Today and yesterday, I got to have a lot of really good attempts at theological conversation with people. I’m happy for it, but I’ve also come to realize that there’s a problem that is no longer reasonable to ignore. I do a lot of talking past or above people when it comes to talking theology, and that’s definitely my fault.
Theology is something I’m deeply passionate about and something I believe that we as the Church don’t do enough for average people to talk about. However, given my personality, I’ve spent an awful lot of time delving into the spider web and enjoying its twists, turns, and intricacies while not necessarily realizing how confusing it all looks to other people. Personally, I am pretty good at connecting dots, building systems, seeing how the ideas work with and influence each other, and where those ideas might create conflicts with each other without some extra effort towards compromise. However, I haven’t been working at simplifying the web so that it can be communicated to other people. I feel like I have been better at simplifying when I write more than when I speak, so I’m going to try to use that as a tool for helping myself simplify theological concepts. That way, when it comes time to speak about these issues, I can connect the passion I feel with the realities I’m attempting to present.
In his lecture “Engaging the World,” Alister McGrath talks about how the shift from modernity to post-modernity has brought a shift in concern from whether or not the ideas presented are true to whether or not the ideas presented are real (practical). We can present lots of true ideas (for example, Queen Victoria died in 1901), but unless they are relevant and useful to the listener, it won’t be very practical for them to hear it (unless you’re taking a history quiz any time soon, that historical tidbit won’t be very useful to you). I need to improve my ability to make theology “real” to the people that I’m talking to, otherwise the people in my future classrooms will find it dry and uninteresting rather than a reinvigoration of the life and relationship they have with God.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis speaks of theology as a map compared to a person’s walk along the beach, and how it often feels like looking at that map, when compared to the beach, is “turning from something real to something less real,” moving from tangible experiences to “a bit of coloured paper.” However, he then says, “The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America. Now, Theology is like the map.”
I agree with this assessment of theology. We need it in order to progress and go deeper and learn a bit more about what exactly we’re talking about when we say things like “God is in control.” The meaning of that statement can stretch anywhere from meaning that God is capable of redeeming the bad that happens in the world and making good things out of it, to God is a cosmic puppeteer, controlling every vibration of every atom and that the death of your child, the suffering of the poor and the powerless all across the world, and the brokenness and imperfection which is such a persistent part of the human condition is as much His handiwork as our becoming jaded and numb to the cries of the hurting is the result of His plan for us. (This isn’t even the whole scale, but it serves as a functioning example). When we say things like that, different people hear different meanings along that scale, and their relationship with God can be impacted accordingly. (Let’s be honest, if I saw God as someone who would genuinely be pulling the strings behind the whole of human brokenness, I would personally have a problem with describing Him as a God to be loved… feared maybe, but not loved, because that’s little better than a theological case of Stockholm Syndrome. We come to worship the divine boot that squishes us in the hope that it will squish us less painfully. This might be inaccurate, but I feel numerous people probably would react similarly in rejecting the love of a “god of the divine boot”). Of course, our theology also impacts how we view God and our purpose. Do we see our purpose as ambassadors of love or prophets proclaiming the coming judgment? [“Hail to the divine boot, for it comes with power and squishes with equity. Good and evil are crushed beneath its heel!”] (Fun question – does judgment solely imply condemnation or does it also allow for acquittal? To whom and why? Congratulations, you’re doing theology!) Knowing what map we’re reading (where we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there) is super helpful, especially when we’re trying to lead other people to our destination (right relationship with God, others, ourselves, and the rest of creation… or heaven, depending on your map).
Theology is what allowed me to grow from an understanding of a God that hated me for being human to a God that loved me (and everyone else for that matter) because He created me, even if the original goal for me has been bent and dented, and who is going to restore us to Himself, because He loves us and sees us as valuable. I got to know a God worth knowing on account of theology, and I feel like it can help even those who already know a God worth knowing by bringing a little zest into the relationship. However, a warning: it is very easy to apply lots of adjectives to God in order to make a box, and then use that boxed God to justify our agendas. Adjectives and categories are useful, but they are not the end of it. We are attempting to speak about a dynamic and living entity rather than a concept, and we are trying to have a relationship not compile a databank. Therefore, we need to see our adjectives as qualities rather than checkboxes. God has a say in who He is and what He does; our learning doesn’t end once we fill in enough blanks with qualitative words.
So, I’m working towards a better practice and teaching of theology, because it’s important, and I want to help others understand why it’s important, and how each can learn it according to their ability (not everyone needs to become an expert). The ethos of theology that I was given when starting out is that theology is not a language game about power, but is instead about humility – using truth to build relationships rather than secrets to gain power. Truth, humility, and honesty are the keys of theology as a language. We use theology to help people, and we do not claim to know everything that is important for the sake of power or being “right.”
I don’t know everything, I never will know everything there is to know, and I will never know enough, but what we can learn is helpful, useful, and if it is used well, it can be beneficial to others. This is my passion, and I hope to make it real to other people… but until I improve, I might be about as coherent as Ron Burgundy tweaking out in a telephone both, so please bear with me.