Does theology matter?
I was asked recently to ponder this question and then to write a brief post in response to it. (Oh, the damnable first rule of blogging: keep it short).
One thing that occurs to me is that theologians don’t do what they do because they’re trying to grasp, contain, define, and/or neatly summarize who and what God is; they do what they do because they know they can never accomplish any of those things.
Which isn’t to say that theology is futile or that theologians are fatalistic. Rather it’s to say that theology’s main task is to furnish the Church with “a set of protocals against idolatry.” This phrase comes from Roman Catholic theologian Nicholas Lash. I’ve found his always-provocative insights helpful in thinking through whether and how Christian theology “matters.”
Lash distinguishes between “exploration” and “communication”–the latter concept borrowed from Thomas Aquinas. Theology as exploration is identified with modern theism and its preoccupation with spatial images and metaphors: “The explorer sets out from this world in the hope that he may find, beyond its farthest frontiers, ‘a’ being (notice the frequency with which that indefinite article occurs) whose nature is such as to provide some assurance that all things ultimately either are or will be well.”
Theology as communication, on the other hand, seeks to convey acquaintance with God (an enterprise more dangerous than assuring) and checks “our propensity to go whoring after other gods.”
But how are we acquainted with God? As soon as we ask the question this way we’re in danger of the modern turn to the self: how do I know God? what is my experience of God? and so on. In some sense, this kind of subjectivism is unavoidable; as Lash observes, “what else can we talk about except our experience?”
What Christian theology makes possible is a naming of our knowledge of God as a kind of pedagogy–a “school of discipleship” (Lash)–through which a shared grammar orders our speech (and our worship), and by which we are saved and healed, blessed and commissioned for witness in the world.
God’s giving of God’s self makes this possible. For “explorer” theology, God may give us a “word” but there’s still “a” God with other essential properties behind/beyond the giving. A theology of communication assures that “what God has spoken to us is not some particular message (behind which he might have a rather different message up his sleeve), but is his self-statement in the flesh and texture of our history.” (Lash).
The enterprise of theology is a continual reckoning and wrestling with the truth of God’s gratuitous self-giving, of God’s “matteredness” in the world: the Father’s love poured out in the Son through the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world. Learning to abide in the mystery of Christ crucified is Christianity’s pedagogic purpose. And the task of theology is to shape our speech about this mystery (which is always just beyond our grasp).
But the truth of this eternal mystery is contested knowledge, disputed discourse. It is “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” to rational minds. We are easily seduced by other stories, prone to worship other gods at other altars.
And so of course theology matters–our stumbling toward right speech, our explication of Christian practice, our learning to tell the truth in a world of falsehood and deception. Theology matters because it’s a matter of life and death.