“Theology in the Current Political Climate”

Martha Stortz

An apology for theology—and a challenge to theologians

An old saw says that truth is the first casualty of war, and that insight applies equally to wars of words. Journalists are already tallying total references to the buzz-words that dominated the convention floors in New York and Boston, and we will have witnessed slogan-slinging in a season of debates and speechifying. I worry about one word that journalists have played fast and loose with: the word “theology.” Throughout the campaign, both journalists and politicians have cavalierly invoked “theology” and words from the language of faith—and without any real appreciation for what these words mean.

Information passed off as “fact” without adequate substantiation gets branded as “faith-based intelligence.” “Divine revelation” designates one of the current president’s personal reasons for the war in Iraq: direct counsel from a “Father” other than his biological father, Bush 41. The drive to spread democracy throughout the Middle East and Central Asia becomes a campaign of “evangelism.” “Political gospel” identifies the ideological platform of any given interest group, pointing to unquestioned and unquestionable governing presuppositions. In the media, theology and its cognate terms have come to signify any way of thinking that is unnuanced, absolutistic, and black-and-white. God-talk has come to mean group-think and group-speak. How did this happen?

Theologians have not been served well by politicians who arrogantly invoke religious terms for political ends. I cringed to hear talk of an “axis of evil,” not because of the countries included but because of the certainty behind the statement. Who can judge such things but God? Then, why these oracular pronouncements from a mere mortal? Then from the same crowd so quick to demonize certain sovereign states, there was an effort to shrug off abuse at Abu Ghraib. This choreographed violation of human rights was not “evil,” but rather a series of random acts on the part of a few rogue soldiers. Alas! In the hands of politicians, talk of good and evil renders some folks all justus and never peccator—and all the rest hopelessly and irredeemably peccator.

Even more disturbing than the cheapening of theology is the silence of theologians, as if we were ashamed to claim the proper use of the language of faith. I for one want to end the silence: I’m “outting” myself as a theologian and starting a campaign of my own to reclaim the rich discourse of theology.

The “theology” I see vilified in public is not something I recognize as “theology.” Nor would Peter Abelard, the great scholastic theologian who taught at the cathedral school in Paris. Unhappily, he is more remembered for being castrated than for being on the cutting edge of twelfth century theology. His textbook, Sic et Non, presented competing opinions from scripture and the voices of the church fathers. Abelard offered these opposing views without judgment; they were subject to interrogation and internal debate. A century later, Thomas Aquinas presented theology as a “divine science,” a discipline worthy of study alongside other sciences of medicine, physics, and law in the greatest universities of that time. He systematized the questions of theology and organized various possible answers from classical and Christian traditions. As he weighed each question, he sifted evidence for and against a particular position, gave his own interpretation, and addressed all possible counter-arguments. The Angelic Doctor may not have always been right, but he argues so carefully that his interlocutor knows precisely where she must part company. Moreover, Thomas treat his opponents with a contagious respect, and the reader closes his Summa Theologiae educated to judge on her own, rather than indoctrinated with a batch of easy slogans.

For these and other great medieval theologians, “theology” defined a realm of lively, critical conversation, where questions were raised to be debated and not dismissed, where every article of faith could be argued fiercely because it was articulated clearly. Theology as we know it distinguished itself as a science marked by excellence, erudition, and unstinting probity.

Why does theology get such a bad rap in the media today? First, I suspect real theological discourse is too nuanced for contemporary political debate. Political questions are charged, and anyone responding with Abelard’s “yes and no” or Karl Barth’s “yes, but…” (ja, aber…) would be branded too indecisive for today’s political tastes. The attention span of this electorate seems long enough for a quick sound byte. “Yes” or “no” will suffice: no explanations needed, no qualifications allowed. Don’t even think about arguing in elegant paragraphs the way the British do in the House of Commons, as they grill their Prime Minister on every aspect of the job. Note that the PM doesn’t get the questions beforehand, and he isn’t allowed to silence strident voices or freeze out difficult interrogators.

But I question whether real democracy can flourish without substantial political literacy and sustained political debate. And I long for a Summa Politicae which would give citizens the basic knowledge of government and the basic tools for argument.

Second, I fear that mainstream Christians have been shy about speaking up in public. Perhaps we are anxious about mixing church and state; perhaps we have some misguided doctrine of the two kingdoms that instructs us to split off public from private life—and leave religion in the private realm. We shy, retiring Christians have unwittingly ceded the public realm to religious voices who will speak up there, and the Religious Right has effectively become the political mouthpiece of Christianity. Because that voice has been strident and unapologetic, the rest of us are afraid to show our true colors.

But wouldn’t some serious theological debate on the stem cell controversy or gay marriage be a breath of fresh air? Theology acknowledges competing sources from the outset—and struggles to find the grain of truth in even an opponent’s position. I long for the return of charity and compromise in political discourse—and I believe we could learn a lot about both from serious theologians.

Finally, I know that we live in a time when religion is seen as the source of greatest violence in the world today, from Israel to Indonesia to the World Trade Center. The world’s hot-spots offer mute testimony to the dark heart of the world’s great religions: Bosnia, India and Pakistan, northern Ireland, the Sudan, the Middle East. When religion becomes a seedbed for hatred, theology is inevitably regarded as the rationalization of bigotry and the justification of uncritical beliefs. Secular reason emerges as the only antidote to people who kill in the name of God, and secularism is seen as the rightful successor to theology.

I lament this move, because secular reason has its own blind spots, one of the greatest being its failure to appreciate the power of religion. Theology does not make that mistake—but theology must recover its edge. Properly understood and critically applied, theology is not an enemy, but an agent of hope. Indeed, it may be our only hope. Theology protects us from the excesses of religion. In its form, it practices a discourse that is critical and self-critical. In its content, it proclaims that we are all sinners, therefore all equally capable of making terrible mistakes. It claims that we are all children of the same God, however we approach this mystery at the heart of being. Finally, it challenges the human tendency to play God—and points us to the real thing.