Putting Theology in its Place
Anyone vaguely familiar with my writing will know that I am not (to put it mildly) a fan of the divided life or most either/or extremes. I cringe at divisions of the physical and the spiritual and I resist cultural systems that push me to separate my public identity from my private as if my work in the world has nothing to do with who I am as a wife and mother. So I have felt similarly in regard to the extreme perspectives on theology I have encountered recently.
I am equally uneasy with the tendencies in the church today to either shy away from theology altogether as the over-intellectualized inapplicable pursuit of the elite or to alternately make a claim to pure theology for theology’s sake. I hear the first all the time in the church. People proudly claim that what they write or speak about isn’t theology but simply what it practically means to serve God. They decry theology as getting in the way of following Jesus or of our ability to really worship. I even overheard a fellow seminary student recently complaining about having to study theology and philosophy in seminary. As he protested, he came to seminary so he could serve in the church not be bothered with all this intellectual stuff. But then at the opposite extreme there are also those who announce that what really matters is pure theology, untainted by the trivial mundanities of the world. Often assuming strict divisions of the human and the divine, they are quick to dismiss any attempts at practical Christianity as too profane to matter and the people who do such theology as misguided. This quote by Karl Barth sums this stance up nicely,
“Those who urge us to shake ourselves free from theology and to think – and more particularly to speak and write – only what is immediately intelligible to the general public seem to me to be suffering from a kind of hysteria and to be entirely without discernment. Is it not preferable that those who venture to speak in public, or to write for the public, should first seek a better understanding of the theme they wish to propound? … I do not want readers of this book to be under any illusions. They must not expect nothing but theology.” (4)
Obviously both sides are reacting to the extremes of the other. I agree with Barth that theology does matter – we do need better understanding of the God we claim to follow. To assume that theology can be abandoned just because some find it boring or elitist or difficult to understand does a disservice to those striving to be faithful. How we talk about God matters, but precisely for the everyday practical reasons some are so quick to reject. Theology is elitist if it exists for its own sake, or for the sake of a very few. If all theology does is attempt to prevent God from speaking into the lives of people today, then it has set itself up in place of God. If understanding God doesn’t transform our lives, bringing the hope of God to earth as it is in heaven, then theology is just an artifact or a clanging gong, useless for the communion of the church.
At the same time pretending that one’s faith isn’t shaped by a theology – by a conversation of the faithful with the scriptures as well as the philosophies of the world about our understanding of God – is to allow the theologies of the loudest voice to dictate what one believes and how one lives. It is easy to turn the life of faith into, say, a mirror of a particular political and economic system if those in the pews are conditioned to believe they shouldn’t bother thinking about what teachings are shaping what they believe. Insidious theologies take hold when the people are taught to believe that theology doesn’t matter. It’s like that great scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep’s character explains to Anne Hathaway’s character about how high fashion affects her bargain basement shopping decisions whether she is aware of it or not. Meryl Streep says, “It is sort of comical that you think you have made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when in fact you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” If we think we can exempt ourselves from being shaped by theology, all we are doing is mindlessly allowing others to determine how we think about God and our faith for us without bothering to hold those ideas accountable to anything.
I appreciate James Cone’s perspective on the significance of what we believe – “The resurrection conveys hope in God. Nor is this the ‘hope’ that promises a reward in heaven in order to ease the pain of injustice on earth. Rather it is hope which focuses on the future in order to make us refuse to tolerate present inequities.” Theology speaks to that hope of God, a hope that is not limited to this world or confined to divine realms. For theology to convey that hope has to be deeply reflective and properly intelligent while at the same time have feet so to speak. Theology cannot be dismissed or exist in a vacuum apart from the very embodied body of Christ it exists to guide. So when I hear preaching against the need for theology or hear embodied theologies dismissed as profane, I can’t help but cringe. God has blessed us with the gift of coming to know Godself, why would we either throw away that opportunity or alternately claim that the gift is meaningless for human existence?