This is a blog about theology. But what exactly is theology?
Trying to dive straight into a definition of theology would probably be more confusing than helpful. And as philosophical theologian Paul Tillich pointed out, the formal definition of “theology” differs widely depending on the particular theological views of the person you ask.
This post will attempt to convey a general sense of what I mean by “theology” via a sideways approach. How would I explain why I care about theology to an atheist, my Beachy Amish friend, and 19 year-old Me?
To The Atheist
If I were trying to explain to an atheist why I care so much about theology, I might start by briefly breaking down the Greek roots of the word “theology”. In Greek, “Theos” refers to God, and “Logia” (which is where we get the suffix “-logy”) can be translated as “speech” or “study.” Theology is talking and thinking about God.
In the 19th Century, a German philosopher and atheist named Ludwig Feuerbach argued that people who believe in God are basically just projecting their subconscious values onto a made-up being that they call “God.” According to Feuerbach, “God” is just another name for a theist’s highest values.
I think that Feuerbach makes an important point. When believers talk about God (if we’re really talking about our God), we’re talking about what matters most to us: our values, our dreams, our identity. If God exists (and I do believe that God exists), then God may be much more than the center of meaning in my life – but God can never be less than that.
I like theology because I like to talk about what matters most to me and to my friends at church. I love reflecting on what I find most beautiful, most important, most inspiring, and most central to my life. As someone who believes in God, exploring theology means (among other things) exploring the meaning of life.
To My Beachy Amish Friend
I have a friend who is Beachy Amish (long story), and whenever we catch up (luckily, his church is okay with using cell phones), we end up talking about theology. Each time, he inevitably brings up the same anti-theology concern: Why worry about all that unnecessary intellectual stuff instead of focusing on the practical aspect of faith? In other words, why waste time reading books and thinking about my faith when there are prayers that need praying and moral failings that need correcting?
Here’s the problem: the claim “God doesn’t want us to think about theology” (which lies implicitly behind the claim that theology is a waste of time) is itself a theological claim! Wherever we see Christians practicing their faith and worshiping God, we see theology in practice: you cannot intentionally serve God in any practical way unless you have a sense of what, exactly, God wants from you. When we think about what God wants from us, we are engaging in theology, whether we like it or not. A Christian who says that theology is irrelevant is like a motivational speaker who tours the country telling people that they shouldn’t bother listening to motivational speakers. How deluded and self-defeating!
My own suspicion is that Christians who want to “avoid theology” are really concerned with shielding themselves off from the feedback of others. If another Christian disagrees with what I believe and how I live out my faith, saying “theology is impractical and I don’t waste my time with that” is a great way for me to avoid the scary possibility that I might be wrong – yet this could also prevent me from learning and growing.
To Nineteen-year-old Me
When I was 19, I not only had no interest in theology, I thought that exploring theology was a distraction from authentic Christian faith, much like my Beach Amish friend. I was happy living out my faith without worrying too much about questions and beliefs. But over the past few years, I’ve spent lots of time reading and thinking about theology. Why the complete 180?
For starters, I’ve learned that I’m more curious than I initially realized. I can’t help but ask certain questions, even (or especially) the questions that are critical of the views that I grew up with. Questions like What if I’m wrong? What if this only seems true because everyone at my church believes the same thing? Over the past few years, I’ve had to accept that I might as well explore my questions, because they will arise whether I want them to or not.
I’ve also found that nagging doubts can sometimes crowd out my belief, making any practical acts of faith virtually impossible. I have to let my doubt become questions, and I must follow those questions down their uncertain paths, or else my doubt will send my entire faith (and life!) into chaos.
Theology gives me the tools to creatively explore my questions. The language and history of theology lends specific words and questions to my vague sense of doubt, allowing me to define my doubts and work through them. When, after further examination, something I used to believe turns out to seem pretty conclusively un-believable, theology gives me the flexible resources I need to form a faith that can thrive in my new intellectual environment.
Theology turns my doubt from a threat to an opportunity: with theology, I take my own questions deep into Christian scripture, spiritual practice, community, and Christian tradition, confidently hoping that I will end up with satisfying and inspiring answers (and more questions!) that are somewhere between original creations and re-discoveries.