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Posted by on Jan 12, 2015 | 11 comments

Does Theology Bring You Closer to God?

 “If you do not listen to theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones.”
– C.S. Lewis

“Any faith in Him, however small, is better than any belief about Him, however great.”
– George MacDonald.

Growing up in the Charismatic church, I have encountered a fair amount of anti-intellectualism. I especially remember a conversation, shortly before I went to Regent College, with a woman who tried to persuade me not to go, saying that most people who went to seminary lost their faith there. “Theology doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “All that matters is to trust and walk with God.” Her husband added, “You don’t need theology to get close to God, All you need is prayer.”

Over the last four years of academic study, I have also encountered its opposite: intellectual elitism. This takes various forms, but perhaps the most common is the belief that the only real problem in the world is people who don’t have their facts straight. “If only they read the Bible properly,” or, “If everyone just understood that X and not Y is the right view of the incarnation/atonement/eucharist/eschaton/trinity/church, the church wouldn’t be in its current mess!”

What saddens me about both these views is the obvious communication breakdown that has occurred between theologians and laypeople. Neither have taken the time to understand the other. Neither has any sense that they need each other, that the further apart they are the worse it is for both of them. Like any relationship breakdown, the fault lies on both sides, and the solution requires effort on both sides.

How should we see the role of theology in the life of the church? I suggest the following two parables.

  1. Nutrition

Being a nutritionist is not the same thing as eating healthily if the  nutritionist doesn’t use their knowledge to shape their eating habits. Neither do I need to be an expert nutritionist to eat healthy food, but if I have any interest in being healthy, I would be wise to listen to what nutritionists tell me. Likewise, good theology enables one to trust God more fully and love him more effectively. But where selfishness, laziness and pride get in the way, as Lance also points out, it is just as difficult for a theologian as for anyone else to conquer these sins in their own life, and they are as much the real problem with the world as any lack of knowledge.

Many people have absorbed good eating habits simply by growing up in a healthy family or culture, and are unaware of how much nutritional knowledge they have innately. This is due to the work of nutritionists from the past who they may never have heard of. Likewise, my anti-intellectual friends do not realise how much good theology prepared the ground to enable them to pray, trust and walk with God. Why should they pray? Why is this God trustworthy? What does walking with God look like, anyway?

  1. Foundations

A house without foundations looks exactly like a house with foundations. It even achieves the same purpose, for a while. With a bit of luck, it could make no difference for decades. But if a storm comes, then suddenly those foundations, usually invisible, make all the difference in the world, as the house is swept away without trace.

A church that doesn’t ground itself theologically may look wonderful and thrive for many decades. In some ways it has an advantage, because it can spend its time and energy on other things. But if a storm comes (e.g. a scandal, or any of the conflicts I mentioned in my last post), it is too late then to begin theological grounding. By “theological grounding” I mean the practice of continual reflection on what makes Christian belief and life distinctively Christian (and what doesn’t), and why these – Christian beliefs  and lifestyle – are worth the cost of keeping. Without this reflection, a church will always be sliding towards fundamentalism or liberalism, either defensively isolating itself from the surrounding culture or slowly assimilating to it.

But foundations are not a house. Foundations will not keep the rain out. You cannot live in foundations, or you would be living in what looks like ruins, indistinguishable from a house that has been torn down. It is possible for a theologian to become so concerned with establishing the right grounds for Christian faith that they spend too little time living it.

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Kathleen Jarvis

    Thank you for putting clear words on the thoughts floating around in my head. Great methapor or simile or whatever would be the right word for the nutritionist and foundation examples.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Kathleen!

  • Paul Arnold

    Thanks Barney. I like both of the images you used here. I am reminded of a lecture I recently heard of James Houston who said “theology is the grammar of faith.” He was making the point that theology helps define appropriate rules for talking about faith (as grammar with language) but that it is only a tool – often communicated unconsciously (again as with language) – not an end in itself.

    • Thanks Paul Yes, I’ve read the same idea in Robert Jenson and George Lindbeck. Jensons says that theology is a bunch of rules about “how to say the gospel” but of course saying the gospel isn’t the same thing as living it!

  • Patti Towler

    Thanks, Barney, these are helpful reflections and so true; you’ve struck a wise balance here.

  • Barney, on the broadest scale, I agree with you: Christian intellectuals and laypersons both need to integrate δόξα and πρᾶξις in their personal faiths.

    What I find unsatisfactory in your discussion of the uses of theology here is your one-sidedly constructive presentation of it. It would seem that from your two metaphors here—i.e. nutrition and foundation—that theology is meant to build up the church and the Christian individual. While building may indeed be a prominent Pauline metaphor, I think your exclusive focus on this aspect here ignores another rather destructive purpose for theology. Too much of the former without the latter leads one unto theologia gloriae rather than theologia crucis.

    Put most strongly, Karl Heim writes thus of the theologia crucis, “[T]here falls to Christian philosophy a merely negative task. It must ‘unsecure’ man. It must frankly show up in its impossibility everything that man has at any time undertaken, in order to move into a position in reserve where he is secure in the face of the question of eternity” (Glaube und Denken). Karl Barth is not far from him when he defines theology as “the Church’s concentrated anxiety and concern about her most intimate responsibility” that is “always thrown back on the start and always opening up afresh” (CD 1.1).

    While you do admit of “continual reflection on what makes Christian belief,” I find this to be much too benign. Reflection implies a kind of salutary deliberation that with time and sound judgment leads to a desirable outcome. This makes theology too “proper” for my burgeoning Lutheran sensibilities and not nearly alien enough. Ultimately, the logic of the cross should cut across all the nutritional nostrums proffered by the church and its thinkers, admitting no security or foundation.

    • Ryan, this is an intriguing critique you have offered. I think much of what you say is right. There is certainly an element to theology which is the destruction of idols, the constant apophatic returning to the start when we discover we have once again constructed a god in our image. Had I had more space, I would certainly have touched on this theme. As it stands, the only reference to it is in the C.S. Lewis quote at the top.

      I had originally planned a paragraph which discussed this in the ‘foundations’ analogy. The study of theology can often reveal to someone the shocking state of their own foundations, and this can cause the house to fall down even as the foundations are rebuilt. That is why so many people “lose their faith” upon going to seminary, as my anti-intellectual friend warned me about.

      Theology can be painful, disorienting and humbling. Following the nutrition analogy, if the cross is a bitter pill to swallow, it is nonetheless a vital antidote to the poison which flows currently in our blood.

      • Thanks for this piece, Barney! I love the ideas, and especially the metaphor of the foundations. It’s a metaphor I’ve integrated into my own autobiographical writings these days, highlighting exactly what Ryan points out here, sometimes the whole “soul-house” we’ve built on this foundation has to come down and start over again. So, I completely see Ryan’s point about the destructive force of theology on our idols, and don’t find it contradictory to what you’re saying.

        So glad for the continuing conversation the Regent community is sustaining on this site! Thanks for writing!

  • Robin

    Thanks for your thoughts Barney. I have often thought that there has been an historical bifurcation in the church between the more “charismatic,” experience oriented streams of the church and more intellectural, theologically oriented streams. Both the experiencial and the intellectual are really complementary types of “knowing”. We know God with analytical intellect AND we know God with the more intuitive part of the human being — the part that recognizes faces, discerns tone of voice, understands body language, etc. We need the analytical, didactic “knowing” to interpret what we “sense;” and we need this more “intuitive” knowing to inject life into what we know to be true intellectually. Knowing God well requires that we enbrace both types of knowing — they are complementary and both are necessary.

    • Thanks Robin! Yes I think you’re right, there is a bit of a split in the church at the moment between these two. I think it impoverishes both greatly! Do you have any suggestions about how to overcome the antipathy each often seems to feel towards the other?