Why Theology Isn't a Dirty Word

August 22nd, 2011
Theology's not just for eggheads.

Lots of reasons present themselves for why you should ignore theology. It’s boring, it’s irrelevant, it stirs up needless controversy, it raises questions it never answers; the list goes on and on.

Only one reason presents itself for why you shouldn’t ignore theology: you can’t. It’s not possible.


Theology is nothing less than looking at life through the lens of Christian faith. Any time you reach out in sympathy to someone who is hurting, recoil at the news of a senseless tragedy, or reflect on the joy of being alive, you are doing theology. Any time you wonder about what something means, why something happened, or why someone is the way they are, you are being a theologian. If “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” then any question about life is, inevitably, a question about God. And if that’s the case, then theology is unavoidable. As my very first theology professor told us, the question isn’t whether you’re going to be a theologian or not; it’s whether you’re going to be any good at it.

But theology isn’t just necessary; it’s desirable as well (or, at least, it can be). Elsewhere I’ve written about why we must never think we can substitute theology for personal experience of God. Yet it is equally true that theology clarifies, focuses, and makes that experience more real. Remember when Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and then, “Who do you say I am?” (emphasis added). Peter answered with a theological statement: “you are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” This wasn’t simply repeating something he’d always heard, or spouting conventional wisdom; he was reflecting theologically on what he’d been experiencing as he traveled with Jesus. In so doing, he also shifted that experience to a new level. By making the theological judgment that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter was in essence committing himself more firmly than ever before to follow him.

And sometimes serious, hard thinking about God and the world–in other words, theology–is the only proper response to a particular situation. Ten years on now I still remember a story I heard in the days immediately following 9/11. A middle-aged emergency room nurse, a grizzled veteran of inner city trauma units, was among the rescue workers trying to locate victims among the rubble. After a long and difficult day she happened upon a couple of the chaplains at the scene, a Protestant pastor and a Roman Catholic priest. Looking intently at the them she said, “I need you to tell me something. Those people who jumped from the Towers; was that suicide? I need to know the answer.” Behind her question was the widespread (and mistaken) belief that suicide is an unforgivable sin. In the midst of all that destruction, as she sought to care for the victims of the attack, she wanted to know what God was going to do about the ones beyond her care. Without hesitating the priest replied, “They were trying to save their lives, not end them. Right now God is enfolding them in his arms and wiping away their tears.” That answer remains one of the most profoundly pastoral and theological things I’ve ever heard.

Do people want to hear tired, trite, irrelevant theological platitudes? No. Do they want to hear a living word from the Lord? Yes. When they do, they need a good theologian. Want to apply for the job?

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