Thursday, August 29, 2013

How-To Theology

t-shirt, guy, heart, i love theology, theology, graphic tee

by Lyndsey Graves

"Any one who thinks about God is a theologian."

My teachers were always saying this. I went to a Christian university where everyone is required to take a minor in religion, and the first session of Intro to Theology was always an attempt to get a roomful of Communications or Chemistry undergraduates to care.

The theology professors' point was, if you think about God, you are already a theologian; it's up to you whether you're going to be a good theologian or a bad one. I like this point of view, even if it caused some of my honors-program comrades and me to take our sophomore selves a little too seriously.

I've been a "career" theologian for three years now. I declared the major with the intention of pursuing a Ph.D. in something theology-related, and I haven't since wavered in that intention. I leave this week for Boston to pursue my Master's in Theological Studies, and I worry a little that the grad school gauntlet will somehow cause me to forget the basics I've already learned; so, today, some pointers for the happy, tea-sipping armchair theologian and the frantic, pasty, study-carrel-bound theologian (read: myself) alike.

1. Pray.

Never say anything about God that you wouldn't say to his face. Evagrius Ponticus said in the fourth century, "The theologian is the one who prays truly, and the one who prays truly is the theologian." Pray as much as possible. Pray during lectures. Pray while you're writing. If you don't know what to write, write a prayer. Pray when you don't like God. Pray when you don't believe in God. Pray when you're lost. Pray when you're happy. Pray when you're walking. Pray when you're taking a break from theology. If you're sick of praying, tell God about it.

2. Aim for humility above all else.

As you do theology, are you learning to serve? Is it teaching you to love your enemies? Or is it teaching you to correct, dismiss, or deride others? If theology isn't making you a better person, go back to step one. Learning about God should never cease to remind you just how small you are - and deflating your ego is prerequisite to making an actual difference in the world.

3. Listen to the past.

john calvin, theology, 16th century, joke
Embarrassing as the Church Fathers and Mothers (or whoever embarrasses you) can be, they were here first and they're probably smarter than you. Christianity is a historical religion, and if you claim to be continuing a tradition someone else started, it's important to know what the tradition is before you start blustering about "improving" it.

4. Use all of yourself.

Don't be afraid of what your emotions or your experiences have to tell you. Stay in touch with them as you exercise your rational side, too.

5. Consider your sources.

The "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" is really helpful here, until people start talking about it as if Wesley made it up. Yet I think the best, truest, most long-lasting theology has always been formed in - and informed by - the space between Tradition, Scripture, Reason, and Experience. There is an enormous amount of tension in that space, which is why various theologians and traditions have often tended towards one side or corner of the quadrilateral; but if any element is ignored entirely, you're missing out on part of the gift of God's self-revelation.

6. Talk to other people. 

I do mean this in the sense that you should listen to a variety of perspectives - very few people are completely wrong about everything, and it especially never hurts to hear from someone with very different experiences from yours.  Listen to other people before you jump to defend your pet point of view. Ask old people, homeless people, children, as well as more experienced pastors, scholars, and Christians.  And every once in a while, maybe even give others the benefit of the doubt.

But really, I think it's even more important to talk to your friends. They are your safe space and your bullshit-detector rolled into one. Without those casual, down-to-earth conversations over a game of disc golf, you run the risk of turning from human being into theology-bot (it's the saddest Transformer): you may be textbook-correct, but no one wants to touch you. Besides, eventually you'll get stuck in some kind of existential quagmire from which only a good friend (theologian or not) can pull you out. Also, some sort of vice is essential to these conversations - either a beer, a pipe, or a large pile of junk food. Any disagreement about Calvinism may require all three.

7.Test it out.

If it doesn't work, it's wrong. We're talking about God, yes, but this God made the universe, loves it, and is all in it. It's surprisingly easy to deceive yourself, and sometimes a lot of other people, when you're hovering around in abstract-land. So never forget: if your grand idea doesn't make sense in the real world, it's useless. Don't forget to at least visit the real world and pay attention to how your big words and lofty sentiments relate to the people around you who have never heard of prevenient grace or the Arian controversy.

karl barth, schleiermacher, theology, theologians, disagreement8. Worship. 
It's trendy these days to talk about how you don't need church to have a relationship with God, or about how community is more important than Sunday morning, or about how all of life is worship so if you don't want to go somewhere and sing then you don't have to. But theology and a relationship with God, don't just consist of personal study, something you've labeled "community", and a neighborhood service project. There's something mysterious about worship - doing nothing but praising God with other people - that is important and powerful and changes you on a level beyond all the words you're playing with. Don't skip it.

I could probably go on, but I can use all the help I can get - What would y'all add to this list? 

Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.

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