Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

On theological illiteracy


As long as I have been interested in theology, I have been frustrated that many people – whether they consider themselves religious or not – have not thought carefully about theology. By that I mean careful, critical thought about the relationships between humanity and divinity. And with that, to think carefully about what kinds of things we mean when we say things about God. This concern is not unique. Recently, Christian Piatt posted a number of Christian cliches to avoid (and ten antidotes). The posts became quite popular. Many of these cliches drive me nuts, among the worst being "Everything happens for a reason" and "God never gives someone more than they can handle." They're just irresponsible and theologically naive – and often dangerous.

My desire is theological literacy, even just a little, among people who think about Christianity. Christian theology is approaching its third millennium. It's old. It's complex. And while many people think it to be monolithic, it's not. It's fragmented and is amazingly diverse. "Orthodoxy" is a highly contested word that means "right opinion." Orthodoxy is of less concern to me as that someone can articulate why something could be considered "orthodox" or "heterodox" (other opinion) or even heresy.

It is because of theological illiteracy that racial, cultural, economic, historical, and so many other kinds of stereotype are created and reaffirmed, layered upon layer through time and action. Theological illiteracy also gives rise to simplistic dogma, as well as mirror movements like the New Atheists,who are as evangelical as the Evangelicals they seek to discredit. Theological illiteracy creates so many different kinds of idols, the Bible being merely one among many.

Theological literacy is not modern apologetics, the pseudoscience (yes, I said it) that is a "defense of the faith." There can be theological debate, but apologetics seeks ultimately to create foundations to convince itself of its own foundation and belief system. Apologetics is preaching to the proverbial choir. It is akin to someone holding a sign proclaiming only the slogan "John 3:16" on the street and expecting someone to know where to start to know what that signifies. In other words, apologetics is more evangelism to the converted rather than engagement with the unconvinced.

Yesterday on the subway, a young man went through our car plastering on the walls stickers that said merely "Mark Chapter 8 Verse 36". One could guess there was the implicit instruction to look it up, but once one went to Google (would people know to go to a Bible?) and one reads "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?", where does that get one next? Nowhere. In this example, theologically illiteracy runs both ways: a person unfamiliar with the names of biblical literature and the organization of biblical passages has no idea what to do with this male name (or noun or verb, for that matter) and a person overly familiar with this verse has unreasonable and biased expectations of their reader. In the end, this is completely unproductive and is relegated to the poor subway worker who must scrape off yet another sticker from the subway.

If people were more theologically literate, then people could be more theologically articulate and this would help clear through a lot of chaff. I think it would also help push certain theological positions to the fringe because people would be able to identify what is simply bad theology. I mean "bad" in the sense as poorly-considered, naively-based, ethically-irresponsible, and socially-dangerous positions on the relationships between humanity (both individual and communal) and divinity. 

Bad theology is a socio-political weapon. Bad theology is good ideology – and I mean good as "utilitarian." Bad theology is purposeful for selfish gain of power and domination. Bad theology is hegemony. Bad theology is demogoguery. Bad theology is not theology. Bad theology is idolatry. And idolatry is the creation of idols. Jesus knew it. Paul knew it. Kierkegaard knew it. Nietzsche knew it. 

We must destroy our idols. We must become theologically literate to see what are, in fact, our idols, especially the idols we hold most dear. Literacy means articulation, discrimination, critique, education, distantiation, and a new kind of intimacy. To become literate is to destroy idols. To become theologically literate, we must dare to question what we have received as God and how we have received that knowledge and understanding.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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