[ by Charles Cameron — moving from magic to sacrament and from word to world — with implications for the study of terrorism and torture ]
Tara Isabella Burton, in a recent Atlantic article Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God, nailed it, in my personal opinion:
But the dwindling role of theology among the liberal arts is a paradigmatic example of dispensing with the baby along with the bathwater.
And she goes on to add:
To study theology well requires not faith, but empathy.
Here’s where things begin to get interesting. Because Ms Burton goes on to explain why that might be the case, first in terms of her own experience:
The BA I did at Oxford was a completely secular program, attracting students from all over the religious spectrum. My classmates included a would-be priest who ended up an atheist, as well as a militant atheist now considering the priesthood. During my time there, I investigated Ancient Near Eastern building patterns to theorize about the age of a settlement; compared passages of the gospels (in the original Greek) to analogous passages in the Jewish wisdom literature of the 1st century BC; examined the structure of a 14th-century Byzantine liturgy; and read The Brothers Karamazov as part of a unit on Christian existentialism.
Then, more generally, in terms of the skillset Theology requires:
As Oxford’s Dr. William Wood, a University Lecturer in Philosophical Theology and my former tutor, puts it: “theology is the closest thing we have at the moment to the kind of general study of all aspects of human culture that was once very common, but is now quite rare.” A good theologian, he says, “has to be a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, a skillful interpreter of texts both ancient and modern, and probably many other things besides.” In many ways, a course in theology is an ideal synthesis of all other liberal arts: no longer, perhaps, “Queen of the Sciences,” but at least, as Wood terms it, “Queen of the Humanities.”
And finally in a way which makes sense to me, as an analyst of contemporary religious violence with a theological background:
Such precision may seem — to the religious person and agnostic alike — no more useful than counting the number of angels on the head of a pin. But for me, it allowed me access into the fundamental building blocks of the mentality, say, of a 12th-century French monk, or a mystic from besieged Byzantium. While the study of history taught me the story of humanity on a broader scale, the study of theology allowed me insight into the minds and hearts, fears and concerns, of those in circumstances were so wildly different from my own…
when scores of people were willing to kill or die to defend such beliefs — hardly a merely historical phenomenon — it’s worth investigating how and why such beliefs infused all aspects of the world of their believers.
If history and comparative religion alike offer us perspective on world events from the “outside,” the study of theology offers us a chance to study those same events “from within”: an opportunity to get inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history, and who — in the world outside the ivory tower — still shape plenty of the world
This, I think, is what makes Marina Warner, whom I quoted in my previous post On Magic, so strong a writer — as she puts it:
I lost my faith a long time ago, but the experience of having once believed, and rather fervently too, underlies my sense of words’ power to heal as well as to harm.
This kind of understanding, it seems to be, is an invaluable — and rare — commodity in the community of analysts. And it is also this kind of understanding which gives us such invaluable works as Joseba Zulaika’s Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament, and William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ.
Dana Gioia, poet, critic, and recent Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, made some relevant comments in his piece, The Catholic Writer Today, in First Things. I’ll limit myself to two snippets from section VII of an essay that’s worth reading in toto…
Catholicism rightly revels in its theological and philosophical prowess, which is rooted in two millennia of practice and mastery. Theology is important, but formal analytical thought — the splendeur et misère of Roman Catholicism — is not the primary means by which most people experience, accept, or reject a religious faith. They experience the mysteries of faith (or fail to) in the fullness of their humanity — through their emotions, imagination, and senses as well as their intellect.
Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas. The loss of great music, painting, architecture, poetry, sculpture, fiction, and theater has limited the ways in which the Church speaks to people both within and beyond the faith.
That’s quite a roll-call – but it’s not ecumenical, and so it omits Lutheran Johann Sebastian Bach, Orthodox Andrei Rublev – and, from an analytic point of view perhaps more interestingly, the great poets, mystics, philosophers and others who have made Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism into such powerful drivers of both quietism and activism – of passion, dispassion and compassion…
… to comprehend the feelings of those who attend the Ta’zieh (passion plays) of Najaf and Tehran… or the Passionspiele (in many ways, so similar) of Oberammergau:
— or to follow the complex, laughing, paradoxical humor of a Chuang Tzu.
I keep saying that Bach and his music, Shakespeare and his plays, have something hugely significant to teach us about the contrapuntal understanding of the multi-voiced world we live in — IMO the sacramental worldview has something no less important to tell us about the profundities and intensities of human feeling and commitment.
And of the eventual translucence and transfiguration of the world.