Monday, March 2, 2015

G. A. Wells on empty verbiage in theology (and elsewhere)

The fourth chapter of G. A. Wells's Can We Trust the New Testament? (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 2004) is brilliant. The whole book may be brilliant for all I know, but most of it discusses details of NT criticism that I am not competent judge. The fourth chapter, however, comments on various modern and postmodern interpretations of Christianity, and here Wells seems to hit the nail on the head. As he concludes:
We no longer have an ecclesiastical organization able to impose assent to its ideas on the whole population. Instead there is intellectual anarchy in which the conflict of ideas and principles is often replaced by rival forms of make-believe. Freedom of ideas and of expression is degraded into licence to talk at random and make phrases. The resulting fantastic 'explanations' may persist because of their tranquilizing value and the absence of ready means of disproof. In the concrete branches of science, words and phrases are kept in constant touch with real things, so that nonsense is excluded or easily detected. But in theology—as also in literary criticism, and indeed in the humanities generally—what is propounded all too often has no contact with reality except to be verbally repeated in various combinations. (177)
One runs into this kind of thing quite often in certain philosophical circles, but at least philosophy has the analytic camps as well. It seems, however, that every time I pick up a book on theology—well, modern theology, at least—it will without fail consist of a pastiche of nebulous but evocative statements, all very confidently declared with hardly a nod to evidence: the kind of things for which Daniel Dennett's daughter has coined the wonderful term "deepities."