Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Is Theology Ever Important?

A few years ago, I was the guest  of a prestigious university that had invited a group of Christian thinkers to discuss making faith relevant to contemporary people.

An incessant balm of sound and image flowed from screens and gadgets scattered throughout the room.  It felt like we were in the middle of the Good Ship Enterprise, on our way to worlds unknown, savoring the joy of being first in line to taste all things cool and relevant.

We listened as people with interesting hair informed us of even more waves of relevance to come. They warned us to alter ourselves, so as not to miss the emerging future that would soon sweep away all things irrelevant, traditional, and historical.   

We then went into the inevitable small groups to discuss how this might be done. None of us wanted to be found inadequate in the coming day of reckoning, when even the clothes we were wearing might become insurmountable obstacles to the multitudes of spiritual seekers just waiting for us to finally get our act together.

In my small group, one man asked a question that immediately revealed his unworthiness to ever become relevant.

“ Wouldn't it be interesting to hear from some theologians about the spiritual impact of these technological shifts?”

The man next to me, so relevant that he was nearly a cyborg, looked at the facilitator as though someone had just shaken a bag of chicken bones to discern the future. He didn't say anything really, he just repeated that one word, “theologian,” rolled his eyes and sighed.

Everyone chuckled. Then we went back to discussing relevant things.

Most Christian leaders today will agree with the cyborg’s response. If there is anything we do not need, its theology. We need better managers, better lights, better music, more flexible architecture, good demographic data. Other will say we need more prayer, a focus on missions, and worship that touches the heart. The people who say we need theology or theologians can all be easily accommodated in a modest size classroom of any successful church. Which is the best place for them. You certainly don’t want them in the board room or the pulpit.

How did we get here? How did the study of Christian theology become so disconnected from life, even from the life of the church?   

I believe it is our definition of theology that is to blame.

When we study theology, what exactly are studying? Or, perhaps that is the wrong question, the question that set us off in the wrong direction in the first place.  Perhaps it is not a ‘what’ we were meant to study but a ‘who.’ And a ‘who’ is studied much differently than a ‘what’. We call the process of turning a ‘who’ into a ‘what’, objectifying.

The 'who' in question usually objects to this process.

The study of a ‘what’ requires objectivity. The 'what' that is being observed cares nothing about what we think, or how we respond. It just is. It doesn't seek to be known and does not actively cooperate with our desire to know it. 

The study of a ‘who’ however requires subjectivity. The person being observed observes the observer and has opinions about the way in which he is perceived  Some sort of relationship ensues through which the observer, including his organs of perception, change. Romance does this. So does parenting.

If you study a lover as you would study engineering you will never get to know your lover. You study the ways of a lover to know how to enter more deeply into the relationship with them, which changes not only what you know but how you come to know what you know. When you study a 'who,' the study changes you into a different person

Theology is the study of God, who, if he exists at all is, by definition, a mystery beyond human capacity to comprehend. Therefore, we study only that which God has chosen to reveal about Himself. We enter a mystery that constantly stretches our organs of perception and alters our being. That puts God in the driver’s seat, which means that studying God is something quite different than studying amoebas or androids. Studying either amoebas or androids require the engagement of one's intellect, of course, just as theology does. But studying God requires much more. 

Study of any sort changes a student. The student’s capacity to learn must be expanded for him to acquire more knowledge than he presently has. His capacity must be enlarged even more for him to use what he knows. It must be expanded yet more for him to use his knowledge for a specific purpose and, finally, expanded to another level altogether if he is to become capable of discerning whether or not the purpose for which he uses his knowledge is good, true, beautiful or even useful.  

The last paragraph gives us a rough blueprint for education from grammar school to the PhD, at least in theory. But if the focus of our study is God, what does that process imply?

First, I think, is that the student himself becomes both the laboratory for his experiments and the dissertation that reveals the study's results. The changes in the student is what that makes the object of his study visible. If theology is an authentic, legitimate discipline, worthy of anyone’s interest, or useful to any part of humanity, then the student’s entire being must participate in his study. He must be like the early students of radiation, who suffered the detrimental effects of getting too close to their object of research. 

When someone actually studies God, and does not merely study what has been said about God – although that is a valid part of theological studies – shouldn't we see in them the effects of drawing near to God? And, shouldn't those affects be beneficial? Shouldn't the theologian, in other words, be a healthy person, a radient person, a joyful person, a wise person? Or at least, shouldn't we see some progress in the student toward this sort of health? 

The conclusion, or so it seems to me, is that theology and spirituality are not separate fields. They are rather the indispensably united parts of one's study of God. Intellect, emotion and piety are all involved in real theology; not just ideally, but indispensably. 

As for relevance: the saint remains relevant for all times and for all places because he or she ceases to become the citizen of any one single time or place. The saint becomes timeless; just as we would expect of anyone who becomes a friend of the timeless God.  

Radiation is dangerous.

If you don’t want to become a mutant; don’t get near it. 

Just read about it in a book.

Or, if you don't like books, just get cool hair and find some captivating sounds and images to keep our attention away from the vacuous  nature of what you are talking about.

1 comment:

Ethiopianchurch Blog said...

I am worried when one systematizes scripture to a point of making theology the purview only of the specialist. Another fact is that the Christian faith is both a revelation and a historical event. We are a community of believers and yet individuals accountable one to another and to Jesus the Head. Losing balance is what is causing us much grief. There is bad theology and then there is good theology. Whichever exalts Jesus is good; whichever exalts human endeavor is bad. Jesus' instruction is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Thank you for this post.