Terry Sanderson is president of Britain’s National Secular Society, so it is hardly news that he has little time for the efforts of theologians. Writing in The Guardian [London], Sanderson dismisses theology as a form of knowledge. Theologians may talk, he suggests, but they are really not saying anything.
In his words, “theology is drivel.” Thus, any attention given to theology - even to refute it - is just wasted effort. Efforts to understand theology are “hopeless,” he insists.
In order to bolster his claim, Sanderson cites the late science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote, “Theology . . . is searching in a dark cellar at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there. Theologians can persuade themselves of anything.”
Sanderson also calls H. L. Mencken to testify: “For centuries, theologians have been explaining the unknowable in terms of the-not-worth-knowing.”
Well, at least he didn’t equivocate. Heinlein and Mencken had their say, and to their assessments of theology Sanderson adds his own: “Theology is an excuse for grown men to spend their lives trying to convince themselves, and others, that ridiculous fairy tales are true.”
Sanderson doesn’t even believe in the so-called “big questions” about life and its meaning. “My problem is these questions don’t have a answer,” he asserts, “no matter how long you think about them and however much you try to bring God into the equation.” Sanderson prefers Gertrude Stein’s succinct worldview: “The answer is: there is no answer.”
And yet, for someone who says theology is not worth reading, he seems to have at least made some effort to read the works of Rowan Williams, who was an academic theologian before becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. Sanderson goes so far as to cite a rather lengthy paragraph from one of Williams’ sermons. Williams, he concedes, is thought to be intelligent. “He is said to have a brain the size of Jupiter because he can produce convoluted writing that nobody with their feet in reality can comprehend.”
Williams, whose tepid leadership of the Anglican Communion and refusal to call liberal churches in the United States and Canada to account has brought his communion to the point of break-up, is quite capable of writing incomprehensible prose. That skill is shared by far too many academics in every field. But Sanderson’s central point is not that this particular theologian is incomprehensible, but that theology itself is incomprehensible, and that is a very different matter.
Theology is worse than useless, he complains, because it contains no knowledge. He compared theology to modern science: “If science disappeared from human memory, we would soon be living in caves again. If theology disappeared from human memory, no one would notice.”
Now, a careful thinker might quickly point out the illogical and absurd argument Sanderson makes here. By simple logical fact, no one notices what one has forgotten - otherwise one has not forgotten. But Sanderson’s main point is clear enough.
On the one hand, what makes Terry Sanderson’s argument so untenable is the fact that one cannot explain human history in general, and the history of Western civilization in particular, without endless reference to the fact that human beings have indeed believed in God and that these beliefs did and do matter. Like it or not, one cannot explain our culture and civilization without constant reference to theology.
But Sanderson’s larger point is more serious and important. He is truly certain that theology has no claim upon knowledge. In other words, theologians are not talking about any reality. Theology is just a mind game played by individual theologians or theological communities.
Oddly enough, Sanderson’s argument is championed by some within the theological academy. A good many radical and revisionist theologians openly accept Sanderson’s claims. They, too, argue that theology offers no knowledge, only potential meaning. Their God is not a self-revealing, self-existent person, but a symbol or a literary character.
Feminist theologian Janet Martin Soskice describes theological realists as “those who, while aware of the inability of any theological formulation to catch the divine realities, none the less accept that there are divine realities that theologians, however ham-fistedly, are trying to catch.” In other words, she is explaining to her readers that when some theologians speak of God, they really believe that there is a God of whom they are speaking.
It says a very great deal about the state of so much academic theology today that Soskice had to explain that some theologians really believe that there is a God and that we can truly know him.
Far too many academic theologians are in basic agreement with Terry Sanderson, but they take their paychecks and attend their academic meetings anyway. For them, theology is just one more discipline in the theory-laden world of the modern academy.
But if theologians are not making a claim to knowledge - if theology is just looking for a non-existent black cat in a dark room - then shut it all down and spend the money on something useful.
Authentic Christian theology begins and ends with the knowledge of God - a true knowledge that God has graciously revealed to us in his Word. Without the gift of God’s self-revelation, we would be groping in that dark room for a black cat. However, the fact that God has revealed himself changes everything.
The true and living God desires to be known and has made himself known. That makes all the difference. True theology is not explaining the unknowable, but coming to know the God who wants us to know him. Theology is about knowledge - indeed, about the knowledge that matters most of all.
Don’t worry about the black cat in the dark room. Our task is to know, serve, and worship the God who is there, and has made himself known.