Friday, 23 October 2015

Why do theologians write like that?

It's probably a rhetorical question, but let's put it up there anyway.

Why do so many theologians express themselves with opaque language?

You have to hand it to the conservative evangelicals, at least we know what they mean. Which is something of an Achilles' Heel I suspect. You know exactly what they're trying to say and, all too often, it's rubbish. But at least they know how to use plain English, and the reader can critique it - for better or for worse.

Not so the more philosophically minded theologians of the old school. They all too often finesse their language to the point of incoherence, so keen are they to draw out every meaningless nuance in their tortured argument. In the quest for profundity they crucify the language in the hope nobody will call their bluff.

Not everyone engaged in the more rarefied domains of the theological enterprise does this of course, but it's probably a sizable majority. To be clear, we're not talking about a concern for accuracy and integrity; those are non-negotiables in any field of enquiry. Nor are we talking about genuine biblical studies that set aside the waffle in the cause of actually understanding the ancient texts.

It's reminiscent of those stereotypical Anglican vicars who tend to that excruciating sing-song liturgical mode of speaking that exudes paternalism and privilege. It's not so much what they say (which turns out to be nothing much actually) as how they say it. Churchly theologians are somewhat different; it's more what they say (which turns out to be nothing much actually) in order to sound deeply knowledgeable.

And lo, the contempt of the entitled theologian when confronted with that most abominable of things, a popular treatment of their area of expertise. A sudden intake of breath, snooters raised upward... three, two, one... sniff.

The lads (and only very occasionally a laddette) are not so much interested in engaging with the common herd as those in their circle of equally obscurantist peers. In the absence of anything solid to nail their deep and convoluted insights to, it all collapses over into philosophic confectionery - much as Shakespeare put it: it is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

It's all too often a game of self-delusion, of castles built on clouds. A gathering of theologians to present papers to each other has all the relevance (but none of the panache) of a Star Trek convention - without the cool Vulcan ears and makeup.

Good theology is surely something else. Consider the parable.

Theology was once considered the queen of the sciences. So was astrology. The two are perhaps not unrelated. And perhaps the former is now going the way of the latter.

If so, these worthy individuals (with some honorable exceptions) have no-one to blame other than themselves.


  1. Impressive writing. I agree with this view. I would add that the worldly philosophers track very closely with theologians on this issue. And then we find, after laboriously reading, that the emperor has no clothes. I tried to communicate about an issue with one of GCI's favorite Trinitarian theologians a few years back and he told me that I wouldn't understand anyway and I should get lost. Ironically, this was a guy who frequently appeared in their "Your Included" series. I thought I was having a flashback to days when I tried to talk with WCG "ministers". I don't think he liked to be challenged. GCI-Info assured me the guy was the salt of the earth. I am sure he treated Feazell well.

    -- Neo

  2. Everything in the human domain is rooted in biology. Now some people may make the obvious error that theologians exist to clarify God, but it is clear that is not at all the goal of said theologians. They obfuscate. They do this to be the elite. They have the drive to be elite to maximize their own dopamine levels. And why not? Dopamine makes them feel good. By believing that they are superior to everyone else by having esoteric knowledge no one else can have, they raise their endorphins to become junky addicts. They are addicted. It is as simple as that. And, gee, I don't know how anyone could ever convince them to get into rehab.

    The only proof that God exists, as far as I can tell, is faith. So if theologians can't impart faith so people can believe in God, they've failed rather miserable, and, worse, they are sitting on a pile of magic. There aren't any objective scientific measures which can be applied to their 'discipline'. In other words, it's all illusion. The illusions and magic, though, appeal only to a certain taste -- one of which, the ordinary would not have acquired. And frankly, the taste would seem terrible to the broad majority of people.

    I have my doubts that if God exists, there is anyone -- anyone at all -- who can tell the rest of us Who and What He (She / It) is. The Bible does not seem to be at all a reliable guide in the matter. No one has actually seen God. No one has talked to God. While it may be that people were 'inspired' to write and talk about God and His wonders, no one actually knows the validity or depth of such 'inspiration'. In this day and age of people just making stuff up, it's difficult to sift through the chaff to find anything approximating reality. (A good reason for theologians to be vague and esoteric, I suppose). Could there be anyone at all we could really trust to give us a really sharp defining picture of who and what God is? It certainly wouldn't be a theologian.

    Instead of Star Trek, you should have perhaps chosen Harry Potter, since we are now talking about esoteric wizardry not available to the muggles or proles.

    But it all does make the theologians feel good and that's what's really important, no matter how stupid and useless they might be.

  3. The understatement of the year: "...The two are perhaps not unrelated."

    Hitting the nail squarely on its head: "... perhaps the former is now going the way of the latter".

    Again hitting the nail squarely on its head: "it's all illusion"

  4. "Everything in the human domain is rooted in biology" is a presumption that cannot be proved. There are good theologians and bad ones just like there are good atheists and bad ones. There is no proof that god exists that can be found in the observable universe. There are events described by physicists that make it a probable that god exists. Nobody will ever be able to explain what god is like to humans. Infinitude is not comprehended by finitude. Not only can you not ask a theologian about what god is, you can't ask anyone in the human realm. But you can understand enough about god to be adequate for present conditions and necessities. The fact that you have not seen god does not prove that he does not exist it only proves that you have not seen him. Theologians do not impart faith. Theologians like to trumpet the value of their profession just like accountants, lawyers, engineers and dog catchers. Etc.

    -- Neo

    1. Neo, you are certainly right about theologians wanting to position themselves as superior elite.

      However, I would take issue that their profession is just like accountants, lawyers, engineers and dog catchers because accountants do useful work in balancing the books, lawyers actually perform important work involving the law and there are results, engineers design and build all the useful technology we use and dog catchers remove excess canines from our streets. But what do theologians do? What do they produce? All of their 'work' is theoretical, unprovable and has no concrete objective use in the physical universe. Not only that, but no one will ever know if they are right.

      Should we give them any status? Should they be considered among the elite? Who do they benefit? Do they generate revenue? Do they produce useful technology? Do they even inspire epiphanies?

      What standard should we apply to determine who is the top theologist and who is lower ranked? Is there an objective test? How can we tell if any if their answers are right? It's like having status and credibility just because you attended Ambassador College. Of what worth is that?

      As it stands, I personally have no use for any of them, but maybe someone can demonstrate a reason I should reconsider.

  5. "There is no proof that god exists that can be found in the observable universe" - I agree.

    "There are events described by physicists that make it a probable that god exists" - In your opinion, not mine (and not the opinion of most physicists).

    "Nobody ... (to the end)" - the rest of this is pure conjecture based on the assumption that god exists.

    1. 1. There is also no proof that god does NOT exist that can be found in the observable universe.

      2. Science provides us only with facts. We must interpret them. The theistic interpretation that if the universe had a beginning then it must have been caused is difficult to skirt logically. My guess is that you have no statistics to back your claim about "most physicists".

      3. Yes, that is my conjecture and it is as valid as any of your conjectures.

      -- Neo

    2. 1. There is also no proof that Superman and Lex Luther do NOT exist on a planet orbiting a distant star.

      2. "Science provides us only with facts". Not true. Science provides us with evidence, theories and interpretations.

      3. I agree your conjecture is as valid as any of my conjectures.

    3. 1. With a little research we can identify Lex Luther as a fictional character. There is a body of evidence that supports the existence of God so the assertion that he does not exist is not an empty proposition as your statement implies.

      2. Science provides us only with facts developed through the use of scientific method. Scientists may formulate theories and interpretations. Just as theologians may provide theories and interpretations.

    4. 1. "With a little research we can identify Lex Luther as a fictional character". Exactly! The same goes for all the ancient writings that purport to be inspired by their respective gods. "There is a body of evidence that supports the existence of God" INCORRECT

      2. To equate the well-supported theories of scientists with the baseless speculations of theologians shows a profound lack of understanding on your part. However, it does explain why you believe as you do.

    5. Going a little further, the statement that something cannot be proved, to be of merit, cannot be considered separately from its plausibility. We must examine other evidences to determine the value of this statement. If there is no plausible evidence then the statement just happens to be an artifact of the English language - there are things that language permits us to say that are nevertheless meaningless. Language might permit me to claim that one cannot prove that there is NO positive number less than zero. But we know a priori that this is implausible within the system of mathematics, my claim to the contrary. In a similar way, one might claim that there is no proof that a unicorn does NOT exist. But here plausibility is undermined by the evidence afforded by fossil record and we conclude that the idea has no real merit. In the gray zone is the case of Bigfoot. There is some contested evidence. You see how claim and plausibility interact. The proposition that there is no proof that god does NOT exist cannot be treated as if it were untrue either a priori or by evidence, hence, the proposition has merit. After all, the evidence is what people have been arguing over for millennia.

      Moreover, atheists make the positive and unqualified claim that god does not exist. This means that have incontrovertible evidence discovered within the observable realm (the only realm that atheists believe to exist) that god does not exist. To my knowledge, no atheist has ever produced this evidence. They instead offer viewpoint in which they have complete faith which forces atheism into a type of non-theistic religious belief.

      -- Neotherm

  6. OK then, do away with biology in the human domain -- remove all DNA from humans -- and see how far you get.

    I think it's called 'death' but that's a presumption that cannot be proven.

  7. The category in which people would like to pigeonhole me (with launches of attendant false accusations) is most often, "atheist".

    I don't necessarily believe that I'm in any of those categories which people have claimed I'm in- examples being, 'deist', 'agnostic', and 'athiest'.
    I'm not interested in glomming on to a category or label.

    I'm reminded of when I've literally had Christians SCREAM AT ME, asking exactly what I believe. (That was from folks manning a table promoting their 'program' in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot. After being harassed by these Christians, I went home and called that Piggly Wiggly store, who then had these particular Christians booted out of their parking lot pronto. Those Christians had lied and claimed they were not selling anything religious in order to get a spot in the parking lot.)

    Anyway, after that tiny bit of background, back to the point I wanted to make-

    Neotherm wrote,
    "Moreover, atheists make the positive and unqualified claim that god does not exist. This means that [they] have incontrovertible evidence discovered within the observable realm (the only realm that atheists believe to exist) that god does not exist."

    To me, that seems untrue. If I were to identify as "atheist" , would that mean that I "have incontrovertible evidence discovered within the observable realm that god does not exist"

    No. An atheist is a person who does not believe, or lacks belief in the existence of any particular God or gods.
    It's as plain and simple as that.
    (No need to have "incontrovertible evidence discovered within the observable realm" that the thousands of gods identified within the thousands of religions do not exist. In Neotherm's view, an "atheist" would have to have "incontrovertible evidence" that these thousands of gods do not exist, in order to be a 'real' atheist.... That would have to be a heck of a lot of 'evidence'!)

    So says me, the Piggly Wiggly protagonist, who does not even identify as 'atheist'.

    PS: Pork Chops are $1.79 per pound this week at Piggly Wiggly.