You have nice manners for a liar and a thief (Smaug in the Hobbit)
A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.
The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).
The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.
When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).
So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)
This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what if you don’t believe in Jesus?
Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.
He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).
Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic, wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).
Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)
But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.
The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.
St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.
It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.
Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.
Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.