In a recent piece entitled “Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God,” Tara Isabella Burton claims that theology is worth taking seriously, even for people who don’t believe in God. For theology students whose degrees don’t even merit a mention on most business magazines’ lists of most useless degrees, Burton’s article may provide a sense of validation that theology is in fact worth studying. (One can only imagine how many times the article has been e-mailed to skeptical friends and family members.)
But the title of Burton’s article is something of a misnomer. For Burton, theology isn’t inherently valuable as theology. “If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the ‘outside,’” Burton claims, “the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events ‘from within.’” Burton’s argument is that people who aren’t religious can benefit from studying theology because it asks the reader to take on the perspective of another, to read “as if I were…” or “as if I believed…” Theology is not valuable because of its area of concern. Instead, it is valuable because the study of theology “requires not faith, but empathy.”
That’s a different claim to make. And it makes a different claim on the reader, especially for those who are students of theology. Burton’s argument is explicitly addressed to those who don’t believe in God, but it is implicitly addressed to those who do as well. What can they do to increase their capacity for empathy? The answer, I believe, is more engagement with comparative religious studies and the history of theology.
Comparative religious studies, which Burton notes is the norm for religious study in American universities now, helps us see ourselves as others see us. If theology is discourse about God, religious studies is discourse about discourse about God. That kind of second-order thinking helps us get outside of our own experience to view faith communities without the unwritten ideas and traditions that we often take for granted. There is immense value in understanding ourselves not only within our own traditions but from outside of them as well. To use Burton’s language, we can’t understand what’s true “from within” unless we also understand it “from the outside.”
Another route to empathy lies in studying the history of theology, not just theology itself. Empathy is not only about understanding how our contemporaries think, but about how previous generations thought as well. The most important question to ask here is, “What was the biggest problem they were trying to address?” Studying the history of theology helps us see that all of our traditions have blind spots that keep us from addressing the questions others see as critical to theology. (Liberation theology’s critique of Continental theology’s views on human agency is a good example of such a question.) Studying the history of theology makes us acknowledge our own blind spots as well. It is only with that kind of self-critical understanding that we can start to empathize with others.
Students of theology will likely welcome Burton’s thoughts on the value of theology. But to accept Burton’s argument, we also have to ask something of ourselves: to try to understand others just as they seek to understand us. That’s not quite as easy as suggesting everyone study theology, but it will do a lot more good.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Paulo Ordoveza