Understanding Theology Textbook

            This is not your typical textbook. It does not seek to talk about specific sets of curious beliefs in order to enrich the reader’s understanding of the rich tapestry that is humanity. Theology does not belong to only one set of people who choose to define their existence in relation to a ‘higher power’. Theology is any and all attempts to make sense of reality and our existence within it. This quest for meaning does not belong to just some people, and it is not something that we do alone. All our societies are born from traditions of thought that are necessarily theological. The societies and communities that we belong to give us default answers to the big existential questions: Who are we? Where are we? What should we be doing?

            This textbook, therefore, is not trying to give answers to these questions so much as give its readers the tools to critically assess the answers that they have been given; whether those answers were given after careful engagement with a tradition, or through an accident of birth.

What’s Wrong With Religious Studies?

            Readers probably encountered ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Religious Education’ at some point in their schooling. Currently available textbooks on this subject usually provide a good overview of some of the most influential Theological traditions; but, they suffer from a key weakness which is tied to the confusion surrounding the word ‘Religion’.

            This confusion is barely noticed or discussed because the term is so common that everybody thinks they know what it means. The problem is that each person most likely means different things. Religion is notoriously ill-defined, and often not defined, even in textbooks dedicated to its study.

A small stack of books…‘ by Paul Trafford is licensed under CC by 2.0

            Despite this lack of clarity, some major assumptions underpin the study of ‘Religion’. First, that ‘religion’ refers to some transcultural and transhistorical aspect of humanity. It is just something that humans do. Second, that it’s an optional part of human life. There are ‘religious’ people and ‘non-religious’ people. On top of this ‘religion’ often denotes a kind of zeal or fervour, a ‘religious’ person is a person that is sure and uncompromising in their beliefs. The term bridges ideas of irrationality and dogmatism. 

            As a result, for many, the separation of the ‘religious’ from other aspects of life is seen as the mark of more advanced societies; perhaps the defining feature of a modern society. This is one common understanding of Secularism, that ‘religion’ is a private matter that needs to be kept away from the levers of power because of the fear that one ‘religious’ group would inflict its beliefs in an uncompromising and dogmatic way upon everybody else in that society.

            As a result ‘Religious Studies’ is usually taught in a way that assumes the viewer stands on the outside of various traditions of thought; Christianity, Buddhism, Islam. The teacher and student are expected to maintain a neutral and objective stance towards that which they study. They are looking at how other people answer the big questions in life. This neutrality reflects the secularity that is presumed in modern societies.

            The problem with this approach does not lie with the nobility of its intentions. It is right to aim for high standards of objectivity and fairness when studying anything, especially in an academic setting. However, these noble intentions do nothing to save this approach from its ill-defined foundations in the word ‘Religion’.

            If we take the above intention as axiomatic, adherence to a specific theological system should not be enforced, and frame the problem in terms of loyalty to a theological system. Then the concern should not be about those systems which are taught. The question should be about what is not taught; the systems that we belong to in which loyalty and adherence are assumed. 

            As we said above, the societies we belong to provide us with default answers to life’s big questions. The answer of who we are is more commonly answered with a description of nationality or race than it is through any society that is conventionally thought of as ‘religious’. People are more likely to describe themselves as British, Chinese, South African as they are to describe themselves Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist. Why should these societies, which often do enforce exclusive loyalty, not be the focus of a subject that is aimed at helping its students navigate these questions.

            With this in mind, this work is proof of concept for a new way of studying theology. One that leaves behind the foundations of ‘Religious Studies’ and offers new grounds from which to explore the variety of ways that humans construct meaningful lives in societies with each other. This can be seen especially in the treatment of Humanism, and how it deploys the concept of Secularity, alongside some of the other major global theological traditions of thought that shape both ourselves and our planet. 

Why Theology?

            Theology, simply put, means the study of god, or divinity. A simple way to sidestep the problems that surround the term ‘religion’ comes from using a more practical definition of what a god is. Conventional definitions of God or gods tend to focus on divinities as ‘supernatural beings’, supremely powerful creators or controllers of one or more, or all, aspects of reality. This approach is problematic, as there are plenty of examples where we might use the term God, but some of these things aren’t true.

            When we disconnect the term from any particular tradition, especially the God of the Abrahamic tradition, then we see that what people consider to be divine is best understood as what they hold to be ultimately valuable, that which they draw meaning from through their devotion to it.  A Pragmatic solution, therefore, would be to look at the single attribute that all gods share: that of being worshiped or of being believed in. Then the definition ‘a god is something that is worshiped / believed in’, or ‘your god is that which you worship / believe in’ needs to be expanded upon to distinguish from more mundane versions of devotion and belief.

            Take the example of Money. While it is far from inconceivable to imagine somebody for whom Money is their god, there are also many who dedicate much of their time and effort in the pursuit of money, but not because they worship money as a god. But because money is a necessary tool in their pursuit or devotion to something greater. How do we distinguish between these two types of devotion? 

            The central point is the same: the defining feature of belief is that it engenders action. This could be seen as the key way to differentiate between thoughts and beliefs. We can have thoughts that we don’t act on, but to not act on a belief, is to not actually believe it.

            To distinguish between the more mundane beliefs and the more sacred, it is useful to look at the concept of doubt. To doubt, not in the narrow sense that we usually use it, but in a broader nihilistic sense, is to be in a state of crisis where action becomes impossible: a crisis of faith. 

            As with all states of crisis this nihilism is unsustainable, people need to have beliefs in order to undertake any action, in order to function, and make sense of their surroundings. This level of Doubt demonstrates the level of belief that is required to designate a god. Without a particular belief we might stop a particular action, but without a god, we cease all action.

            It is important to note that this is not an argument for the existence of God, or gods, it is merely an observation about how humans function. Our usual categories of ‘theist’ ‘atheist’ are not helpful, because everyone who takes action must hold some sort of animating belief, or theism. Moreover, atheism as it is commonly understood by people who use the term, is not the same as the nihilistic lack of belief which we are discussing here. To truly have no god, a person would be trapped in a state or crisis defined by passivity and inaction.

            In this way we might get a solution to this problem. Worship, in the sense of devotion to a divinity, can be distinguished from devotion in the sense of dedicating time, effort and money, when we consider the reason for devotion. Belief in something that isn’t divine might compel some of the actions that people take and not others, but something that is divine would compel, either directly or indirectly, all actions that a person takes. It is here that we find our pragmatic definition of God or a god. The ultimate reason, in any particular person’s life, for them to act. A God is the context, prime cause of action in a person’s life. A person’s God is the ultimate ground of their sense making and the actions they take.

            Instead of dividing humanity into the false categories of ‘religious’ and ‘not-religious’ it makes more sense to study this process of finding meaning through devotion and loyalty to a certain system of belief and practice. Thinking in terms of Theology allows us to see this subject as one that cuts to the core of how we imagine ourselves, how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. This is not an attempt to argue for the existence of any particular divinity, nor is it an attempt to deny the existence of those who reject the older theological traditions of the world. Instead this is simply a recognition that everybody derives meaning in their lives from somewhere; everyone, in this definition, has a god. Therefore this textbook aims not to spare any society, instead treating all with the utmost respect and empathy, with the ultimate aim of greater understanding, for both our readers and writers.

So, What is a Theology?

            Literally ‘God Talk’, but invariably a theology takes the form of a narrative, one that is all encompassing in scope and introduces the listener, or reader, to a particular God. It is therefore a narrative, any narrative, that provides answers to the big existential questions in life: Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? How should we understand ourselves? How should we treat those we see as other? By answering these questions, provides the context for the development of all human societies, and all individuals born into these societies. 

Asia Dance Bangkok‘ by Sasint is licensed under a Pixabay License

            The narrative itself thus becomes a meeting point between the divinity and the believer. It points to sacred touchstones, symbolic actions, ideas, and images; that help the believer to navigate reality. To distinguish it from works of fantasy, we must also point out that a Theology claims to be true, its narrative claims to be the true history of reality.

            This definition of theology is wider than the term traditionally used in this context: Religion. This is deliberately so. The idea that underpins this work, and much of the work done at Understanding Theology, is that each society or community of people can be thought of as its own theological system. Each society requires an imagined familiarity or ‘sameness’ that is almost always provided by a narrative or history that provides meaning to the group and the individuals that belong to it. This could be the history of creation as found in the holy texts of the Abrahamic faiths, or the history of a people which informs the identity of a specific nation, to give just two examples. In the next section we will provide stronger definitions for some of the terms that are used frequently in this work. 

Systems and Traditions

Theological Systems

            A Theological system is when a theological narrative is used as the basis for governing and organising the lives of a group of people. This gives us a Priesthood; the script-keepers of the narrative, the people with the answers. And the Believers; those who consciously or unconsciously draw meaning for their lives from the narrative and the answers that the governing priesthood provides.

            The interpretation, and re-interpretation, of this meaning is always done by a governing priesthood; be they literal priests, academics, politicians, or some combination. This is normally done with input in some form through Festivals or Rituals performed by the believers, citizens, subjects who define themselves in relation to the system. 

            So by ‘Theological System’ we mean any social grouping of people brought together as an imagined community through a shared narrative that provides a shared conception of their identity and their relationship to the world around them. It is necessary to point out that this is all social groupings. This gives us the three components of a Theological system: Narrative, Priesthood, and Believers. It is a view of reality that subsequently shapes social reality.

Theological Traditions

            Every society is a theological system. And can be compared to any other based upon the underlying theology that gives it shape and structure. But, not every theology tradition is necessarily a system. Each of the great theological traditions of the world can and have lent themselves to multiple theological systems across history and geography.

            By Theological Tradition we mean a specific theological narrative that has been expanded on, developed and adapted over a long period of time to give shape to a number of ‘Theological Systems’ which could either be inheritors of the tradition, rivals within the tradition, contemporaries or not. A Theological System or Society / Community, could therefore claim to be the sole inheritor of a tradition, or the “true” inheritor of a tradition. It could even blend or merge aspects of different traditions 

            The first main section of this textbook is going to be dedicated to an exploration of some of the key theological traditions that have shaped human history. They are listed below. A key point, that cannot be stated often enough, is that these traditions have flexible boundaries; we probably belong to more than just one of the following groups. And each of the theological traditions that are discussed in this work are not fixed entities, but evolve and change over time.






            That these traditions change and evolve as they adapt and are adapted to different socio-political contexts is something that we have tried to show throughout our writing on them. The structure we have chosen is an adapted version of the UK government’s GCSE guidelines. We have changed it to include more about how these traditions have evolved over time as part of various socio-political systems.

            We have subsequently ended up with a structure that keeps the sections on Beliefs and Teachings, and Sources of Wisdom and Authority. These are both things that no Theological tradition can do without: a narrative and the structures in place for how that narrative is interpreted. Alternatively these can be seen as answering the following questions: Beliefs and Teachings focuses on how Divinity is conceived in this tradition, whereas Sources of Wisdom and Authority looks at how the meeting points between this divinity and the believers translates into hierarchies that give different societies in this tradition their shape.

            Next there is an adaptation version of two sections recommended by the UK government guidelines. ‘Practices’ and ‘Forms of Expression and Ways of Life’ have been combined here to form a section called ‘Practices and Expressions’. This is dedicated to unique actions, rituals, art, and symbols that can be found in the tradition in question. 

            Finally, a unique addition of our own is ‘The Tradition Through History’. Here we look at the Origins, Evolution, Current State, and Future of the tradition. Different traditions lend themselves to different Theological Systems, and so here we try to give a brief history of the different social groupings and political bodies that these traditions have inspired through to the present day. We finish with a look at how these traditions might cope in the future with their role as one of the few truly global theological traditions.

Why Choose These Theologies?

            Between them they cover a majority of the people on earth. Most people identify with some combination of the chosen theologies. Usually Humanism, which can be thought of as the dominant theological tradition on earth at the moment, in some combination with one of the others. It is important to note that people rarely if ever belong to just one of these traditions. We usually belong to multiple, overlapping, societies. The theological systems that are focused on here are not exclusive nor neat categories that we each fit into. The societies that we belong to are theological systems that take ideas and concepts from multiple sources in order to make sense of the reality surrounding us. These traditions are presented as pure types, but with the recognition that in reality no such purity does or perhaps can exist; and that is no bad thing.

Holocaust Memorial Berlin‘ by 3093594 is licensed under a Pixabay license

Closing Notes

            On top of constantly expanding and improving upon the work we have already published here, a section on Comparative Theology is something that I would like to add in the future. Also, given the time and resources, I would like to add sections on Judaism, Sikhism, Chinese Theology and other great theological traditions from history. I already have a clear plan of what to write, as this will build upon work that is currently the focus of my, Theo Poward, PhD. But it can’t happen without your support. 

            This alternative textbook is a project I have been working on for a number of years, and something that I hope will continue to grow in scope and quality. Please take this as an indication of a few things. First, that I am passionate about this work. Second, that the only reason I don’t update as regularly as I would like is because I am busy improving upon the core ideas in the best possible setting. Third, I am keen for feedback. This project is a labour of love and there is no intention of criticising or converting anyone. If you have questions, comments or criticisms I want to hear them and will try my best to respond to them. 

            We hope that you can use this resource for a range of purposes. If, at any point, you have a suggestion, or question, or think we have made a mistake, then please do not hesitate to contact us. The best way to do so is through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or via Email at suggestions@understandingtheology.org 

            Furthermore, if you want to support our work then please become a Patron. Any amount of money is a huge help as it allows us to continue updating and improving our content as well as giving a clear indication that you want us to continue this work.