Why “theology” is a dirty word

O.k.; maybe it’s not a dirty word, just a slightly uncomfortable one. When I hear the term used in casual conversation (which isn’t often), it carries connotations of obscurity and irrelevance. Sometimes it’s used to denote an activity someone else does–and usually that  someone else is a religious professional, like your pastor. Many of us find theological discussion unpalatable because we fear it will lead to arguments, so we dismiss all of it with the phrase “that stuff just doesn’t matter.”

And in a way, that’s right. Nothing of ultimate importance is at stake in theology. How can I, a so-called theologian, say that? Well, here’s what I mean. Theology always comes second; it always follows on the heels of, and is dependent on, something of far greater importance. The first of these things is our experience of God. For many of us, that experience goes something like this: we came to know that our life wasn’t what it should be; it lacked direction, joy, purpose, vision, community, discipline, whatever. In encountering the story of Jesus, we discover a path that leads us toward these things. Sometimes joyously, sometimes haltingly, we follow that path, experiencing along the way the  mysterious presence of God. And experiencing that presence, we want to know more about it. We ask questions, we learn from mentors, we pray, we contemplate, we read, we (yes) blog. The experience of God found along the path of following Jesus is the important thing, the crucial thing. The questions we ask, the pondering we do, these are derivative of that experience; they have no purpose apart from it. Yet we ask the questions, we study, we converse in order to make the experience more real, in order to experience God’s presence more fully.

Another term exists for these questions and ponderings about our experience on the way of  Jesus: theology. Theology is nothing more or less than our attempt to grapple with, and better understand, our experience of God. We can’t substitute theology for that experience (although many of us have tried). Likewise, you don’t have to be a theologian to have the experience of following Jesus. But I’m convinced that some (not all) of us are called think about our faith, and to do so deeply, frequently, and carefully. If you feel thus called, then you have the vocation of a theologian. The only question is, how well are you going to fulfill that vocation?

Which gets us to a final point. While not everyone has the calling to “do” theology, none of us can ignore theology entirely. The fact is that we all have ideas floating around our head about who God is, and what God wants of us. For a lot of us, those ideas were planted there by someone else, and we’ve never taken them out to look at them and see if they actually make sense to us. Those ideas about God are our theology, whether we like the term or not. We don’t have to spend a lot of time handling those ideas, turning them over in our minds to peer at them from all the angles (although some of us just can’t avoid doing that). But don’t we owe it to ourselves–much less to God–to take them out every once in a while just to see if they’re a good fit?

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3 Responses to Why “theology” is a dirty word

  1. Molly says:

    That makes it sound like statements such as “Jesus is God,” or “the Trinity is three persons sharing one divine essence,” which are foundational to not only what we think about God, but how we pray to and follow Him as well, are not theological. In fact, a good deal of prayer and Christian praxis is theological as well. Depending on who God is, how we reflect His nature, and what we are, we may have very different approaches to how we pray, what we do, how much we love or fear God,what our churches look like, what we speak about, what we consider important to get done or not get done, how pressing we believe evangelism to be, and ultimately what our relationship with God consists of – and are therefore at least partly theological.

    • graduum says:

      Your point is well made, and points out the simplification inherent in my post. Religious experience and theology are thoroughly dependent on one another. We experience Jesus of Nazareth as God among us because we have already named him such. There is no experience of the divine that has not already been mediated by a theological tradition. But while theological reflection gives shape and form to religious experience, religious experience must give life to theology. I strongly believe that theology can be a form of prayer, but I know that too often we use it as a substitute for the encounter with God that prayer requires.

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for your comment!

  2. Pingback: Why theology is a dirty word « Thinking and Believing

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