Bill Peddie posted an essay titled The Limitations of Theology in September, 2015. His final comment is here:
"While it is easy to criticize those like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses for not having a faith that squares with observable reality, it is fair to ask if those of us who are not Mormons or JWs have a theology which is somehow more objective, trustworthy and more helpful to the advantage of the human race.”
I had offered two comments to that blog post. This is an updated version into a single topic.
The big limitation of theology is: God is made in the image of the beholder. Scriptures are written by people as they feel or understand whatever events somehow reflect an action of their god. Different cultures will perceive a different god.
Here is a simple thought experiment. What if there are multiple intelligent beings scattered among different stars in different galaxies. Our society is mostly patriarchal and mostly monogamous, but generally oriented toward communities (extended families and/or groups of families); parents typically have only a single child at a time. Perhaps some of those other beings in the universe live in a society with a matriarchal structure, and maybe they are polygamous, or maybe with less social interaction among adults, or maybe families typically have multiple births. With a little thought there could be other scenarios for alternate structures of society. Assuming there is only one god watching over the entire universe, is the God for each of these divergent societies to be described the same? Of course not, because those defining theology within each society will have a different framework for that perception and description.
Even though much of humanity lives in cultures fairly similar to others (like monogamy is widely the norm, community social structures are also common except for the most nomadic cultures, etc.), the various religions have created different descriptions of their supreme supernatural entity. Theology has been defined as the study of the deity, a supernatural entity (or entities in some cultures). As the god is supernatural but people are not, each person truly has no framework or sensory experience to describe that external entity other than in terms of our human nature, so God becomes a projection of our interpretation of the world.
There are a number of major religions based on a subset of Old Testament scriptures, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and yet there is not a common result of their theology.
Religion has been defined as the collection of beliefs or world views that relate humanity to a perceived order of existence. Religion can be based on an appreciation of humanity within the natural cycles. Biology and sociology can help understand many of these interactions.
Religion does not have to be based on seeking this definition of an entity outside of our nature, so theology becomes important to humanity (beyond only the individual believer) when the religion strongly relies on the interpreted description of the god rather than relying on mankind’s intrinsic relationship with nature.
Of course when religions rely on interpretations of ancient scriptures, which include stories or myths about perceived interactions with the supernatural being, then the loosening of these binds, from a religion based on a god to a religion accepting more of nature, is very difficult. Even more difficult is accepting that one’s religion is not the only special ‘chosen’ religion, but that god surely (or probably – how is one to know for sure?) accepts multiple religions among the diverse cultures on this planet.
Christians should realize there are many people in the world who follow a religion that is based on an appreciation of nature (without a supreme being) rather than relying on a theology for the foundation of that religion.
In response to the original post's final statement, when considering whether a particular theology is more helpful to the human race, a wider scope of humanity should be considered beyond just Christians.
According to Matthew 22:34-39, Jesus said the second greatest commandment is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Though not ascribed directly to Jesus, Galatians 5:14 has: For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
These are simple directions emphasizing the importance of respect for others. If this were truly at the heart of what every Christian does then this would be a religion that is more objective and more helpful to the human race. Such a religion concentrates on our humanity, on our social relationships, and seeking the betterment of all.
For example, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and one of its basic concepts is the four immeasurables which can summarized as: may all beings have happiness and its causes, may all beings be free of suffering and its causes, may all beings be without suffering, may all beings be free of bias and free of anger.
Theology is rooted in man’s natural instinct to learn, in this case about finding a basis for the universe. What I find most alarming about theology is the tendency for it to result in a conclusion stated as ‘God wants xyz.” The religious leaders then emphasize these are God’s wishes and they are paramount, both in our behaviors and even in our laws.
For example, the clerk Kim Davis in Kentucky claimed ‘God wants me to deny a legal right to those I don’t like, specifically gays trying to get married.’ A number of small business owners have been determined not to serve their products and services to gays because such tolerance within their customer base is in direct conflict with their Christian religion.
This is not too different than a common practice no too many years ago: ‘God wants only marriages of a single race; interracial marriages are not allowed.’ Apparently enough people saw through that bigotry and eventually such blatant intolerance was no longer acceptable in most areas of the country.
Another claim is ‘God wants humanity to multiply and replenish the earth through child birth so birth control is not allowed.’ That restriction is most certainly not in the interests of most people (who wish to manage their family growth) but is instead just a rule for those wanting to exert their haughty control over others’ behavior. I feel most would agree humanity has achieved adequate coverage of the earth at this point. I don’t recall ever reading a statement declaring at what % coverage have we satisfied God’s need, but as the Bible does not get new text added one can only conclude that even 99% is not a threshold ‘accepted’ by God.
The other common claim is ‘God wants every pregnant woman to deliver her baby to term with no exceptions.’ This is not a caring approach for pregnant mothers or their families. For example, Savita Halappanavar died in 2012 while miscarrying because the Catholic hospital in Ireland would not abort under any circumstances, so the mother died shortly after the fetus finally died. Also in 2012, a 16-year old woman died in the Dominican Republic after she was denied chemotherapy treatment because that treatment could terminate the 13-week pregnancy and abortions are banned in that mostly Catholic country, so in the end both the mother and fetus died. Rape is an act of violence and domination; any pregnant woman forced to carry to term a fetus resulting from that act is also being forced to carry a reminder of that atrocity for many months, and then she is also forced to care for an infant (at least initially after the delivery) who is also a reminder of the father who committed the rape. How can any person having some degree of empathy wish to put a pregnant woman through that, other than an uncompromising person who values a fetus infinitely more than the woman carrying that fetus.
There is the cliché ‘God helps those who helps themselves’ offering the reminder people must rely on themselves and on others. We are social beings and working together more can be achieved than working as individuals.
I have read many sermons emphasizing that we (Christians or not) must have as a priority the care for others. There are many (most) religions also emphasizing that priority.
The practice of theology especially when seeking a meaningful answer to the question ‘what does God want?’ can be in direct conflict with that priority (care for others). After all, a theologian is only a person offering their interpretation and how can that be taken as the word of God? However, theologians are part of the social network at the foundation of a typical modern religion, with the priests interacting with the believers while the priests use the theologians as the 'experts' for any discussions about interpretations.
Every religion based on ancient scriptures is inherently driven by one's interpretation of those words written in a different time, place, and context. As each person can develop their own interpretation after reading the scripture itself (unless they don't think while reading or listening), theologians are obviously needed for their guidance to prevent these individual interpretations from diverging from the 'approved' interpretations held by the religious leaders of that sect. Of course, that is not to say theologians are always correct in their interpretations. Theirs is just the official one.
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