Theology is not popular. It is not a subject that elicits dinner invitations and offers for a beer, at least not outside of my circle of pastor and theologian friends. I was called a god-geek once by a friend, and I was devastated. I really thought everyone cared about third century christological statements. I was wrong.
But you should care about theology; you have one. A theology is a framework of information or a lens that you wear. You may not think too much about it, but you already see the world through a framework or lens that has God on it. The word “theology” means “thoughts about God” or “logic or structure about God.” Logos is one of those helpful words to know. It gets interpreted as “Word” in the beginning of the Gospel of John, but it means something much larger. It is a big idea, an organizing principle, an order, a way of being or understanding. The world is ordered and understood through this “word.”
A brilliant physicist and friend, also poet, philosopher, and theologian in his own right, Ke Chiang Hsieh, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arizona, gave me a gift of calligraphy. After a sermon in which I compared the concept of the logos to the tau, he wrote out the first verses of the Way of Chuang Te with the word logos in the place of the word tau in Chinese. It is the way that makes the walker.
An example is coffee to the connoisseur. The connoisseur loves coffee, to the point that he understands the world through it. He learns to drink wine by cupping coffee, to understand terroir by how understanding how different plants in the environment and procedures of processing affect the final cup. He thinks of the church in terms of the cafe. He thinks of mission in the church . . . You get the idea. Everything gets filtered through the lens of the one thing. That thing is a logos. It is a word, “coffee”, but it is also a way of ordering and understanding the world.
So theology is essentially seeing the world through one word, in this case, God. In particular for Christians, God as revealed in Christ and made manifest in the Holy Spirit through the stories and writings, histories, poetries, and letters of the Bible.
So why work at theology if is such a natural thing? You already see the world through a God lens right now. The problem is that our lenses get easily distorted by events and natural wear and habits.
For example, God is often understood as “father.” This is true of our teachings from Jesus, but even more so just naturally in a world where fathers have often been in charge and the title is used for the ones who are influential. It was true in Jesus’ day. When a father-figure fails, especially our biological father, it usually distorts our image of God, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, even physically. To do a little theological work to separate our image of God from our experience of fathers is to delve deeply into the multi-faceted importance of theology. We may still use the image of father as a way of talking about God, but not use Father as a proxy for God. Or we may have to say we cannot use that image anymore. We could spend years on this one topic.
There is a natural wear and tear to the lenses that we have. I am a runner and a physical person. I think about running, I obsess about my next pair of shoes, I plan runs. I have opinions. Those thoughts, obsessions, and opinions about running may seem unrelated to my thoughts about God, but they wear away at my theology. I see God through my running too, and as my running self gets beat up or more in shape, my running thinking is changed, and that can wear on my vision of God. I have gotten in better shape over the last ten years, and it would be easy to say that God is in getting in better shape because I have an easier time seeing God when I am not struggling with my body. Or worse, I can let my being in shape be an idol to replace God. I can let having better abs become more important than seeking the Rule of God. In every case, it is theological work to separate and see clearly, then speak clearly a word about God that is more true.
Finally opinions. I have opinions about lots of things. My teacher when I was young used to say, Your recognition of the essential nature of the universe does not change the universe or its essential nature. You ability to name the tau does not change the path, only your ability to walk it and enjoy the journey. My opinions do not change things. They are important to recognize, but they are not the thing itself or even reflective of it. They are rarely really important. The buddha would call them suffering, and these days I mostly agree. Jesus would say, Do not judge, and I am trying more and more to submit. Theology is not about having more opinions.
We learn theology. In Owen C. Thomas’s and Ellen K. Wondra’s Introduction to Theology they begin the first page with a reminder than in the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition, theology is about the Bible and the actual story and history and writings of the Hebrew and Christ-following people of God. We are people of a way, and we are trying to name the way. Ultimately all words about God fail, more surely than my words about my wife fall short of one smile from her.
But we do theology so that we can see clearly and speak clearly and walk the path with less stumbling. I am deeply indebted to teachers and writers, pilgrims, travelers, and saints who have walked the way before me and left signs and markers, creeds and writings, that keep me on the way to the Rule of God.
That is the landscape we travel in and our hope, is it not? To live in the Rule and Reign of God, the God revealed in Jesus to be love and shalom and justice. To speak of that home that is our home and is not yet our home?
I love theology like I love poetry. They both teach me what can be said in the space between our beautiful utterances show me glimpses of the places where others have been, where I have been, and where we can go.