Why does theology matter?
Theology is the study of God.
“Theo” means God and “ology” comes from the word “logos” meaning words, so theology is “words about God”. And theology matters.
What we think about God matters because it shapes how we live and have our being. For example, if we think of God as being a misogynistic, tyrannical dictator, then we will live in fear of being smited; watching out for those lightning bolts being fired from the sky. Or, if we think of God as being loving and inclusive then we will feel accepted and loved and extend that welcome to others.
The truth is, we all have a theology – even if we are atheist or agnostic. We all have thoughts about God and it is true to say that there are many different views about God – perhaps as many as there are people – but because theology matters, the truth about God is a cause worthy of pursuit.
We must endeavour to have an open mind and be willing to be shocked, surprised, or challenged in our knowledge. We must be willing to be critical of our understanding, recognising that the pursuit of truth is a journey, and that we are not infallible. God is bigger and better than we can imagine and if we think we have God all sewn up and in a box then we will never grow in our knowledge and understanding.
One of the first things we can do is recognise that we all bring preconceived ideas and assumptions to the table. We all have a world view and look through the lens of that world view. We all have experiences that shape and mould us. We were all brought up in a culture that influenced us. We were all raised in families or relationships that formed us. For example, we may have been nurtured by parents, carers, or teachers who were atheists and we learnt that God does not exist. Or, perhaps we were raised by strict, religious zealots who indoctrinated us into fixed ideas about who God is and what God is like.
Whatever our upbringing and education, it is important to recognise that we have a view about God and that view has been influenced heavily by our social, educational, and cultural context.
So, then, how do we go about the pursuit of the knowledge of God? How do we know which path is the right one? How can we know which bits of our assumed knowledge we should keep and which should be consigned to the trash can?
Every Sunday, when we gather for worship in our church building with its skyward pointing tower, we do our best to meet with God and to have an experience with God. For some, they encounter God through the special words, for others the devotional music, some through the act of breaking bread, some through the sense of sacred space, others through the silence, yet others through the acts of love and service from friends. There are as many ways of encountering God as there are facets to our human characters and there is no “one size fits all”.
What is important is that we do not try and manufacture emotion or whip people up – we simply allow people to come into God's presence and let God minister to them as God sees fit. And when people do encounter God for the first time, well, then we can collectively share our wisdom and understanding – what those of us that encountered God a long time ago have learnt and experienced. And this is where the Bible comes in.
The Bible is a wonderful collection of recollections, stories, poems, letters, histories, teaching, narratives, and theological affirmations from a community of people that encountered God. Their understanding of the character and nature of God changed over time. Sometimes they got it right, and at other times horribly wrong. They too, like us, were influenced heavily by their cultures and backgrounds and looking at the texts we can understand the context of their writings.
In our pursuit of God, when we look at any aspect of the sciences or humanities, we ask ourselves, given its context, "What does this tell us about the character of God?" We consider everything to have the potential of having some value or something to contribute to our knowledge and understanding. In the same way, when we approach any Biblical text we, understanding the context in which it was written, ask the question, "What does this tell me about the character of God?"
This past Sunday we celebrated International Women's Day, and the set Bible reading was an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at a well. The context was that Jewish rabbis had strict rules about being distant from both Samaritans and women and yet Jesus engaged her in personal conversation – in fact the account is the longest recorded narrative conversation between Jesus and another person. What does his breaking of social norms tell us about the character of God? It certainly speaks to me, and as I reflect on this person Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman, it provides another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that forms the picture of what God is like.
The Apostle Paul sums it up in one of his final paragraphs in his letter to the church in the ancient city of Phillippi. He writes, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learnt or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you."
It is my prayer that this week, you will encounter God and grow in your knowledge and understanding of what God is like. May you experience God's grace, mercy, peace, love, acceptance, and forgiveness. Amen.
• Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm
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