Thinking theology out loud…

I’m going to try something here that may or may not become a useful habit.  I’m attempting to craft the thesis / proposal for my first seminary paper.  It’s SYS500 – Theological Research and Writing.  My lack of creativity was exposed when I had to ask my professor how in the world I write the required paper to finish this class, when the topic is theological research.  He suggested a theme of how modern theology is effected by things like blogging and media use.  It seems many authors of theology have little research behind the supposed truths they are proclaiming to a massive audience.

Beginning research for that idea led me to an article in Theological Studies (A Jesuit based quarterly journal), which discussed the impact of modern communication on theology.  Actually, I was looking for some explanation to a statement by Phillip Clayton in the 43rd issue of the Princeton Theological Review which was, “Theologies from the past won’t work as pre-packaged answers.”  This comment contextually was made in light of the idea that modern man thinks and acts much differently than the generation of the 16th to 19th centuries, when modern theology was being developed.  Clayton’s argument was that the church should embrace the emergent and change with the tides.  Mind you, based on the rest of his essay, this is all coming from an extremely liberal point of view.

Another of his major points in the piece was that “No institutions, and very few persons, function as authorities for Theology After Google (the title of the essay).”  He goes on to say this ridiculous statement, “Of course, pastors still stand up in pulpits today, and some still view themselves an indispensable purveyors of truth.  But most of us who still speak from pulpits today are having to rethink our relationship with the audiences we address, since most people today shrug their shoulders at those who claim to be authorities in religious matters.  (For many of us, scripture continues to be an authority, but the way in which it’s an authority has changed massively over the last 30 years.)  Theology today means what some number of us find plausible about our faith and are willing to share.  Today’s religious leaders are those who say things that ring true to us, so that we say, “Yeah, I think that person’s got some important insights.  I’m going to read the blog or find a way to talk with him (or her), and I’m going to recommend to my friends that they do the same.”

That’s the mindset that the church is up against today.  Authority is debilitating.  Whoever says something in the coolest, least politically offensive way is the guy / girl / thing that gets the head nod.  Black and white theology is ancient, narrow minded, racist, hateful rhetoric.  Trusting the guy in the pulpit is like still using a 1980’s binary operating, room sized computer.  Another analogy Clayton uses is leaving the harbor of a defined theological world and setting sail without the expectation or foreknowledge that after exploring the seas, we’ll return and drop anchor in the same harbor.  Landing in an alternative theology, based on ones own experience of the world is safe and normal.  The lie begins with the idea that we should set sail at all from the place where we are at.

So where do I go with this?  How does theological research remain valid and necessary in a world that thinks like this?  Our age is so fast paced that it has no time for deep thinking and reflection.  The world before the Renaissance did not think for itself because it was an oral culture.  Orality is based in structure.  Once the printing press revolutionized the world, literacy became dominate.  Literacy is based in analysis.  Humanity moved from practical application based wisdom to analytical, linear truth.  Truth was defined before it was illuminated or unpacked.

Once the age of the Internet came intro fruition, a generation grew up living in a global world, dominated by communication methods focused on ritual rather than transmitting certain messages.  The modern world turns to media not for the purpose of seeking and acquiring truth so that they can make a place for themselves in the world, but rather for the purpose of fitting in and being a part of a larger movement of mutual enrichment.  There are notes in the song, “It’s a Small World After All” that ring true with the beautiful picture of Heaven painted by Revelations, “…every tribe and tongue and nation and people…”. But not when it comes to depositing “truth” into the mainstream communication methods.  A young Christian can hop online today and query Google to learn about post-salvation habits for the new believer.  The danger in that lies in the fact that anyone can write anything they believe about that topic, and none of it is filtered through any structural sources.  The glory days of theology between the 16th and 19th centuries were deeply successful and founded because the church sought truth from the Word of God, and found it in time-tested research and study done by men and women who had invested their lives into knowing God through His Word.

The educational revolution happening now will certainly produce brighter minds capable of things not imagined by its predecessors, and this revolution is based in moving from a left-brained approach to education, to a holistic approach.  Utilizing the arts is just as important in learning to count numbers as is an abacus.  The trouble therein, I think, is believing that approach will work for theology.

My struggle is defining the line between the concrete and the abstract elements of God’s Word.  The majority of it is black and white.  But faith demands the abstract to some degree.  With the modern world moving away from concrete ideas, and embracing the results of human reason based on feeling, the church is in limbo.  It must answer the question of how to reach this type of world.  Off hand I say that the Word of God led by the Spirit of God is sufficient to convince the heart of the “hippy”, so to speak, who develops his world view based on his emotions.  But a large portion of the church today argues that a preacher in a suit, in a pulpit, exegiting Greek and Hebrew won’t reach anyone, and will in fact make the church not only invisible, but also polemical.

Which leads me back to the truth that Jesus was polemical in practically everything He did and said.  He ran against the cultural grain.  His teaching was grounded in what He knew to be true of His Father and what was revealed of His Father in His Father’s Word.  He didn’t enable progressive dialogues that allowed people to reach their own convenient conclusions of doctrinal realities.

I feel like I just zig-zagged down eight different rabbit trails.  Which is why I’m still searching for a proposal to this thesis.  Time for a break.

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