Should theology have a practical use?
Most have looked at Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica or Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics with derision and a sneer, certain that the ultimate questions couldn’t possibly be that complex. Theology, specific the “study of the Christian God”, should become more practical, more relevant to the Christian believer. They shouldn’t have to wade through this mess of medieval scholasticism or several million words devoted to discussing every infinitesimal issue. Why should we discuss whether two angels can occupy the same space, or how the doctrine of election works? Why not deal with the issues of the here and now?
The same questions, and the same opposition to such questions, have been asked again and again. It’s a balancing act; make theology too abstract and you risk alienating anyone but the most trained theologians who understand your neologisms and jargon. Go too practical, and you’ve missed the divine and inscrutable character, which easily leads to false doctrines and weird actions by Christians. It also leads to writings like those of the pragmatic theologians, with whom I have a particular beef.
Victor Anderson is primary among them. In his book Pragmatic Theology, he tries to reframe theology for a new age, removing the “timeless search for truths about God” model for something a little more relevant to today’s culture. It is assumed, out of hand, that the old enterprise was useless and or broken based on its “cultural irrelevance”. But this, in fact, is the criteria of pragmatists for theology, not necessarily an internal critique of theology. Do we honestly believe that theologians of the past and present actually believed that their relevance to modern culture is an essential criteria to the enterprise?
That does not, on my part, place total support behind current academic theology. I think it’s taken a dive into the dumps solely because it’s taken one extreme, the experiential, and jettisoned the old style as both immoral and incorrect. Anyone familiar with black, feminist, and other such theologies knows that these aren’t based in an eternal truth as much as they are based on an individual’s perceptions. In this sense do they fail. Frankly said, most modern theology is a misuse of the way human perceive religious belief, or even belief in anything at all. It seeks to offer an explanation of certain ideas and opinions about what Christianity is from a particular perspective – in other words, the “how” of the matter. As such, this normally intellectual, written exercise explains that which cannot be explained well, or even at all, about why Christianity remains captivating for those who believe it. Many have tried, and probably no one person will ever succeed on this note (myself included!)
The reason for this disjunction remains the language used to express it – namely, human language has been understood incorrectly in regards to theological explication. “Belief” has been conflated with “fact”, and the two ships do not simply sail by each other, but crash in a grand cacophony of meaningless jargon and moralizing efforts to present one’s opinions as “truth”, whatever that might mean. In reference to Anderson, he makes the exact same distinction using “fact” and “value” instead, but continues to use “facts” (here, defined as empirical methodologies) to prove his points.
Anderson’s theological enterprise renders the same result as that which he tries to avoid. For example, Anderson characterizes certain actions as “good” or “evil” throughout his book. As he does not provide a criteria of which kinds of actions constitute a “good” or “evil” act, is the reader supposed to assume some culturally accepted definition of the terms? Why is this not clearer, and why assume one’s audience will always be on the same page? I know, with great certainty, that Victor Anderson idenftifies himself as gay – that would mean his criteria for good/evil isn’t based solely on the Bible, but also on experience. So which one is it?
I implore us, though, to ask a rather poignant question here: who is the last “public” theologian that any of us have ever heard in the mainstream apart from academic circles that is alive today? And how do we even define what that is if theology has been redefined? Anderson does not answer these questions. Honestly, as a personal matter, why bother with theology at all? Anderson, in my view, makes theology do too much that it simply was never designed to perform. It was meant as a structural element that took all these “beliefs” and tted them together in something cogent and tangible – though never quite capturing the thing in itself. To make it a public element, secularized, designed for moralizing and “dialogue” does not seem to fit the modern paradigm at all.
Rather, theologies are “devotional”, in the sense that they show the Christian, with his human limitations, attempting to solve an impossible mystery. There’s a reason why the Sacraments are called mysteries – because nobody knows how they work. Catholics have their own “transubstantiation”, but the priest does not turn the bread and water into the blood and body – Christ does. How does the Trinity work, for example? Why was that so important versus Arianism, which contested that Jesus wasn’t divine at all? Can a created person (like the Arius’ Christ) save humanity?
These were all questions and definitions, sometimes vaguely put, made for a specific reason: to clarify what is believed. It doesn’t fully encapsulate, say, the process of salvation by grace, but it certainly helps make them intelligible. As well, Christians can debate and study the Bible; creeds, like the Apostle’s Creed, were summaries of these developments. The Apostle’s Creed is and was normative for most Christians (excepting, for me, the descent into Hell, which I can’t find in Scripture):
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
For Christians, it is important to know what you do and do not believe. That’s the role of theology: bringing Christianity into the realm of debate, both intra-Christian and elsewhere. Without it, we’re all just espousing an opinion without any critical reflection. The lack of education in the modern Church, in that sense, remains a disturbing element that needs rectification.