What is Systematic Theology?
Systematic theology is exactly what it sounds like — a system for studying theology. There aren’t many world religions where the holy book or revealed word or whatever comes in neatly organized volumes (although I’d appreciate the pitch, “If you buy all five angelic volumes, you’ll be the proud owner of a year’s supply of Turtle Wax!” because then you’d be getting something out of it). I mean, I’ve studied the book of Ezekiel and I still think it’s describing the floor plan of a sacred delicatessen. Clearly all the relevant content is in other books, hence the need for a system.
Look, you sign up for a program in a seminary, you have to get to know the lingo. I’ve accepted that. I’ve also decided that some of it is useful. Here are some of the areas commonly included in a study of systematic theology, and what I think we can do with them.
Christology is also just what it sounds like — the study of the nature and person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was rad. He hung out with all the worst people, helped ’em out, and didn’t hate. Whether or not he was real is a good historical topic. Whether or not he was divine is a different topic altogether, and one that has caused Christian churches to schism more than once in the past two thousand years. Obviously, atheists are in good company (or at least plenty of company) when we doubt this man’s divinity.
Potential for Social Change: Jesus said, “I want you to live abundantly.” (That’s my paraphrase of John 10:10.) That is great advice! Abundant life is NOW, not in a future kingdom, not in an afterlife, not after you have gambled on salvation only to discover that salvation is only in this life. I for one want to have life abundant. I want to provide other people with life abundant. I wish that Trayvon Martin or Troy Davis could have had a chance at life abundant, and I hope you wish the same.
The final events of history — or at least, human history — constitute the topic of eschatology. It is an absolute HOOT that the can’t-wait-for-the-Rapture Christians think they have the market cornered on eschatology. There are plenty of humanist narratives of destruction. Nuclear winter. Global warming. Genocide. We know what to be afraid of. There are also narratives about the real end of time, such as the predicted heat death of the Universe.
“Judgment” is usually wrapped up in eschatology. Ugh, judgment. Judgment appears in the de-conversion stories of many, many atheists. Lots of us had a day when we decided that we haven’t done anything deserving of divine judgment.
Potential for Social Change: I already alluded to it, but let me say it again: Nukes, greenhouse effect, genocide. The world ends every day, for someone. If you’re willing to sit back and accept that, you’re a pathetic excuse for a human being.
Hamartiology is the study of sin. For Christians, this involves a lot of talk about “original sin” and other nonsense like that. Christian sin is like a weird combination of an STI (transmitted through sex, obviously) and a Ponzi scheme (invest, or be damned!).
Potential for Social Change: Listen, sin is real. 1.) Sin is a metaphor. 2.) Metaphors are structures in our brain. 3.) Our understanding of “sin” is embodied. We can’t intellectualize our way out of this by saying that sin is just an offense against a deity.
Of course sin is not an offense against a deity. There are no deities. Sin is an offense against just relationships between human beings. When people die in the Sonoran Desert because of Operation Gatekeeper, that is sin. When children are deported and sent back to violence, that is sin. When people languish on death row or are slowly tortured to death on a gurney, that is sin. When teens are cast out of their families because they’ve come out as queer, THAT IS SIN.
I am an atheist, and I have no desire to stop talking about sin. If anything, we should talk about sin much, much more.
Pneumatology is the study of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit (who used to be a Ghost). As an atheist, I find pneumatology to be one of the most frustrating theological subjects. The triune-god doesn’t even make sense to many Christians, so how can you expect it to make sense to atheists? Three can’t be one, because three is three. Three is one and one and one, not just one.
There isn’t supposed to be a hierarchy, and yet, unless your Christian church is Pentecostal, the Holy Spirit is basically ignored, trailing a distant third behind Father and Son.
Potential for Social Change: If we can bring the Holy Spirit back into the Trinity as equal-to and of the same Stuff as Father and Son, we could seriously think about what that equality signifies for human society.
Soteriology is the study of doctrines of salvation.
Potential for Social Change: I have nothing to add here. I don’t need to be saved from anything. Your princess is in another castle.
Theodicy, or the problem of evil, asks why an omnipotent, omnipresent, all-loving God would let bad things happen. Atheists cut this Gordian knot right down the middle.
Potential for Social Change: I have no trouble admitting that certainly people and acts can be characterized as evil, and I have no trouble admitting that this is a problem. What I see missing from philosophical texts on the problem of evil is a serious consideration of the problems of sexual violence and gender-based violence. I think theodicy looks very different when you prioritize women and gender-variant people.