Why Theology is a Bad Place to Start

It started as an innocuous question that our guest asked after we had dined on carry-out pizza and made-to-order mojitos.

“What do you think about theology?”

I have a Masters of Divinity. I’ve studied the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek. In graduate school, I wrote my own doctrinal thesis and had to defend it before faculty. I preach on a weekly basis after studying Bible texts in-depth. And yet I hemmed and hawed. I started and stopped. I found myself qualifying and hedging my answers, all the while trying to ascertain the safety of the person who asked and tempering my responses to match.

As I got rolling, I found myself at the edge of my seat on the couch, using increasingly bigger gestures and noting to myself, “You’re talking faster and louder.” (This inevitably happens when I get worked up about something.)

So, maybe I need to unpack why this topic got me so fired up. It’s been a couple of weeks since the conversation, and I’ve had time to think, so here’s my answer to what I think about theology. (I’m curious about your answers!)

I’m pretty sure when I took my first Bible class in my late teens as a freshman at a conservative Baptist college, where I was a Comprehensive Bible major, I was taught that theology is the science of the study of God. (A quick Google search bears this out.)

My short answer to the question “what do you think about theology?” is I think theology is a bad place to start.  I think theology has little to do with science, and it frames the pursuit of God that leads us down a wrong path before we even start out on the journey. Of course, one can approach God only as a topic to be studied and mastered, and many do, but I don’t believe that approach will lead me anywhere that I really want to go.

I can study all kinds of religions, theories, mythology, and experiences. I can study psychological theories and learn how people meditate and how the religious observe their various practices, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that I am changed by studying. Knowing information doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation. I can know all about racism and still be racist in my actions, just like I can know all the principles of a healthy diet and still eat a lot of fried food, beer and ice cream.

When we frame spiritual journey primarily as a science or study, we are buying into the Enlightenment idea that reason is supreme, that to know facts about something is to truly know that thing. But, we all know that there are many things in life that can’t be learned or known by studying facts. I might even go so far as to say the most important things in life – love comes to mind – can’t be learned by studying facts.

You can study love. You can read poems, songs and stories, you can learn about the physiology of two people connecting. But until you actually fall in love, until you actually get butterflies in your stomach when you get near that person (“I can feel you tremble when we touch..”), until you know what it means to sacrifice for the sake of another, you don’t really know love.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t have a lot of interest in arguing with people about ideas about God. I’m not super-concerned with particular theologies and theories. I think the modern church has gotten off-track, confusing knowledge about God with knowledge of God. I’m much more interested in how people are experiencing the divine in their daily life. I’m interested in how people are practicing what they believe. I’m interested in how people are pursuing God, not as a topic to be mastered but rather a lover to be chased and known.

In short, I’m much more interested these days in the mystical rather than the theological. And before you get all worked up, let me say this: I’m not trying to say that theology is useless or unimportant. It’s part of the journey. Part of knowing my wife is studying her:  learning her habits, asking her questions about her likes and dislikes, studying who she is and who she’s becoming. But that’s only part of knowing. The other parts of knowing are only gained in shared experience, in time together, in touching, laughing, seeing the same things, having the same experiences. It’s walking together.

I’ve been asking myself for a couple of months now, “what does the Christian spiritual journey look like?” If I were answering the question just out of grad school, my response would have been heavy on developing a good theology. But if you ask me today, I’d talk about spiritual practices first, about how to become aware of God in every moment, how to live at peace within yourself, so you can live at peace with others. And, yes, along the way, some theology will help you, but I don’t think it’s the place to start.

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  • I definitely think we (pastor-types) have clearly swung too far to one side on the head-vs-heart scale. I think that’s why so many people get beat up by the church, because pastors are so much more concerned with having right theology than helping people experience grace and peace through Christ.

    On the same token though, I do see Scripture and theology in general as observing what God has revealed about himself to us. If I read my wife’s journal (!) I can get a pretty clear picture of her heart and how she feels about certain things – from what kind of food she likes to how she really thinks that shirt looks on me. In the same way, I think our experience is amplified by theology.

    Do you think we can do either alone? I’m just verbally processing, but it seems as though experiential spirituality without some root of theological understanding would stop at being therapeutic, rather than redemptive. But theological understanding without the spirit is cold and lifeless.

    • I’d only add that God is also known to us in nature, in experiences, etc. This is where I’m quite a bit more liberal than I used to be. Yes, the Bible reveals God – or at least reveals God as ancient peoples thought of God – but there are other ways of knowing as well. What I’m mostly after is promoting the idea that we ought to pursue ALL the ways of knowing God at the same time. Thanks for commenting!

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Well, since you asked….

    I remember when I gave up theology. This would have been about twelve years ago. Before that, theology was a favorite hobby of mine. I’d read nerdy theology books, debate obscure points (infralapsarianism versus supralapsarianism, anyone?), and, honestly, probably make a fool out of myself online or in personal conversations. Then, one day, I came to the realization that this was vanity. So I gave up theology.

    But that’s not quite right. I gave up theology as my hobby. It’s an important distinction. Because here’s the funny thing. Since giving up on theology as a hobby, I’ve experienced some of my greatest periods of growth and maturity as a Christian, all in the context of reading theology.

    I know, right? Pretty weird! But, actually, upon some reflection, it makes sense.

    In 1 Corinthians 8:1, Paul says that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (or “edifies”). My pursuit of theology as a hobby merely puffed up my ego. Once I was free of that–or, to be honest, I had repented of that–I was better able to connect to God. But which God? The one I had been studying all along!

    I think there’s a danger in making a dichotomy between theology and experience. These are not two different kinds of knowing, that I might know through theology and you might know through experience. Rather, these are the two parts of a virtuous cycle that build on each other and give strength to each other. The joy of it is that we can enter into this cycle through either way. We can first know something and then seek to live it, or we can experience something and then seek to understand it. But our knowledge, if it is true knowledge, will always lead us into the pursuit of further experience, and experience leads us to a deeper desire to understand more, so we can experience more.

    To divide knowing and experience is dangerous. Just as there is false knowledge, there are deceptive experiences. And just as there is knowledge that puffs up, there are experiences that can also make proud (2 Corinthians 12:7). Each is required to hold the other in place.

    Recently, I’ve been finding myself returning to an old three-part model of faith which seems relevant here. (It has fancy Latin names, too, so it must be good.) According to this model, the three parts of faith are knowledge (notitia), assent (assensus), and trust (fiducia). First, there is real content expressed (knowledge), such as “God is love”. Second, there is intellectual assent, such as saying “I agree that God is love”. But the third part is the most important part, when I entrust myself to this truth: “I will trust God with the death of my mother, because God is love.”

    I’m oversimplifying here, but you get the idea. Without the third step, knowledge is useless and, in fact, dangerous. It is at the point where we entrust ourselves to a truth–become vulnerable in the pursuit of living out this truth–that we step into the realm of experience. But, without knowledge–specifically, knowledge of God–how can we justify taking such a risky step? That’s not faith; it’s gambling.

    So, rather than divorcing knowledge and faith, it is better to call people into a faithful pursuit of the knowledge and experience of God. Teach them how to enter into the virtuous cycle of the pursuit of God, where they will find blessing for the whole of their being. In this way, they will truly come to know God.

    • Both / And… of course. Totally agree. In my experiences mysticism was considered “advanced Christianity,” and while I pull knowledge and experience apart for the purpose of this post, what I’m really after is some integration… This is the problem with seminary. If I could do it differently, pastors would be mentored… learning as they go… experiences fueling theological reflection, theological insight pushing us into new experiences. … And also, probably I’m trying to say that there ought to be measure of theological restraint. I think even my Systematic Theology prof wasn’t excited to teach us lapsarian theology!

  • Vicky Brown

    I was part of a discussion this past weekend about this idea. The premise was that we had to have the solid container first before we could fill it with experiences (doctrine/theology and mysticism). I was ultimately frustrated at the end of the conversation (one we should have sometime!), because I kept asking the group and myself what is the 3rd way here? The best answer that came out of it was that the clash between the 2 – the “butting heads” of doctrine and experiences – WAS the 3rd way, the path worth walking. This is something I will be rolling around in my mind for quite a while…it’s an exciting time to be part of the Church!

    • Yes… I think if we wait to have a “solid container,” we’ll never get there. I’m skeptical that there IS such a thing as a “solid container.”