I love theology. But.
I love theology. I’m not sure where the love comes from, other than that I was born into a healthy religious family. I grew up in a community that valued theology and honored its practitioners, like we might honor a software engineer or neurosurgeon now. In any case, I took to theology early and remain fascinated by it now. I read theology like other people watch TV or play golf.
I think what I liked best about theology, at first, was theology’s straight edges and square corners. It’s my nature to like order. At an early age, theology seemed clear and rational in a way I felt I could master. When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I wrote a twenty-page (hand-written, of course) discourse on the Heidelberg Catechism’s “logical” approach to the atonement. I loved the sense of it, how human sin needed a human mechanic, and how the horror of human sin needed a divine mechanic, and how both needs were provided for by Jesus. It just fit, like a Rubic’s Cube (which I never did master) or a Lego pirate ship (a type I regularly construct, now, with my grandson). The feeling that theology made a lot of sense lasted a long time for me. I even did a Master’s degree in Systematic Theology—after I finished seminary, because I just couldn’t get enough.
I love theology. But somewhere along the way, the word “systematic” started getting under my skin. Especially the sense that I get from so many theologians (who nevertheless rarely agree with one another) that they get it—most of it, and what they don’t get is also clearly laid out. Their rhetoric usually breathes certainty and often mimics the language (and complexity) of scientific papers. But.
How do you explain a God who is love (one of two direct predications of God in the New Testament, the other being “God is Spirit”)— presiding over a corner of his or her cosmos where souls are forced to endure some sort of eternal torture? How is it that the “ecumenical” creeds rain down anathemas on people who can’t buy the Trinity—and specifically the Trinity covered by layers of Greek “substance” philosophy varnish? Does God, could God, might God really damn someone for getting the Trinity wrong, as the creeds insist? Or for getting the right measure of divine and human natures in the person of Jesus wrong? If this is so important to God, why didn’t God make matters a bit more clear in scripture? And what in the world is the book of Revelations doing there, on the tail end?
Well, of course, I could go on and on, enumerating one theological conflict (even war) after another, all based on “true” readings of scripture. Expecting to be able to put together a systematic theology as a “true” reflection of this scripture, though, seems like falling into the trap of expecting to see the emperor with clothes on. Even though that is exactly what people do.
And yet the stakes are high. That is, for most of the history of Christianity, and for much of Christianity today, the structure of theology is binary. You get the code right, and you’re okay. Get it wrong, and you are outside the pale. Excommunicated. Burned at the stake. Put in jail. Suffer pogroms or impending defeat in an end-time battle. That will put a damper on any curiosity about theological borderlands.
The impact of getting your theology “wrong,” in almost every faith tradition isn’t always apocalyptic, of course. It might just mean losing your seminary or college job. It might just mean having to switch denominations, as in my case. Or it might just mean having to keep your mouth shut if you’re not up to the big switch. I have quite a few letters from pastors in my former denomination who confess to having taken this latter path.
I’m remembering now, as I get on with this Jeremiad, how in my Introduction to Theology class we spent a long week learning about how theology was a science. So of course it had to be systematic. But if it is, it is the saddest science ever, because based on the same evidence, its varied practitioners rarely come out with the same results. If theology is systematic about anything, it is systematic in its inability to reach a consensus.
So why all this emphasis on “systematic?” I never find any systematic theology in the Bible. I find Parables. Wisdom literature. Exclamations of hoped for truth couched in streams of doxology (I’m thinking Paul here). Myth at the beginning and end. Stories about Jesus, sometimes constructed as just one thing after another with a crucifixion at the end (Mark) and sometimes constructed around ciphers (John). But not much by way of systematics as we understand it and churn it out.
So why so much systematizing now? Was it Constantine insisting on a religion that he could successfully wield to unify his empire? Was it a bunch of academics who took Greek substance philosophy too seriously, so that we’ve suffered from trickle-down idiocy ever since? Was it the very rationalistic fabric of Western learning? Was it the rise of the University? Or perhaps evolution of the Roman church and its episcopacy, its lust for power and its rage for order?
Well, it’s a complicated story. And more than a few books have been written trying to make the connections like those I hint at, above. But as far as I’m concerned, the whole systematic turn in Western theology was mistaken from the start. I was reminded, in a book by Catherine Keller, recently, of what Karl Barth (yes, he of the Church Dogmatics, all 14 volumes) ironically wrote: “All theology is theology viaticum . . . It is broken thought and utterance to the extent that it can progress only in isolated thoughts and statements directed from different angles to the one object. It can never form a system . . .” Oh.
Reflecting on this, so far, it strikes me that I might be sounding a bit anti-intellectual. I’m not trying to be. But I no longer prioritize “system.” My approach to theology tries to prioritize the divine whisper I can never quite get hold of when I read scripture or walk through the woods. My theology prioritizes the lovely indirection of parables, the ambiguities of myths, and everything the Bible shouts out from what is hidden between its lines. My approach to theology ignores whatever I find in scripture that does not build faith of hope and love. Mine tries not to skip over the life of Jesus to his death and whatever happened next. Mine tries to reflect on the mysteries of scripture and religion without hanging them out to dry. My ideal approach does not so much seek to pin a list attributes to God as it seeks . . . well, to do almost anything but put that list to paper. The only thing is, I’m not nearly as good at any of this as I’d like to be.
But. I’m having more fun than ever.