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Theology as the Supspension of Disbelief

Trying to define theology will always be perhaps the biggest theological task that theologians undertake.  More often than not major disagreements in theology often come back to central divergences in the self-understanding(s) of what theology is.  While this “wrangling over words” will certainly never come to an end, I have a proposal for how theology might be helpfully understood, or at least helpfully described.

I believe that theology is the suspension of disbelief in light of God’s action in the world.  Skepticism and demythologization are the essence of atheology.  To be a theologian, one must respond to what seem to be miracles in this world as though they truly are miracles for which no other explanation can be given.  In fact theology is the absolute refusal to offer a final “explanation” of anything at all.

Theology suspends “rational” disbelief by doxologically exulting in what God has in fact done among us.  Theology is what Ricouer would call a form of “second naivete” in which we passively allow ourselves to be drawn into the post-critical joy of doxology and feasting rather than attemping to assimilate the wonders before us into an atheological “explanation” of our world.

As such, theology is the absolute embrace of an enchanted view of the world in light of God.  Theology requires us to respond to God’s action in the world in faith and thus, we must confess the world as the location of the riches of divine grace, life, and abundance.  Theology forbids us to ever enter into mechanistic calculations or formulations that could render the miracles of God intelligible.  Theology requires, rather that we suspend our refined and cultured disbelief and join with the trees of the field in clapping our hands for joy at what God has done.

Theology calls us to believe in a world that defies calculation.  A world in which the barren woman becomes the mother of children.  In which enemies feast together at a table of peace.  In which the dead are raised.  In which the things that are despised and rejected bring to nothing the thind that are high and lifted up.  In which those in the ash heap are lifted up and seated with the princes.  Theology calls us to believe that every mountain shall be leveled and every valley raised up.  It calls us to abandon our management of the world on the basis of an epistemology of domination and control.  It presents us with mysteries - the mystery of resurrection and exodus – which cannot be explained or assimilated.  Not if they are, in fact the happening of God among us. 

Theology is the refusal to disbelieve.  It insists that water runs downhill because it loves running downhill.  That birds sing to each other because they cannot stop laughing.  That apples fall downward because the world is magical.  This is the world into which theology invites us to come and play, to eat and be satisfied. 

It may be that this is far too stupid and nonsensical a vision of theology to do the heavy lifting that we all think theology should do.  But I don’t care.  At the end of the day, all theologians ask the world to believe in miracles.  No matter what syllogisms and summas we construct, at the end of all things we either end up apostatizing into atheism or expositing the Song of Songs on our deathbed.  All theology, no matter how rhetorically brilliant and philosophically compelling ultimate asks all people everywhere to believe that God is not the explanation for all things, but the end of all explanations.  Theology is the call to suspend our disbelief, throw off our cultured despising and be drawn into never-ending singing and dancing.

16 Comments

  1. roflyer wrote:

    I love this, Halden.

    Especially this paragraph:

    “Theology is the refusal to disbelieve. It insists that water runs downhill because it loves running downhill. That birds sing to each other because they cannot stop laughing. That apples fall downward because the world is magical. This is the world into which theology invites us to come and play, to eat and be satisfied.”

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  2. WTM wrote:

    I’m not a big fan. This sounds like the sort of romantic definition of theology that one might find somewhere in the 18th century; or the well meaning offering of an atheist philosopher who nonetheless likes certain Christian people and ideas.

    Give me theology as a science and, therefore, as a discipline of true knowledge of God, self, and world.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 11:21 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Well, I’d be lying if I said Chesterton wasn’t a big influence on me here.

    I suppose history will be the judge. And as I alluded to in the post, it was Aquinas, perhas the most “scientific” of theologians who ended up expositing the Song of Songs on his deathbed and declaring everything else wood, hay, and stubble.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 11:27 am | Permalink
  4. WTM wrote:

    I’m not particularly fond of that bit of Thomas. ;-)

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  5. I am a bit concerned by what some things in your post might imply, and wonder whether you could clarify what you meant by them. For instance, in talking about embracing the world as ‘enchanted’, that could easily be regarded not as a renewed appreciation for older ways of speaking and thinking, but a return to superstition and/or animism. For some, belief in a creator God leads to a disenchanted view of the world.

    I was also troubled by your characterization of demythologization as “atheology”. I disagree with plenty of Bultmann’s views on a number of subjects, but I think his approach, which he called ‘demythologization’, was absolutely asking the right questions. Does one have to accept a first century pre-scientific worldview in order to be a Christian? If not, then how do we translate the message so that people hear it in appropriate ways in the context of our scientific worldview?

    http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/11/some-disenchanted-evening.html

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Hi James,

    As to “enchantment”. I would challenge in the strongest possible terms the idea that the pre-modern world was an enchanted place and that our modern world has arrived at a place of “disenchantment”. That idea is basically Max Weber’s contention in his narrative of the rise of modern capitalism. Eugene McCarraher has done a good job of dismantling it (see his, “The Enchantments of Mammon”). The problem is not that we have two views of the world, one arcane and enchanted and the other modern and disenchanted. The problem is that we have two competing mythos’ which vie for our loyalty. The modern masquerades as a disenchanted narrative, when in fact it is ripe with a whole array of gods, demons, sorcerers, and damsels in distress. As such I think the alternative between a “disenchanted” and an “enchanted” view of the world is a false one. Everyone believes in some fashion that the world is an enchanted place…or they kill themselves.

    As to “demythologization”. In the first place I would question the idea that there ever was some stable entity called the “first century pre-scientific worldview”. The Christian message of the crucified and risen Christ was as much a scandal to the premodern world as it is to the modern (“Foolishness to the Greeks…”). I don’t think some smooth synthesis of Christian theology with a contructed notion of the “premodern worldview” ever existed. Christianity has always found itself at variance with the “wider wisdom” whether in the modern or premodern age.

    I guess my fundamental point is that I resist giving the “modern scientific worldview” (if such a thing as that really exists) some sort of autonomy in legitimating theology’s truth claims. I don’t think this requires me to question belief in a round earth, not because “modern science” has told me how to do my theology, but because theology, rightly practiced isn’t about making geological claims.

    I don’t know if that will really satisfy you, but that’s pretty much what I think. Thanks for the comment.

    -Halden

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  7. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Oooooo…this is heavenly stuff. And right brained.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Well done and very Chestertonian. I wouldn’t say you’ve exhausted the meaning of theology (and I’m sure you wouldn’t either), but this is an important aspect upon which to reflect.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Andy wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    I like it…and I don’t. My first thought was that theology is precisely belief, not the suspension of disbelief. I would like to think that belief is primary, not disbelief, for the theologian. While I recognize we live in a culture of disbelief, the radically enchanted vision of the theologian does not come from the active restraint of disbelief, but the active joy of belief. It’s not a childish naivite, but neither need it be a post-critical naivite. In fact, it need not be naivite.

    On the other hand, I absolutely think (with Schleiermacher, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis) that there is a certain magical quality to the Christian universe. But then, Travis and James make some good points as well. I think perhaps you have leaned too much toward the either/or–either aesthetic/poetic or rational/calculated. The great promise of Aquinas is that he did both! The greatest meters of theology reveal that it is both science and art, both awe and calculation.

    I do worry that if we cling to the ideas that water runs downhill because it likes to, we will become more superstitious than our “premodern” forbears. It is as valid and perhaps a more beautiful way of seeing the world. I certainly would rather see “water” than “dihydrogen oxide.” Even so, we need not deny that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

    Faith and reason are not opposites, nor need they be divided.

    Your thoughts on demythologization are really good. Its remarkable that such a fine thinker as Bultmann should have so many problems actually processing early thinkers. He was asking the right questions IF we allow his premise that modern thinkers are really so much different from ancient ones. But that’s where he was wrong. Even Strauss and Baur were not that naive.

    Thanks,
    Andy

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Andy, thanks for those points. I agree that we must not simply define theology as the suspension of disbelief. My point in emphasizing that aspect of things is that entering into the task of theology is always a process of turning from falsehood to truth. Or, to put it in biblical parlance, we must repent and believe in the gospel. The turning from always precedes and acompanies the turning towards. But these should not be set in opposition to each other.

    Oh, and Roger, I don’t think anyone has ever called me right-brained before! I must be growing.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
  11. chris wrote:

    Well, I got a lot out of it and I wasn’t thinking Chesterton. I’ve been studying the theology of the “Powers” in Berkhof, Marva Dawn, and Stringfellow and these words reminded me that Jesus Victory over the Powers is dead serious even as it’s completely absurd to my western mind. Thanks.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    I think that this is apt engagement for where we find ourselves today; that theology begins with a vigorous, joyful faith that laughs at all of the joyless henpecking done in the name of “reason.”

    I would also note that this isn’t an abandonment of reason, it is the dethroning of Reason (capitalized!)–that false god that pretends to be the Most High and poses as un-faith (while telling the most enchanted stories).

    Faith, delight, joy, wonder. These are the propellants for reason, the reason our mind sends out its probes to make sense of this world that never makes complete sense. That’s the wonder of it all.

    Tuesday, November 27, 2007 at 10:58 pm | Permalink
  13. Matt wrote:

    Halden, FYI: I nominated you for a subversive blogger award, a new meme.

    My post is at http://mattcleaver.com/2007/11/27/the-subversive-blogger-award/ and the meme started at http://www.jakebouma.com/2007/11/26/the-subversive-blogger-awards/.

    I’ve enjoyed reading the blog, keep it up.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 9:50 am | Permalink
  14. Jon wrote:

    I love the definition of a theologian as one who “contemplates God”. Theology as spirituality, rather than academia. It seems that in the West, theology has come to mean to pontificate on some matter; whereas in the East theology means to pray. In the West theology is the possession of the university; in the East theology is the possession of the monastery.

    Theology as academia can only go so far. As academia, however, the Mysteries seem to become and remain dry bits of information, stuff to be memorized and written on tests–formula and rhetoric. Theology as spirituality must take us the rest of the way, where the Mysteries become interwoven into the very fabric of who we are as Christian persons and become inseparable truths in and with the world around us.

    The Incarnation can not remain merely a piece of doctrinal formula only useful as dry information, if it does remain that it becomes a powerless, meaningless and rather silly idea. The Incarnation as foundational truth reverberating in everything around us and within ourselves as we, under the Spirit’s power and direction are brought into the depths of God and toward closer proximity to the Incarnate One Himself, this Mystery now has taken hold of us and makes us in its image.

    Another difference, I suppose, would be saying between the goal of the two ways of seeing theology, is it the scholar’s gown or is Theosis? I think to take theology seriously mean to see the point of theology as being Theosis.

    Wednesday, November 28, 2007 at 10:44 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the award, Matt!

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    Jon,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your ultimate assessment of the ultimate end of theology. I think it is important to note, however, that the relationship between theology and academia is not a bad one, per se. It is that theology now situates itself within a secular academy as one of a number of epistemologically equivalent discourses (at least in the lamentable instances). The true heritage of all western academic endeavors is an academia which flows from theology as the queen of the sciences, and in this arrangement properly understood, there is no reason to think one can’t wear a scholars gown while pursuing theosis, as many throughout the ages have. I don’t think your distinction between East and West is particularly helpful or accurate. Some of the most brilliant Eastern Orthodox thinkers I’ve had occasion to read find themselves situated in or coming from a thoroughly modern academic context, but I would never accuse them of being comprised by or beholden to it. Likewise, many thinkers of “the West” (including yourself I would assume) very explicitly advocate the sentiments you have put forth. I’m certain the monk-theologians of Roman Catholicism would take issue with your characterization. This is of course, not to emphasize my disagreement with you, as in general I agree with your diagnosis of an over academization of theology, and this has certainly taken place in the “West” by and large. I just think one must be careful to not paint with too broad a brush on that point.

    Thursday, November 29, 2007 at 11:55 am | Permalink

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