Sunday, February 08, 2004

Theology Is The New Black (But I Am Getting Bored)

Okay, let's go somewhere we haven't been in a while. Let's go back...all the way the year 2000.

"The year 2000?"

Yes, my friend, here's a bit I've been wrestling with for a while. A bit that hasn't really gone anywhere for a while. Lots of questions, because that's what makes theology so fun!

What The Crap Happened To Theology?

What is the role of theology these days? How do we come to our own theologies? Or should we (as individuals) have our own theologies? Shouldn't there be something more corporate, more universal? Some set of truths that transcend individual discovery?

A year after my brother caught the Calvinist bug, he was often frustrated with theology at school. If God knows the Truth (in his omnipotence) and God communicates truth (through Scriptural revelation), why can't we all just agree on the Truth? When all you hear is Calvin, you don't have anywhere to go. But back at school, my brother was getting confused, floundering under the weight of so many different viewpoints, which all pointed to Scripture for evidence.

Which leads me to two questions, questions I really won't go into here. Being: 1) When do we as a faith community introduce tough theological discourse to Christians? In high school, where they are just beginning to utilize reason with Scripture? In college, when liberal arts education should mean open discourse? Or perhaps later, after they've been "indoctrinated" with truth and are ready for opposing views?

And 2) Are there people who just shouldn't study theology at all? Left-brained individuals who don't think about God in terms of determinism/free will debates, are even those whose minds weren't "built" for heavy theological discussion? I know that smacks of elitism, but there are people I know who hate talking theology, because the weight of such heady conversation leaves them feeling like they're lost, like there is no truth, or like such arguments are so divisive that it should just be left alone -- that we cannot do theology without tearing each other apart.

But this really isn't about answers. Not right now, anyway. For the moment, this is all about the questions.

Whither Then, Theology? (p.s. who's got the map?)

So what role does theology play? Over the past 100 years or so, theology has become a very different beast. It has become a quest. Or perhaps, 'The Quest' to discover our own individual theology -- to discover our own God. This shouldn't surprise us considering the culture we live in today where a belief is valid as long as it doesn't impinge on the beliefs of others.

Hegel taught that no statement could be true in the absolute. But it wasn't until the 20th century when that abstract philosophical belief found itself in the mainstream. Two much misunderstood theories helped it gain the prominence it has today -- Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, and Postmodern language theory. Hegel was wed to Einstein in order to prove that relativity was scientifically viable, ignoring the error in applying moral relativity to a physical scientific principle. Later, relativists jumped on PM, a theory that all symbols mean different things to different people, again ignoring that PM made no moral judgments of its own. It was simply stating the truth, that for example, the American flag means different things to different people around the world.

Since then, theology has not been able to make the same truth claims it once made. So has theology become the existential "how do we encounter God?" In a word: yes. The problem isn't getting back to the way things were (see: conservatism), or allowing things to progress towards something new (see: liberalism), but really, how much of past theological discourse was based on experience, and what does that mean for theology today?

[Side Note: Perhaps theology is simply about story? Specifically, God's story. And if it is, when we do theology, are we simply finding similarities with our own personal story and God's story? And does this affinity or kinship with God affect any future quest for truth (or is it in itself a quest for truth)? Does this make theology less a quest for truth and more an egocentric quest for individual meaning? And if so, why is that so bad?]

Oops, All Praxis!

My biggest concern at the moment is rooted in the past. "Conversion experience" theology was rooted in the reaction to the Enlightenment dismantling of the historicity of the Bible. People were part of the Church because everyone knew that Jesus Christ was an historical truth. But the Enlightenment killed that. So people were part of the Church because they had an experience in accepting Christ. Before the Great Awakening, such "experiential truth" was not necessary.

Modern "scientific" theology was as much a reaction to the Enlightenment, only it swang the opposite direction. The Bible was no longer Truth simply because the "Authority" said so, but because scientific discoveries (in archeology) or rational exploration of Biblical propositions said so.

Reformation theology itself was an experiential reaction to the abuses of the Catholic church. It was the experiences of Luther and Henry VIII that led them to new theology, not the other way around. Post-Reformation Protestant theology polished over this fact, as if to say, "Yes, but no matter how subjective their motivation, they happened to be objectively right!"

Even St. Paul's letters to various NT churches were motivated by experiential theology. Problems in churches led to the formation (or at the very least, exposition) of new theology. Some of the things Paul dealt with he could not simply refer to Christ's teaching in response. Through the Spirit, he has to expound upon new theology.

Orthodoxy vs. Orthopraxy (is that a real word?)

So how much do we concede? How much of theology is careful reason, and how much is existential pondering? Is right theology rooted in good praxis (prax-->theo)? Or is good praxis rooted in right theology (theo-->prax)?

My biggest fear is that in a culture where modern is in the decline, that question becomes a chicken/egg problem (what came first?) to which there is no right answer. In the Jewish theological community, faith is evidenced by proper praxis, right living and observance of feats and festivals. Christianity, especially the Protestant reaction, supposedly changed all that.

And this is where I really get confused. In ancient Biblical theology, faith is evidenced in our keeping the Sabbath Day observances, the Torah, and National Festivals, such as the Day of Atonement. In New Testament theology, faith is based on a set of inner beliefs -- Christ is God, salvation is by grace, the Bible is true. But we've been flip-flopping ever since then. Catholic theology (no salvation outside the Church and its sacraments) vs. Reformed theology (free grace to the elect chosen by God) vs. whatever else (Anabaptists and baptism, Charismatics and the Holy Spirit, Liberation theology and praxis centered thought).

So what makes a theological community? Is it our faith? Is it having the right belief system? Is it what we do? Is it where we were born? Is it who are take care of? Is it who we ignore? Is it through suffering? Is it through liberation? It is through freedom? Is it through liberty?

Or is it none of the above?

Until we consider these questions, until we admit that the formulation of both correct theology and incorrect theology is driven by our experiences, until we can come up with a response to postmodernism that neither embraces it as a brother or rejects it as a whore (anathema), we will be lost. Much as I feel right now.

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

This isn't about answers...yet. For right now, it's about questions. There's no use answering until every Christian realizes the importance of these questions. This isn't just a debate for academics and seminaries; it's a debate for peasants and politicians, for mill-workers and doctors and cashiers at J.C. Penney and Wal-Mart. I don't know, maybe "Theology Proper" isn't for everyone. But thinking about God is.

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