Monday, April 02, 2007

Theology IS Important!

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.


Rachel said...

Well said, Karlene!

Perhaps part of the problem is that we haven't defined theology in a way that is accessible to laypeople. I think that when many people hear the word "theology" they hear something similar to "quantum physics" - something that must be important somehow and that really smart people understand, but not anything they could comprehend or apply to their daily life.

How would you define theology?

Herb Leaming said...

I replied to this quite a while ago. It was long and rambling and it disappeared before I could submit it. So I'll just ask: how do you define theology? Is it different that doctrine? I can understand that many people, including me often enough, think of theology as something impossible for the layperson. Studying ponderous volumes of hard to grasp stuff. Translating minute passages from Greek or Hebrew to English. Is that theology? Is it like law where lawyers and law professors have, perhaps intentionally, made the law impossible for the layman to interpret? I’m sure the “Jesus loves me” quote was taken out of context but it did make something seemingly abstract seem real. When I find out that a family member is gay and I suddenly find myself searching for loopholes in the bible to ease my mind and I believe I find it (who hasn’t done that?) and someone who is theologically learned tells me “no way” and yet I hear them seem to change horses in the middle of the stream and tell me that something is now all of sudden culturally contextual where it didn’t seem to be before. I mean….. . This is how a lot of people feel. Is this theology? Doctrine?

Karlene said...

Thank you Rachel and Herb for your comments! I think these are good questions and observations. First - defining theology. Most dictionary definitions of theology set the word in an academic context. 'The study of God.' Our popular definitions are in line with our beliefs that theology belongs with the academic elite and has nothing to do with the average person. This idea has NOT always been true. (As I understand it, it's still not true in the Eastern Church where the laity are informed and encouraged to engage in theological thinking.)

I'll take a stab at a definition, inadequate though it may be. What a person or group believes about God, God's involvement with creation, and humanity's response to God (both belief and action), forms that person's or group's theology.

So what do you believe about God, and how do you live based on those beliefs? How you answer that question reveals your theology. I would also suggest that theology is only rightly understood in community.

I really believe we are suffering from an impoverishment of theological reflection, especially in our evangelical churches where the individual's feelings seem to be the bottom line.

A good, accessible book on the subject is "Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God" by Grenz and Olson. It's fairly thin and easy to read. They place theology on a continuum of reflection and engagement from Folk Theology on one end to Academic Theology on the other. They make a strong case for bringing both ends closer to the middle where intentional theological engagement meets the real lives of Christians.

If we are taught to be more theologically engaged, we will have more tools for sorting through and discerning how to deal with hard things life sends us - like finding out our kid is gay. It doesn't mean the answers are easy to come by. But we are part of a community seeking to find them rather than having the 'right' answer dropped on us by an 'expert'. (Who might not know what she or he is talking about, even if he/she went to seminary!)

One of my professors defines theology as, "the church’s engagement in corporate spiritual discernment.” (Dr. C. Conniry) I like that definition as well.

Speaking of professors, I've got some papers to work on. More on this later?