Why Study Theology?
David Hume’s DIALOGUES CONCERNING Natural Religion is structured as a debate between three different philosophers on the subjects of God, evidence for His existence, and whether or not we can ever truly comprehend his nature. The first Dialogue focuses on the question of when in the course of a student’s education he should begin to study theology.[i] The traditional, mystic Demea argues that this study should come at the end of one’s education because the study of theology can only be safely entrusted to those students capable of exercising mature judgment, whose minds have been enriched with the study of the other sciences. He also argues that by the end of their education, students will have been fully exposed to the limits of philosophy and man’s reason, which will prevent them from being so arrogant as to think that reason can overthrow religious beliefs.[ii] Philo, the skeptic, expresses the concern that by the end of his education the student will have already rejected the opinions of theology in favor of the other subjects to which he has been properly exposed.[iii] The third philosopher, Cleanthes, does not take his own position on the issue but rather tries to prove to Philo and Demea that one cannot build belief in something on skepticism. Rather than focusing on our limitations and what we cannot know, Cleanthes argues that we should do our best to know what we can, because there can be no faith without reason underlying it. Though the Dialogues were written over two hundred years ago, the question of if and when we should study theology remains relevant and largely unanswered. The study of theology is left largely to each of us to pursue on our own initiative, and therefore the question of when we should begin is also left to us. In fact, today, the definition of theology is not widely understood and the importance of studying theology at all is rarely discussed. We cannot begin to think about when we should study theology unless we understand what it really means, and why we should do it.
So what does it really mean to study theology? The word theology is made up of two different parts, theos, meaning God, and logia, affiliated with the Greek logos, meaning word.[iv] Ancient cultures understood theology in this literal sense, encompassing any and all studies of, debates on, or conversations about God. Anyone who asked a question about God was engaging in theology.[v] In more recent times, the definition of theology in western culture has narrowed to focus on an extended, focused process of studying God and his nature. Today, the dictionary definition of theology begins with “the study of religious faith,” and extends to “a four year course of specialized religious training.”[vi] Across time and continents the two definitions retain one common element: the study of God and his nature. Theology should be regarded as something more than simply talking about God on occasion, but it does not have to mean pursuing a degree in Theology or Religious Studies or devoting years to exclusively religious research. Engaging in theology is thus accessible for everyone, as it should be, for it is important for everyone to engage at some level in the study of theology.
Primarily, studying theology can help us to become more confident in our own beliefs, because theology, at its most basic level and however you approach it, deals with an attempt to discover whether a certain religion’s beliefs are true. For many of us, we believe what we were taught by our parents, teachers, or other authority figures when we were young. As we step out into the larger world, however, we will more frequently encounter people of different ideologies who may argue with us about what is true. If we do not fully understand the theology to which we ascribe, we will be unprepared to have these conversations with other people. But, when we do have an understanding of what different theologies teach, we will also have better reasoning for why our theology is true and evidence for why others are false. When we find ourselves in conversations with people who ascribe to different theologies, we will not be shaken in our beliefs by the arguments they bring against us, but we will be comfortable enough to engage in a dialogue without feeling that we cannot defend our beliefs.
We should also study theology in order to determine for ourselves whether or not the teachings of any one religion are actually true. Religions differ greatly on the answers to questions like, “what is our purpose for being” and “what happens to us upon our death;” the decision about whether or not we should follow a religion, and, if so, which one, is one of the most crucial decisions we can make. The more we study theology and engage with others working through the doubts and questions we have, the more information we will have about the different world religions and what they teach. From this position, we are more likely to make the right decision about what is true. We cannot rely merely on the word of others; we must fully understand not only the religion itself but also how it resonates with us personally and fits into our worldview. C.S. Lewis, a twentieth century Christian philosopher and writer said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”[vii] If a religion is true, everything about it should fit in with everything else we know, and may only just be learning, about the world around us. How can we know if this is the case, without fully understanding the teachings of that religion?
An understanding of different religions is also important in a world where theological beliefs enter into the political field on a regular basis, particularly as the world becomes increasingly globalized. We cannot leave our beliefs at the door when we enter into the political arena. Many conflicts across the globe have their basis in religion. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a pivotal political current event that many consider rooted, at its most basic level, in a conflict over the rights of certain religious groups and a struggle to control Jerusalem, the holy land.[viii] To best understand the conflict, we must understand the beliefs of the two groups and why the groups are willing to engage in such a protracted struggle over their beliefs. We may have a rough understanding of the other parts of the conflict without knowledge of the religious parties involved, but without grasping the religious elements, we cannot comprehend the entire picture. Additionally, extremist minorities in religious groups, such as Al Qaeda or the Westboro Baptist Church can be viewed as representatives of different theologies as a whole, yet do not accurately represent the beliefs, values, and practices that the religion champions.[ix] If we do not recognize that these factions stand apart from the beliefs of the groups as a whole, we risk rejecting faiths that actually teach the truth before we even have a chance to explore them.
So why would we want to wait until later to embark on such an important journey? There is no better time than right now to start this exploration. If we are rejecting religions based on the opinions or perspectives of others, or even our own incomplete perspective, then now is the time to remedy it, while we have the opportunity and tools. We never know when we will find ourselves in a situation where our beliefs are challenged and we have to defend them, both to other people and to our own consciences. We never know when something happening on the global political stage may have roots in religion. As students at Dartmouth College, we are not only in a position in which we are more likely to encounter both of these situations, but we are also in a place with extraordinary resources available to us. It will never be easier to engage with theology than right now, when we have classes, books, professors, and fellow students right at our fingertips. Starting now will prepare us to face these kinds of situations in the present, and also in the future when we leave Dartmouth and enter the world at large.
It may seem like a daunting task, especially if your goal is to know everything. In Hume’s Dialogues, Demea repeatedly argues that humans, with our limited mental capacities, can never truly know the nature of God.[x ] Maybe this is true. Coming to know or understand God is an eternal journey; He has perfect knowledge, we do not. But, we can hope that by continuing to strive towards perfect knowledge, we grow ever closer and the knowledge we do have begins to resemble that perfect knowledge as closely as possible. We may never know everything, but we do not need to, and the sooner we start, the further we will be able to get in our lifetime. We also notice different things as we continue to study and learn. The more time we spend engaging with any subject, the more things we see in a new light and think about differently. Over time we reach new levels of understanding and notice additional things about the same material we have been studying. Starting this process earlier allows us more time to grow and to reach deeper levels of thinking and understanding.
So again, why would we want to wait until later to embark on such an incredible journey? Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion presents a possible jumping off point for the next steps in studying and thinking about theology. While the Dialogues open with the question of when the study of theology should come in the course of a student’s education, the scope of the Dialogues expands beyond this question to explore further arguments for the existence of a Creator and attempt to decide whether or not we could ever come to know, even vaguely, the nature of such a being. If you want to learn more about God, evidence for his existence is as good a place as any to start. Hume’s Dialogues were written in 1776 from a general perspective, rather than one championing the view of any particular religion. There are countless other writings throughout history, representing countless different perspectives.
After looking at theology from a general perspective, we can begin exploring different religions in more depth. As the staff of the Apologia, we believe in the truth of Christianity and approach theology from a Christian perspective. But what we do and have always tried to do in the past is to study theology to gain a greater understanding of the questions we all deal with in our lives. We help, and are in turn helped by, each other in our own explorations of theology. Each of us has our own unique perspective to bring, new questions for us all to ask and new ideas that we can all learn from. In the words of Andrew Schuman, our first Editor-in-Chief:
We endeavor to think critically, question honestly, and link arms with anyone who searches for truth and authenticity. We don’t claim always to be right or to have all the answers. This is a journal of seekers, people who desire to love God with their minds as well as their hearts and souls. The Dartmouth Apologia does not exist to proselytize but to discuss, and I warmly invite you to join us in this discussion.[xi]
We are all asking ourselves the same questions, but we all have unique viewpoints, experiences, and resources to bring to the table. If we hope to come closer to finding answers to our questions in our lifetimes, we will be wise to work together.
- David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and Posthumous Essays (United States of America: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998).
- Hume, 3-4.Hume, 3.
- “Theology,” Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, 5 March 2014, <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology>.
- Kelly Kapic, A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012) 15-6.
- “Theology.” Weight of Glory(New York: HarperCollins, 1980) 140.
- “International Religious Freedom Report: Israel and the Occupied Territories,” United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (2002).
- Charles Kurzman. “Islamic Statements Against Terrorism” (University of North Carolina, 2012).
- Hume, 13.
- Andrew Schuman, “Letter from the Editor,” The Dartmouth Apologia 1 (2007).
Sara Holston ’17 is from Wayne, PA. She is a prospective Neuroscience major and English minor.
Image: Still Life with French Novels and Rose by Vincent van Gogh.Tags: apologetics, CS Lewis, Dartmouth College, history, Hume, philosophy, reason, religion, theology