So, budding theologians, you have your resources and the steps of reflection and now it’s time to bring these to bear on the substance of life. Every craftsman has a method that they follow in order to bring the object of their work to life, and theology is no exception. This methodology is necessarily personal and the way that I reflect may not align precisely with yours. What is more important is that we share, or at least understand, the bases on which our method unfolds so that if we should arrive at differing conclusions we can avoid naming the other as heretics.
Christians want to understand God and how we relate to Him. We want to know what can be known about Him, who He is and what Jesus means to us. We also want to understand where we came from, who we are, why we are the way we are, the nature of our relationship with God, what faith in Jesus Christ entails, and where we’re headed. This heady list comprises the singular purpose of the theological reflection that we undertake on a personal basis. We want to know what it means to be a Christian and how it applies to our lives.
Reflection starts at one of two points and the choice is significant. If we begin by examining Christianity in the context of life and then seek to determine the meaning of God’s word we begin from an anthropological starting point. The other path we might follow is the begin with divine revelation, the word of God in the Scriptures, and then move to discover the implications that it has for human life. Noting and revealing this starting point is important to your method as it not only shapes its direction, but it gives important clues to us as to how to best receive the results that you come to. For example, if you express an anthropological beginning you must be cautious not to allow your conclusions to be colored more by culture or other social factors to the extent that they override the core of the gospel message. Likewise, the revelatory method can become removed from the realities of life, separating God from His people and His world.
Start Me Up
None of us comes to this process as empty vessels. Inevitably, we begin applying our theological method from where we are, here and now. As Christians, we also have some understanding of the Faith from our involvement in church, listening to sermons, praying, and reading the Scriptures. We begin in a combination of the anthropological and revelatory positions to forge our theological understandings. We share happiness and struggles and seek to understand them. We want to know what it means to be saved and how the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us. Mostly, we want to process our lives as best we can through our faith.
The way in which human beings think is a large part of this process as well. There are two basic forms of thinking that we practice, sequential and parallel-synthetic. Sequential thinking is just what is says, linear information processing. We take facts that present themselves and work through them logically; A leads to B and B leads to C and so on. Parallel synthetic processing is big picture thinking. Human beings are capable of seeing the relationships between numerous things at the same time. I am able to look out of my office window and see the birds battling at the feeder, the dog watching them, and the increasing clouds in the air. Our minds will naturally switch between these two modes as appropriate to the task at hand, using the other mode as a complement to complete the picture in our thinking. Both modes are necessary to thorough theological reflection.
Creative Theological Reflection
Many will cringe at the heading above but in fact, theological reflective requires the application of imaginative thinking. Applying God’s revelation in His word to the complexities of life requires that the theologian examine the facts that are available and, in the context of a living and changing world, apply them to the infinitely unique situations which present themselves every moment of every day. This reality disturbs many Christians. They demand that every issue be wedged into a neat five-point framework. Taking the whole of revelation into consideration, especially when it contradicts the neat categories of logical thinking, is a challenge that some are unwilling to make. Creative thinking in theological reflection requires that both cognitive approaches be present to some degree. You and I favor one or the other and should be aware of which is our dominant mode. Once identified, the theologian will engage in activities meant to strengthen or encourage the other mode in our thought process.
Creative theological thinking also demands verification. We are not free to ‘see’ new truths or applications without submitting them to the verification of history and the rest of the Church. Others are capable and engaged in theological reflection and can help us to verify, clarify or challenge our conclusions. Ego and pride have no place in this process. We are all one community and should be allowed or allow others to participate in the task.
So, Let’s Go
The objects of our reflection have a tendency to present themselves to us in the course of life. Once a situation presents itself that we want to have an outline of the steps we will take. A rough process would look something like this:
- identify the Christian truths that apply to the situation we are reflecting on
- determine the strengths and weaknesses of each of these truths as they apply to the current reflection
- propose an adequate solution in light of the message that God has revealed
- explain in theological terms why this solution is preferable to others
The first two steps will comprise our process of analysis and the second pair represent the process of construction. This is theological reflection. Now it’s your turn.
image Klearchos Kapoutsis
3 thoughts on “Working Out Your Theology”
This is a thoughtful series, and shows real experience.
Much of what you say resonates with my experience lately as I try to organize my “personal history of reflection” around theological topics which I have long considered to be important, even pressing.
I owe much to some very distinct theological traditions, but here at the beginning it feels a little like re-inventing the wheel.
It is humbling to apprehend you as a mentor, and to anticipate your judgment of my poor efforts so far. Not being familiar with your own history of reflection, I hesitate to expose mine to criticism. It may be, though, that one test of pure method is its capacity to be utilized to display different perspectives?
Wonderful to hear from you John. My regrets in the delay in responding. We all owe a lot to the theological traditions that have shaped us. What is important is that we become aware of what these presuppositions are and how they came to be. So many Christians assume that all beliefs of ‘the Church’ have been set in stone since day one, never having been considered, argued, molded, and set forth in the shape in which we find them today. We don’t question the pressures and revelations that others long before us have been witness to. It’s as if all theological reflection started with Luther’s nail in the door and ended shortly thereafter.
Why do “theology” at all?
If the all pervasive, and all surrounding, and all sustaining Holy Spirit of God were tangibly Real to you in every moment, do you think you would be in any sense interested in doing “theology”?
The “letter” always kills the Spirit! And thus prevents even the possibility of Real spirit-breathing Spiritual Life.
Saint Jesus of Galilee was not in any sense a theologian. On the contrary while he was alive he taught and demonstrated a radical spirit-breathing Spiritual Way of Life.
Plus the Bible altogether, and everything spoken and written ever since by ALL Christians, was said/written by people who never ever met Jesus up close and personal so as to have an extended conversation with him, and HENCE be thereby instructed and guided into how to live a spirit-breathing Spiritual Way of Life.
In other words the Bible and Christianity altogether is an institutionalized religion ABOUT “Jesus”, ALL of which was invented by other people who never ever met “Jesus”.
Nor were the fiery prophets of the “Old” Testament in any sense theologians. Plus the Bible altogether is NOT a theological text.
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