Have faith, will think

Welcome to The Theology Whisperer, a series of short blog posts on theology and theological education.

 

The expression, “Have X, will Y” is apparently a twentieth-century phenomenon. An early example is Bob Hope’s autobiography, Have Tux, Will Travel (1954). That title, and the title of this post, are snowclones – clichés employing a traditional idiom in a fresh context. The phrase implies that the speaker feels ready for an experience because they possess some readily available item or quality (e.g., cake, car, baby, fork, or faith).

“Have faith, will think.” Two clear and reasonable preconditions for theologising: the possession of a personal faith (that is, in this context, a personally held trust, belief, conviction) in some thing or person; and a willingness to engage in rational thought about that faith and its implications.

While the latter is, I think, necessary, the former is not. Strange as it may seem to some, one can do theology without holding or practicing a devout faith. One may separate personal faith experience from the act of formal theologising. And one may reject belief in God, as Christians have traditionally understood the term, and yet do theology. Millions do this every day. Anyone who says anything meaningful about God is doing theology.

Therein lies a problem. How can I speak meaningfully about God, as I understand the notion, and expect to be understood, let alone taken seriously? How can I expect to “do theology” and contribute to an ongoing conversation if the definition of the foundational term is so broad as to encompass virtually anything and everything? Is a person who reflects on the nature of the Trinity engaged in the same kind of activity as one who explores the theology of just war, or Islamic theology, or a theology of chocolate?

When I was a theology undergraduate, my church history lecturer, Dr Les Ball, one day displayed a map of the Mediterranean world and asked us if we could locate Dalmatia, on the northern coast of the Adriatic Sea. One student, Warren Crank, the sharpness of whose wit was greater than his grasp of geography, sighed and said, “Les, there are a hundred and one Dalmatias.”

There are a hundred and one definitions of theology too. We need a workable definition if we are to proceed, aware of our unavoidable subjectivity with respect to location, and the cognitive biases that influence our thinking.

First, I think it helps to distinguish “religion” from “theology.” In recent decades some universities and colleges have rebadged their departments of theology as departments of religion, perhaps in response to social change, marketing pressure, and the rise of postmodern thinking. In the academy, religious studies tend to focus on anthropology, sociology, history, and the liturgical practices of people in various cultures, often with overt subjective emphasis on comparative religion.

Theological studies, in contrast, usually involve the study of God (or at least the study of theism), and may emphasise overt notions of truth and value, and an exclusivist attachment to one religious tradition. As Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul (1939-2017) claims:

ultimate truth is the truth of God, and […] the fountain and source of all other truth. Everything we learn – economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics – has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God. That is why, in the Middle Ages, theology was called “the queen of the sciences” and philosophy “her handmaiden.” Today the queen has been deposed from her throne and, in many cases, driven into exile, and a supplanter now reigns. We have replaced theology with religion.[1]

As I understand it, Sproul is correct about the history. His more polemical assertions about ultimate truth, and the exclusive claims he makes in defence of the personal faith he confesses, are open to critical scrutiny and dispute – an activity central to good theologising.

Have faith, will think. Join me in the adventure! I’ll have more to say on the meaning of theology in upcoming posts.

This post was written by Rod Benson. Leave a comment in the box below, or email theologywhisperer@gmail.com 


References

[1] R. C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2014), 3f.

Image source: The Conversation