Christian Theology: What? Why? How?

  • What do we mean when we say Christian theology?
    • First, let’s look at this word theology.  It comes from two Greek words: theos + logos.
      • Logos is the Greek concept of reason or rationality.  It is the word that in John 1:1 is translated “word.”  So logos is about words, but what are words?
        • As a preliminary definition let’s say that words are a collection of certain symbols called letters, something like this: Aaeegnrrr – Of course, we see right away why this definition won’t work, but we’re close. 
        • We can make a word simply by rearranging the symbols into a form that carries meaning: Rearrange – So words are collections of letters in a way that has meaning. 
        • What about this?  Is this a word? יהוה The simple answer is, yes!  This is a word.  Most of my readers will not know that this is the proper name for God in Hebrew (a word I do not say, or translate because Jewish people do not say it, and for me to do so would be disrespectful).  But therein we see the point.  Words make sense—that is to say words become words, not just random collections of symbols—only within the context of a particular tradition or community.
        • What about this word? Probably.  We know that this word has to do with statistics.  It means something is more than 50% likely to happen rather than not happen.  So, imagine you’re invited to a party, but before you decide whether to go you ask about the guest list.  You’re told that Jon or Teddy will probably be there.   You don’t really want to go to the party, on a scale of one to ten, you don’t want to go about a four.  But, on a scale of one to ten you want to see Teddy about a twenty.  So you think to yourself, Jon or Teddy will probably be there.  That means there’s at least 25% chance that Teddy will be at the party.  You don’t want to go to the party at about a four.  But if you want to see Teddy at a twenty, and there’s at least a 25% chance Teddy will be at the party, then you want to go to the part at least a five.  So you take your chances and you go. I know, this is a stupid example, but the mathematic quality of the word probably makes the point that I want to make about all words, that words require thought, reasoning.  This is why the Greeks connected logos with rationality.
        • Okay, one more: Cosby.  What do you think of this word?  Most people who are familiar with this word will think of an American comedian and actor.  For me, however, this word has a very different meaning, as it is the name of my son.  Even those of you who may have thought of my son when you saw this word, are not quite saying the same thing as I am.  Because, when you say Cosby, it’s not packed with all the emotions that come with caring for a child, dreaming for his future, the frustration with his tantrums, and so forth.  So, of course we see the next point.  Logos is also about the depth of human experience and emotion.
        • So, as we have seen, logos is about words.  It is about the communities and traditions of which we are a part that give words their particular meaning.  It is about human rationality.  And it is about the depth of our experiences and emotions.  In other words, logos is about that which is deepest in ourselves.
      • Theos is the Greek word for God.  So theology is logos about theos—that which is deepest in ourselves connecting with that which is deepest in the world (later we will talk about this definition for God as the depth of the universe in great detail).
    • Next, what do we mean when we say that ours is Christian theology?
      • I have been in small group Bible studies before where members are asked things like “What does Christianity mean to you?”  The problem with this question—or at least the assumption that lays behind it, that everyone’s own thoughts about Christianity works for them—is that we believe Christianity is true, so like anything else that is true, you can get it wrong. 
      • So when I say Christian theology, I mean theology coming from “The Tradition,” the teachings handed down by the Church since the time of Jesus.  Now, I should offer the disclaimer that if you know much about the Tradition, you know how very broad it is.  We don’t have to be narrow-minded to accept the teachings of the Church, and there are lots of options, lots of places for us to disagree.
  • Why would anyone want to do theology anyway?  (In light of two difficulties).
    • Isn’t theology completely disconnected with the Christian life?
      • This seems to be quite a popular notion: Once I have experienced God in the cool morning breeze, in the celebration of Holy Communion, or in the vastness of the ocean, why would I want to set with a bunch of dusty old mean reading dusty old books?
      • Well, one dusty old man, C. S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, addresses this question with an analogy.  Christian theology, Lewis says, is like reading a map.
        • On the one hand, reading a map rather than looking at the ocean, is very much turning from something real to something less real.  So why would we want to leave the beach to look at a map?
        • First, we must realize maps are charted based on the experience of thousands of people who have sailed theses waters before us.  So while our experience may be profound, it is only a brief glimpse among thousands of others that add up to a much fuller picture.
        • Secondly, it may be much more enjoyable to watch the waves crash onto the shore than to read a map.  But if you want to get anywhere, you’re going to need it.  Augustine says Christianity is a journey toward the heart of God.  Christian theology is a map charted by thousands of people who have traveled that road before us.
        • The problem on the flip side of course is when people get so caught up reading the map that they never make it to the shore.
    • Isn’t there a point at which we have to throw up our hands and admit “it’s a mystery”?
      • The simple answer is, of course there is.  But this is not exclusive to theology.  Our lives are riddled with mystery.  How do we explain laughter?  Community?  Obligation, and so forth?
      • Mystery helps to keep our feet on the ground.  It reminds us that we don’t have all the answers.
  • How do we do Christian theology? (Three analogies and a model)
    • Analogy #1 Theology as jazz music.
      • I like jazz, because it’s is wild, free, unpredictable, creative.  
      • But even on jazz there are limits: there are a certain set of musical scales that make jazz jazz.  They keep jazz contained—keep it from degenerating into chaotic noise.  Doctrines, like the scales, are the boundaries in which Christian theology lives and moves and has its being. 
      • But jazz becomes creative and free—that is to say, jazz becomes jazz—in the act of challenging those scales, stretching them to their limits.  So theology stretches the limits of doctrine when our cultural context, or life experiences, and our collective reasoning begin to raise their questions.
      • Here’s a piece for 20th cent. jazz pianist Theolonious Monk
    • Analogy # 2 Doctrine as like grammar.
      • Christian theology is often rich and beautiful like poetry.  But what makes poetry beautiful?  Is it not the structural guidelines of what we call grammar. 
      • Doctrine—the teachings handed down by the Church since the time of Christ—are like grammar rules.  They give us the boundaries that make our speech into language rather than mere chaotic babbling.  Without the structure of grammar, there would be no poetry.  Without doctrine, there would be no theology. 
      • On the other hand, it is precisely in butting up against the rules of grammar, and sometimes even subordinating them to “poetic license” that makes poetry beautiful.  So it is with Christian theology.
    • Analogy # 3 Theology as cooking.
      • One of my favorite hobbies is cooking.  I love to cook, but I hate to bake.  You bake by formulas, but you cook by recipes.  Formulas are to be followed to the letter.  If the formula calls for two teaspoons of baking powder, you put in two teaspoons of baking powder, no more and no less.  You will never see the words “salt to taste” in a baking formula.  Recipes, on the other hand, are meant to be broken. 
      • Recipes give us the freedom with which to be creative.  Without recipes, my cooking would be bland and myopic, because without them I would never think of very many things to cook.  But the real magic happens when I bring my own style, my own tastes, and even my own dietary limitations to the recipe. 
      • In many ways the traditions and traditional teachings of the Church are like recipes, they help us know what kinds of questions to ask.  But they are meant to be brought into our own lives with all our particularity, and that’s where the creativity of theology comes in.
    • The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: A Model for Christian Theology 
      • Scripture is the basis of everything we do.  Most of the content of Christian theology is not something that we can figure out on our own, because Christian theology is about the gospel—a story about how God is working in history.  The gospel like all stories, cannot be figured out, it has to be shared.  The gospel story is shared with us through God’s self-revelation, the scriptures.
      • We must also use our God-given capacity for reason—we must ask tough questions.  Many people are surprised by this, they think that theology resists questioning.  To the contrary, anything that is true can hold up to questioning.
      •  Like reason, experience also guides our search.  What kind of God is it who rules a world in which our particular tragedies could occur?  What kind of God is it who rules a world in with our particular joys could occur?  All us this will necessarily come to bear on our theology
      • One of the great things about the tradition of the Church it helps us to navigate our reason and our experience because it’s so very old.  Most of us are not cleaver enough to ask completely original questions that have never been asked in the last 2000 years.  And most of us have not had any experience that has not been shared by others in the last 2000 years.  So the tradition can help us to answer our questions.  It also helps to set up some boundaries for us, outside of which are answers that do not work.  Most of the things that our now touted as “new theologies” are the same ideas that real theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.  The Tradition also helps us to discover many questions that without it we would never have thought to ask.
      • And the trick is that we’re going to hold all of these elements together in dynamic tension.  That’s where the creativity and the mystery come in.

Scripture is the revelation of God…reason and experience are our guides…tradition is our guard…and mystery keeps us grounded!



Filed under Invitation to Christian Theology, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Christian Theology: What? Why? How?

  1. Love the theology as jazz metaphor…even wrote a book about it. I have some Thelonious playing right now…Glad to have found your blog.

  2. Joe

    Thanks Robert, I was just checking out your book on Amazon–looks pretty interesting. If you want to send me a copy, I’ll review it.

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