Why theology matters even if there’s no god

Even if there is no god theology still offers great insight into modern thinking.

Last week perhaps the greatest theologian of the last 50 years, Munich University's Wolfhart Pannenberg, died.

It's as good a time as any, then, to offer a brief defence of this “queen of the sciences” against the taunts of atheists like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, who say that theology is not even a “subject”, let alone a discipline in a modern university. After all, there's probably no god!

Although I have an undergraduate degree in theology, I am no theologian. “Theology” proper – one of about 12 subjects in a modern Bachelor of Theology – was my worst subject. I was better at Greek, New Testament, philosophy, and church history. I found theology difficult, even daunting, which is probably why I pursued postgraduate study in ancient history, instead.

I have found ancient history much easier – as a discipline – than theology. Why? Because theology incorporates pretty much all of the basic skills of the historian plus a ton more. Today's professional theologian will have a good knowledge of ancient languages, including Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as full reading fluency in modern English and German (a requirement for all theologians today, regardless of nationality).

Not only must they be across the history of both the Old and New Testaments – that's ancient near eastern history and Graeco-Roman history – they will have a thorough knowledge of church history, that is, the history of thought from Augustine, through Aquinas, to the modern day greats like Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Colin Gunton, Miroslav Volf, and the incomparable Wolfhart Pannenberg.

That's just the beginning.

Virtually all academic theologians today have advanced training in philosophy. They are happy to talk to you about how the Aristotelian world view established and impeded medieval learning, or why empiricism flourished in 15th-16th century Europe under the influence of Augustinianism, or how the latest philosophy of mind impacts the Western notion of the “person”. I only know enough of these things to mention them, briefly, in an opinion piece, but my theologian friends could write you an essay and prepare you a reading list on all these topics and more.

Some of the best theologians today also have expert knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. Yes, science. When my atheist friends have challenged me over the years about the “conflict” between science and Christianity, I've usually directed them to the three-volume Systematic Theology by Pannenberg, where readers will find an interlocutor thoroughly at ease with the questions thrown up by modern physics and biology.

More recently, I've been recommending A Scientific Theology (again in three volumes) by Alister McGrath, an Oxford theologian with a doctorate in biochemistry and another in historical theology, both from Oxford.

Practically no important field is untouched by the discipline of theology. How does brain science challenge the Western notion of the self? How was the Graeco-Roman notion of honour subverted by the New Testament emphasis on humility? In what ways do ancient and modern notions of martyrdom differ? How does the doctrine of the Trinity find expression in some of the great classical composers? How does time relate to eternity? What does quantum mechanics say about the notion of divine freedom, and vice-versa? Can innate human rights be grounded without a theistic framework? How does the biblical view of forgiveness contribute to modern attempts at reconciliation? All of these and more are proper theological topics.

All of this is why the quip of Richard Dawkins that theology is not a discipline because there's probably no god clearly misses the mark, and why Lawrence Krauss's “challenge” to name one contribution to knowledge offered by theology entirely misses the point.

Theology is perhaps the most comprehensive integrative discipline around. It explores all important forms of human knowledge and probes how they shed light on Christian belief and, indeed, how Christian belief might shed light on them. And given that more than two billion people today identify as Christian, these attempts to integrate human knowledge are perfectly relevant and academically sound.

Christian belief is a fact; it is a phenomenon of the real world – just as Australian history is, or Shakespearean literature, or Aristotelian philosophy, or feminist studies, or anthropology, or musicology.

A true giant of human inquiry died last week. And the fact that many will never have heard of Wolfhart Pannenberg does not mean that his contribution to the life of the mind – through his countless students at Munich, as well as through his hundreds of published books and essays in multiple languages – is not truly significant. His mark on theology, like theology's mark on Western thought, is profound.

Even if there is no god, in other words, theology remains one of the most subtle and sophisticated academic pursuits on the planet.

Dr John Dickson is an author and historian and is the Founding Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article originally appeared at The Drum.