…whether we like it or not.
For many, “theology” is a field of the academic world, out of the mental reach of the average person, and not really all that valuable in day-to-day life. It’s certainly true that much of what is known as theology is often written in nearly impenetrable prose. In this respect it really is “the science of God”, because people who “do” theology for a living (I’ll call them “vocational theologians”) have created specialized terminology in order to make dialogue between vocational theologians a little simpler: they could string a bunch of verbs and adjectives together when talking about God or some concept relating to God, or they could come up with a single word that encapsulates all of them. The one-word option makes communication much less cumbersome and less confusing within the field, just like the latin names of plants and animals may be a more efficient form of communication for botanists and entomologists (or for me to say “entomologist” instead of “guy or girl who studies bugs”). But to the rest of us, this also makes theology seem like the exclusive field of vocational theologians.
But here’s the thing: theology is simply “thinking about God” or “words about God”. Theology is what we do when we try to come to grips with who God is or understand what God is doing in the world, when we ask “Who is God?” or “What is God like?”. And we all do this. All of us. Even you. When you say, “Jesus loves you,” you are doing theology; when you say “God is love,” you are doing theology; when you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are doing theology. Even if you say “There is no God” or “God doesn’t care about the world anymore,” you are in some sense doing theology.
What the vocational theologians–the ones we may think of as impenetrable-prose, know-it-all hot shots–are doing is unpacking theological ideas, trying to get behind them. They are curious and want to know what it means, for example, that “God is love” or how the Three-in-One God might work. And the deeper they go, the more complicated it can sound. But just because you or I don’t go to these levels doesn’t make us any less theologians or make theology any less our business.
Karl Barth–possibly the most famous and important theologian (at least within vocational theological circles) of the 20th century–wrote a 13-volume (6 million words!) theological tome called Church Dogmatics, on top of many other books. It’s not an easy read–it takes work to read. I think. That’s what I hear. I purchased a copy of the set on a whim (or possibly through mob shopping mentality) when they were made available at a once-in-a-lifetime price. I’ve opened the books on occasion and I will again, but they’re not easy. That much was clear after reading a page or two. But here’s the thing: there’s a story told (it’s not just a legend) in which someone asked Barth after one of his lectures how he would summarize his life’s work as a theologian. His answer was this: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
What Barth and other vocational theologians do is unpack and examine the implications of our theological beliefs, asking the question “What does it mean when we or the Bible say ‘God is love'” But Barth and you and I are ultimately all thinking and talking about the same thing: Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Most of us just don’t have the desire or privilege to spend our days thinking about little else, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable for others to do so, or for us to draw on their thoughts and learning for our own benefit as individuals and as the Christian church.
Why do theology?
I can think of a couple of reasons why we might want to be more actively theological (as opposed to being accidentally theological). First, theology can be an act of worship and discipleship. There is value in contemplating the God we serve and to try and understand this God who seeks us out and who promises that he is with us. Theology is part of the pursuit of God, of getting to know God better, and in meditating what who God is means for our day-to-day lives.
This leads into the second reason theology is important for everyone: it shapes who we are, what we do, how we act, the choices we make. If God loves his creation so much that he enters into that creation to make things right, it has implications for how we deal with the wrongs in our lives and in the rest of the world, and with our broken relationships. If God says his creation is “very good,” it has implications for how we care for that creation. In other words, theology is connected to our action; how we understand God influences how we act.
So… theology is not by nature complicated. It can sound complicated, just like conversations about the mechanics of cars or farm machinery can sound complicated to those who are not mechanically inclined. But, unlike the world of the mechanics of internal combustion engines which not everyone can engage in, we are all theologians whether we know it or not.
To mangle a phrase from Larry Norman, “Why should all the vocational theologians enjoy all the theology?” They shouldn’t. You and I should too. Maybe not to the point of unintelligibility, but at the very least to think on who God is and what that means for us and for the world.