This is is not your typical textbook or learning resource. 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 work, 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 through an accident of birth.
What’s Wrong With Religious Studies?
The more common name for this subject is ‘Religious Studies’ or ‘Religious Education’. 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.
Despite this lack of clarity, some major assumptions underpin the study of ‘Religion’. First, that ‘religion’ refers to some trans-cultural and trans-historical aspect of humanity. It is just something that humans do. Second, that its 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.
This means ‘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 that a teacher and a society should not enforce loyalty to a certain theological system. 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; that 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. It will provide introductions to the major traditions of thought that shape both ourselves and our planet. They are an exploration of the major answers to questions concerning who we are, why we are here, and what we should devote our lives to.
Theology, simply put, means the study of god, or divinity. A simple solution to the above problem comes with a more practical definition of what a god is. 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.
Instead of dividing humanity into ‘religious’ and ‘not-religious’ it makes more sense to study this process of finding meaning through devotion and loyalty to a certain system of thought 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. In this way it is not written from an objective, outsiders standpoint, because there is no such objective place to stand. Everybody derives meaning in their lives from somewhere; everyone, in this definition, has a god. Instead it is written by people on the inside of these major traditions, and does not 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?
A Theology is a narrative and a tradition of thought 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?
A Theological system is when a Narrative that does this 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.
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. The interpretation, and re-interpretation, of this meaning is 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. 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.
A key point, that cannot be stated often enough, is that these systems have flexible boundaries; we probably belong to more than just one of the following groups. And each of the theological systems that are discussed in this work are not fixed entities, but traditions which evolve and change like any society does.
Why Choose These Theologies?
Between them they cover almost everybody on earth. The vast majority of people identify with some combination of the following theologies. Usually Humanism, which can be thought of as the dominant theological tradition, 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.
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