Why Theologians should believe

November 13, 1998

Theology is an attempted articulation of the nature of God and of everything else in relation to God. If you are an atheist then this subject matter is an illusion, although genuine atheism, which is to say nihilism, articulates the nature of the void - which it takes to be the ultimate reality - and the relation of everything else to this void.

Often this can read like a parody of theology and sounds even more mystical. Ever since the 1960s some people have wanted to pass off this sort of discourse as theology; what is somewhat sinister here is that they often seem to want to perpetuate ecclesiastical institutions in an atheistic mode. For me this has shades of Doestoevsky's Grand Inquisitor.

The initial influence of postmodernism in theology encouraged this trend; now it is going out of fashion. Today the avant garde in theology pursues radical orthodoxy. Radical orthodoxy takes advantage of the postmodern critique of humanism and rationalism but seeks to move to a yet more fundamental level of critique where it becomes apparent that nihilism is but the reverse face of humanism and the logical outcome of rationalism.

Against the entire secular legacy, radical orthodoxy seeks to show the rational coherence of supposing that moods - like faith, charitableness and the higher Eros -disclose reality. Christian orthodoxy is regarded as the attempt to articulate the logic of such a position. If this radical orthodoxy says all things that exist are created, it follows that only a theological outlook gives real knowledge. Outside this there can only be at best scepticism and at worst lies.

John Millbank Reader in philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge and professor of philosophical theology, elect, University of Virginia.

Should theologians believe in God? Email us on letters@thes.co.uk

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