Bad Theology

Like rocket fuels and cantaloupes, not all theologies are equal.

Discussing whether a particular theology is an accurate depiction of reality is one way to judge between them. That path leads one into deep questions of epistemology, authority, canonicity, exegesis, and all that jazz.

But theologies can also be judged by their impact on those who believe them, as well as those around them. I think all people, believers or not, could agree that some theologies have lousy results.

For example, I would prefer living next to a moderate Muslim as opposed to a community of Islamic fundamentalists. Others bloggers are less hopeful, doubting that religions such as Islam are capable of moderation. So religions that desire physical takeover of the world and theocracies go unequivocally into the ‘bad’ heap.

Another example is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, as represented by Warren Jeffs and described in Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Believing that one can kill for one’s faith or force young women into multiple marriages with you also lands you in the bad camp.

One of the reasons Joseph Smith’s sect has had so many fascinating little splinter groups was Smith’s early emphasis on direct revelation from God. While Smith later tried to suppress others’ prophetic leanings (leading to many early divisions) the trend was set. A person who truly believes that God has spoken directly to them with explicit commands is not likely to compromise. So wandering prophets also mostly get tossed into the bad pile.

Last Saturday I drove to Memphis for a rocket launch and was entertained on the drive back by a rather frightening radio program. In it, a breathy, tearful-sounding preacher spent most of his time railing against liberals like me. But he also took special interest in the state of Israel. (Mike Cope recently linked to an article on evangelical support of Israel.)

The preacher said anyone would be a fool to read the Holy Book and not realize the urgency of prophecies regarding Israel. Surely the world is in its last, final days, the true End days. It will all come to a glorious finale within his lifetime. And we should continue to support Israel, he said, because God will work through them to bring about Judgment Day on sinners (like me). For as we bless Israel so God will bless us.

And the clincher: “And we know that the reason America has always been more than just friends with Israel is because of the faithful Christians who have a voice in our government. We can never allow anyone to wrestle that support away, or to use the power God has given us to criticize Israel instead of supporting her. Every iota of freedom America has, every iota of wealth we have, is all because of our support for His people in Israel.” And this guy has a radio program.

Over the last year I’ve come to dislike the idea of a “chosen people” more and more. The history of Judaism (and to a lesser, often more spiritualized extent, Christianity) is chock full of the “chosen people” concept. God is on the side of the Jews. The Jews are His people. Christians are God’s chosen people. Through most of my upbringing, I had accepted this concept from the inside, without realizing how ugly it looks from the outside.

Believing that God would endorse your genocide of entire populations to make room for you, his holy people, is so blatantly racist that now I am constantly amazed to hear my peers justify it. If your theology leaves any room for doubt that genocide is always wrong, maybe we should reopen discussion on whose moral values are ‘absolute.’

The likes of Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) are delusional if they think this sort of religious passion is going to disappear overnight. Also, Harris’s vindictive style isn’t likely to win many converts. But there’s a grain of truth in it as well, that there are limits to tolerance.

We do not tolerate one who will kill for his faith. And while we may legally tolerate diverse religious views, it may also be wise to offer little respect (on the level of personal interaction) to those whose views are dangerous to society—like the Fundamentalist Mormons, or militaristic premillenial evangelical—in hopes that the social awkwardness of holding certain views will decrease their popularity.

All people who attempt to inform their worldviews at least partially with reason, be they secularists or religious moderates and liberals, should try their hardest to make theocracy, jihadism, ethnocentrism, and other bad theologies go away.

5 Responses to Bad Theology

  1. storbakken says:

    Thanks for your post. Fundmentalists (whether Islamic, Mormon or, dare I say it, Christian) are a scary bunch. My faith is in Jesus Christ and, as His follower, I don’t want to curse the unsaved, judge women considering abortion or enforce prayer in school. As a follower of Christ I want to let Him love others through me. I’ve found that the closer my walk with God becomes the less concerned I am with the politics of this world. God bless. And thanks again for your provocative post.

  2. yhurg says:

    If you take the inverse of your argument about God endorsing genocide by his “chosen people” I think you have what is defined by Scripture as “hell”. In other words, its not so much about God saying because you are my chosen people then it is ok to rape, pillage, and murder. It is more about God following up on his word that if you defy Him then you will be destroyed; destroyed because rather than protect you from man’s evil ways, you really become vulnerable to the evils of this world, e.g. extremists of theology, and are eventually devoured by the world. If you choose not to accept his salvation, then you are left on your own to find shelter in eternity. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t really know where to start.

    You are right about bad theology not being a good thing and that extremity is bad theology. Jeffrey Dahmer was an extreme atheist (bad) much like Al-Qaeda is extreme Islam (bad) much like the KKK was extreme Christianity (bad) much like. It’s not so much the theologies themselves being bad because within each theology are many great and wonderful truths, just not the absolute Truth.

  3. Kellen says:

    I don’t really understand where you’re coming from. You say Israel was wrong in their original genocidal occupation of Palestine, so either the Jewish and Christian heritage has been written by a false hand, or God told Israel to sin, which seems a little preposterous to me (coming from a Christian viewpoint). So which is it?

  4. Kellen says:

    Fundamentally, Christianity is a revealed religion; we believe as God proscribes. The people of Israel operated on the same principle, according to the tradition handed down to us. However, if you think that this tradition isn’t faithful to reality, then it seems rather pointless to discuss the reasoning within the tradition itself, unless you just really want to hear it.

    I’m curious, though, how you think there can be a Christianity that is not traditional to some extent. By “traditional” I don’t mean modern American thought, I mean Christianity in the general orthodox sense. If you can’t have Christianity with an infallible source and rooting, then how can you have any Christianity at all?

  5. Kellen says:

    I wasn’t referring to liberal Christianity (even though that’s an entire argument apart) or any of the specific people you mentioned. If “some aspects of a traditional Christian viewpoint can seem more than a little preposterous,” such as the idea of infallibly revealed religion, then I don’t really see any way to have a Christianity besides. If some part of the Scripture is judged preposterous because it doesn’t fit into the liberal humanistic paradigm, then I’m not sure what can keep the Scripture that does fit into that paradigm from being preposterous too. You can’t have it both ways; either the Scriptures are the Word of God or they aren’t. And if it isn’t, in its entirety, then it seems impossible to have any faith in the person of Christ, seeing as the Bible is our only source of theology.

    As far as “justifying” the genocide of Canaan, I will only say that God is the one who raises up nations and destroys them. God chose Israel to be his instrument to bring judgment on the Canaanites for their wickedness. This is what I believe because it’s what the Word of God states. In my epistemology, that’s the truth, but I understand that we don’t share that epistemology, so I don’t expect you to believe that.

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