Sunday, June 20, 2010

Of What Value Is Theology?

I ask Friends to help me with that which I am trying to deal at the moment.

If you share the traditional Quaker experiential knowledge of direct and transforming guidance from Christ/Light/Spirit, what good is theology?  (the study of God and God's relation to the world--last phrase of the first definition in Merriam Webster's on-line).  What is the value of thinking about such things as the nature, character and purposes of God?

If you will write here, if you confess experience of the direct access to guidance from The Source, how it is that study and discussion of theology edifies you and makes a positive contribution to improving your individual condition and that of the corporate body of which you are a part, I promise I will not engage with you to argue with or attempt to refute what you write. 

If I make any response it will be to ask clarifying questions and you will be the only judge of whether any question I ask is not actually an attempt to argue or refute, in disguise.  I can ask any such questions I might have "off line" if you would prefer (please indicate such a preference--or one that I keep any questions I may have to myself).

I just want the benefit of reading about the role of theology in your life and your spiritual community. 

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

This is an important question. I do not believe theology is of much value beyond, as the biblical injunction puts it, when it is used to 'give an account of the hope that is within you' to anyone who asks (1 Pet 3:15). I tend to think that the position of early Friends is one that speaks to me.
They certainly had theological ideas and they are evident in what they wrote and did. Some, such as Barclay, expressed them more systematically than others. However, they never considered these ideas detached from their experience and even those with considerable education in classical theology of the time, (such as Samuel Fisher) did not consider it of much value.

I do flinch when someone describes themselves as a Quaker Theologian. I have met too many people who think that what matters is getting your theology right when, in my experience (working in a University theology department) there is so little correlation between the theological claims of people and their actual lives, this evidently isn't the case. It is obedience to the Light of Christ that matters, not intellectual notions and certainly not, as I think sometimes happens, turning these things into an intellectual hobby, game, career or source of pride.

Mark Wutka said...

While there are times when theology seems too intellectual and separate from my inward experience of Christ, there are times when I find it helps me understand my experience better. Some of the ideas I find helpful are those of a loving God, the kingdom of God ushering in the new creation, even to some extent the idea of Satan.

For example, I find some comfort in the idea that as I obey the leadings of the Holy Spirit, I am participating in the new creation, that what I do matters. I often think on God as a loving, infinitely patient parent, and that helps me be more aware of those times when I am not walking in the Light - when I am not loving, or patient, or kind. The idea of Satan tempting us constantly helps me be aware of temptations I face, as well as helping me to mentally separate the acts from the actor so that it is at least a little less of a struggle to love those who do things I do not like.

Although the analogy can only be stretched so far, it seems like trying to explain gravity. I experience it all the time, and while I can experience it without knowing any of the formulas, and I can't simulate gravity by using the formulas, knowing them helps me to understand gravity better and even make better use of it.

With love,

Bill said...

Theology is an attempt to make sense of guidance from The Source. A single experience doesn't need theology. But when there is more than one experience, either individually or as a community, there is a need to "connect the dots" in order to understand what is going on, unless The Source is providing arbitrary and disconnected guidance.

I understand God (my preferred term) better as I connect my experience of God with the experience of others. That is another way of stating the definition you found in Webster's.

Bill Samuel said...

We need to talk/write about our experiences and their meaning. When we do this regarding our experiences with God, that is theology.

Unfortunately too much of theology isn't much related to the experience of those writing or speaking the theology.

People get caught up on the most obscure theological points. The question I raise about theological issues is, How does this affect the way I live? If I can't see that it does, I don't see why I should be invested in any particular answer to the issue.

Hystery said...

I have found that process thea/ology has been helpful to me in keeping my focus on experiencing rather than on defining the Numinous. I also find that this increases my desire to hear others' spiritual stories as a means of encountering the Divine in them rather than as a means of judging them against some notion of perfection.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Tim,
Here's my view:-)
#1 IMO theology is overrated and often obstructs our I-Thou relationship with God.
I would trade all my theological study of 50 years--most of it chaff!-for only one second of again experiencing another opening from God like I've had.

#2 However, when we humans "experience," I think it is our innate nature, at least for some of us, to seek to express conceptually what we experience. At least this is true of myself when it comes to romance,friendship, events, pets, etc. And most of all God. We experience, sometimes more deeply, sometimes in a wider way--like a prism--when we reflect on our experiences.

If we are to love God with all of our mind, then it follows that we seek to understand God in our very limited finite sense.

#3 Lastly, as Scripture says, not all experiences/not all "spirits" are from God. In my life I've met some people with destructive experiences who thought they were from God. I used to live in the Middle East!

#4 Lastly, lastly;-)Quaker Howard Brinton makes an excellent point when he emphasizes that wholistic experienitial truth needs to be "mystical, rational, social, and evangelical."

Experience, even from God, can be distorted or limited by our own shortcomings.

However, IMO abstract theological doctrine has caused more trouble and evil in history than all experiences combined.

And as I said above, one time God's presence was so powerful for me, so wondrous that I exclaimed I would trade all of life for that one moment.

In contrast, most theology has caused heartache and confusion.

In the Light,

forrest said...

"Doing Theology" is making the effort of fitting your experience of [God] into the best map you've found for it-- or seeking better maps if you can't match the object before you with any label on the page (or vice versa.)

We come down from "Sometimes the Light is all shining on me" to "Other times I can barely see" because we need to link both states as belonging to one Reality.

In these "other times", we do the best we can... and construct our little 'practical theologies' to get us through. Because those "other times" are when "we can barely see", there's a risk of mistaking the map for the territory, walking around with a picture over our face as if it were the landscape our feet are walking on. But that's not an effect of "creating an image" (which after all is a sacred activity); it's what results from worshiping what we've created.

When we Get It (and It "gets" us) should we then decide that we, and our human lives, are superfluous? That would suggest that creating us had been God's mistake (a dubious notion)... So ultimately, we and [God] need to work out a mode of coexisting. And what we're experiencing now, including all this theologizing, really can't be disconnected from that condition; we just aren't recognizing how it is.

Hmmmm, thanks for the question!

Theology is like a road map to The Kingdom. Once you've found your way there (with the maps or despite them!) you'll want to redraw away any maps that showed you anything whatsoever as being outside the Kingdom...

TheYellowDart said...

Theology is literally God-study is it not? Why in the world wouldn't we be doing this? As individuals and as local communities, I see no problem at all with this practice. In fact, I see it as fundamental to spirituality of any kind. We experience God in a variety of ways. And usually we live together in community with others that have had similar experiences. We interact with each other in the context of those experiences. The experiences with God of those in the Bible are no different other than the fact that those who experienced God as expressed in the Bible are no longer with us physically. Their account can still be helpful even as we understand their context was different than ours and will be different in still a different way to another future generation.

God-study is critical for discipleship whether in a parent-child context or in an adult brothers/sisters-in-faith context. We disciple one another in community. God is not the only point of reference. We are also on the spiritual journey with fellow travelers. We are not all mutually exclusive free-agents.

I have been helped by fellow travelers, and I have helped fellow travelers. Of course I have been hurt, and I have hurt others. But this is because we are human, not because the process or practice of studying God is bad.

The worst abuse comes from institutional theology. And this is where I think theology is a bad thing. When theology is present in a non-relational context, it is usually deadly. If you can't live up close and personal with those fellow travelers with whom you are discussing theology, it is no longer as helpful or constructive, and it even leads to many problems.

We desperately need more discipleship and evangelism that is centered on the local-scale. And we need a whole lot less institutional-scale, impersonal, boundary drawing. The centered-set model speaks to me better than the bounded-set model. As in "this is the center of what we are about, the ancillary details are less concerning."

And even though you may be leery of theology, your concepts as expressed in this blog are in fact a statement of your theology. :)

This is terribly difficult given the cultural context in which we live in the western world. Technology in transportation and communications that we live with now did not vex George Fox et al at the time of the founding of Quakerism. They were forced to exist locally with those they were evangelizing and discipling at least for a while anyway.

Diane said...

Thanks for asking.

For me, “thinking about such things as the nature, character and purposes of God” helps me discern whether or not the source of the guidance is the Source. Also, knowing those things about God enhances my relationship with God.

Pat said...

In chapter 13 of Matthew, Jesus gives a theology of the kingdom in the form of parables--seven of them. After asking his disciples if they've understood, he then concludes in verse 52: Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

What is received from the Eternal is received only in the present and is the only thing that can never be old. Theology, then, which is from the intellect, though not the new thing, is nevertheless a part of the treasure that the householder can bring out to others as well as retain within himself as a store of understanding.

Anonymous said...

What a long, strange trip it's been, indeed!

I may just be re-stating earlier comments here. I don't see any clear distinction between direct experience of the Guide in my heart and the ministry of others, whether it's coming to me from a message in Meeting, the writings of early or modern Friends, St. Augustine, or Paul. In other words, sometimes God speaks to me through the medium of my own thoughts and sometimes through the words of others. The question is not so much whether something is theology or the voice of the Divine, but rather how deeply I have received it. If it spoke to my condition, then it came from God and I received it.

Your question gets at what is for me the mystery in Jesus saying, "By their fruits you shall know them." But who is "them?" An individual minister, a church or meeting, a denomination, a theology? Does anyone have unambiguously good fruit? I don't think so.

If the advice is directed to each of us alone, however, then the question is: "What effect does this particular belief that I hold or that someone else is teaching me have within me?" Does my heart leap at the thought it might be true? Does it give me an uneasy feeling that I will need to change my life to be more generous or faithful to it? Does it fill me with a sense of indignation at the unfairness of it? I think, for instance, of Emily Dickinson's many poems about feeling rejected by God, feelings which arose from her reaction to Calvinist teachings. The agony she expresses and the hostility to God may have created great poetry, but didn't seem to be good for her.

This may sound completely relativistic, "if it works for you, believe it." But I don't think it really is. I'm not saying we should believe whatever makes us feel good. I'm saying we should learn to discern what effects our beliefs have on our behavior towards others and attitude towards God, even on our mental health. If good fruit comes from them--courage, truth-telling, loving-kindness, patience, faith, hope, and charity--then those beliefs would seem to be good for us. Theology is, in a sense, ministry which has cooled and hardened. But it can become molten again within.


Bill Samuel said...

Pat, there is theology embedded in the parables. Much of Jesus' teaching was in parables. Often he would provide multiple parables to address a single question.

I think this method of Jesus should cause us to be skeptical about holding too firmly to straightforward theological formulations. The way that Jesus taught seems to imply that we can't usually fully encapsulate truth in such formulations.

Now they can be helpful. They can be useful ways of looking at aspects of Truth. But we must always be very aware that the propositions themselves are not Truth.

Jim714 said...

Dear Tim:

I think the relationship of theology to the experience of the light is similar to the relationship between music and music theory. One does not need to understand music theory in order to enjoy music. On the other hand, knowledge of music theory can help a music teacher plan an approach to teaching music to others. Similarly, I think that knowledge of theology can assist in communicating one’s understanding of the divine to others.

I think, also, there are personalities that find theology nourishing. I tend to be one of those. I know how this sounds strange to many people, but I actually enjoy reading theology. It isn’t a burden to me. I think that reflects a certain disposition of my mind, a tendency not shared by very many people. But if theology is conducive to one’s continuing on one’s journey, then I think it can benefit some people.

In a specifically Quaker context, I think Barclay’s “Apology” is a wonderful work. I wish it was read and studied more as I believe it provides a coherent defense, or “apology”, for the Quaker tradition.

Finally, I wish to point out that reading theology is an experience; it’s not that there are experiences and then there is reading. Reading is an experience, just like walking through the woods is an experience. And just as one can have an experience of the divine when walking through the woods, so also one can have an experience of the divine while reading theology in a contemplative manner. The great scholar of monotheism, Karen Armstrong, writes eloquently about this stating that for her it is in the contemplation of religious works that she has had her strongest and clearest experiences of the presence of the divine.

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

The early Quakers did not have creeds...but they did indeed have Dogma. They had beliefs. They believed in God, for one. They believed in, read, and frequently quoted the Bible. They believed that God was love and that because God was love, men and women were and are equals. And Quakers have always had writings. They've always written confessions of a sort or books of Rules for Quakers to follow. So, Quakers have understood historically that, while they have no definitive creeds, set down on paper once and for all, they do indeed have Doctrines. These doctrines may change or evolve as God leads or as we become increasingly open to see ever-more clearly, but nonetheless, these Doctrines function as teachings (theology) that guide the collective community life. Theology is the study of ideas that lead to practice (ideally). So, the Quaker theology that God may meet all people leads to the Quaker practice of Silent unmediated worship. Quakers have always had theology...what they were against was "notions" ideas about God that couldn't lead to any actual practice. But if an idea could be presented in practice and open up to the Spirit or the Inner light, then it was held in high-esteem by Quakers historically.

Tmothy Travis said...

Thanks to all for the comments you posted. It has been interesting and challenging for me to read them, and I shall be thinking about some of what I read for a long time.

I hope this is not a "closed canon," however. More comments--or elaboration on those made--are welcome.