Practical divinity

November 20th, 2014

In the shadows of a dying Christendom, the challenge is how to recover a strong theological voice without that voice betraying the appropriate fragility of all speech and particularly speech about God.

I should like to think I have understood my task as a theologian to help us see the significance of doing just that, namely, how extraordinary it is to intend the world redeemed by Jesus Christ. I have, or at least I hope I have, tried to do theology in a manner that makes it clear that the theologian is first and foremost a servant of the church. That many now ask whether theologians and the work they do has any role to play in the church, I take to be an indication that something has gone seriously wrong.

The alienation of theology from the church is not a new development. For some time, many in the ordained ministry have not found it necessary or helpful to read theology. That is not surprising, given that most theologians are primarily at home in the university. This is true even if we teach in a seminary. As a result, theologians end up writing primarily for other theologians. They do so, moreover, using language whose relationship to first-order theological concepts is not easily discerned.

The fragmentation of theological disciplines only makes matters worse. For example, the division of theology into disciplinary subjects results in the presumption that theology is appropriately distinguished from the “practical” disciplines. Because I have spent most of my life teaching ethics, which is unhappily often distinguished from theology proper, I have never been able to understand where I am to belong given the current divisions that dominate most seminary faculties.

From my perspective, the strong distinction between systematic theology and pastoral theology makes no sense. It particularly makes no sense if, as Tommy Langford spent a lifetime trying to help Methodists understand, Methodist theology is first and foremost an exercise in “practical divinity.” Thus Langford’s wonderful account of the diversity but lively character of Methodist theology in his book Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition. By “practical,” Langford did not mean Methodist theology is primarily about “what works,” but rather he meant that, given the Methodist commitment to holiness, theology cannot help but be a practical discipline.

Accordingly, theology is not a discipline that can be abstracted from church practice, because theology is one of the essential practices that makes the church the church. This means, although some areas of knowledge may rightly be described as “theory,” theo­logy is not properly described by this term. Rather, theology entails the shaping of the body and mind of the church by reflection on what we know of God and ourselves as revealed in scripture and tradition. Though theology is not always prayer, if prayer is absent, theology always threatens to become abstract and, as a result, is subject to ideological distortion.

To understand theology as a discipline internal to the holiness of the church, one must recognize how this view is in tension with some of the ways theology was done in the last century. Faced with what many considered to be decisive challenges from scientific and historical disciplines, many Christian theologians understood their task to be discovering the “essentials” of the faith. It was if they were responding to the question “How much of this stuff do we have to believe and still pass as a Christian?” In short, the general stance was one that tried to “explain” Christian doctrine in a manner that would be acceptable on nontheological grounds. Accordingly, it was assumed that theological concepts needed to be translated into language that was accessible without the need for the training that any complex language requires.

This theological agenda was accompanied by quite a negative view of the church. The church was seen as far too “conservative” in doctrine, ethics and politics. The task was to place the church on what seemed to be the “right” side of history by identification with what were assumed to be the progressive causes of the day. Though there was much to be said in favor of what was done to make the church more “relevant,” many failed to notice how that ecclesial and theological strategy was itself a form of accommodation.

I am aware that the language I used above (that is, that the church is to be holy) is exactly the kind of language that many fear cannot help but fall on the deaf ears of those who consider themselves to be “modern.” “Holiness” in the minds of many modern people smacks of cloying piety or self-righteousness. Yet holiness is anything but pious. Think of Dorothy Day or Jean Vanier if you need, as many of us find we need, a picture of what the faithful church might look like. Holiness turns out to be the character of a community that can produce some very tough people.

If I am right about the voice we need to recover as Christians in this world, then I think several implications follow for the role theology should have in the life of the church. First and foremost, the role of theology must be to help Christians recover our basic vocabulary. If, as I suggested at the beginning, we are living in the shadows of a dying Christendom, it becomes all the more important for Christians to be able to speak Christian fluently. Christianity is not some set of beliefs with behavioral implications, but to be Christian is to be engrafted into a people who, as we say in Texas, “know how to talk right.” Theology is a discipline of the church that is designed to help Christians learn the basic grammar of the faith.

For example, consider the language of sin. It is not a popular part of the Christian vocabulary in our day. Only fundamentalists and some evangelicals think you can get people to come to church by trying to convince them they are sinners. The assumption is that you need first to consider yourself a sinner so that you can then be saved. But such a view of sin gives sin far too important a role in the Christian life. By contrast, Karl Barth argues that it is a sin itself to assume that we are able to discover on our own what it means to be a sinner. To be capable of confessing our sins means we are already on our way out of sin. Sin is, therefore, not best thought of as what we do, but rather as a power that is more like possession.

So the oft-made claim used to excuse someone from some fault, that is, “Well I guess when everything is said and done, we are all equally sinners,” is false. It is false because it does not take into account the kind of training needed to recognize the particularity of our sins. That particularity, moreover, can only be acknowledged within a community that gives us the language to name our sins—for example, greed, lust, murder—so that by naming them we can confess and be reconciled to one another and the Lord. Sin so under­stood is a theological achievement made possible by being part of a people who are pledged to love one another even if it requires telling one another the truth.

For finally that is what I take to be the fundamental office of theology in service to the church. Theology is the craft Christians have developed over the centuries to help us say that we are Christians for no other reason than we believe that what the Father has done through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is at the heart of all that is. The grain of the universe is to be found in the cross of Christ—an astounding claim that should capture every Christian’s imagination. Indeed, theologians should be of some help for the schooling of our imaginations. After all, we need all the help we can get if we are to be a people of truth in a world that no longer thinks what we believe as Christians can be true.

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