Why Theology is a Dirty Word, part 2
Early on in the life of this blog, I wrote an entry on why most Christians rarely use the term theology, and why, when they do, it’s almost always in a negative or disparaging sense. Something my pastor said in last week’s sermon makes me want to revisit that subject.
The sermon was drawn from John 9, the story of Jesus’ healing of the man blind from birth, and all the controversy that accompanied it. Our pastor Carol pointed out that from the get go characters in this story focus on theological discussion to the exclusion of seeing what God is actually doing. Jesus and the disciples are walking along when they encounter the man who had been born without sight. The first thing the disciples do is try to get Jesus to render a theological verdict on the guy: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” In one of those enigmatic answers Jesus liked to give, he replied “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” That could mean a lot of things, but I think it’s Jesus’ polite way of saying “That stuff’s all fine and good, guys, but let’s focus on what matters here”–which Jesus promptly did by healing the man’s blindness.
But that, of course, is when the theologizing really gets going, because once again Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, and so the Pharisees, the Jewish authorities, the crowd, and even the (formerly) blind man’s parents get drawn into a debate on how a Sabbath breaker like Jesus could perform such a miracle.
This story is one of the preeminent biblical examples of theology forgetting its place. As I said in that earlier post, theology always comes second–or at least it should. The stories reveal two glaring realities: first, that here is an individual in need; and second, that God has done something truly remarkable in that person’s life. The disciples’ idle theological speculation prevents them from perceiving the first; the Jewish leaders’ angry theological denunciation of Jesus blinds them to the second.
In its proper place theology is a “second-order enterprise,” by which I mean that it helps us make better sense of our experience of God and God’s world. But in John 9, and especially in the authorities’ reaction to Jesus’ breaking the Sabbath, theology comes first, with disastrous results. Knowing that it was wrong to work on the Sabbath, the authorities seem incapable of entertaining the possibility that they had witnessed a miracle (hence all the suspicion that this individual hadn’t really been blind). Instead of witnessing the miracle and using theology to understand what it means in their lives, the authorities try to use their theology as a shield, denying that anything has really happened–and even if it has, God can’t have had anything to do with it.
So here’s where theology really is a dirty word. Throughout our history, Christians have repeated this error, insisting that if something didn’t have a place in their oh-so-carefully drawn picture of reality, then God couldn’t have anything to do with it. We’ve tried to use theology to limit God’s actions in the world, rather than allowing what God is doing to expand and refine our theology.
In short, thelogy becomes a dirty word when it prevents us from perceiving human need, and God’s surpising work in the world–the very things it was supposed to help us see.