I first read Who Needs Theology in 2002 when I was 24. It was the first book of my first semester at Fuller and I think the only book I read cover to cover. I can remember reading the book with absolute delight, highlighting passage after passage. I let several friends borrow my copy because I was so enamored with it. It has been 16 years since that reading of the book and I sense that my understanding of things has changed somewhat. There is still a lot to like with the way the authors describe different types of theology and the application of it. I find myself grating on the presuppositions they are leaning on to make their grand declaration that everyone is a theologian.
A few years back I was leading a discussion group at church on the book Jim and Casper Go To Church. If you are not familiar with the book, Jim Henderson (Christian author and ministry leader) invites Casper (an atheist) to travel around the country going to Christian churches of various types. It is a somewhat light and entertaining book. The study I was leading had the normal cordial crew of four or five folks from the church and then Darren arrived. Darren, at the time, was the head of the Tacoma Atheists. He had made a habit of going to churches partially because he grew up going to church and enjoyed it and partially because he likes making friends with pastors – at least the ones who do not aggressively try to convert him. Darren was the best thing that happened to that discussion group. All too often these sorts of groups fall into the Christian ghetto and start to stereotype people that are not Christian. Darren kept us from putting atheists into a corner. Of all the things that I have learned from Darren, the most significant is that for most atheists, the question of God is not something they struggle with – ever. By atheist I do not mean a college student that just had his first post-modern philosophy class and has decided denouncing God is the way to make his parents blush. Instead I mean people who have genuinely decided that all there is to life is what we can physically perceive.
The authors state “[t]he ultimate question of all life’s ultimate questions is the question of God, for this is the question to which all others point.”1 That statement feels like a large leap and unfortunately a leap that people of faith all to willingly take. I believe that a person will only reach the concept of God if they are biased in that direction. As people of faith we have forgotten the revolutionary nature of the concept of God. The only thing we as humans can be completely certain of is what we perceive in the physical world using our five senses. God, being supernatural, does not enter into that realm, which means the conception of God is not something that we would naturally enter into. Something supernatural needs to happen to us for us to perceive the supernatural. As such I think that the premise that the authors build their argument upon is not valid. If that sentence had been prefixed with “for people of faith” or even “for people open to the idea of a supernatural power” I’d have no problem with it. But I suspect that for a lot of people the reason we exist is (to put it bluntly) egg met sperm.
The other issue I have is their conception that everyone who thinks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks about God is using theological concepts, but that does not make them theologians. The authors use the example of cooking,2 they say that anyone that cooks is a chemist. I suspect that people who have been trained as chemists would have a real problem with me calling myself a chemist because I know how to use baking powder. I am certainly using chemistry concepts, but I am not studying my results or trying to expand upon human knowledge of chemistry. I am instead trying to make fudgey brownies, which requires the result of the work of chemists, but that does not make me a chemist. The authors do indicate that there are levels of theological study, from the lay to the professional, but to call yourself a theologian seems to imply some level of intentionality. If, to use my brownie analogy, I am making multiple batches and testing the results of different kinds of flower, then I am doing lay chemistry. But most people do not enter into baking brownies or discussing God with that kind of intentionality.
I asked Darren what he thought about the quote I used earlier and his response was interesting. “There was a point in my life (when I was a Christian) when I would have agreed with the author. When god is the answer to every question you don’t have an answer for it does feel like everything points to God, or the question of god. But yeah, it sounds pretty absurd to me now.”3 I understand the authors’ urge to make theology, which is commonly held up on a pedestal, palatable to the masses. I think they could make better, more nuanced arguments and get there but unfortunately instead they took logical leaps that they assumed people would not question which I think weakens the book.
1 Grenz, Stanley J., and Roger E. Olson. Who needs theology?: An invitation to the study of God. InterVarsity Press, 2009. p. 15.
2 ibid p. 18
3 Darren Garven, interviewed by author, Tacoma, November 28, 2018