What is theology? And why should we be interested in it?
Stephen Cherry tackles five ‘not very good’ reasons for not engaging with theology, in his new book, God Curious. Here in this exclusive extract, he shares them with us.
Five Not Very Good Reasons for Not Engaging with Theology
The first reason that might be suggested is this: I don’t believe in God therefore I can’t possibly study God.
If theology were limited to questions about the nature of God then you might have a point. That which doesn’t exist can’t have a nature … However, theology and religion have been important in history and philosophy. They continue to impact hugely on current affairs and inform the ways in which people respond to realities as different as beauty and tragedy. In other words, what goes on when people are motivated by religious faith and theological conviction is a matter of significance well beyond the community of believers. Indeed, an atheist may feel that theology is too important a subject to be left to those who believe in God. And certainly, theology and religion aren’t going to go away just because atheists are dismissive of believers.
The second reason is the opposite of the first. I not only believe in God but I know God very well, and for this reason I don’t want to study God any more than I would want to study my parents or my partner.
I agree that if you are completely confident that you know all there is to know about God then theology is not for you. Theology is only worth exploring if you think that other people’s views about God are at least as interesting as your own.
The third reason why you may not want to study theology is because you think it is not a real subject of study but just a professional training programme for ministers of religion.
It is true that this used to be the case, and that there are places where people study theology only for this reason. It is also true that if you study theology at university you may well come across people who are studying for this reason, and you will almost certainly read books by people who are trained and ordained ministers and you may well be taught by some. But theology stopped being the province of the clergy alone a long time ago, and it has become a much more lively subject since – so don’t let that one worry you.
The fourth reason you may not wish to study theology is because it’s just about learning what the Bible says or what people of different religions do.
If you think this you may be muddling up theology, the most exciting subject imaginable, with what has all too often passed for ‘religious education’ at school; which is all too often dominated not by the pursuit of life’s deepest questions but by learning superficial details about religious traditions.
The fifth reason is a bit like the fourth in that you may think that theology is entirely concerned with ancient and irrelevant philosophical problems of the ‘how many angels can dance on a pin-head’ variety.
I can guarantee that you won’t be discussing that question, or anything like it, if you engage with theology today! The agenda has moved on. Theologians today seek to learn from the past and to understand why theologians of previous eras posed and answered certain questions in the way they did, but they also seek to learn from theologians of other faiths and to respond to the problems and predicaments that occur in today’s world as well as to the classic questions such as the existence of God and the consequences of believing specific doctrines.
From Chapter 3 of God Curious by Stephen Cherry.
Stephen Cherry is the Dean of King’s College Cambridge, and the author of many books. He tweets here.
For more information on God Curious, or to buy a copy of the book, please follow this link.