You are a theologian. That might come as a surprise, but it’s true! Everyone’s a theologian. That’s because everyone has beliefs about God and the world. The word “theology” comes from two words in Greek: theos (God) and logos (word). Theology, like any other “ology”, is simply words about something – in this case God.
But you might object to being called a theologian, and there’s probably one of three reasons why you might object. On the one hand, you may say you don’t believe in God – that God doesn’t exist. That’s a theological claim – it’s a statement about God, even if it is expressing a philosophical commitment to his non-existence. You may not engage often in explicitly theological talk beyond that, but it nevertheless reveals theological assumptions that affect in one way or another everything else about your life.
If you consider yourself a Christian, you may object to being called a theologian for different reasons. One may be a distancing from what comes to mind when you think of “theology.” On a number of occasions, I’ve heard the word “theology” brought up with a kind of populist disdain. It usually goes something like this, whether implicitly or explicitly: Theology is for detached academic people. Christianity is about a relationship, not about theology. Too much theology will kill your faith. It doesn’t matter what’s in your head, it matters what’s in your heart. Theology is so often seen as wet blanket. Christianity is seen as a sort of zero sum game, where you can either have a vibrant and active faith, or you can spend energy and time thinking about theological issues. If zeal for God is like a fire, too much theology can put the fire out.
One problem with this way of thinking is that a lack of one thing does not necessarily mean that too much of something else is the cause of the deficiency. If I’m stranded in the desert with a years supply of food but no source of water, my dehydration problem isn’t a result of having too much food – it’s a result of having no water. Pressing the analogy further, if I’m stranded in the desert, I need both food and water to survive! The same goes with our life as Christians. We need reliable content in our faith and knowledge of God as much as we need passion for God. Prominent pastor and writer Tim Keller puts it this way in speaking of the need for theological training:
Such instruction…is like firewood in a fireplace. Without the fire – the Spirit of God – firewood will not in itself produce a warming flame. But without fuel there can be no fire either, and that is what [theological] instruction provides. (thegospelcoalition.org)
Others have a slightly more appreciative view of theology, but it’s still seen as an “expert” discipline. Theology is great and all, but it’s something that certain people with degrees do on behalf of the the rest of us. Theology might as well be molecular biology – important for someone to be doing, but largely unnecessary for most people to think about. But, as I hope I’ve made clear at this point, no one can help doing theology. It’s in our design to ask and answer questions about God, ourselves, and the world, so we can’t help wearing our theologian hats on a regular basis – even when we don’t think of it in those terms.
You are a theologian. But why do you need theology – theology that is more than a set of unavoidable, unconscious assumptions about the universe? The answer is tied to your ultimate purpose – to love and worship God. Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, gives “the greatest commandment” as the call to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, Matthew 22:37-40, Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:27) The basic point is that we’re made to love God with everything we are. This includes, as Jesus points out, loving God with our minds. If we don’t think well about who God is, who we are, and what the world God made is like, we aren’t loving God with our minds – we aren’t loving God with our whole selves.
Worshipping God is certainly more than truthful content, but it is also certainly never less than that.
Paying attention to our theology also makes our worship to God meaningful and acceptable. A former pastor of mine once used this analogy. If I’m going to compliment or praise my wife, the honor given and value of my affection is directly dependent on whether what I’m saying is true and thoughtful. If I say to my wife, “I love your beautiful brown hair, your gorgeous professional graphic design work, and your excellent quarterback play,” some level of empty sentiment may get across if I’m sincere, but I’m not really honoring her because my praise is disconnected from what is true. (She has red hair and is neither a quarterback nor a professional graphic designer.) Some Christian circles operate in a climate where the value of sincerity and sentimentality all but eclipses the necessity for truth, but if the goal is to love and worship God as he is, then truth has to be at the heart. Worshipping God is certainly more than truthful content, but it is also certainly never less than that. That’s why thinking and talking about our theology is so essential.
You are a theologian. But what kind of theologian will you be? Will you reject your inevitable calling to think about your beliefs? Will you leave your theology largely unexamined, or will you be self-conscious in the way that you think and speak about God and the world? Will your worship and love for God be a flash in the pan, or will it be a sustaining fire? Since words about God lead directly to worship, theology is not an academic hobby – it’s a life-giving invitation.
It’s in our design to
ask and answer
questions about God,
ourselves, and the world.
Paola Barrera says
Scott what a thoughtful piece, wonderful read. Thank you!