Friday, July 23, 2010

Draft #2: "Why Theology Matters"

Yesterday I posted the first draft for my piece over at New Wineskins, with an explanation; today for your edification, we have draft number two. I quite like what I've written below -- having not particularly enjoyed the first draft -- but instead of making it more amenable to a popular readership, I made it denser; hence the third draft. Be that as it may, enjoy!

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The church is a missionary people sent among the nations with good news to share. As a people, the church is an identifiable community of persons over time, united by particular beliefs and practices, whose history and collective memory is a loose but locatable tradition. And the “news” to be shared among the nations by this community concerns a living Subject, whose originating and ongoing story gives the news its "good" content.

This brief articulation of the church, the gospel, and the church's evangelical mission is vital in order to understand both the "what" and the "why" of theology. The "what" is at once simple and complex. On the one hand, theo-logy merely names talk about God; according to this definition, as many have said, everyone is a theologian: to talk about God is to do theology. On the other hand, the discipline of theology—the actual training, learning, and equipping for the office, role, and practice in the life of the church—is much more than chatting about matters divine. It is here that the "what" and the "why"—definition and justification—converge.

We may both define and justify theology as the necessary and unavoidable task of a community whose temporality and dispersion impinge directly on a message whose living truth is narrated by speech. Let us unpack that thick claim below.

The church is not free from time. The church is temporal. With temporal existence comes both natural change and, in a fallen world, death. The church exists over time as a people unable to secure its own future in advance. Thus from a human perspective the church's future is always in doubt—hence the perennial predictions of the church's demise. Time takes its toll, time brings difference and death, and so the church must deal with these realities in its own life and history.

Death in particular means that the church's members in any one generation will be gone in mere decades, and therefore that the community today will be made up of entirely different persons tomorrow. Given that the church does not persevere by procreation but by evangelism, the threat of death and the question of the next generation renders the situation even more insecure. Who knows whether our sons and daughters or converts to the faith will arise in the wake of our death?

With time also comes change, and brings with it the first essentially theological question for the church: What will we say today that we said differently yesterday, remaining appropriate to our time yet faithful to our message? This question brings us to an equally important fact of the church's existence: its sent-ness into the world. The church belongs to no geographic area, no fixed boundary, no one civilization or cultural milieu. The church has been commissioned and sent among the nations, sojourning in exile yet with a clear directive, and therefore the question of how to speak to evolving temporal contexts applies equally to diverse cultural contexts. What, for example, does it mean to communicate the gospel in Austin, Texas, in 2010, compared to Tomsk, Russia, in 1210, or to Hippo Regius in 410? The question is one of both time and place.

Thus, these two variables—implicit in the church's constitutive mission—impinge directly on the formulation and articulation of the message of the church's commissioning. How to speak it faithfully and truly without simply repeating it ad nauseam is the whole project. And yet that it can be done is revealed not only in the fact that the church has been sent—i.e., that the church's dispersion is not happenstance but part and parcel of the job description—but precisely in the character of the church's message: a story, told and retold, by human speech.

The story given to the church is the story of Jesus. But this Jesus' story is at the center of a larger story, one of the true God and his life with the world: creation, redemption, and consummation; sin, death, and slavery; exodus and resurrection; Israel, cross, and new creation. It is the grand salvific drama of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, whose life of love revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the hope of the nations and the light of the world.

That is one short way to tell the story. But as new situations, ideas, and communities encounter the church's storytelling, the church's task becomes distinctly theological inasmuch as its members must discern creative ways to meet temporal, cultural, and other challenges appropriate to the context and faithful to the gospel.

Every season of the church's history testifies to the inevitability of theological engagement. Paul faced it in the question over Gentiles' supposed need to become Jewish proselytes as a prerequisite to membership in the covenant people. Irenaeus faced it in the Gnostic challenge of whether Jesus actually came in the flesh. Athanasius faced it in the question of Jesus' divinity, the Cappadocians in the triune relations, Chalcedon in the two natures of Christ, and so on. These were not spontaneous philosophical pontifications, nor were they alien adulterations of the pure or simple gospel. They were instead timely and creative responses to new challenges facing the church's mission. The question came in a way it had not before: Is Jesus God, or not? And the church—as messy, disordered, chaotic, and fallible as any other human endeavor—came to say the old gospel anew: If Jesus is not God, the game is up. Therefore, those who do not affirm Jesus as God cannot be said to be the church—that is, cannot be said to belong to that community sent by Jesus with his message.

The questions raised by these historical events—of church hierarchy, authority, creed, and dogma—are, for the moment, beside the point. It is of little concern, for our purposes, how the church ultimately ratified and handed down their theological decisions, but that they did, and that they had to do so. For it is no different today: there are profound challenges facing the church in today's world, and we must recognize above all that these are primarily theological challenges. Particularly for those of us who belong to streams of the church either suspicious of or outright hostile to theology, this recognition is crucial. Beyond the fact that we have a more expansive history than we may often acknowledge, more to the point the lesson is this: we cannot simply repeat Bible verses in the face of today's questions. The gospel is more pressing, its Subject more lively, the Spirit more creative than slack-jawed rote recitation.

I say this not to demean Scripture, but rather to raise it to the level for which it was given. As the founding and abiding texts of the story we have to tell and the community to which we belong, Scripture is the authoritative witness to the God who stands behind all our efforts at faithful and truthful speech and action. Just so we may and ought to trust this One who sent us into the world, to stand with, behind, and beneath our efforts to speak the truth anew and well.

This task is no in-house doctrinal sparring, no endless parsing of technical terms without purchase on the ground. Theology is nothing less than life and death, nothing short of cosmic struggle between principalities and powers. What, after all, does it mean, theologically, to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? It means, definitively, to claim that the Lord of the cosmos is not the free market, not military might, not political triumph, but a crucified Jew from a backwater town in Palestine. It means that those who say worship belongs to this One alone will be willing to die for saying so. It means that those whom this One cared about most—the poor, the weak, the marginalized, women, foreigners, and traitors—will take priority over the fashionable, the beautified, and those able to reciprocate. It means that "in this world we are like him": him who forgave his enemies, him who suffered without retaliation, him who went to the cross. It means that what this man did and said really is the key to human existence, and therefore that his authority overrides that of any and every other claimant to the throne.

There are other theologies on offer, in the world and in the church; and at times these theologies envision a different Jesus, a different gospel, a different mission. It is always our first task to recognize these as different theologies—what Scripture calls idols—and then to go about responding. There will always be diversity, of course, in the church's fresh tellings of the story, both in word and deed; and indeed this is a blessing. But there will also be diversions and distortions that must be addressed—primarily (and preferably) by offering an alternative telling of the story. The telling and the retelling—faithful to Subject and message, fit for time and place—is the singular task of the timeful work of theology.

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