Let me repeat. Theories about religion are not theologies. Theorizing about religion is not doing theology. Religious theorizers are not theologians.

This is my theme. A negative one. Rather abstract, and not self-evident at all. Is it worth bringing up, let alone arguing?

Thomas Aquinas once said that wise people do not worry much about names. By that standard, there is a lot of unwisdom around. Both Madison Avenue and Hollywood would have to go out of business if it ever got around that names don’t matter. But, if names in themselves are unimportant, meanings are not. Aquinas himself spent a great part of his life explaining the meanings of words and distinguishing carefully between one term and another. Words used in such a way that they confuse rather than enlighten become agents of untruth.

One can manipulate words in order to confuse, as did the politician who said of his opponent, “It is a widely known fact, and has never been denied by him, that before his marriage he constantly practiced bachelorhood.” Propaganda agencies in the modern world have multiplied the unscrupulous manipulation of words for the purpose of manipulating people until the Big Lie has become almost an accepted commonplace of contemporary life.

In his horrific novel of a future controlled by a few huge totalitarian empires, George Orwell envisages a time when all language will be rigidly directed toward making people incapable of distinguishing between truth and lies their rulers want them to believe. Continual exposure to the slogans “War Is Peace,” “Slavery Is Freedom,” “Hatred Is Love” is the lot of the citizens described in 1984, and Orwell says that the language they are being taught to adopt is called “doublespeak.”

Doublespeak, however, can actually make its way into our midst without being deliberately promoted by anyone. In the exchange of ideas through words, a kind of Gresham’s law operates; the bad tends to drive out the good. And this brings me back to my theme.

Theories about religion are not theologies. Theology, as the name suggests, is the science of theos, or God. Yet only recently we were being told that the latest thing on the market was an atheistic theology, a theology of the death of God. It was a little confusing. But most people thought, no doubt, after the initial surprise, “Well, there are some people who are always arguing about religion. There are professional people who are paid to do just that in our universities and colleges and seminaries. When they tell us something about God, that’s called theology. So when what they tell us about God is that he isn’t around any more, I suppose that’s theology too. God or no God, it’s all in the same area, anyway. And they ought to know, those theologians, as they call themselves.”

And so Doublespeak gains a little more territory.

If we turn to the history of theology and find how it became a recognized subject for study and debate in our Western culture, noticing the place it occupied in the university from the time the university first made its appearance, we will find that “theology” meant Christian theology, a study of God not limited—that is, not excluding any question that might be raised concerning God—yet focused. It was definitely focused on the study of God as he had revealed himself, and as Christian faith confessed him.

True, a branch of theology was natural theology, a study in which the truths of revelation were not to enter directly. But natural theology was still kept within the wider subject of Christian theology as one part of it, and a subordinate part. It was supposed to show God—not any deity but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—to the extent that he had revealed himself indirectly in the world and the mind of man, apart from his direct revelation of himself through his Word.

If anyone wants to be pedantic, he can interject here that, since we are going back into history to find out what the word “theology” means, we ought to go back to the philosopher Aristotle, who used the word to describe one division of his philosophy (the highest one, actually). Well, certainly, Christian theology came along a long time after Aristotle, if it is antiquity that counts.

But my point is that the history that is our history, and that is Christian history, cannot be rubbed out. Theology, for the great architects of the Western world, for Augustine, for Aquinas, for Luther and Calvin, meant Christian theology. If we change the meaning of the word now—and we can, of course, if it is worth doing—we should make quite clear what is going on.

Now, I am not suggesting that Christianity alone has a theology. To speak of Hindu theology, or of the theology of Islam, is a perfectly ordinary and unconfusing way of talking. What I am saying is that to speak about God in the context of a particular faith with its own characteristic beliefs is one thing. And to speak about God in general, feeling that one is free to draw from the traditions of every faith or of none, is something quite different. To use the word “theology” to describe both ways of speaking is to invite confusion—it is a kind of doublespeak.

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If anyone feels he must announce to the world that he is sure the Christian God is dead; or if he wants to tell us that God is really the process of world history or the point to which that process is proceeding; or if he thinks that those people who used to worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ should turn away from all worship and work for the common good of mankind, and that in so doing they will really be doing all that worshiping the Christian God has ever meant—if anyone feels called upon to say any of these things or to make other similar claims, then he is telling us what religion means for him. He is not being a theologian; he is theorizing about the nature of religion. This is a perfectly legitimate undertaking, of course, but it should go under a label that is less misleading. If someone insists that this type of religious speculation must be called “theology,” then we would have to say that forthwith we must stop referring to the long line of thinkers from Justin Martyr to Karl Barth (and others both earlier and later) as theologians, because they were doing something quite different.

Perhaps this issue is worth bringing up, after all. Christian theologians, who believe that God is the God of truth, cannot wish to encourage the confusion promoted by doublespeak. And I imagine theorists of religion should be equally concerned.

—KENNETH HAMILTON, Department of Theology, The University of Winnipeg, Canada.

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