On Discussing Religion: History and Theology Here are two paragraphs discussing religion: This is a work of history, not of theology. It is a study of the development of a concept in the human mind, not a metaphysical statement. Historical scholarship cannot determine whether the Devil exists objectively. The historian may, however, suggest that men and women have seemed to act as if the Devil did exist. Evil—the infliction of pain upon sentient beings—is one of the most longstanding and serious problems of human existence. Frequently and in many cultures evil has been personified. This book is a history of the personification of evil, which for the sake of clarity I have called “the Devil” .... .... The historian faces special difficulty in a history of values, which are always in flux, and the difficulty is compounded in a cross-cultural study, where terms relating to values must be translated from one language and cultural context to another. The inevitability of error and disputable interpretation should not, however, deter a writer from dealing with what he perceives as a problem central to humanity and to himself. A work of scholarship should be more than an exercise. In writing, the writer should himself change; and his best hope is that in reading, the reader may change also. In between, medievalist Jeffrey Burton Russell discusses the origin of his book, arising from trying to understand the fuller implications of the subject matter—("I came to see that I could not understand the medieval Devil except in terms of its historical antecedents")—and justifying that his "is a work of synthesis", during a time when "tide of historical scholarship is in the direction of analysis". And while in such considerations we learn something about the framework of the book, so also does the introductory focus of The Devil (Cornell Univ. Press, 1977) tell us something about the intended audience. Additionally, we are given clarification of "a point that was sometimes misunderstood" in a prior volume on witchcraft: The historical evidence can never be clear enough to know what really happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen), but the evidence as to what people believed to have happened is relatively clear. The concept—what people believed to have happened—is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true. There is an intersectional joke about Russell's audience, that he can read as pompous to armchair and professional readers alike, but the point he makes is kind of important. In what way is what people believe to have happened more important than what actually happened? This is part of understanding history; as Russell observes, "people act upon what they believe to be true". Here are two more paragraphs discussing religion. Mark A. Noll, opens the introductory chapter to America's God (Oxford Univ. Press, 2002) with a basic explanation of purpose: This book is a contextual history of Christian theology. Its pages describe evolutionary changes in Christian doctrine that occurred from the 1730s to the 1860s, a period when theology played an extraordinarily important role in American thought, but the emphasis throughout is on the contexts—ecclesiastical, social, political, intellectual, and commercial—in which those changes took place. Because it features connections between theological development and early American history, the book often asks how religion influenced the early United States. Yet Christian theology, not the United States, is the primary concern. The book's main narrative describes a shift away from European theological traditions, descended directly from the Protestant Reformation, toward a Protestant evangelical theology decisevley shaped by its engagement with Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America. It is not an exaggeration to claim that nineteenth-century Protestant evangelicalism differed from the religion of the Protestant Reformation as much as sixteenth-century Reformation Protestantism differed from the Roman Catholic theology from which it emerged. Again, the discussion of religion is presented as a question of history. Moreover, while the consideration of Protestantism, Catholicism, and what is not an exaggeration does read as some manner of thesis statement, it is not necessarily the central focus of the book, but, rather, an important aspect of consideration. Here are two more paragraphs from Noll, perhaps more familiar around here: Western Protestantism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was moving from establishment forms of religion, embedded in traditional, organic, premodern political economies, to individualized and affectional forms adapted to modernizing, rational, and market-oriented societies. Theological manifestations of these changes can be described in several ways. They first reoriented specific beliefs: God was perceived less often as transcendent and self-contained, more often as immanent and relational. Divine revelation was equated more simply with the Bible alone than Scripture embedded in a self-conscious ecclesiastical tradition. The physical world created by God was more likely to be regarded as understandable, progressing, and malleable, than as mysterious, inimical, and fixed. Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method. Theological changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also involved a shift in meaning for key concepts that operated in both religious and political life, for example, “freedom”, “justice”, “virtue”, and “vice”. For theology, the process at work was the same as Gordon Wood once described for intellectual developments more generally: “Although words and concepts may remain outwardly the same for centuries, their particular functions and meanings do not and could not remain static—not as long as individuals attempt to use them to explain new social circumstances and make meaningful new social behavior.” In America as much was happening in theology from new meanings given to old words as from the introduction of new vocabularies. A quarter-century after Russell, we find Noll approaching a similar question of reality and belief: "Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method", Noll asserts; and, "as much was happening in theology from new meanings given to old words as from the introduction of new vocabularies". While the idea of redefinition, a transformation or even evolution of words and language, is hardly unknown, we might also wonder what redefinition or transformation is actually taking place. If we consider three basic ways of discussing religion between people, in terms of faith, history, or politics, none of those forms are utterly removed from one another, but they attend the words differently, and only one of those forms purports to seek reliable, functional definitions. Consider Noll's invocation of Wood: While "words and concepts may remain outwardly the same", "particular functions and meanings do not and could not remain static" inasmuch "as individuals attempt to use them to explain new social circumstances and make meaningful new social behavior.” And if we examine Noll's particular meaning of the phrase, "scientific method", we might find it not uncommon in historical and literary discourse from and about the period. The period of Noll's consideration overlaps with the rise of what historian Karen Armstrong describes as an idiosyncratic and eccentric conception of religion, and also with literary Romanticism, in which the application of scientific method to notions a more modern outlook would consider unscientific was, at the very least, common. Things can get complicated, here, even if a basic distinction is pretty straightforward. Part of the "scientific method" Noll refers to really was so simple as organzing data in a useful way. The thing about the "particular functions and meanings" in discourse is that nothing about that notion of the "scientific method" required that the data organized be scientifically valid or reliable. The straightforward part is that discourse of faith is not easily validated, to put it mildly, and has no obligation to reliable treatment of words. Or, perhaps that is not fair, but utterly internalized reliability is known to be unreliable. Political discourse can be very much similar, and can sometimes be found calculating deception; nor is faith discourse immune or utterly separate from political discourse. That is to say, things can get complicated. Again, though, Noll: "Theological method came to rely less on instinctive deference to inherited confessions and more on self-evident propositions organized by scientific method." Think of what that actually means; it's actually pretty straigtforward: Theological method relied less on what the predecessors said, and more on what any believer thought obvious. Neither, as such, is reliable. Or, as Russell put it: "The concept—what people believed to have happened—is more important than what really did happen, because people act upon what they believe to be true."