Why theology is relevant in the modern world

Theology mattersHaving completed the first part of my studies and obtained a Certificate of Higher Education in Theology this is my last post as a student at the University of London International Programmes – I am moving on to continue my studies on campus at Heythrop College (which was the Lead College for my Certificate).

In this last post I would like to briefly reflect on the continuing importance of theology – understood as rational discourse on religions from within and without particular religious traditions – and comment on its continuing relevance in the modern world.

I fully expect this to be a controversial notion – not least because of the widespread but mistaken belief that religion is no longer relevant in a contemporary society.

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Faith of the fatherless: the psychology of atheism by Paul Vitz

Book cover: Faith of the FatherlessPsychologist Paul Vitz is a senior scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and professor emeritus of psychology at New York University. An atheist until his late 30s, he has written extensively on the psychology of religion, and Faith of the Fatherless: the psychology of atheism is his latest work. Given my interest in theology and psychology I knew I’d be interested in what he has to say but found the book even more illuminating than I had expected.

I won’t spoil the pleasure of reading the book itself by giving too much away, but here is what I found interesting:

Vitz begins by looking at the projection theory of belief in God as well as Sigmund Freud’s ideas about religion. Vitz argues that the same approach (of critical psychological evaluation) can and should be taken to the atheist ideas. If theist’s belief in God is “simply” a projection of his desire for there to be God (according to Freud), atheist’s denial of God can also be “simply” a projection of desire for a Godless universe. Next Vitz asks what predisposes people to being atheists or theists, and discovers some very interesting facts, namely that atheists tend, in general, to have absent or “defective” fathers or father figures – and he presents a historical survey of famous atheists from different times to illustrate his theory. Of course the above is a gross oversimplification of his work, so if you want to find out the details and psychology behind this all read the book!

Edgar is studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction from Heythrop College.

Idolatry: from the Old Testament to the 21st century

With this year’s exams written and some time to go before exam results are released, I took the opportunity to revisit some of the themes from the first course I did, Introduction to the Old Testament. Old Testament (or the Hebrew Bible) studies can easily take a lifetime of study even if one focuses on a particular subject or theme, but for this post I chose to focus on one of the most central “problems” in the Old Testament, namely the problem of idolatry. If there is one position that really unites Judaism, Christianity and Islam in addition to the insistent belief in One, it is their aversion to and rejection of idolatry.

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Science and faith lived together

Hand of God and hand holding magnifying glassOver the last few years I have had the privilege of reading and meeting several leading scholars of science and theology who are also outstanding individuals. It is often commented that the times of polymaths are long gone, not least due to the incredible advances made in almost all areas of inquiry, from sciences to engineering to history. There is certainly at least some truth in that opinion, however there are scholars who combine and excel in two or more areas and by doing so bring forth fresh insights not otherwise available from those who only specialise in one discipline. When these disciplines are science and theology I think their achievements are of particular importance.

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God and probability

Some time ago the British Humanist Association (BHA) ran a bus advertising campaign which read:

“There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

I, and many others, found the wording and apparent assumptions of this ad problematic. Hundreds of complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority, which had eventually ruled that:

“the ad was an expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation.”


A bus with the atheist ad, at Oxford Circus in London.

Apparently the word “probably” was added at the request of the Authority since the originally submitted message’s claim clearly couldn’t be objectively substantiated either.

According to the BHA, the campaign was in response to an earlier fundamentalist ad promising hell for the unsuspecting members of the public – but as the saying goes two wrongs don’t make a right. Later on the Daily Telegraph weighted in with the following assessments:

“If it ruled that the wording in the posters was unsubstantiated, it would be interpreted as effectively saying that in all probability God does exist.”

“Ruling that the words were justified could be taken as an agreement that God probably does not exist.”

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On different kinds of knowledge

What do we mean when we say “I know”?

As so often happens this seemingly simple question opens a Pandora’s box of more questions which are too important to ignore but too difficult to answer – even more so when the context of the question is theological. For a general discussion on what is knowledge you can check out Wikipedia – what follows is a very short and of course inadequate attempt to highlight some differences, as I see them, between just three kinds of knowledge (Latin scientia, Greek gnosis): scientific, philosophical and theological.


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Preparing for my next course: Christian Doctrine

Having completed the Old and New Testament courses it’s now time to study for my next course: Christian Doctrine. The Christian Doctrine course builds on the introductions to the Old and the New Testaments and considers the core Christian teaching and concepts (“doctrine” – from Latin “doctor” – teacher). If the Old Testament (in academic usage more properly called the Hebrew Bible) is the foundation of Judaism, and the New Testament is the foundation of Christianity, the Christian Doctrine is what Christians understand, believe and proclaim when they read the New Testament (and the Old Testament in light of the New) and very importantly, why they do so. Despite what many atheist authors would like us to believe, theists in general and Christians in particular have many reasons to believe what they believe – and while one can subject these reasons to analysis and critique one has to understand them first – which some atheist authors fail to do.

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Vatican’s astronomer on astronomy and religious belief


Relationship of science and religion is one of my interests and I think it is a very promising area of study and research. This blog post by Dr Guy Consolmagno SJ, Vatican’s Astronomer, is an interesting meditation not only on this relationship but also on a lot more, including how an MIT graduate in astronomy who worked for Peace Corps ended up becoming a Jesuit and Vatican’s astronomer. One of the interesting questions he asks is:

Science is not a big book of facts. Science is not about ‘proving’ anything. Science describes, but the descriptions are incomplete; we keep hoping that they get better. For that very reason you cannot use science to prove the existence of God (or no-God). But can science encourage us in our belief?

Read the post to find out!

Edgar is studying for a Bachelor of Divinity with the University of London International Programmes, with academic direction from Heythrop College.

Meeting Church Fathers: St Ephrem the Syrian

St Ephrem the SyrianIn February 2013 I attended a study day on Church Fathers at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, dedicated to St Ephrem the Syrian by Dr Sebastian Brock, probably the world’s foremost expert on Syriac Christianity. In the morning Dr Brock introduced St Ephrem’s life and his times, and in the afternoon we had a chance to consider some of his profound and moving writings which are available in English translations, in particular by Dr Brock. It is interesting to note that St Ephrem wrote in the Syriac language, which is a descendant of Aramaic language spoken by Jesus. One often hears that it is not just what is taught but also who teaches it that matters – and Dr Brock’s lecture was a proof of how a dedicated scholar who deeply cares about the subject of his studies makes a huge difference.

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Science and religion

Image of Cross in rack of test tubesThe relationship between science and religion is a fascinating and complex one. To many it comes as a surprise that science and religion have a relationship at all! Yet a little study unearths amazing facts and leads to deeper appreciation of the complexity and nuances of both science and religion and their at times love-hate relationship – good examples are  God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by Dr James Hannam and Reason and Reality: The Relationship Between Science and Theology by Prof John Polkinghorne. The surprise factor is reduced however when one considers the word “science” itself, originating as it is from Latin scientia (knowledge). Science is one of the ways of discovering and understanding the world around us – a very successful way of course, but by no means an unlimited or the only one.

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