Monday 18 July 2005

Why is theology boring?

If the task of theology is to speak the gospel, then, correspondingly, the task of theology is to speak of faith—for faith alone corresponds to the gospel. To teach or to write theology means to confess one’s own faith.

Although faith exists within a tradition and a community, faith itself is always intensely personal. And it is impossible to give an “objective” account of faith, because a faith which could be spoken of in a detached, objective fashion would no longer be faith. If we wish to speak of faith we must do it personally, or not at all. I might even attempt to speak of the faith of the church as a whole, but I can do this only by confessing and articulating my own faith.

This means that theology is an intensely personal activity. If I am teaching or writing theology, I am offering a confession of my own faith, and in exactly this way I am attempting to express the faith of the whole church. Wherever faith is truly expressed, it is eo ipso the faith of the church. And for this reason, as Karl Barth reminded us, there can be no “Reformed dogmatics” or “Lutheran dogmatics” or “Catholic dogmatics,” but only church dogmatics.

It’s actually very striking that the best and most “universal” works of theology—i.e., those works that really speak to the church as a whole—are always the most intensely personal, individual, even idiosyncratic. Just think of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth. Good theology is exciting, both because it is the passionate expression of the writer’s own faith, and because in it I recognise the expression of my own faith.

I think all this explains why, for so many people, theology is insufferably boring. I’m not just talking about the general cultural perception of theology: I’m thinking above all of clergy and seminary students. Such people have studied theology for themselves, and they have reached the conclusion—perhaps after a fleeting spell of excitement—that it is boring.

I suspect that, far too often, such students have attended lectures where the teacher gives an “objective” account of theology. This “objectivity” may take the form of a historical survey of other people’s opinions, or, worse still, of a crude assemblage of “proof texts” from the Bible. (This latter form of theologising is doubly-guilty, since it makes both theology and the Bible boring.) Theologians who teach in these ways fail to do the one truly essential thing: they fail to confess their own faith.

In the same way, “objective” textbooks like Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology are still widely used because they contain such a wealth of historical information—but faith itself hardly ever comes to view in such books (a survey of the faith of other people is not yet an expression of faith!), so that students who use these books are simply confirmed in the opinion that theology is a very boring affair.

In contrast, it seems to me that true theology—theology in which faith becomes speech right here and now in the present historical moment—is a vibrant and engaging and exciting endeavour.

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