Texas Faith: Why not worry about your theology?

SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson and William Lawrence, dean of SMU's Perkins School of Theology, talk about Americans' depth of religious knowledge and how religion shapes our political views.

Moderated by William McKenzie
Editorial Columnist

Former Texas Faith moderator Rod Dreher recently wrote a probing review in our Sunday Points section looking at the findings social scientists Robert Putnam  and David Campbell present in American Grace, their in-depth look at American religion. Rod's piece mirrors the discussion we have had over the last year about Americans' depth of religious knowledge, how much religion shapes, or doesn't shape, our political views and how people of faith can have genuine interfaith discussions.

In summing up the findings of Putnam and Campbell, Rod reaches this two-fold conclusion:

"The good news is that we Americans of different faith traditions get along remarkably well, not by casting aside religion, but by learning how to be tolerant even as we remain religiously engaged.

"The bad news is that achieving religious comity has come at the price of religious particularity and theological competence. That is, we may still consider ourselves devoted to our faith, but increasingly, we don't know what our professed faith teaches, and we don't appreciate why that sort of thing is important in the first place." . . .

So, for this week, I'd like to hear your thoughts about this question:

Why shouldn't people of faith worry about maintaining theological continuity and integrity, if indeed religion proclaims binding moral and metaphysical truths that are necessary to live by?

 MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University

Matthew WilsonIn a sense, I reject the premise of this question, because I completely agree with Dreher that people SHOULD "worry about maintaining theological continuity and integrity." It really comes down to a question of how serious we are about faith.

If our attachment to religion is simply social and/or utilitarian -- that is, we go to church/synagogue/mosque to have a sense of community, to please a spouse, to give our kids "something to believe in," to affirm ethno-cultural ties, or to conform to our vague sense of what "good people" do -- then the kind of haphazard theological muddling that Putnam and Campbell document isn't really a problem.

If, on the other hand, we believe our religion to be fundamentally about the worship of a creating, sustaining, living God with a Will that has relevance for our lives and our world, then we cannot take the intellectually and spiritually lazy road of theological incoherence. If I truly believe that God is the touchstone of all reality, then how can I not seek to know Him as fully and accurately as my limited human faculties allow? How could I possibly be content with a half-baked theology composed primarily of feel-good platitudes drawn from the popular culture (like the belief of one of my former students that, as Disney had assured her, "all dogs go to Heaven")?

If we are truly people of faith, we are called to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our MIND. This means seeking a coherent understanding of His nature and will to the extent that our abilities allow.

Some humility and acknowledgement of our limitations is, of course, in order -- in this life, no matter how assiduous our study, fervent our prayer, or earnest our search for Truth, we can only see "through a glass darkly." Nevertheless, every religion makes certain truth claims about the nature of the Divine, and some (though certainly not all) of these claims are mutually exclusive.

To accept or reject these claims partially and haphazardly, with no sense of an overarching, internally consistent theological superstructure, is an implicit insult to the seriousness of theological inquiry in all religions. Not every person need be Saint Thomas Aquinas, but "getting it right," so far as we are able, is an important dimension of any genuine faith.

WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

William LawrenceOne cannot overlook a key clause in the question, namely "if indeed religion proclaims binding moral and metaphysical truths that are necessary to live by."

There is something characteristically Christian about the way that statement expresses a definition of religion. To be sure, it characterizes my own approach as a Christian believer. But Buddhists and Hindus would almost certainly not share that definition of religion. Muslims might not do so either. For some religions stress moral truths that are necessary for living -- such as obedience to a code of religious laws -- but no "metaphysical truths" are affirmed.

In short, it is possible in some religions for a person to be treated as an adherent or practitioner without insisting that the person subscribe to a creed, a philosophy, a metaphysical system, a structure of myths, or an array of sacramental mysteries.

As a Christian, I do subscribe to a creed, a philosophical approach to the way that truth is known, a metaphysic, a structure of theologically powerful and intellectually formative myths (for example, the two creation stories in Genesis), and the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.

I believe in the doctrine that a self-revelation of God brought to humanity a Savior named Jesus and that the Christian Church is the global movement of Jesus' disciples and apostles. While part of my responsibility as a Christian is to witness faithfully to this truth, it is not part of my responsibility to demand or expect that the rest of humanity --not even the religious portion of the human race -- cling to my version of truth.

People of faith should worry about maintaining theological continuity and integrity. But throughout the history of Christianity, we have done that by engaging in forceful debate within the Christian community. We have done it by an encounter with other religious traditions. Sometimes, we have done it very, very badly -- killing the infidels in medieval Crusades, or destroying the indigenous peoples in colonial Latin America, or slaughtering the heathen savages in 19th century North America, or executing our opponents within the Christian community by drowning or burning them.

Theological continuity for Christians involves much more nuanced, intellectually honest approaches than are often demanded by the loudest voices in the church. As Jesus put it, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the kingdom of heaven."

Read the full column.

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