Sunday, August 20, 2006

Why Bother with Theology?

This week, I've been involved in a discussion which began about a trivia question about a 1960s controversy about Bishop Pike of ECUSA and has headed into a discussion about heresy and whether belief really matters in the Christian life. Of course, this is hardly a new conversation. I've been posting on various Anglican boards for something like nine or ten years now and I think I fight this debate, at least, once or twice a year.

As usual, this debate got me thinking about the state of theological understanding in my church today. I admit that, in the first couple of years of my conversion, I was among those who maintained an amused skepticism around the idea of theology. As Humphreys said on Yes, Prime Minister(a British comedy which featured a bumbling politician being manipulated by his civil service advisors) when he identifies a candidate for the Archbishop of York as a theologian: "Theology is a way for unbelievers for staying in the Church".

To some extent, this cynicism is warranted. Academic theology has had a tendency to be very removed from Christian practice for many years. I know that friends who regularly go to the American Academy of Religion report a rarified atmosphere and, occasionally, bizarre disjunction with reality at this scholarly event. For the person in the pew, struggling to practice his/her Christianity, these discussions seem pointless.

Add to that the way that traditional doctrine has been taught in the past. Quite frequently, doctrine was something to be memorized, not understood. That is odd, given the admittedly bizarre things that we Christians are asked to believe: incarnation, resurrection, Virgin Birth and more. Is there any wonder why both doctrine and theology are held in so little esteem in the church?

Yet, I've changed my mind over the last eight or nine years. What ultimately changed my mind was the recognition that there is a reason why these doctrines have emerged the way they did and there are reasons why theology matters. At the end of the day, theology is an attempt to explain what we believe and to make what we do as Christians make sense. That means that, no matter how abstract a theological proposition is, it has be somehow related back to practice or to our understanding of what the Christian life is. Any theological proposition that can't do this is a proposition that can and should be forgotten about.

Theology's reason for existing is explanation and, in that sense, it is running commentary on Scripture and on the communal experience of the Church in Christ. Its value is to draw us closer into the story which defines us and in allowing us to understand how we should relate to a world which does not fully accept this story. Theology can explain faith to those who don't understand it. It can connect us to our faith story and reinforce us, even when times are bad. It can point to what is the right action by helping us to see what our faith demands in a given situation. At the end of the day, theology is God-talk, of all kinds. It isn't just rarified speculations on the origin of the world or on the number of angels on a pin. It is more important than all that. It is the grammar for our God-talk and, if we are to make any sense, we need to know what that grammar is.

Once I started to understand theology as a grammar, I began to get why it was important. I also began to want to see how good theologians use that grammar. What I found surprised me a bit. I found myself turning to those who understood the doctrines that I found hard to swallow and who explained how those doctrines fit into the grammar. I began to understand why taking out this or that doctrine causes ripples in how we think about faith, about God and about how we practice our Christian life. That caused me to want to read more theology and to think more theologically. I am a self-confessed theological auto-didact with all the defects...and all the benefits of that approach. Yet, I don't think I'd be writing quite this kind of blog without it, but, more importantly, I know my prayer and my practice have been informed by my readings in theology.

Theology will not, of course, save you or me. Nor, I would point out, will our Christian practices. Our salvation depends on the grace of God alone, not on our intellectual or physical efforts. Yet, both theology and practice matter. What I'm arguing here is that the solution to the debate I quote above isn't theological doctrine or practice. It is theology AND practice. If we are called, as we Anglicans love to say, to worshipping the Lord God with all our minds, all our hearts and all our souls, we need to pay attention to what theology says, what doctrine says, if we are to reflect on our mission today.



Jim said...


I think it was in a work of fiction by Morris West "Shoes of the Fisherman" that I read the comment, "Theologians! We are necessary but not nearly as important as we think."

Theology matters certainly. Were it not so, there would still be a single way of seeing the faith, a single structural entity. Of course it is not so.

I think we can and sometimes do make theology an idol. Much of that going on whenever schism is contemplated. The sad truth is that we can and do make almost anything an idol.

What we say to ourselves and to others about our understanding of God, the devine plan and the nature of our relationship to God is important. We can over state its value certainly, after all, we were told that what is necessary is fairly simple.


Phil S. said...

Well, we humans are very good about making almost anything an idol, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that we can make theology one.

One of the problems with the current situation is that there is a tendency not to look at the big picture. In our current problems, I think the real fire-eaters are right about the problem of heresy in the Anglican church, I just think their ecclesiology need a lot of work.

The thing is, of course, that theology doesn't save, anymore than experience or sacraments do. God does. When we use our theology to seek and do God's will, theology is helpful. When we don't, it isn't.