What is Theology? And why do it?

(this exploration is written while reading Elouise Renich Fraser’s Confessions of a Beginning Theologian.)

I do remember writing this answer in my MA and MTh levels and I remember being confused about it both times. At least, more correctly, I could give an answer, but any answer I gave seemed to fall short of a true understanding of theology. It isn’t just “study about God” or “words about God.” It isn’t just a verb, or a praxis (work). It isn’t just a collection of theological disciplines such as historical, philosophical and so on. Neither does the statement “it is all of the above” help.

I remember my friend’s statement a few years ago that we don’t need theology, especially Indian Christian Theology. As he said it, he was visibly upset. Isn’t there a plain sense to the Bible? Isn’t the message of the Bible plain enough if we are conscientious in our study of the text? Why do we need theology, or even an Indian theology?

At that time I had expressed my desire to pursue Indian Christian Theology and while I had my answer, in that biblical faith needs to be constantly understood and interpreted within context, my answer wasn’t enough to keep those words from taunting me, even now.

I guess this question must be directed to the Bible and I am forced to question my relationship with the Bible? I must admit that I pursued Theology as an academic discipline because I was afraid of biblical studies. I was particularly afraid and wary of critical understanding of the testament books, of language studies (Greek and Hebrew), of the atomism that such studies can lead to. Theology appealed to my desire for generality above particularity, even thematic above exegetical understanding, even culture above customs, worldview above religions.

Yet, all this could not hide the fact that I actually find the Bible a really difficult book. I don’t have regular disciplined Bible studies, and when I do, I really find it difficult to understand the text. Or when it is so simple, to know what to do with it. I’m reading Acts for my morning study, and I’m afraid of trying to make it relevant to my life because it seems that relevance must come via author’s context and extensive biblical study and exegesis. I don’t do all that, early in the morning. And perhaps as a result my Bible reading remains irrelevant. The Bible is not my friend. And yes I do view the Bible with anxiety. And is this anxiety by consequence reflected in my theology?

Some “theologians” offer that true theology must begin with a person who speaks truly and truly listens, as well as a person who interacts with people who are unlike the theologian. For instance, for Fraser (Elouise Renich Fraser, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian), theology is like the meeting of strangers, and being ministered to by untrustworthy Samaritan neighbours; in both cases, there is suspicion and antagonism that needs to be overcome by meeting at a common ground and have conversions/dialogues with these strangers/neighbours.

The conversation with strangers are the theologians, who whether right or wrong are never perfectly right or wrong.

The ‘truly listening’ not only involves listening to the theologians, but listening with a desire to go beyond. This theological process includes having a theological imagination that rises above stock quotes, short-hand and catch-phrase theology. Theological imagination for Fraser begins with wonder, over concepts that she thought she already understood. And is likened to falling in love, especially in love with truth.

The truly speaking, is an honest speaking out, an expression of being yourself. Expressed through the theologian’s unique experiences and insights.

So it can be deduced that ultimately, being a theologian is getting involved with life and people, constantly being challenged and never afraid to challenge. The goal being not to distance or isolate oneself from life, but to engage more fully with it and within it.

Does all this help? Can I adequately express the definition of Theology and identify its task?

Fraser’s reflections have actually been helpful, especially in that she points to how she has had to be transformed right through her doctoral studies. For me, its encouraging that though my spiritual walk is not up to the mark, it is still heading towards the right direction.

While Fraser does not talk about theology for local context, she is aware of her feminism as well as her “white”ness. These bring out unique peculiarities in her thought and issues to be discussed. They are almost necessary directions of theologies. Here, my being Indian, and an Indian male, seems significant in understanding the Christian faith, bringing the possibility of unique insights from my perspective for the church, and also opens me to be uniquely challenged. This dialogue that happens within me, when expressed in speech and letter, can be the process of theologising. Learning and teaching. Fraser make special note of remembering and associating with the heritage of one’s own history, and here too is the need, within theology, to understand where we come from and how similar concerns have been treated in time.

Ultimately, I am most impressed by Fraser’s concept of theological imagination, equated somewhat to theological wonder, where the need is desperately in me to see beyond the confines of my spiritual learnings (my shaped theology) to be challenged and grow in my spiritual learning (grow in my theology), all encapsulated with an awe of how good and amazing God is and being able to communicate it to someone who may not, like me, have understood this truth completely.

There is need to identify theology as something different from simply Christian living. There is the important of the ideological understanding of the Christian faith. Especially since the early church struggled to understand what Christianity was all about, it is interesting that despite the fact that the scripture was available to them, they still struggled.

Many of the issues were interpretative. Many issues came up because of opposition within the church.

Theology was a way to identify what was really true, in certain instances and for time to come.

The task of Early Church Fathers was to save the church from error and from extinction. Theology, the expression of what was true, was a result of this quest.

Furthermore, Colin Gunton says that “in so far as there is speech about, from or involving God, there is theology, so that we can speak of the theology” even of the biblical writers. Gunton adds that there are “continuities” with later theologies, because the Bible is neither systematic in its teaching about God nor even entirely explanatory. Gunton makes special note that the Bible arises from event oriented concerns and offers “little extended exposition or defence of Christian doctrinal teaching.” Thus, for instance, the theological expression of creation ex nihilio “emerges only out of sustained engagement with both the biblical teaching and the challenges to articulate it in the world in which the early church was set”. As a result, for Gunton, theology is brought about by a “change of situation”. The change in situation could be a new conflict, an internal conflict such as a heresy that demands immediate attention, or an external conflict such as persecution or even a snide remark from a non-christian friend.

So, now can I answer that friend? Can I give him this answer? While the Bible is the complete revelation of God, it is difficult, or to put it more bluntly, it is impossible to draw out what God is saying through it without doing theology. For example, I would give, let’s see, the story of Jesus saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.” While it is very clear that Jesus is talking about himself, and putting himself as the only way, it poses the question, in an Indian context, about what happens to people who do not know Jesus. Will they go to heaven, or hell? The question, that necessitates certain answers in this context, isn’t even posed in the Bible, and neither is it directly answered. While one may argue that the answer will be (must be) sourced from a legitimate reading of the Bible, the fact remains that the question arises from context and necessitates answers geared towards the context, and all this is the process of theology.

Of course philosophers will point to the ironic first principle where I tell Luke that the Bible is the complete revelation of God. For clearly, in the Bible, there is no such claim. So where do we get that idea, from an understanding and particular reading of the Bible that we gain from our parents, our church and even from the literary/philosophical traditions of our time. Theology however is not the quest to stop all these ‘outside’ influences from affecting our understanding of God and His world, but allowing the natural processes of the world to influence our understanding, even as what we understand challenges our thinking.

This latter thought, though attractive, seems Aristotelian, in that the particular helps understand the whole and the whole helps understand the particular. But for now, I think I’ll stick to my first answer to Luke.

FINAL STATEMENT

So, after all this reflection, what is theology and why do it?

Theology is an answer to a question.

The question would be about anything about God, or His world, or even about His method of dealing with the world (ie. not simply biblical facts but themes, meanings and understandings). The questioner would be a person who is (deeply) moved by a desire to know an answer because his/her community or simply he/she needs it.

The person who provides the answer (could be the questioner himself) would be the theologian. The answer (and hopefully the correct answer) would come from the Holy Spirit initiated interaction of the Bible with the community of faith (tradition), personal experience and reason, and even with the world at large. Also, the answer is not limited to simple facts again but to larger understanding, methods of understanding and connecting the answers with other answers and more questions.

As a result, because theology is so influenced by the person who asks the question and the place and time in which the question arises, theology is necessarily varied. Due to this varied natured of theology, there is the possibility that certain questions are irrelevant to others, who themselves have their own unique questions needing answers not only in their own language but in a manner that is understandable (needless to add, also true).

Thus, to answer, why do theology; because we all have questions, and there will always be people who question. And their questions may not be ours. So there is a need not only for us to answer the questions of ourselves and our community, but also for others to rise up to answers questions of other communities and generations.

These answers are important because they help us know our God more as well as our necessary response to Him. Also, these answers, constantly being fresh and self-critical (because they are limited by the imperfect and fallen understanding), keep the community of faith on their toes in faith, always seeking to gain understanding of their God and respond adequately to this God who is known more.

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Philippians 2:11-13 (NIV) (12)Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, (13)for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

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