What Do We Mean by Theology?

Robert D. Brinsmead

In this section of our website we will discuss the big picture stuff that we could call Worldview rather than Theology. Whether we are theists or atheists makes no difference to the fact that we all hold to things that are of ultimate concern and value to us. We all search for a sense of meaning in the world and in our own existence.

In this sense everybody has a theology or a worldview.  Think of it as a pair of very powerful glasses that colour and shape the way we look at the world. As the ancient Talmud puts it, “We do not see things are they are; we see them as we are.”  Or as Arthur Herman puts it, “Pessimism and optimism are attitudes the scholar brings to his analysis of events, not conclusions that arise from that analysis.” (The Idea of Decline in Western History, p.3) He could have said exactly the same thing about the scientists who analyze climate change data. They too bring their worldview or theology to the interpretation of the data. It is like that old saying, “Two men looked out through the prison bars; one saw mud and the other stars.”  It is the worldview that one holds that determines the way one sees things.

As they go through life, some people change their clothes often, but rarely, if ever, change their minds about the big picture stuff. They rarely question the assumptions and pre-suppositions of their worldview.  Not so in the case of the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes who once quipped, “When the facts change, I change my mind. And what do you do, Sir?”

I was born and grew up in a very conservative, apocalyptic Christian church that believed this world was created about 6,000 years ago and was about to come to a dramatic end in   “the Second Coming.” I took that worldview so seriously that I took up the study of theology and began to read widely. I gradually (and sometimes painfully) came to realize that I could not fit the real universe of Galileo, Darwin, Einstein and the Hubble telescope into the little match-box sized universe of the sacred writers whose worldview was at least 2,000 years out of date.

Exposing myself to the best literary criticism of the last two hundred years, I discovered that Moses did not write the books of Moses, nor did a holy visionary called Daniel write the apocalyptic book of Daniel (upon which many of my apocalyptic imaginings were based). I found that none of the apostles who walked and talked with the historical Jesus wrote any of the Gospels in the New Testament. Rather, as all NT scholars now acknowledge, these New Testament books were written at least two to three generations after Jesus walked the earth, and by unknown authors who shaped their account of him to support their own religious agendas. Worse, I had to come to terms with the evidence that some of the writings that were later included in the New Testament canon were forgeries bearing the names of the apostles of Jesus.

Like John Wesley, I too have had to admit that when I was younger I was far too dogmatic about things that cannot be known. As Montaigne put it, “Nothing is more certainly believed than that which is not known.”  My first book was called God’s Eternal Purpose. I have since discovered that all that I know about God could be written on a postage stamp with a large piece of chalk – and there would still be room enough for the Halleluiah chorus! I have come to appreciate what all the great ones of every great religious tradition have discovered – that the ultimate Mystery that we call God is totally incomprehensible, unfathomable, unimaginable, indescribable, or even as the ancient Hebrews suggested by the way they wrote the sacred name, unpronounceable. The only thing that we can ever know about this unfathomable Mystery is what we are able to observe within the arena of human existence. Everything outside of this observable evidence belongs to the realm of the mythical which is of no real benefit to us at all.

For the readers who don’t want to throw out their Christian baby with the bathwater, we offer the following suggestion: like all the greatest spiritual teachers in the history of man, the historical Jesus did not indulge in speculations about God, the world to come or things of a mythical nature. He focused on improving the human condition in the here and now with unconditional love, forgiveness, compassion and justice – and all this with an amazing optimism. A person does not have to be a certain kind of “believer” to appreciate this kind of worldview.




Famous quote from Paul Tillich – one of the theological giants of the 20th Century

“Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself. In abbreviation: Religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.” Theology of Culture, p 42

Tillich later reflected that Worldview might have been a better word to use than Religion. In either case, Tillich said that all Homo sapiens have one.