Friday, October 23, 2009

What's Theology?

My last post was trying to get at something that I've been thinking about for a long time, but never written about here. I realized that yesterday's post might not have made as much sense as it could have because I hadn't expressed where I was coming from.

Why am I so interested in theology as a hobby? I mean, there's no end of interesting subjects to obsess about and ponder. Why theology?

Theology is often defined as the study of God, or God's nature. That isn't quite an accurate definition. Theology is better defined as the study of what people believe about God and God's nature.

Because God isn't checking our papers, correcting us, marking certain answers wrong, we are left to rely on each other, as members of humanity, to self-correct our own papers. Theology is like one of those painfully annoying group projects you get assigned in high school or college; you have to work with people you don't necessarily like, who have different methodologies, and who you're unsure if you actually trust to get the work done. It's a collaborative process to create one unified project, one which nobody is ever 100% happy with, but which manages to meet the professor's requirements.

This is why theology becomes so complicated. The more time that passes, the more complex circumstances which call for explanations, and the more people who make contributions to theological thought, it all becomes integrated into an ever-expanding field of knowledge.

Modern Christians often think that theology is something which has its basis in Scripture; theology becomes the revealed nature of God given to select people in visions and dreams and spectacular miracles.

I think it's better to say that theology is the reconciliation of reality with what we believe about God.

On another blog, a post dealing with Job elicited a comment from a new Christian bemoaning the idea that the prologue of Job--which sets the stage for Job's story by relating a wager between God and Satan about whether Job could be made to curse God--wasn't a true and literal representation of what transpired in Heaven. The idea that the prologue was simply a metaphor was troubling to him.

In truth, it's probably better to think of the prologue as a satirical attempt to explain the suffering of innocent people. Because there is often no obvious reason why good people are made to suffer through heart-breaking events, the writer of Job has theorized a reason to explain the grim realities. We might not like his proposed theory that God likes to get into pissing matches with Satan, but it's a valid attempt to explain the nature and realities of life here on earth.....sometimes we suffer through no fault of our own and are given no good explanation from God.

That's theology, taking what is and trying to make sense of it in the context of a universe with God.

One commenter here, quite some time ago, mentioned that the early Old Testament Jewish opinion of God was that he was capricious. You couldn't quite trust him. He was one wily deity.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to see that reflected in some of the biblical stories. From a human point of view, God may very well seem capricious because life seems capricious. Things happen that don't make sense, or that seem unfair. Good does not always triumph over evil. Innocent people suffer at the hands of the wicked. The faithful aren't always rewarded.

Attributing confusing events to God's character, or trying to create an explanation that establishes part of God's personality, or "his ways" is a natural, human response....and everybody does it....all the time. However, much of what passes for doctrine is based on the exponential power of the "If, Then" caused by a single theological idea that seemed better than the other ideas offered as explanations.

The problem is that our theological explanations begin to take on a life of their own and paint very specific pictures of God which may, or may not, be truly reflective of Him.

So....when we get into a struggle between evolution and creationism, we are somewhat burdened with a greater task than our predecessors. We have a much more massive amount of information and theological thought to process than believers did 1,000 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 years ago.

The task of reformulation is not easy at any stage of theological progression. Jesus and the apostles struggled greatly to deliver a message that was very different than what the religious leaders of their day believed. The transition from a religion based on Law and Sacrifice to one based on Redemption and Indwelling was a seismic one. Overturning the weight of accumulated ideas about who God was and what He wanted didn't come easily.

That's where we are now in all of this.

We have built up a large tower of theological presuppositions which are causing us trouble as we try to assimilate what we believe about God and what we see in the observable universe.

It is not wrong to examine reality and attempt to reconcile it to our concepts of God. To stay stagnant, refusing to engage with the material universe is not staying faithful to theology or God. It is refusing to continue trying. It is refusing to participate in the tradition or our theological ancestors. It is giving up any attempt to know more about God and us.

Without living, ongoing theology, religion and relationship with God is dead.

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