Here’s a question that stumps me: why is theology seen as scary or dangerous in some parts of Christian culture? I’ve genuinely heard the word said in exaggerated whispers, or speakers warning congregations that they’re about to embark on a more ‘theological’ section of the sermon.
The implication is pretty clear: theology is beyond the grasp of your average churchgoing Christian. This is an idea reinforced every time there’s nervous laughter at the thought of engaging with a topic deemed specifically theological, or every time a congregation is forewarned about the theological content of a section of a sermon.
I don’t blame people for acting this way. Theology is a legitimate academic discipline, widely studied around the world. As an academic pursuit, it’s existed pretty much anywhere and anytime that scholars have worked. For that matter, it’s got ‘-ology’ in its name, which always makes a word sound impressive.
The academic associations of theology can lead to the perception that you need a qualification to be able to have a valid theological opinion, or to be able to undertake theological study. My contention is that theology is essential for every single Christian. Bar none.
Why? The word comes from the Greek word theos, meaning god (or God) and the common suffix ‘-ology’ which means an area of study or, simply, a branch of knowledge. We might not label it something as official-sounding as ‘study,’ but every Christian should be learning more about God throughout their lives, whether their knowledge comes through direct experience of God, reason and logical thought, reading the Bible or Christian tradition.
Learning is simply gaining knowledge, and just as you learn more about another human as you spend time with them, so you learn more about God as you spend more time with God. Thus, theology.
Let me make an important distinction: I’m not saying that every Christian should engage with academic theology, but that every Christian should embrace the concept of theology as the idea that it is a good thing to learn more about God.
Here’s an analogy that works for me as an English graduate: the fact that English Literature exists as an academic subject doesn’t mean that people who just like reading have to get a qualification before they can express an opinion on a book. You don’t have to study stylistics to read a book and say how it made you feel or what you think it might mean.
Sure, studying English at uni might give you different frameworks and skills that can be brought to bear to increase your appreciation and understanding of some literary works, but no one feels the need to warn that they’re saying something ‘literary’ when they tell you they appreciated possible political allusions in The Hunger Games.
In the same way, I believe that there is value to studying theology at uni. It equips you with language to express thoughts about God that you might not have known otherwise and it gives you the opportunity to engage with schools of thought that you might not have come across, but it shouldn’t put off the average Christian from engaging with what they think the Bible says about God’s like, or wondering how their lived experience of free will meshes with the traditional concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful God.
I don’t think you can read the Bible for any length of time without being led to thoughts about who and what God is, or why God acts in a certain way, or what implications something God said might have for us now. To engage with any of that is to be thinking theologically and it’s an essential part of getting to know God more.
I would contend that it’s impossible to get to know God without engaging in some kind of theology, whether you would call it that or not.
If, then, we’re engaging in theology as part of standard Christian practice, is it such a jump to engage with more structured theology from authors and academics and to push ourselves to reflect on that?
I wonder if part of the fear around it is the reluctance to encounter a view that might challenge our own beliefs. What if we encounter an interpretation of a Bible passage that rocks the boat a bit? Or a view of God that doesn’t fit with what we were told in Sunday school? Change is scary and change to deep-seated religious beliefs is even scarier.
However, we shouldn’t be afraid of challenge. If we’re serious about really learning more about who God is, I think we should be prepared to engage with theological ideas that oppose our own. There is much to be learnt from those who see faith differently, even if all you end up doing is growing in the certainty of your own beliefs.
The broader the range of theological views you engage with, the bigger the framework you have to learn about the true God. Surely that’s something every Christian can embrace?
So should we all go and study theology at university? Absolutely not. Do we all need to go and read Augustine to have a rich Christian faith? Nope.
But what we can do is be prepared to engage seriously with our own faith and that of our Christian communities, to encourage the sharing of different thoughts about God and to see that all of our learning and deepening relationship is, in some way, theological. That kind of thing transcends levels of education or how many books you’ve read on the subject. All it requires is people who love God and want to know God more.
What is there to be afraid of?