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What Is Theology?

February 2, 2015

“What is Theology?” Isaiah 40:12-31 © 2.1.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

My first time in seminary, I was taught that theology is the “queen of the sciences.” The phrase came from the High Middle Ages, 1000-1300 AD, when “science” simply meant the study of a particular object and the means of investigating it. The object of the theologian’s study was God, and his means of investigation, the Bible. Theology was the queen of the sciences because it was assumed that there had to be an overarching standard to guide the study of anything else, and the Bible as interpreted by the Church provided such a framework. Theology as I learned it in the 1970s was divided into three categories, namely, biblical theology, pastoral theology, and systematic theology. And the latter had sub-specialties, like soteriology (the study of salvation), ecclesiology (the study of the church), eschatology (the study of the end of things), hamartology (the study of sin), Christology, and others. Theology was about the development and defense of doctrines which are codified, or we might say, solidified and calcified, in the creeds and confessions of faith communities. It was an esoteric discipline that was largely academic. Would-be pastors like me studied it, but then they had to try to “apply” it to their work in a world where people lose their jobs or have major surgery or embezzle money or face messy divorces or lose a loved one in war or to crime.

Theological writing along these lines usually sounded something like a legal or bureaucratic document. It was filled with jargon written by academics speaking to other academics and trying to impress. One might hear about “a priori arguments” or that God is sui generis. Or how God acted salvifically in the midst of heilsgeschichte at the kairos.

That kind of theology had its value and its heyday. But theology is not just the business of academics, and it’s not a “science” in the contemporary sense. Science today is about observable phenomena, measurement, testable hypotheses, and repeatable results. It seeks to answer the questions “how?” and “when?” It’s not about finding meaning and purpose. But beyond that, theology is not science because the Mystery at the heart of creation cannot be quantified, poked, examined, categorized or put under a microscope or on a shelf. The Sovereign of all celebrated by Babylonian Isaiah is not at our disposal or our beck and call. We can no more approach the true reality of this One than we can travel at the speed of light. All our cherished names for God are but poor metaphors. Any god who can be defined and packaged is no god and not worthy of worship. We have a name for that sort of deity; we call it an “idol.” But it’s the god so many in the Church want and call upon.

A better kind of theology for our day comes not from academic discussion but from the raw material of life. That means you and I are theologians, no matter what we studied in school or how we make or made a living. Every time we ask about the meaning of life or try to discern the will of God or face a tough question about the presence of evil or why people hurt and hate each other, we’re doing theology. We’re living theology. Theology is not fancy words and arcane terminology. It consists simply in the quest day to day to figure out in that necessarily approximate way who God is and what God wants from us. Not easy, but not something you have to have a Ph.D. in religion to do.

Here are two examples of the sort of theology I’m talking about. One is by Donald Miller, from his 2003 book Blue Like Jazz. Miller’s father abandoned the family when he, Donald, was young. Reflecting on that hurtful experience, he wrote: “Today I wonder why it is God refers to himself as ‘Father’ at all. This, to me, in light of the earthly representation of the role, seems a marketing mistake. Why would God want to call himself Father when so many fathers abandon their children?

“As a child, the title Father God offered an ambiguous haze with which to interact. I understood what a father did as well as I understood the task of a shepherd. All the vocabulary about God seemed to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet” (4).

The other is a long passage from A Declaration of Faith, which we often use in worship, but only in brief snippets. It comes, as you may recall, from the late 1970s, during which time it was resisted mightily and ultimately rejected as an official document, thanks to certain elements in the church.

“We believe in one true and living God. We acknowledge one God alone, whose demands on us are absolute, whose help for us is sufficient. That One is the Lord, whom we worship, serve, and love.

“God is greater than our understanding. We do not fully comprehend who God is or how he works. God’s reality far exceeds all our words can say. The Lord’s requirements are not always what we think is best. The Lord’s care for us is not always what we want. God comes to us on his own terms and is able to do far more than we ask or think…

“God moves in history with his people. Jesus Christ stands at the center of the biblical record. The Bible is the account of God’s word and action in history, together with his people’s response in faith. It tells how the Lord has moved with Israel and the church towards the kingdom of God, his just and loving rule over all. It is the story of the one God, who is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That story is still unfolding and in faith we make it our own. It forms our memory and our hope. It tells us who we are and what we are to do. To retell it is to declare what we believe.

“God is at work beyond our story. We know that God is not confined to the story we can tell. The story itself tells us God works his sovereign will among all peoples of the earth. We believe God works beyond our imagining throughout the universe.”

“Story.” Donald Miller does theology by telling a story. So did the writers of A Declaration of Faith, an approach that enraged those who thought about theology in an older way. But for our age, the proper vehicles to carry the considerable freight of theological meaning are imaginative narrative and metaphor. People are engaged by stories, by images, by experiences. The best worship for the 21st century is experiential and image-rich. It’s also participatory. That’s the character of our day, and if theology is to connect with people, they need to participate in it, tell their own stories, figure out what God is calling them to do and be. Yes, there is good theology and bad theology, with judgment as to its quality based on the outcome it produces. But still theology needs to be spun out of the stuff of everyday life.

The renowned author Frederick Buechner once said that “theology…is at its heart autobiography…” He went on to observe that theologians essentially examine as honestly as possible the “rough-and-tumble” of their own experiences with all the ups and downs, the mysteries and loose ends, and express in logical, abstract terms the truths about human life and God they believe they have found implicit in experiences. Buechner thus calls us to listen to our lives, because God’s word is always an incarnate word, spoken in the “flesh and blood our selves and of our own footsore and sacred journeys” (The Sacred Journey: 1, 77).

What is theology? It’s the stuff of your life and mine, chewed on until we get a taste of the holy; turned over and over, annoyed and poked and prodded until we tease out a clue about the cosmos and its Maker. It’s our privilege and our task every day, to ask: “who is God? What does God want from us and with us?”

Here’s one final example of story-based, life-experience theology for you from a theologian whose name you know well: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches”…. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Seeds. Birds. Yeast. Studying. Working. Washing dishes. Driving. Watching TV. Sleeping. Ironing. The list could go on and on. It’s all the stuff of theology. All full of clues about God.

Theology is mostly autobiography.

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