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Putting Theology in its Place

2011 September 21

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?


6 Responses leave one →
  1. September 21, 2011

    I see a lot of the “my theology is better than your theology” extreme a lot on the Internet. Like if you say anything about Jesus’ death and resurrection other than the Penal Substitutionary Theory of atonement–God poured out His wrath upon His Son so that Christians won’t burn in Hell–you’re automatically considered a heretic. For me, I think the cross is way too big to be so narrowly defined like that.

    (I should point out that I’m not totally against Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I just don’t think it’s the entire Gospel story.)

    • September 21, 2011

      I’m totally against it. Despite the fact that friends like Scot McKnight and Roger Olson think it can be redefined and reclaimed, I feel like they redefine it to the point where it is neither penal, nor really all that substitutionary.

      But, all that aside, what’s really interesting is that in this post, Julie isn’t even reacting to conservative Christian theologies at all. Both sides of what she is reacting to fall within what one might call “liberal” (or at least post-liberal) approaches to Christianity. Yet another reason us emergent folks don’t quite fit in well on either side of the conservative-liberal spectrum.

  2. September 21, 2011

    I, too, bristle at sacred/secular or body/spirit dualism. But I also wonder about people who think they can define God or feel they need to carve Him into something small enough to understand. Try to describe Him? Certainly! But not define. I can’t go there.

    Here’s the difference, I think. In order to get to know a river, I might scoop some of it up into a bucket and analyze it. I would learn some things about the river, but I could never get to know the river — not really. A river in a bucket is no longer a river. In order to get to know it, I would need to sleep next to it, canoe on it, swim in it, live by it through all its seasons, follow where it leads me — and that’s not easy.

    It was not easy for me to move beyond knowing about or knowing of our triune God (which I think is important) to actually knowing Him, marinating in Him, and allowing Him to direct my life from the inside. That level of intimacy is scary. And it seems that the only antidote for that fear is faith. It was much easier for me to hold Him at arms-length, but not nearly as fulfilling.

    That short trip He took from my head to my heart took years of work restructuring who I thought I was, and letting go of a lot of who I thought He was. And somewhere in that process is something that helps us become more fully human.

  3. DRT permalink
    September 22, 2011

    I continue to let me cynical side show in this. I can’t help believe that churches who claim that they do not do theology, actually do theology. Anyone sophisticated enough to make that statement or come up with that statement is actually saying that they don’t want anyone disagreeing with their theology.

    Its much like those who believe in the perspicuity of the bible, what they believe in is their interpretation of the bible and they are unable to aknowledge others.

    Am I cynical?

  4. September 25, 2011

    I’m not sure where you get the “intellectual stuff” from in regard to theology. I signed up for a masters program in theology fully expecting something akin to existential reasoning or some philosophic exercise. What I got instead was a bunch of historical facts crammed in my head with far too much emphasis on memory. Their text books are also deliberately written in a convoluted style to compensate for what are simple ideas. It’s stupid material and only by throwing in a lot of esoteric terms and writing in an overtly academic style meant to impress, are the less aware duped into believing it’s challenging stuff. Well, actually, it is challenging. I found myself spending one whole hour to read and understand five pages of material and found myself breaking those down into a second grade language to get the meaning. When all was said and done, I could reduce those 5 pages into one paragraph that was written far more simplistically and eloquently than the original material. You could actually understand what was being said. The humanities typically creates a lot of “fluff” to camoflage what are simple ideas. It’s used to give the illusion of superior intelligence by those who cannot create a painting or a musical score or a scientific invention. Science, on the other hand, is typically presented in simple terms to understand truly complex ideas. I mean, even the posts here make my point. Take a look at the terminology you use-totally unessessary terms-and I’m taking to everyone here! Even the central figure of biblical theology, the Christ, (and who is supposedly “GOD” in the flesh), spoke in far more simplistic terms which are readily discernible, than what you are presenting here. I really believe it’s a subterfuge for the uncreative-for people who make nothing. Doing a song-and-dance with terminology and verbosity doesn’t make you smart. It only makes you hard to understand, which is exactly what you want. Because if we did understand, we would discover the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothing.

  5. September 25, 2011

    Rather than just complain about the hyperbole, I’ll give you an example as to how things can be simplified for the general reading audience who have better things to do than to do verbal gymnastics at the expense of understanding. Here’s the above passage and its reduction:
    “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.” (98 words)
    I will, as an example, break that statement down into a language the general public would understand.

    ‘Those who want us to rid ourselves of theology and to think and write the things that are easy for the general public to understand are being unreasonable. Shouldn’t anyone who intends on speaking or writing for the public seek a better understanding of the material they wish to speak about? I don’t want the readers of this book to be misled. This is a book of theology.’ (69 words)
    Now, there are some problems here which suggests the author of this statement is being unreasonable and “suffering from a kind of hysteria”. Is there any reason why your ideas shouldn’t be easy to understand? Why would anyone think it unreasonable for someone to want to understand them? This even went so far as to add an ad-hominem by saying anyone who wants that sort of clarity is “suffering from a kind of hysteria” and are “without discernment”-a polite way of saying, ‘stupid.’ But thanks for the warning. When you tell us to “expect nothing but theology” you are telling us, as gleaned from the aforementioned statements, that you intend on being as confusing as possible. I’ll be sure not to pick that one up.

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