Why Theology?

While scanning over some recent posts on Facebook I came across one that has got me thinking (again). It really was just a simple little post, only nine words. This person just plopped it down on the Wesleyan-Anglican Society’s page seemingly from out of nowhere. Perhaps I was reading too much into it, or maybe I was looking too hard for some deep antecedent cause for the post, but it just seemed so out of character with the sort of things people posted on this page. I wondered if perhaps it was a dig, a sort of tacit rebuke—I, at least, took it that way. Maybe I’m just too sensitive, too defensive, but my anti-intellectual radar started going off. 

The words were true enough, powerful words I’ve often preached on. They are indeed words I try to live by, even if it is only haltingly and with great struggle. But here they held a tone, and tenor, that was off-putting to me. The post simply said, “Jesus said: Take up thy cross and follow me.” It was the “Jesus said” that put me off. It seemed to have a sort of literalist, the-bible-said-it-so-that-settles-it-so-stop-all-your-theologizing air about it. 

My first thought was, “Yea, Jesus said it. But what does it mean?” What does it mean to take up my cross? What does it mean to follow Jesus? These are not easy questions with easy answers. Simply saying “Jesus said it” doesn’t help; it doesn’t answer anything. Really, when you think about it (and I don’t mean to be irreverent here), the words in and of themselves are empty, without meaning. So, if the words themselves are empty, void of meaning, where does meaning come from? If meaning is in some sense external to the words themselves, where do we look to find meaning?

The simple answer is: that is what theology is for. Any time we want to say what something from the Bible means, we are doing theology. The words, “Jesus said: Take up thy cross and follow me” can be taken purely as a historical statement. A historical person, Jesus, said these words at a particular time and in a particular place. Yet to draw from those words a meaning that transcends that time and place and touches me today in a way that is formational is to do theology. The simple truth is that there is absolutely no way to avoid doing theology. The difficulty comes when that theology is done unreflectively, when it is done poorly. 

I’ve begun reading Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana again. There’s something about this work that I think may have quite a lot to say to us today. You see, Augustine wrote this little book in order to instruct Christians on how to practice a faith that had been thought out, rather than retreating into a faith that had become ossified and rigid through rhetoric and repetition. Faith was to be something fluid and dynamic, not something static and intractable. And the place where this faith was to be kept malleable was in the Church, through the preaching and the liturgies. 

Unlike in our own day, Augustine lived in a time when theology took place in the midst of the Church. It was part of the life and liturgy of the people. There was no artificial bifurcation between theology and pastoral activity. Theology was hammered out in pulpit and pew. And unlike much of today’s preaching which seems to be either filled with bucolic platitudes or simplistic how-tos for living a full life, preaching and teaching in the church of Augustine’s day was itself a way of doing theology. People learned theology as it unfolded before them through Sunday morning’s homily, the liturgies of the church, and the prayers they prayed. In this way they learned how to do theology and how to think theologically. Because it was modeled from pulpits and through daily pastoral activity, they understood that theology was not something to be eschewed out of some caustic fear that it would eat away their faith. It was, instead, embraced as the primary way of living out one’s faith in an increasingly complicated world. 

That’s the simple answer, the short answer. Why do theology? Because it is unavoidable; we do it every time we read a piece of Scripture and seek to understand what it means. The key is to do theology well, to do it intentionally, to do it with the depth of reflection that it deserves. Anselm’s classic definition of theology is still a good one: theology is faith seeking understanding. In order to avoid fideism faith must always seek understanding anew. In order to avoid rationalism, understanding must be grounded in the mystery of faith. This is, I believe, theology’s task, and why it is so indispensable.

(The full answer to the question, “Why do theology?” is, of course, not so short and not so simple. Perhaps we can come back to this longer answer some other time. But for now, it’s enough to understand that theology is unavoidable and is essential to our faith.)