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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