Good theology ‘does’ as well as thinks

Perhaps it’s no mere coincidence that on a week in which preachers were sweating over how to make sense of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Trinity out of their pulpits – a task that seems to turn theology into an unhappy sausage-making exercise – The Guardian asked a few theologians how to define the substance of their work.

The answer of Roehampton University professor Tina Beattie – that theology is, at the very least, a shield against ignorance – caught our eye:

Sometimes, debates between theologians and scientists give the impression that God is a being who can be spoken of objectively like any other being. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Grace Jantzen, they speak as if God is “an infinitely extended (and disembodied) version of an Oxford professor” who may or may not exist. But as good theologians know, the word “God” does not refer to anything that the human mind can comprehend, so theological language has at its heart an all-pervasive mystery which haunts human consciousness. The task of theology is like Penelope weaving her shroud – what we weave during the day we must unravel by night. That is why theology is derided by those who insist that all claims to knowledge must be rooted in rationality and factual evidence.

Classical theology understands God not as a being but as the very condition of all being, so that the word “being” is better understood as a verb than a noun. “The being of God is the doing of the world”, to quote one theologian writing about Thomas Aquinas. Good theology approaches the question of God not as this or that being, but as the continuous activity of creating and sustaining all being, as the redeemer of creation from within through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and as the revealing love of the holy spirit. To speak of the existence of God in this sense is more like speaking of the existence of love or beauty than of mountains or daffodils. We say that love exists, not only because it affects our world but also because we look for evidence of its existence in the ways in which people who use that word behave towards one another. Good theology involves doing as well as thinking, for the theologian must give material expression to her use of the word “God” in a way that counts as meaningful.

Theology is at its best when it works in a triangular relationship with scripture, creation and culture, continuously asking how the texts and traditions of the Christian faith are to be interpreted in the light of the questions of our time. According to the classic doctrine of grace, articulated by Aquinas, “grace perfects nature”, so that there is no inherent contradiction between faith and reason, theology and science. Good theology serves as an intellectual rudder which steers faith along the narrow pathway between tradition and transformation, mystery and knowledge, contemplation and action, always seeking to bring the claims of revelation into creative dialogue with the discoveries of science and other forms of human understanding.

(By the way, if you take the link to the full article, spend some time reading the comments. There’s much of the kind of conversation going on there of which we had all ought to be aware.)

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