2.4 Theological, reductionist and phenomenological perspectives 1
2.4.1 The theological persepective
If we are thinking about individual perspectives on religion, there are three very common and useful terms we can employ: theism, atheism and agnosticism. In everyday parlance, ‘theism’ denotes a belief in God (or, more broadly, a belief in divine or spiritual realities); ‘atheism’ denotes a conviction that there is no God (or divine or spiritual realities); and ‘agnosticism’ indicates a lack of certainty or knowledge (gnosis) one way or the other. Very broadly speaking, these perspectives have been replicated methodologically in three different approaches to the study of religion: theology (dealt with in this section), reductionism and phenomonology (dealt with in succeeding sections).
There was a time when, in the universities of Europe, theology was known as ‘the queen of sciences’, in the context of general belief in and adherence to Christianity. Scientia (science) was understood as knowledge, and there were different branches of knowledge; theology was sacred science, ultimate knowledge. Before the eighteenth-century movement known as the Enlightenment (a movement advocating belief in reason and human progres, with a resulting contesting of tradition and authority), the European experience had been that Christianity pervaded all aspects of life, shaping how people thought about the world (that is, as God’s creation, at the centre of the cosmos), about the purpose of life, about morality and about how society should be ordered. The idea of time and the age of the earth was biblically conditioned – early geologists had immense problems convincing people of the timescale indicated by their discoveries. In the nineteenth century, there were objections to the use of pain relief for women in childbirth by those who thought women should suffer, in accordance with God’s decree after the biblical Fall from grace brought about by Adam and Eve, as described in the Book of Genesis. The continued influence of Creationism (a literal belief in the biblical account of the Creation and rejection of the theory of evolution) in the USA is an example of the extent to which the theological perspective can still have an impact on society, knowledge and belief generally. Until comparatively recently in the West, the theological viewpoint had an effect on all aspects of life, and there are still societies that are to all intents and purposes theocracies: that is, societies in which religion determines how they are organized and run.
However, we need to remember the distinction between theology as an academic discipline and theology as a way of life. The theological perspective starts by assuming that the divine, however defined, is real and that religion is a response or approach to spiritual realities. At the very least, the theological perspective is willing to entertain the possibility of the existence of God. Crudely put, from a theological perspective, there is the working assumption that, when a believer prays, a divine being hears; when a believer performs a good action, this will have implications for a future existence. The material on which theological studies tend to draw consists largely in authoritative texts and tradition – what might be characterized as ‘insider’ literature and reflection. Theology (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), Buddhology and similar studies aim to deepen understanding of religious truth and its implications for individuals and society. There is the assumption that (at least one) religion is true. The theological approach to the study of religion has therefore been called by some scholars methodological theism.