What exactly is the point of theology?
This question bothers me frequently because (1) I love theology and (2) on the surface, it seems like a relatively useless pursuit. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “He is so heavenly minded that he’s no earthly good.” That isn’t to say that a claim like that is always wrong. It’s true that there are some people who don’t do the hard work of integrating theological work with the concrete, lived experience of the everyday. (NB: this is tangentially related to Kierkegaard’s claims about objectivity/subjectivity – theology is “subjective” in that if we know a theological truth only objectively, we don’t “know” it at all)
Theological reflection certainly has the potential to be useless. Especially the speculative forms of theology that are concerned with claims about God or the divine that have no basis, or no clear “so what” to which they point. Let’s take the claim that God created the world in six days, and that it’s necessary for Christians to affirm this. What’s the point of a claim like this? Presumably, it’s to argue against the prevailing scientific consensus (based on mathematics and physics) that the universe has existed for billions of years, and that the earth was formed over hundreds of millions of years. Probably there is some concern here that a claim like this is inherently atheistic — i.e., it doesn’t require a Creator.
Ultimately, I have little patience for theological claims like this. To clarify, it doesn’t bother me when people believe in six-day creationism. If it brings them comfort or bolsters their faith — that’s fine, I suppose. But requiring this as a marker of true Christian faith is when I lose patience. My reasons are at least twofold:
- Because all of the physical evidence we have gathered over hundreds of years have consistently proved this claim to be wrong. (I could certainly provide some sources here, but that’s not the point of this post)
- It’s unclear to me what effect this belief is meant to have on the life of the person believing the claim. Is it only because we are committed to some literal reading of the Genesis creation account? And if so, why? What other purpose could requiring this belief serve? Does believing in this claim make you more faithful? More content? More loving, kind, patient?
I found myself thinking of the question of the usefulness of theology this week when I wrote a sermon on the Holy Spirit. Since a part of my spiritual upbringing included Pentecostal/charismatic expressions, my personal feelings about the Holy Spirit are ambivalent at best. In my worst moments, trying to understand the Holy Spirit can feel like another exercise in pointlessness. In other words, who cares who the Holy Spirit is/does?
But as I listened to and read experts on the subject (see The Bible Project’s series on the Holy Spirit), I found myself realizing that good theological reflection on the Holy Spirit can be extremely useful. In my own exploration, as I sharpened my understanding of the Bible’s picture of God’s Spirit, the connections to real life seem simple and prescient. If the Holy Spirit is understood as the life-giving force and energy that created and sustains the universe (a truly beautiful picture by itself), and we affirm that the Holy Spirit has now been poured out on all of humanity — that has many implications:
- All humans deserve radical dignity — including our family, friends, neighbors, immigrants, and enemies. I have every reason to love and care for those around me, because they too are sustained by the same Spirit that sustains and gives life to me.
- I can trust and be comforted by a truth like this, and know that my life is meaningful and purposeful. Even when that purpose seems unclear.
There are many, many other implications. But this is where theology is useful. It’s when theology fills in our gaps in meaning — the “why” to our scientific “how” — is when it is at its best.