“Why would a theologian have anything to contribute to any worthwhile discussion, on any subject whatsoever?”(1) So asks Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion. He further articulates his disgust for theology in his 2006 article in The Free Inquiry magazine:
“What has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? I have listened to theologians, read them, debated against them. I have never heard any of them ever say anything of the smallest use, anything that was not either platitudinously obvious or downright false. If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?”(2)
Dawkins scornfully dismisses not only theologians but the subject of theology, too. Francis Schaeffer similarly recalls in his book The God Who Is There meeting a successful young man when he was on a boat crossing the Mediterranean. “He was an atheist, and when he found out I was a pastor he anticipated an evening’s entertainment, so he started in.”(3) It seems not taking theologians seriously is hardly a new phenomenon. As a theologian, I might be tempted to respond to these provocations with the words of the Psalmist: The fool has said in his heart that there is no God. Nevertheless, skeptical commentators like Dawkins might also make me ask other questions. For instance, from where did people get the idea that theology is meaningless and also detached from other subjects? Do others think the same about theologians? Did the theological community contribute in any way to this impression? Are religious leaders guilty of indulging in spiritual talk entirely divorced from reality?
When the apostle Paul visited Athens “his spirit was provoked” as he observed the city full of idols. Nevertheless, when he addressed the Areogagus gathering he commended them for being a religious people. Having spent time understanding their religious and philosophical beliefs he begins his message by finding a bridge in their idolatry with “The unknown god.” He knew that bridges could not be built without starting at their end of the shore. And he knew their ideas and interests well enough to quote their own poets and prophets.
The Christian embodies theology in this world of commerce, science, philosophy, and the arts. It is a subject because of its Subject. Where Christianity is lived well, the charge that theologians can engage only in the pursuit of theology devoid of contemporary issues should sound false to the ears of this generation. For all truth is God’s truth. As hymn writer Maltbie Babcock wrote more than a century ago:
This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
he shines in all that’s fair;
in the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me everywhere.
Cyril Georgeson is a member of the speaking team with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Mumbai, India.
(1) Richard Dawkins as quoted in “What’s so heavenly about the God particle?” Newsweek, January 2, 2012.
(2) Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology,” Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 2.
(3) Francis Shaeffer, The God Who Is There in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 68.