Monday, October 28, 2019

The End of Theology

 A new book by two Yale theologians reminds me why I fell in love with theology as a new Christian in the 1970’s. The book is entitled For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun (Brazos Press, 2019). They had me with the opening paragraph:

“Though written in a style of an invitation, this book is a manifesto. Before we begin, we should to tell you, each in our own voice, why and how theology has come to matter to us, and then, together, we should sketch the main thesis of the book: academic theology ought to be, but today largely isn’t, about what matters the most—the true life in the presence of God. The failure of theology to attend to its purpose is a loss for the church and for the world, for theology is uniquely qualified to explore what matters the most. And this is a loss for theology itself—for theology will either refocus itself on what matters the most or gradually cease to matter at all.”

Volf then gives his personal testimony. “I grew up in a place and at a time when we, a small group of teenagers who knew no better, thought that no intellectual endeavor could possibly matter more than doing theology. The time was the early 1970s.” He continues, “As we spent our days and nights (yes, lots of long nights) reading and arguing about all matters theological, we had no idea that out in the wide world of Western academies, where we all wanted to study, theology was in a serious crisis.”

That crisis is what inspired them to write this book. Volf says, “I wrote this book to give myself a reason to keep faith with the dream of the teenager-theologian I once was.” According to Volf and Croasmun Christian theology is in serious trouble.

The authors lament that no one reads theology anymore. Neither Christian laypeople nor ministers, who have historically been the biggest market for theological tomes. According to the authors, today’s clergy consider theology “largely irrelevant for their profession.” The book puts forth external and internal reasons for this decline in theology’s popularity.

Externally less churches are requiring their clergy to be academically trained. This has resulted in the closing of seminaries and the decline in religion departments in universities. Churches do not feel the need for their members – or their pastors - to be theologically literate. Theology is considered impractical. The authors explain: “There is no gain in communicating eloquently and accessibly what has already been deemed arcane and vacuous.” Internally the academic discipline of theology is having an identity crisis. Christian theologians have forgotten their purpose.

I agree that most Christians are not very interested in theology these days, except as ammunition in the culture war. Today’s theology seems to be of two basic types. In its conservative form theology is used as an apologetic weapon to defend the purity of Christian doctrine against heretics. Theology is used to define who is “in” and who is “out,” who is a “true” Christian and who is not. On the other hand, progressive theologians see it as their mission to combat the groupthink of evangelical Christianity and expand our theological parameters in the name of spiritual liberty and academic freedom.

This book attempts to remedy the situation by reestablishing the purpose of theology as they see it, which is “to discern, articulate, and commend visions of and paths to flourishing life in light of the self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and coming in glory of Jesus Christ…” They say, “Flourishing life should be the encompassing purpose that all theologians’ endeavors serve.” They spend the rest of the book unpacking their vision of this “flourishing life.”

They do an admirable job in trying to give new life to the floundering discipline of Christian theology. But in the end this book also caused me to remember why I became disillusioned with theology. For me theology – even theology done well, as in this book - does not live up to its purpose. In the end it is incapable of leading us to “what matters the most — the true life in the presence of God.” In the end it is just words about God and about our life with God.

After decades of pastoral theologizing, I have come to the conclusion that theology does not bring people closer to God or to a flourishing life in God. In fact theology can serve as a substitute for a genuine spirituality. Theology by its very nature as an intellectual discipline keeps us at a distance from God, while giving us the illusion of knowing and saying something meaningful about God.

Therefore I have chosen another way. Rather than seeing theology as knowledge about the divine, even Croasmun and Volf’s “knowledge as their way of participating in God’s grand project of transforming the world into God’s home,” I now see it as a springboard from which to dive headlong into the unfathomable Mystery we call God. Theology is not truth, but it can be a stepping stone – or a diving board – into Truth.

In my way of thinking, theologians’ purpose is to work themselves out of a job. Theology is meant to point us to the God who is beyond theological formulations. Theology can only take us so far. It can start us off in the right direction, and it can be useful at certain critical junctions along the path. But theology is ultimately incapable of bringing us into the presence of God.

To their credit the authors anticipate my reaction, but dismiss it as an extreme approach “intended to delegitimize positive visions of the good life.” They see my approach, known as mystical, apophatic or negative theology, as one end of a theological spectrum. They prefer a more balanced approach. They explain, “Kataphatic and apophatic approaches are both indispensable elements in a carefully and systematically curated dialectical strategy whose purpose is both to articulate the nature of God and to acknowledge through language God’s infinite transcendence of all articulations.”

To many people that sentence may sound like so much theological gobbledygook, and they may be tempted to stop reading my blog right here. They have no idea what the terms kataphatic, apophatic, and even dialectical mean, and they do not care. They do not see it as relevant to their spiritual lives. And they would be right.

That is my point. Theology too easily gets twisted up in words and concepts. I do not need any more words and concepts – even good concepts like these two authors offer. I desire only God. I want what they promised in the second sentence of the book: “what matters the most — the true life in the presence of God.” That is why I originally fell in love with theology. But that is exactly what theology cannot deliver.

So maybe it is good that theology is dying out in the churches. Maybe theology does not need to be renewed by academic theologians. Maybe it needs to die, so that resurrection can happen within Christianity. Perhaps the waning of the theological enterprise is a sign of the maturation of American Christianity, rather than its spiritual demise. Theology is fulfilling its end, which is to die to itself that God may live in us.

As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” In this case the death of theology is not to be lamented, but celebrated. It has accomplished its end. Praise be to God! Theology is dead! God lives!


Jeanne said...

Interesting viewpoint! Thank you!

Fedder said...

I agree with some of what you wrote, but I think the death of Theology is a road block to knowing God... It's like a writing teacher once told me when my sentence structuring was bad. She said there are several famous writers that break Grammer laws as a rule for their writing, but they can do this and get away with it because they know all the rules... She told me that I was not them... Not knowing theology is like me writing badly... Pure laziness and not on a path of mastery... Theology is not truth but it's the standing on the backs of thousands of generations of searchers to know God... Why muddy around in waters left behind hundreds of years ago and traveling the same path over and over to one day just make it to the place theology ends only to have no more time to add what I've learned.