Want To Know How 84% of the World Sees Itself: Study Theology

For the record, any mainstream coverage remarking on the purposes of theological education that might help the uninitiated understand that no, I am not biding my time until a position in the clergy opens up, is progress in my book. So an article this week by Tara Isabella Burton for The Atlantic on the value of a theological education for those without religious beliefs provided a much-needed opening in public conversation about the need for more theology programs at major universities.

But what was disappointing about Burton’s article was the missed opportunity to discuss how studying theology can inform practical disciplines that are in dire need of new approaches, instead focusing almost exclusively on theology’s function in the study of history. Burton calls theological study “an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who—in the world outside the ivory tower—still shape plenty of the world today,” offering only a perfunctory nod to the 84% of the global population that has a religious affiliation.

The majority of the article is spent looking backwards, reflecting on the psyches of French monks and Byzantine mystics rather than considering that the “insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances [that] were so wildly different from my own” can be used to understand how the worldwide expansion of Islam and the shift of Christianity from North to South in the last century informs the political, social, and economic behaviors of believers throughout the world.

Burton does make the important distinction between studies in comparative religion and studies in theology. While the former is more important for identifying social and ethnic locations, the theological lens is the primary one through which many of the world’s citizens see themselves, as servants and reflections of the divine before all else. 

Alex Peterson, an Advancement Associate at International Relief & Development who’s currently in the ordination process with the Presbyterian Church (USA), notes: 

Religious viewpoints and attitudes affect how people interpret and interact with medicine, politics, neighbors, and money. At a macro level, religious views influence geopolitical relationships and trade relationships…Theology is an oft-neglected but invaluable vantage point from which to look at our past and current relationships…

Broad theological questions like, “What is your purpose in creation?” and more specific ones like, “What role does God play in your understanding of your family life?” get to the heart of people’s self-perceptions and motivations in ways that, “What is your religion?” does not. Individual and group understandings of their ontological positions are ignored to everyone’s peril when we relegate theology to historical study. 

A common refrain about the inefficacy of programs designed to increase economic and political engagement is that overreliance on international charity has quashed the work ethic and entrepreneurial spirits of citizens of the global South. But if we take Burton’s theological investigation of history and apply it to our faithful neighbors, we arrive at a much less paternalistic conclusion.

“God will provide,” may seem like an empty, refrigerator-magnet platitude to the non-devout but it is a theological truth to adherents of the Prosperity Gospel in Nigeria. When a majority of Muslims worldwide believe that poverty and wealth are predestined in accordance with the Hadith of Gabriel, there are significant limitations on how effective it will be to upsell bootstrapping in business, education, and politics. Dissecting the Exodus story might be an interesting academic exercise for scholars of ancient Judaism but it is a very real reflection of the escape from political oppression to the approximately 100 million Christians just beginning to worship freely in China.

Peterson remarks that understanding everything from “the nuances of Islam’s views on women, the role of Christian doctrines in colonialism, and how the Reformation continues to influence trade relations” is integral to developing new approaches in areas like international development, conflict resolution, and economic growth. And for those who might argue that a survey course’s worth of theology is sufficient for tackling these issues, it’s important to note that nuanced and sophisticated theological notions do not require that believers have the ability to name-drop Karl Barth or Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino. The theological seeds planted by colonial influencers combined with local beliefs are too numerous and complex to grasp with only superficial theological knowledge. That motivating theologies aren’t being articulated in academic terms isn’t an indicator that they are not being understood with depth and rigor by those that believe.

Burton is right to implore non-theists to “engage with the great questions—and questioners—of history on their own terms.” But to discuss the great questions and questioners in the past tense is to suggest that the most important theological questions have already been asked and answered. Theological inquiry has present and pressing applications in the world and we would be wise not to leave all the fun to historians and the clergy. 

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