what if you can neither see nor hear him, and any acts attributed to him can easily be explained by other means. What if the rexologians insist that, although the throne appears empty, the ruler is really there, but since you cannot see or hear him (and they admit neither can they) they will tell you what he wants based on their study of ancient manuscripts which describe possible encounters ancient people have had with them. There are some people living who claim to have actually seen or heard the supreme being speaking to them, but most people, including most of the rexologians who are experts on the supreme being, think these people have a screw loose. What if the rexologians threaten the people in the kingdom (and you) with dire consequences if you do not accept their interpretation of what the supreme ruler wants. You might think these “experts” are useful to listen to in order to better understand an insular and deluded society (sort of like North Korea) , but you might also think they are propagating a scam in order to maintain their power, prestige and income. A sort of “emperor has no clothes” scenario with much broader and frightening implications.

    Now, if the kingdom is a peaceable one where, in general, people behave in much more loving and noble ways than people do in other states – where the poor and unfortunate are lovingly cared for, where people are generally kind and forgiving, where there is little crime – and this noble behavior is obviously because the people believe what the rexologists have told them about the invisible supreme being, then you might think that, in spite of your own doubts about the existence of the supreme being, that the belief in him is useful and the rexologians, by reinforcing that these benign if deluded beliefs, perform a useful service. You might even, like me, decide to join that society and behave as if you do believe the supreme ruler exists even though in your heart of hearts you know there is no real evidence and that the throne is clearly empty.

    On the other hand, what if the rexologians all argue with each other calling anyone who doesn’t share their belief heretic or apostate, and threatening each other with the wrath of the invisible supreme ruler. What if they enforce their interpretation of the supreme being’s nature based on fear. What if, when asked for proof of the invisible supreme being they say that that is not a subject they are interested in discussing and the fact that you would ask is proof that your eternal destiny is in peril. What if many people have been killed, tortured and imprisoned because they have argued with the rexologians? What if there have been many civil wars over minor issues of what rexologians said the invisible supreme ruler really wanted? What if people in this kingdom don’t actually do noticeably better at life than folk in other states, and often do worse? What if, when asked to justify their employment the rexologians said:
    1. it is useful for people to know that the supreme ruler exists
    2. since people cannot see or hear the supreme ruler and since so much of the data we have collected about him from a vareity of sources is complex and sometimes contradictory, the people need us to tell them which of those sources can be believed so they know what the supreme being is really like and what he really wants.
    3. it is good to know that it is possible to communicate with the supreme ruler, especially since he is invisible and doesn’t answer back. We will tell you how to speak to the supreme being and we will tell you how you know that he has answered you, since it will be hard for you to tell, with him being invisible and silent and very subtle and mysterious.
    4. since the consequences of not doing what the invisible supreme ruler wants (and we will tell you what he wants – don’t listen to that rexologian over there, he has it all wrong and the invisible supreme ruler will deal with him eventually) are very dire you need us to tell you what the invisible supreme ruler wants as you are not an expert and it would be very dangerous for you to try and figure it out on your own.

    Would you still believe the rexologists were useful or would you think that the people in the kingdom of the invisible ruler needed to be liberated from them?

    I do not think God worries overly about our theology – He worries about what we do. Theology without works is dead, pointless, useless. The measure of the usefulness of a theology (and theologian) is the fruit it produces. I try to bear a little of that fruit, but I should always try harder and it is my failures in that regard that cause me sleepless nights, even though I believe in a loving and forgiving God, who will lift me up whenever I ask. I am certainly not motivated by fear of my eternal destiny.

    In answer to your second question, however, I would like evidence (outside the Bible) for believing that the Bible is infallible.

  16. Frustration with Biblical scholars–and theologians « Theommentary

    […] Don’t hear me wrongly: Professional theologians (and biblical scholars) are required, and ought to, worry about theological issues in ways that ‘everyone else’ doesn’t have to. My point isn’t to denigrate the work of theologians (I am one, after all!), but simply to remind us (and my theological students and colleagues) not to be surprised when the average Christian raises a suspicious eyebrow about what it is that we do! (If that is your concern, then I recommend one of John Stackhouse’s recent posts entitled, “What good are theologians?”) […]

  17. John Stackhouse

    Thanks to Mike Aubrey for his kind words about my backing Steve Bell in concert this past week. It’s a blast playing with someone THAT GOOD–not common in my experience.

    As for Brother Jim and Sister Mariam, thanks for these additional provocations! I will close comments pretty soon on this blog entry and take up your friendly challenges in another one, okay?

    (This past week was pretty full not only in starting classes at Regent but also in cramming for Thursday night’s concert–had three albums of Steve’s music to learn. And this coming week I’m heading to Ottawa to speak at uOttawa and St. Alban’s Church–see my page “Speaking Engagements” for details if you’re in the Ottawa area).

    So: more soon.

  18. Ernie Bergen

    Dr. John:
    Thanks for your passion for Jesus. Last month, while surfing the TV channels, I came across an interview you had with Rafe Mair. I was grateful for your thoughtful and loving responses to his important questions. I believe that interview was initially done in 2008 and rebroadcast last month when I came across it. Is there any way I could get a hold of the whole interview, either through internet or order a copy of it?

    A fellow follower of Jesus.
    Ernie Bergen.


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