Believe it or not, you do theology everyday.
No, I’m not assuming that you’ve got a PhD. or have gone to seminary.
How you see God, how you seek meaning, how you see your experience, how you integrate it all into your experience – that is what makes you as good a theologian as anybody.
You are a theologian.
Now, theology is partially an academic discipline – people from all over debating very technical issues. But don’t confuse the academy as the source of theology.
The academy has something to say about theology – but theology is primarily an experience that we all participate in (no matter what you believe about the existence or non-existence of the divine).
I would define theology very simply: experiencing God.
Henri Nouwen writes that “the original meaning of the word ‘theology’ was ‘union with God in prayer’.” Theology is a primarily a relational activity (not an intellectual one) – theology puts us in relationship with the deepest divine mystery of life itself.
Our individual theologies are shaped by our cultural, religious, and spiritual experiences. They don’t come from books; I’ve read many theological books, and I can tell you on one hand the amount of books that actually changed my theological core.
Books so rarely change our theology because they are just words on bound pieces of paper – they are symbols for ideas we already understand.
So why read theological or spiritual books? We read them because we books to inform our already embodied theology.
Let me explain with less technical language:
My theology is informed primarily by my experiences. So are yours.
What religious or spiritual values did your parents raise you with?
What religious or spiritual experiences contributed to your upbringing?
What are the most profound spiritual moments of your life and how did you come to understand them?
How we integrate these and other experiences of spirituality and experience and values into our stories about ourselves is how we form our theology. And it’s not intellectual, it’s already physiologically lived in our bodies – and once it becomes embodied, our theology becomes very difficult to change.
Our theologies come from our lived stories.
I want to give you two examples of how my theology has been imprinted onto me by my experience.
When I was 19 (a very formative age), I spent 4 months in Ethiopia and was deeply impacted through that experience. In Ethiopian (and much of African) Christian theology, there is an ingrained sense that prayers make a difference today, and that God actively heals people and delivers them from evil spirits today. The roots of this spiritual culture pre-dates Christianity in some ways, as they can be traced back to indigenous and traditional cultures and practices.
Removed from my Western cultural shackles, I was able to see God at work in that context in which I have seen less in my Canadian context… that’s when I understood God was real.
Now that experience so deeply impacted my theology that ever since, whatever theology I read in a book has to answer to the experiences I had in Ethiopia. That experience became a lens for me to see God through.
After my Ethiopia trip, I had the opportunity to study at Conrad Grebel. Talk about different worlds! When I was there I received an academic, ethically-rooted education. I so often felt spiritually stifled in this academic environment, but its emphasis on justice and logical coherency attracted me and informed my faith.
But my Grebel experience of God always had to answer back to my Ethiopia experience of God. All my studies were informed and powered by the spiritual legacy left on my theology.
It’s so funny how God moves us, but our theology shaped by our experiences starts to direct us in ways that we cannot fully understand until years later. As Kierkegaard said, life is lived forwards, but understood backwards. You could say the same about God.
So looking back, it’s only natural that I gravitated to a church where I could see God at work through the very non-intellectual practice of petitionary prayer and a belief in God’s supernatural intervention, but still had capacity for me to ask my academic and ethical questions that university was creating in me. Fortunately (and perhaps luckily), within two years of being at school, I found one. Or my church found me.
My theological story from the past had an influence on the theology I would discover in the future. I wouldn’t have discovered my church community if it weren’t for my combined experiences in Ethiopia and at Grebel.
This is what I’ve learned: experience is more powerful than anything I’ve gained intellectually. At the end of the day, my understanding of reality and of God is shaped by my experience.
Faith is not an intellectual practice for me. My tendency is to over-intellectualize, well, everything! But faith challenges me to not be so one-dimensional.
This is what our individual theologies do – they takes our abundance of life experiences and figures out what they mean.
Now here’s where the church comes in.
Church theology, as a public theology, attempts to take billions of private experiences, and shape them together into something coherent. That is not an easy task! It’s hard enough for any one person to do within themselves!
However this theological core rooted in Jesus Christ over the past 2,000 years is the glue that holds these individuals with their private experiences together. The church thus has to protect this glue – otherwise the whole popsicle house comes crashing down.
So, church theology always has to play politics to keep its members together. It will never be able to fully satisfy any one individual – because it’s never about the individual, or their experiences, its about the whole. Thus, everyone will always be pissed off at the church at a certain level. Our expectations of it fully meeting our individual private theologies is completely unrealistic.
Just as we have to balance the different pieces of our selves to keep ourselves healthy, so the institutional church has to be political with the different pieces of itself to keep itself together. And that is where academic theology has an important thing to say!
But that still means you are a theologian. Even if you’re just a private one.
I leave you with a few theological questions to ponder for yourself:
What experiences shaped your theology?
What are the core spiritual (or non-spiritual) experiences that shape how you see God and the world? Maybe it was a group trip to Israel-Palestine, or a year abroad, or the loss of a loved one, or a personal trauma.
What vivid experiences forced you to change the way you see God and the world?
What tensions are there between the theology of your experience, and the theology you see practiced or taught in the church?
How are you living out your theology in community? What would that look like for you?
Keep that theology coming!