In recent years, I’ve become quite passionate about theology. Having recently begun to read Stanley Hauerwas’s latest book The Work of Theology (review to follow in due course), I felt inspired to share a few thoughts about what theology is, or at least what I, from my decidedly amateur perspective, perceive it to be. (I hasten to add that what follows consists solely of my own thoughts, uninformed by dictionary definitions or anyone else’s formal statement of what theology is. So if I say something nonsensical, the fault is entirely mine.)
Semantically speaking, theology is, of course, the study of God. But here we immediately run into a problem, because the very word study for many people implies dusty academic libraries and stacks of impenetrably complex and somewhat abstract books and essays. And study can be these things. But it need not fit the image of tedious labour that it so often attracts. (As for myself, while I’m passionate about theology, I have no formal theological training, though I’d love to remedy this one day, if time and money permit).
I have come to think of theology not just as the study of God in the academic sense but as thinking about God. Not thinking in the way that we might think about that nice holiday we had last summer, or what we might eat for lunch, or how to solve a thorny mathematical problem; rather, theology is deliberate, clear thinking about God.
Now, lots of people think about God, but not all thinking about God is theological thinking. When people think about God, they often think of God as they imagine him to be: perhaps a doting old man; or a loving father who answers every slightest prayer; or an impassive judge. But these thoughts alone are nothing but perceptions and assumptions, mental furniture with which we might have become comfortable for a variety of reasons.
So what is it that separates theological thinking from other kinds of thinking about God?
Perhaps I can sum it up like this: theological thinking is not just thinking about God, but thinking about what we think about God, why we think it, and what the implications of our thinking are.
Let’s take each of these aspects in turn.
First, theological thinking is thinking about what we think about God. That might sound a little unwieldy, but I have a very good reason for majoring so much on the verb “think”. We must always remember that when it comes to theology, what we are dealing with is not cold, hard facts or scientifically validated data; what we are dealing with is thought, interpretation and opinion. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should adopt an “anything goes” attitude where, since nothing can be proved about God anyway, we might as well all think whatever we want about the matter. What it does mean, among other things, is that theological thinking, before it is anything else, should be an exercise in humility. When it comes to the big questions about God, life, the universe and everything, we are all, to a large extent, groping around in the dark. Some of us might think we have good reason to believe we have a better grasp on “the truth” than others, but ultimately we are still operating on the basis of faith rather than fact. Theological debate might be a little less divisive and a good deal more peaceful and productive if more of us would bear this in mind.
Second, theological thinking is thinking about why we think what we think about God. Lots of people have all kinds of ideas about what God is like and how (if at all) he interacts with the universe. But it’s important to stop and think about why we have the ideas we have about God. Why is this important? Because our ideas about God can be – and often are – the result of all kinds of factors that have little or nothing to do with clear thinking. Many of our perceptions about God are shaped by childhood experience, trauma, previous family and personal involvement with organised religion, and so forth. That’s not to say that our ideas about God shaped by our experience might not happen to be true; but if all they are is the by-product of our experience, they are really just preconceptions dressed up as theology.
Furthermore, it’s my contention that many Christians today believe lots of things about God without having much of an idea why they believe them. Perhaps they believe them because they were raised in a Christian home and that’s what they’ve always believed; or perhaps they simply believe what their pastor and/or other church people told them they had to believe. But they very often have not stopped to ask themselves, “Why, specifically, do I believe this particular thing about God?”
To reiterate, then, we need to ask ourselves why we think the way we do about God. Are our theological thoughts based on anything other than personal experience or externally imposed authority? If asked, would we be able to explain why we think what we do about God? Are we able to relate the way we think about God to scripture, the great traditions of the church, and the fruits of theological study down the ages?
Third, and finally, theological thinking is thinking about the implications of what we think about God. If we are at all serious about our theological thinking, it is not enough to think a particular thing about God: we must also think about how that particular thought affects other things we might think about God, ourselves and the world.
As a somewhat simplistic example, you might believe that God arranged a convenient parking spot for you when you were running late and needed to call at the store. Believing that this is a way in which God acts in the world has implications for God’s character that need to be considered in light of other things that manifestly happen in the world. For example, if God can and does free up a parking space for you just because you’re running late, why did God not heal that young mother of terminal cancer? What does such an apparent inconsistency say about the kind of God you believe in? This is not an easy question to answer, but it is, at the very least, the kind of question that deserves and needs to be asked.
I’m not suggesting, then, that we need always be able to answer all of the questions and inconsistencies that are thrown up by our theological thinking. What I am saying, however, is that as a minimum, we must acknowledge these questions and be prepared to wrestle with them. Otherwise, once again, we are operating in the realm not of thinking but of supposition at best and fantasy at worst.
In summary, let me restate what I’ve already said. This is what theological thinking is: thinking about what we think about God, why we think it, and what the implications of our thinking are. I make absolutely no apology for using the word “think” so many times in this post. Indeed, if I have one mission on this blog, it’s to get people to stop and think about what they believe and why they believe it. For me, that’s part of what it means to worship God with all of our mind.
So… what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts about theological thinking? Why? What do you think theological thinking is? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
[ Image: Judit Klein ]