Are Theological Languages Any Good? An Agnostic’s Perspective

I like Richard Rorty’s definition of a theory: If it gives us some predictive power, it’s science; if it doesn’t, it’s philosophy.

Theology is a form of philosophizing, and therefore a form of theorizing. Theology theorizes under the assumption that IF there is a god of a particular sort, here’s some ways we might want to talk about life and the universe. Since I’m an agnostic, if the IF stays in play I have no problem with theological speculation, nor do I think of it as a waste of time.

Theology, like philosophy and poetry, is a language game with no predictive power. The people who do it like to speak the language. They like to write books in the language, and they like to read books in the language. If you don’t like theological language, don’t speak it and don’t read it. If you think the language causes harm of some sort, point out the harm.

Personally, I like four Western theological languages—two from poetry and two from theology. The two languages from poetry that I like are Dante’s and Blake’s. The poetic systems that they built are worth my time detangling. I think that they say true things. I also find Reinhold Niebuhr interesting, and like to read him. I think he says true things. I also find Gabriel Marcel’s Catholic existentialism an interesting language. I think he says true things.

Neither of the two nonpoetic religious thinkers above are particularly preachy, and their thoughts are on a high intellectual level. I think they liked writing their books (as I think Dante and Blake liked writing theirs). I don’t think the world would be a better place without their languages. Do I think that any of these languages correspond to reality in a privileged way, or can be used for predictive purposes? No.

As for the ontological mystery, I like talking about the universe’s existence as a profound mystery (because it is to me). For me, it’s not a humdrum problem. I acknowledge that the sense of presence that I feel when talking about the ontological mystery could be a psychologically generated illusion. It could be a phantom. But I also think that there might well be some sort of Platonic telos  or mind that precedes matter, and so the idea that there might be more going on in the universe than just atoms shuffling in the void is a live option for me. It’s one reason I like a meditative film like Baraka. If you are an atheist, and the ontological mystery is not a live option for you—and if you don’t feel any charge from the idea—then I can see why it would be something that you would roll your eyes at and yawn.

Atheists believe that the mystery of being is only apparent. From the atheist perspective, what we’re really confronting in the paradoxes and perplexities of existence are not mysteries at all, but just very complicated material problems that are not yet solved. As an agnostic, I have not taken the atheist’s leap of faith. From my vantage, I don’t know whether the universe’s existence is a dark mystery or a problem ultimately amenable to empiricism. It’s why I think that the energy charge from calling the universe an ontological mystery (and not just a problem) is important to me. It keeps existence snapping a bit, and keeps certain ideas (that atheists are happy to have already put to bed) in play.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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