Monday, March 16, 2009

I’ll Have an Order of History, Hold the Theology

It took me 5 of 7 books, but I finally figured out what makes me uncomfortable about Thomas Cahill. When he sticks to history, which his works primarily address, he is superb. I read him ravenously because of this. But when he delves into theology, his thinking is really convoluted. That’s why I liked his book about Jesus and the New Testament much less than his book about the ancient Greeks. Because the Greeks didn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian God, Cahill didn’t talk much about Christian theology and I could take in the history with curiosity and enjoyment. And his discussions about the theology of the Jews were so broad that he didn’t give himself the opportunity to make any mistakes of particularity. He dealt solely with how the Jews stood out in their ancient near-eastern context and with how they radically changed the world as we know it. And when he wrote about the Irish and how they saved civilization, he rarely brought up theology and focused on how Celtic Christianity upheld culture while the rest of Europe was being deculturalized by the barbarians. Cahill is a superb historian for the uninitiated, like me, but he’s a horrible theologian for the person who knows even just a little bit of theology. That makes him dangerous for the non-theologian since he can so easily lead someone into wrongheaded theological thought.

The book I just finished, The Mystery of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World, fits the above description exactly. It’s a book about the influence that the Middle Ages have had on western culture, and you can’t do that without discussing theology a great deal. Again, his history is great, especially when he is talking about all of the things that our culture has that it wouldn’t if there had been no middle ages. He helps to correct the popular belief that the Church was only evil during these times and that the western world would have reached enlightenment sooner if those angry, conservative, fundamentalistic, repressive and anti-intellectual Christians hadn’t been in charge of things. What Francis of Assisi did for social justice, what Hildegard of Bingen did for women’s spiritual equality, what Dante did for public moral discourse, and what Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon did for science are all trumpeted boldly in this work. For these things Cahill is to be praised and the book should be (and has been) widely read.

But Cahill makes theological blunders that devalue the work significantly. I’m not a historical theologian but I play one on TV (actually, depending on how the chips fall, I may try to get a PhD in historical theology which would give me a bit more authority here). That being the case, I know enough to say that if you put Peter Abelard on a scale with Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm is going to carry more historical weight. I’m not saying that Abelard is insignificant, I’m just saying that if you’re going to give him 50 pages of press, you’d better at least mention Anselm. Anselm’s work on the atoning death of Christ revolutionized the discussion and planted the seeds for the revolution of the Reformation. And his ontological argument for the existence of God has been discussed for close to a millennium. Abelard’s work was discussed greatly for several centuries but he is now remembered more for his tragic romance with Héloïse than for his theological contributions. Cahill’s perspective leads to the exact opposite conclusion.

Another theologically atrocious claim by Cahill, also made in his discussions of Abelard, concerns the current debate about the doctrine of the atonement. I’ll let him speak for himself here:

“And though the idea that Christ died to repay his Father for human sin is still a favorite theory of many (especially evangelical) Christians, it is a doctrine no one can make logical sense of, for, like the Calvinist theory of Election, it necessitates a sort of voraciously pagan Father God steeped in cruelty and, in the case of Jesus’s horrific death, his son’s blood.” (p. 199)

This little chunk of text is filled with enough theological confusion to write an essay on, let alone a simple paragraph, but I’ll stay short. First, to compare the Calvinist theory of election to the penal substitutionary view of the atonement is laughable. The latter is embraced by evangelicals of all shapes and sizes, while the former is limited to a particular theological system. Secondly, thousands of pages have been written in just the past few decades on such a view of the atonement and they have quite ably “made logical sense” of it. Here’s just one example. Finally, to say that such a view “necessitates a sort of voraciously pagan Father God …” can only come from someone who hasn’t thought about the doctrine all that much. To make the claims Cahill does without at all mentioning the holiness of God and what sin’s violation of it might require for man’s reconciliation is theologically shallow, unfortunate and irresponsible.

So, while I recommend Cahill’s newest book highly, just like his others, I do so with the strongest of theological cautions. His history is intriguing, as always. He’s got great new stuff on some well-known historical figures and he introduces the reader to some lesser-known folks that we should be aware of. But don’t buy his theology. It’s not only misrepresentative in certain historical respects, it’s misleading as far as the Christian worldview is concerned. Feast on the historical meat but go somewhere else for your theological dessert.

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