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What is Theology?
And For Whom is it Meant?
I admit to choosing a rather steep climb for my second writing piece. Though, since I hope to share theologically heartfelt reflections through my writing here, I guess that beginning with ‘what is theology and for whom is it meant?’ makes good sense.
Theology encompasses knowledge, debates, disputes, and centuries as well as libraries full of information. I could spend the rest of my life outlining the historical path of theology and its various branches, or simply boil it down the definition found in the dictionary: “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience.” However, neither approach captures what I believe lies at the heart of theology.
Why do we study these things? Why has humanity always longed for answers about God? My answer: because we long for God, we crave to know Him, to fill that need inside us that no earthly desire can satisfy (to loosely quote C.S. Lewis). So, this piece will not encompass all of Church History or Systematic Theology (we can all breathe a sigh of relief), instead we will look at the thoughts of some theologians and writers, much more qualified than me, who delve into this concept.
Dorothee Sölle’s book ‘Thinking about God’ inspired this topic, and she provides an excellent opening to the discussion with her statement, “the object of theology can only be the relationship between God and human beings: in other words, reflection on the experiences that have compelled human beings to talk about something like ‘God.’” Sölle addresses the heart of theology with her focus on the interconnection and relationship between God and humanity.
Sölle differentiates faith from theology by explaining how faith, the experience and belief in God, comes before theology, defined as a reflective action about God. Literature crafts some of my favorite analogies for concepts concerning faith and theology. In her series The Winter Souls, Jennifer Kropf provides a fitting example of faith and theology through an invisible library. To see the library, one must know the deep truths and believe that the library exists. Faith in this truth allows the characters to see the library, even if only in glimpses, and upon entering the wealth of knowledge and tomes of truth become available. In subsequent books in the series, the characters experience how great the library truly appears when they have fully accepted and know the truth. Faith allows them to see and open the door to the further study of truth, and this study of truth (theology) reveals the vast beauty of their faith.
Faith opens the door to theology, and theology in turn inspires a greater depth of faith. Sölle explains well how faith and theology create a feedback loop for one another, “This circle of human learning is also a circle of human life: faith needs theology to understand itself and to communicate, but the significance of this theological theory is to lead to a deeper faith.”
Let’s return to Sölle’s definition of theology’s object as the relationship between God and man. This addresses the most crucial element of both faith and theology: relationship. So who is theology meant for? Anyone who desires a relationship with God. Those who have faith but feel unsure about all the details, those who grew up in a church but are uncomfortable with some of what they heard, those who don’t desire to get into a political dialogue about religion, those who have been hurt by the church or people in it, those disinterested in denominations and disputes, theology is for You.
In terms of scriptural evidence of God’s desire for a relationship with you, the Old Testament expresses God’s unwavering interest in and devotion to His chosen people the Israelites. He sends angels, prophets, leaders of all kinds, to express His desire for relationship with the Israelites. Faith and theology were intrinsically tied to every aspect of society; yet this was within a fairly small, selective group of people.
[And for those of you who may, like me, struggle to read this relational motif within the Old Testament amidst the cultural customs that cause winces, I hope to soon share some of what I learned in my ‘Women in the Old Testament’ class that aided me in my understanding.]
In the New Testament, Christ shattered the formerly narrow views of who deserved to know and study theology. Christ’s words and actions throughout the gospels affirmed not only the inclusion but also the right of the marginalized to know Him and his message. Particularly in the book of Luke, Christ’s table fellowship threw social, economic and religious customs into disarray with his inclusion of tax collectors, sinners, beggars, and those with physical disabilities to his side. He judged not by pedigree or status, but by the heart. Christ called for the children, the crowds, the unclean, the unsure, and the women to come to Him.
At this point in history, men were instructed not to speak to women, even their wives, more than was necessary. Women were excluded from any teaching regarding religious matters, their role minimized to tending to the home and children - and then came Christ. Christ taught all people, desired not only faith but also understanding for His followers, and opened the doors wide for all those who sought Him.
To conclude, theology is directly defined as “the study of God” and that study examines the relationship between God and humanity, presupposing and continually strengthening faith in a powerful feedback loop. In one of my favorite examples of this idea, I’d like to leave you with this quote from ‘Prince Caspian’:
“‘Aslan’ said Lucy ‘you're bigger’.
‘That is because you are older, little one’ answered he.
‘Not because you are?’
‘I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.’”
Madison Chastain wrote an amazing blog piece for Live Today Well that explains ‘4 Ways We can make the Church more Welcoming for our Disabled Members.’ I cannot stress enough the importance of her work and others like her who advocate for and educate on creating places of belonging and dignity in our churches.
I’m currently working through ‘Scars Across Humanity’ by Elaine Storkey and ‘Prayers of the Women Mystics’ by Ronda De Sola Chervin for my current class and have enjoyed each.
Finally, my friend Kara Becker created a beautiful two-part reel about healing for Live Today Well and it brought me to tears with its vulnerability and truth on mental health and faith; I highly recommend watching it.
Thank you each for reading, responding, and following along. I’d love to hear your thoughts on theology and its accessibility, or any books, articles, or podcasts you’re enjoying!
Yours in prayer, Alli