I was nervous on the first day of my first theology class in seminary. Nervous that the professor would turn to me and say “Jessica, what are you doing here? Do you even know what theology is?”. I didn’t. My impression of theology before I took that class was that it was something people much smarter than me did behind closed doors.
I was shocked on that first day of class to learn that I had actually been doing theology all my life. You probably have been too. The simplest definition of theology is “talk about God.” Theo = God. Logos = Word. So theology is “God word” or “talk about God.”
As it turns out, whenever you spend time wondering with a friend (or a journal) who God is or where God is or what God is like, you are doing theology.
The next surprise I had in this theology class of mine, was that the professor wasn’t about to answer these God wonderings. He told us how people throughout history have answered these questions (hint: very differently depending on their context!). He gave us some tools that have been developed to help answer these questions. He never answered the questions. Through the three months of that class and really the entire three years of seminary, the task put before my classmates and I was to use these tools to wrestle with the questions for ourselves.
One of the basic tools for doing theology is called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Wait! Come back! I’ll explain I promise! The basic idea is that when Christians want to explore a question about God (AKA do theology) they have four resources to draw upon. These are: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Depending who you are and where you are, you might give more or less weight to each of these resources. Mennonites, for example, have tended to give precedent to scripture. Others find that their own personal experience of God is the most important thing. Also, there’s the tricky matter of interpretation. Not everyone will interpret scripture or tradition or reason or experience the same way. So while this tool can be helpful, don’t expect to come up with the same answers as your friend, even if you both use it.
I finished seminary six months ago, but that certainly doesn’t mean that all my questions about God have been answered, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m done doing theology. Here are some theological questions that I wonder about sometimes. Ready to do theology together? As you ponder these questions, you might want to use the resources from the handy dandy Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Here we go!
Does God grow? Do her wings stretch into the darkness, like the universe, expanding with each millisecond?
I’m a physical person; can I touch God? Can I feel God’s body like Thomas touched Jesus’ wounded side, or like Mary touched Jesus’ tired feet? Better yet, can God touch me? Has she?
Does God feel emotion like humans do? If so, does he feel the vulnerable ones like anxiety, fear and hope? Are God’s emotions amplified times infinity? Or is God steady, deep and nourishing as the Great Lakes, experiencing waves of emotion like the slightest ripple over still waters?
Does God make decisions? If so, did she make them all before time began? Or maybe in the days when the bible was being woven together? Or is each moment a new opportunity for Sophia (Wisdom) to decide? Did the experience of becoming human (through Jesus) change God’s decisions?
And if God makes decisions, are any of God’s decisions ever bad decisions? And if God feels emotions, does God ever weep hot tears and wish she could undo a decision like the way she sent the flood in Genesis to undo the decision to create? Or, if all of God’s decisions are good decisions, does she sometimes weep anyways because of the pain she knows they will cause us now?
Does God like being God? Or does he ever look at a baby held tight against a father’s chest and wish for a while that someone would hold him back? Does he ever have that bewildered new parent feeling, looking with love at his creation, all the while wondering who left him in charge and if he’s up to the task?
There you have it, you are a theologian. What questions about God are you pondering these days?
Theology and philosophy have sometimes intimidated me, too, so thanks for admitting your fear! Even though I’ve always loved Bible study, and reflecting on the big questions in life, sometime during university the conversations seemed to shift from thoughtful group conversations to guys arguing loudly with each other (and over top of any women in the room) about semantics, and I no longer felt qualified to speak up. I’ve also never felt the need to articulate every aspect of my beliefs, and in fact, struggle to do so, and so it is difficult to participate in these conversations. But in my studies this year, I read a really interesting paper that talked about how this drive to work out a perfect belief system is really a recent, Western, modernist (and dare I say it…patriarchal) phenomenon. Before that, religion was much more about the DOING, and the embodied experience (associated with the earthly, feminine divine). That really resonated with me, and I wonder if the quadrilateral needs to be expanded to include the BODY as a source of understanding. Discussions with indigenous theologians on de-colonizing the Church have also emphasized the need to learn from the LAND, or “the big book” as it’s been called at Iona (as opposed to the “the little book,” or the Bible).
Thanks for sharing your honest reflections Laura. I wish you were in the area so that you could come to Feminist Bible Study!
I found this post again Jessica and some of your questions made me think of this great collection of poems called “God Went To Beauty School”. It asks some of the questions you do about God and answers them with beautiful, thoughtful and thought-provoking poems. (Nadine introduced it to me and I highly recommend checking it out).