what secular people can get out of theology

I’m teaching a course on the thought of Martin Luther King, who obtained two graduate degrees in theology and contributed substantially to that discipline. I happen not to be a Christian, and I am teaching in a predominantly secular context with students who have diverse faith commitments that they rarely bring explicitly into the conversation.

It’s easy to say why we should read theology if we want to understand the thought of MLK, which is a historian’s task. But why should we want to understand the theological aspects of his thought if we are in a secular context and our interests are politics and justice?

Of course, I welcome all responses to these questions from my students, including opposition to religion (although I have not actually heard that lately). These are my own, personal thoughts.

First, it is not self-evident how to distinguish religious beliefs from other beliefs. MLK believed that all human beings are created by God in God’s image. I believe that all human beings have infinite intrinsic moral worth. What is the basis for saying that he is religious and I am not?

Second, we all think with the materials we find at hand. We cannot view the world completely anew. But we can make better or worse selections and enhance (or spoil) the things we select. Christian thinkers will start with Christian materials. We can learn from how they use those ideas and add to them. It’s as if you don’t want to be a biologist but you can improve your thinking by learning some biology. (Or change the analogy to ceramics if a craft seems more apt than a science.)

Third, it is illuminating to think in a hypothetical vein. Two Christian thinkers are on my mind this week. One is Howard Washington Thurman (1899 – 1981), whom I assigned. The other is Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham, who shows up in my social media feed denouncing homosexuality on biblical grounds.

Thurman notes that God could have expressed the divine in any form–for instance, as a Roman. “But the fact is he did not.” God chose instead that the only-begotten Son would be a poor Jew “in a sad and desolate time for the people”; “a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group”; and a non-citizen, someone lacking “that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into the ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.” The Son of God was then tortured to death for nonviolently resisting the state.

I happen not to be able to think, “So it was,” but I can think: “If there is/were a God, this is how that God would act and feel.” And I can gain ethical insight–as well as inspiration–from this reasoning. At the same time, I am sure that if there is/were a God, God would not command and act the way that Laura Ingraham assumes.

I happen not to agree with the whole story that either Thurman or Ingraham believes. However, when I move into a hypothetical mode, I am confident that Thurman is right and that Ingraham is badly wrong. And making this distinction feels like a valid way to explore ethical and political issues.

Moving further away from specific authors, I can find specific value (and pitfalls) in each of the great world religions without happening to agree with some of the core metaphysics of any of them. For instance, I can compare Christianity to Judaism or Islam, or to Buddhism and Hinduism, without ever leaving the hypothetical level.

Source: Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), pp. 17, 18, 33. See also: Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time; Martin Luther King as a philosopher; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; and Jesus was a person of color.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.