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What is theology?
How does it differ from religion?
What does God (or
god) have to do with it?
Many people confuse the word “religion” with the word “belief” (or “theology”) and this has a crippling effect on dialogue about what people believe and what they practice.
A theology is a package of beliefs. A belief is something a person accepts as true, either without or against evidence (for example, that Jesus was born of a virgin or that he is the Son of God).
The literal meaning of theology is the study of god(s), but the term has been expanded to include the study of a wide variety religious beliefs and ideas. These ideas are generally associated with God, such as an afterlife, heaven and hell, the soul, spirits and demons, Satan and others, as well as the truth of certain scriptural narratives.
A personal theology is made up of an individual’s beliefs. One such belief, of course, may be that there are no gods. A religious theology is the package of beliefs promoted by a specific religion, which its adherents are taught within that religion. The Catholic theology is, for example, taught to children and to converts through a catechism (a teaching system based on a question/answer methodology). Elements of the theology are constantly espoused and reinforced in liturgy and scriptures.
A religion, on the other hand, contains much more than its theology. It includes such things as traditional foods, rituals, music and dances, a system of ethics, history, languages, folklore, customs, literature, holidays and holiday practices, and even ways of swearing at someone. Although these may have been originally influenced by theology, they are by now quite separable from theology.
I don't completely agree with their list note, but it will do to communicate the concept of the components of a religion. The diagram illustrates how a component, such as the black one labeled “theology,” can be removed like a piece of a pie. Having removed that slab from the pie, one can make changes to the theology and then slide it back into place. Same religion, new theology.
Allow me to use myself as an example, since I am the only person I know whose personal theology I can describe with confidence.
My religion is Judaism, and I am very involved in that religion. Had I been born a Muslim, I probably would be a Muslim today; in fact had I been born into practically any of the major religions, I would probably profess that religion. But I was born Jewish and that’s what I am. I go to synagogue regularly and I wear a kippah (yarmulke) even when I’m not in the synagogue. I try to follow as many of the practices of my religion as are feasible in modern times.
My theology is something else. I love the Jewish God and often have a one-way interaction with Him, both formally through Jewish liturgy and informally when I perform the morning, evening and meal-associated practices of Judaism. Admittedly, I get very little tangible insights from these sessions, but they provide me with satisfaction and some of the benefits of meditation.
However, I don’t believe the Jewish God exists. Nor do I believe in the Biblical creation story, or in Noah and his ark, or in most of the narratives of the Jewish Bible. In fact, I believe in very little of the theology of the Jewish religion. Through the very natural process of observation, and keeping clear what I have learned through scientific literature, I have gradually developed my own set of beliefs, a personal theology quite different from, but very influenced by my Judaism.
In my personal theology, I don’t think the Jewish God is real, nor do I believe in the deity of any other religion, Abrahamic or Eastern. But I do believe there is a deity that created our Universe, about which I know nothing more than that it created the Universe, and that it had a purpose in doing so. I have chosen to call this god yotzer, which is Hebrew for “creator.” That makes me somewhat like a deist, although there are differences between their theology and mine that I will discuss in a later posting.
Then what about God? How can I love something that doesn’t exist? I think of God as a human-created avatar for yotzer. I believe that yotzer itself built into our evolutionary program a need for such an avatar, and that each religion, formal and informal, has created one, as a stand-in for yotzer, because yotzer is far too transcendent to meet my needs and those of all humans.
Who wrote the Bible? In my theology, not God, but rather, extraordinary humans with a sublime (though not divine) set of messages to convey. I treat the Jewish Bible and the miracles it describes, as well as much of its narrative, as myths, parables, remarkable pointers to an ethical life, and in many cases, poetry at its best. I feel that the Hebrew Scriptures are among the best literature ever produced and I study it for the multiple levels of meaning in it. I value it even more because it was written by humans in their search for the meaning of life, and not given us by a benign super-being.
I’d like to believe there are a lot of people who, like me, have adjusted their theology as they have learned, experienced and considered today’s science, without abandoning their religion. Atheism is not a religion, it is a component of a theology, which itself is a small component of a religion. It is, in fact, perfectly consistent to belong to a particular religion and still be an atheist.