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Theology is God-talk

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

I’ve very grateful for all of the on- and off-blog posts to me about the question of evil. It is gratifying to know that I’m being read. Before we go deeper into specific subjects, I want to take a step back and gain some perspective on our project. This blog is an experiment in what is technically called Systematic Theology. It is systematic in that it endeavors to cover core issues pertaining to a religious tradition, here Pagan, in an orderly, coherent, where appropriate rational, and hopefully complete way. This is different from Practical Theology, which has to do with applying theology to life (although we’ll do some of that too). Practical theology has a variety of sub-disciplines like pastoral, political or liturgical theologies, dealing with theology in the context of the practitioner’s service to a population, or in application to political or social discourse, or with respect to ritual practice, respectively. But now, I want to talk about the idea of theology itself.

Theology is God-talk. It is a relatively recent discipline. They did not have this in ancient, pre-Christian times. They did philosophy and that served in the same role as what will become theology. When you wanted to discuss what is meant by myth and ritual, or what the world is, or how life should be lived, this was called by Pythagorus first ‘philosophy’, or the love of wisdom. Those called the ‘theo-logoi’ in the ancient world where the poets like Homer and Orpheus, and but at times even Empedocles and Plato, because according to Porphyry, they wrote allegorically and had hidden meaning in their writings, not because they wrote rationally. Philosophy had the exegetical task of trying to tease out the meaning buried in the poem and dialogues. The philosophers therefor developed methods for interpreting the poems and myths created by the theologians and developed all the major categories of what will become theological discourse, as well as the culture to critique them.

But this term ‘theologian’ was taken away from the poets and philosophers with the rise of Christianity to power and given to the Patriarch, Bishops and Doctors of the Church, those who create doctrine. What happened in this process was the subordination of philosophical discipline and reason to scripture and political necessity. By Christianity wedding itself to the Empire, it became a powerful and necessary force in political as well as religious discourse, leading to the Theodosius Edicts of 389 to 391, outlawing traditional religion.

It was necessary for the Church to develop ‘theology’ as a new kind of discipline in order to have the means to render Christian doctrine palatable to the minds of its day. For example Christology: the wholly man and wholly God doctrine violates the laws of logic, or explaining religiously the outcomes of political decisions: ex opere operato, dismissing the crisis created by the Donatist heresy). In each case the bounds of reason and critical thought were overthrown in favor of the Church and Empire’s authority. The skills and tools of the philosophers were crushed under the oppressive weight of scripture and dogmatic authority. Theologically this is called bibliolitry, the worship of a book. Today if you look up Systematic or Practical theology in Wikipedia you will see that they are considered Christian disciplines. The ancient tool makers are forgotten.

Nonetheless, humans being what they are, over time this ersatz theology developed a rich analytical and constructive discourse and remains as an important body of work and practice which we, today’s Pagans, and benefit from. The Christian theologians forged tools and techniques which we can find valuable. It is ironic, for them, that many of these tools were first created by the pre-Christian philosophers and then used or misused to create Christian Theology. So, what would be Pagan Theology?

Theology in practice is the engagement with meaning and values with respect to that which we consider the Divine. For Evangelical or Main-line Churches or Sects, theology means the set of answers to fundamental questions formed within the boundaries of the authoritative sources of the sect, such as scripture, church teaching or tradition. Christian theologians from this end of the religion are taught these answers and how to defend them, which is called, tellingly, apologetics. This kind of theology is twice useless to Pagans in that both the answers and the method is bad. We don’t have the same need to validate the Christian text-myth complex, nor do we relate to authority in the same way. Some of this is simply because we do not have the same relationship with the governmental power structure that Christianity has.

There is another approach to theology that has the promise of being useful to Pagans. It is that kind developed in the so-called ‘Liberal’ theological space of the Unitarian Universalists and some Congregationalists, as well as some seminaries like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, The Schools of Divinity at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and Heidelberg University in Germany. In these spaces, theology is not a collection of answers to be learned and defended. ‘Liberal Theology’ is the theology of questions. In this case the authority lies in the one asking the question, and with the notion that both the priesthood and the prophethood of all believers roots the satisfaction of the answer with the one asking. Liberal theology is formulated on the idea that the questions are to be answered by each person. This leads to a radically different dynamic: the questions are the keys and discussion leads to a plurality of responses, all of which are valid, even it not satisfactory to everyone.

On the practical side this comes down to ~seven core theological questions and we discussed these a small bit in my 2nd post, the one on Religion and Spirituality. But besides the content of these issues, we then find ourselves asking the important process question: How would we know what answers we can consider valid? What sources of authority are meaningful? Likewise, how are these questions to be found in our lives and what forms do the answers take?

Naturally, as you can see from the forgoing, this means I can’t really do theology for you. You have to answer your questions for yourself. What I can do is help you develop your questions, expose you to answers ancient and modern that others have given to them and the tools they used to do so, and likewise create a context for discussion amongst everyone interested so that we can all learn from each other. At most I can share what I think about the subjects at hand and tell you why those answers satisfy me. This is how we will DO theology, not just learn it. If you want to do theology, especially in a leadership position int he Pagan community, your job will be to learn the differing ways folks have dealt with the very issues you have, and after seeing the range of responses, and the breadth of the tools applied, begin to formulate your own positions. The the job is to lead and inform the discussion in your own community. If we were learning to do this in a class on Pagan theology, you would write up, present and defend your positions as a way of learning to think, speak and listen theologically. I’m sure I would enjoy doing that with any of you.

So, next post: real God-talk. What are the God/desses and why we should care.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Christine Kraemer
    Christine Kraemer Saturday, 20 October 2012

    Sam, I'm delighted to see you writing on this topic. I have an introduction to Pagan theology coming out from Patheos Press this fall; it's less a statement of my personal theology than an overview of theological viewpoints in contemporary Paganism today (I'm tackling the personal theology elsewhere ;> ). I only wish I'd had more opportunity to draw on this blog before turning in the manuscript!

    I agree very much that theology is an activity and a process. Perhaps spreading that perspective more widely in Paganism will help to address Pagans' resistance to theology as a concept.

    Hope to dialogue with you more as you get into the meat of these issues.

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