Theology: What is it good for?

What is theology good for?

First let’s be clear on what theology is.

Theology:*

  1. The study of the nature of God and religious truth; rational inquiry into religious questions.
  2. A system or school of opinions concerning God and religious questions: Protestant theology; Jewish theology.
  3. A course of specialized religious study usually at a college or seminary.

My question concerns primarily the first definition. Of course the second definition is involved because we are each going approach the question from a particular school or point of view. Let’s leave the discussion about the value of religious studies and seminary education for later…much later.

So what’s the point? Why attempt to think rationally about God. Why “study” God? Isn’t experience enough? Certainly the various systems or schools of opinions have caused a lot of problems, schisms, conflict, condemnation, even wars. Why bother? Part of the answer,I think, is because we are creatures that need to organize our ideas- it’s how we make sense of our experiences. But then what do we do with the information? What’s the goal, the end result?

Should we be content with increasing our private understanding and faith?

Should we use the results of our theological study to challenge and change the views of others?

Should theological study only shape and inform our own views?

Or should we use our theological study to challenge and change the world?

To use traditional Christian language; is the point of theology, personal piety, apologetics, evangelism, doctrine, or mission?

Take a moment and consider what you think.

Here is what Douglas J. Schuurman writes in his book, Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life,

“The main effort of Christian theology is not to convince atheists or agnostics of the truth of the Christian claims, important as that task may be. Rather, it is to help Christians interpret the world in light of their faith in the God manifested in Jesus Christ, who renews all of creation.”^

I think Shuurman has it right. The reason to study theology; to think about it, talk about it, ponder it, is to help us live more faithfully in the world. To view the world, not in terms of our personal or idenominational or national self interest; but to make meaning of the world in a way that is deeply shaped by our belief in the God who redeems and renews.

In some ways, I gave you a set of false distinctions in the four questions I posed above. They are all a part of what I understand Shuurman to mean. At the same time, they all are ways we miss the mark.

We should of course endeavor to increase our personal faith and knowledge. Without a sincere and personal faith, religion is just an abstraction. Something to think about but not to believe. Prayer, worship, spiritual disciplines are crucial. However if we are only concerned about our private religious experience haven’t we failed to embrace the entire gospel?

Christianity does challenge the views of others. The theologian Leslie Newbigin writes that as Christians our way of living should be a source of curiosity, of interest to others. The way we conduct ourselves in the everyday world should mark us as Christians. Once again we can do this well or poorly. Newbigin doesn’t mean we should spend our days trying to convince others to believe as we do. He suggests the way we conduct ourselves, humbly, with care and concern for those around us, should prompt others to ask questions about why we do what we do and why society promotes other behaviors.

I don’t know about you but I don’t know anyone who has been “talked into” faith. I wonder what the real effect of all the books and websites devoted to apologetics has been. So often the tone is imperious, self righteous and self satisfied. For me it is much more compelling to see someone incarnate, live- albeit imperfectly- their faith. Only then do I have any interest in the beliefs that form them.

Of course we need to know and understand what we say we believe. I suspect this is what most people think about first when they think about theology. Our minds want clarity and order about what we believe. Without careful thought and study we can wonder off into the theological wastelands. We can so easily shift our gaze and confuse God’s will with our own. But at the same time we run the risk of thinking that what we believe is right, that we know God’s mind and heart and will best. And we run the risk of reducing faith to only an assent to a set of doctrines.

Theology as a tool to change the world. Here again there is more than one way to fall off this horse.

If we think our task is to convince everyone to think and act like us, we’re in for trouble. We Christians can’t even agree among ourselves. Here I think the goal of theology is to help us talk among ourselves, to think through what is important and what is not. And then to work for change that improves the world. We are, as heirs of Abraham, to be a blessing for the world (Gen 12:1-3). Our theological convictions should cause us to work for fair housing, adequate health care, nutrition and all the other worthy causes you can add to this list.

Someone asked me once,”How do you know when you’re thinking theologically?”

My reply was,”When your head hurts.”

Because thinking theologically requires us to think deeply and carefully.  We have to think about difficult topics. We have to talk to each other, particularly those who have a different point of view. We have to recognize what we think is right and then be willing to set all that aside. We have to question, question ourselves and what others tell us. And most importantly we must listen. Listen for God and recognize that God speaks to us in a variety of sometimes surprising ways.

I’d like to know, what do you think?

 

 

 

 

 

 

* theology. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/theology (accessed: August 15, 2008).

^ Douglas J. Shuurman, Vocation: Discerning our Callings in Life, (Eerdmans Publishing:Grand Rapids MI, 2004),52.

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2 Responses to “Theology: What is it good for?”

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