It saddens me that there is such widespread disdain for theology in the church. Theology is often viewed negatively and is regarded as boring, uppity, irrelevant, and perhaps intimidating. Many believe that only really smart people can even approach theology, and that it’s to the detriment of their faith when they do. I find this very frustrating. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent some time in the United States he observed that American Protestantism was seriously lacking in its theological engagement. He ended up hanging out mostly with the African American church, being inspired and challenged by their theology of the oppressed.
In a recent conversation with two friends from church, they expressed their disdain for theology and how irrelevant it seems to their Christianity. One of them quoted Karl Barth who, when asked to sum up his life’s work said, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” If Barth had known that his words would so often be used to negate his life’s work rather than summarize it, I wonder if he would have bitten his tongue.
I completely understand that not everyone keeps a Miroslav Volf book on the back of the toilet or gets excited about graduate level theology classes. And I also share frustration with the kind of theology that is completely divorced from the life of the Church and the life of faith. There are plenty of theological writings that are only interesting to a handful of professional theologians who read each other’s work and analyze it with academic detachment, never penetrating the wall between the world of academia and the lives of regular Christians.
However, I really believe that everyone is a theologian, but have just never been taught to regard their theology as, well, theology. Our theology (whether or not we call it that) directly impacts the way we live out our faith in Christ. And here is where I see a problem – when we disdain theology we are prone to neglect wrestling with important theological issues that impact the way we think and act. We tend to operate on assumptions that we’ve absorbed from our church culture. So when we experience a tragedy, or our country goes to war, or we find out our kid is gay, or when we choose what kind of products to consume, or how to respond to global and local poverty, or we get trapped by an addiction, or we’re faced with death or disease … and so on, we fall back on unreflective behaviors or knee-jerk reactions. And if something shakes us to a point of crisis where we are finally willing to think through our theology, we find ourselves surrounded by people who think theology isn’t important, but who are more than willing to offer unreflective, though sincere, platitudes. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God helps those who help themselves.” “It must be God’s will.” “There must be sin or your life or God would be blessing you.” “God needed your loved one for his garden in heaven.” and so on.
This seems to be a systemic problem, and one of the reasons for the appeal of so many emerging churches. I am excited about a movement toward theological engagement that encourages regular Christians to question and wrestle with theological truth. It doesn’t require knowing a bunch of “high-falootin’” words, but it does require a community that is willing to value theology and to place theology where it belongs – squarely in the center of the life of faith and the life of the Church.