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Healthy Theology

An annual festive gathering of spiritual renewal has me out in the woods right now. Blissfully distant from email, comment threads, text messages. Yes, it’s heaven.

The theme for this year is health. We will be talking about mental, spiritual, physical, and, yes, theological health.

It’s that last piece that I’m going to take a stab at.

Over the past seven years or so I have done a lot of thinking about theological health. I haven’t quite used those terms, but the way that I put it in Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:

…theology that produces bad behavior loses its claim to be giving faithful stage direction to the Christian drama.

How, then, do we do theology in such a way as to build in, from the get-go, that it not only says the right things but that it helps mold us more into the image of Christ?

I have a suggestion.

Often, when we start to think about the task of doing theology, we say that our goal is to speak truthfully about God. What if this virtually guarantees that our theology will be unhealthy?

The problem with defining our theology as seeking to speak the truth, is that speaking the truth and thinking the truth has been established as our goal. And once we have our theology goal set before us, it comes to define not just the goal of this activity, but of our Christian life. If good theology is about speaking and thinking rightly about God, so too is the Christianity that is supposed to flow from it.

This sets us off on a path in which any actions we perform in guarding, establishing, defending, and preserving the truth as we understand it are valid expressions of Christian devotion to God.

Next thing you know, we are burning heretics in the name of Jesus. And those bearing the sign of the crucified have become the crucifiers.

What if healthy theology demands a completely different starting point? What if it demands that we start with the goal of the Christian life itself? We are going to reflect thoughtfully and critically about God and our faith for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor.

And, as Christians, we will say that loving God and loving neighbor find their texture and consummate expression in the story of Christ–his coming, his life, his death and resurrection, his gift of the Spirit.

What do you think?

  • Will starting with a different goal in fact produce a different result?
  • Have you seen it happen in real life? In your own life?
  • Is doing theology with the goal of love truly doing theology? Or does the goal of speaking truthfully need to remain paramount if theology is to be done in earnest?

I’d love for there to be some good conversation about that here. I’ll catch up on it when I’m out of the woods.

Please share the love:

14 thoughts on “Healthy Theology

  1. This is very close to my realization. Make love your goal, love God and love others as yourself. In effect, if you do something regarding another, you need to be able to say afterwards, “… because I love you.” and if you cannot say that, then you should not do it. Of course this can quickly get messy in practice but that is the idea.

    One level down as I see it, Jesus was said to be “full of grace and truth” as expressions of that love. Grace (unmerited favor) always comes first, for example, start off assuming the best about another until shown to be wrong. Truth can release what should be released and bind what should be bound. Truth can be warm and fuzzy or cold and prickly, who enjoys the cold and prickly side of truth? I think Jesus was loving those he gave that he tossed some cold water on, asking them to wake up.

  2. I like your challenge to consider the purpose of theology and how that becomes practical in our Christian living. For many in the protestant tradition, right belief and theological accuracy has trumped all other aspects of faith having flowed right out of our tradition based in the post enlightenment West. I believe one of the serious dangers in this context is for us to turn Christianity into an ideology. As long as my beliefs are biblically accurate and defensible, I’m a good Christian. But Christianity is so much more.

    I like your suggestion to consider theology in the context of love – God and others (relationship). I’ve heard it said one who prays to God is a theologian. Knowing God and His love and being transformed, to me, is the best theology of all. My reading and studying of various theological works has greatly enriched my own experience of the Almighty yet personal God – even what I consider bad theology!

    1. Jon, I think you’re right on with the danger of turning Christianity into an ideology. Protestantism itself and the Enlightenment behind it have lured us in this direction—though the dangers were present long before as well!

  3. The common complaint I hear when advocating an approach like this is something along one of these lines:

    We can’t know what love is apart from truth.
    Grace and truth must be kept in balance.
    It’s not loving to let people live in a way that’s inconsistent with the truth.

    It seems that love and truth are being thought of as vastly different categories. Perhaps it would be helpful to think of love AS truth instead of viewing truth simply as getting the facts about God right.

    1. Will, I’ve thought about this as well. I wonder if it helps to consider that love is not love apart from truth, and the inverse as well – that truth is not truth apart from love. In other words, as you alluded to above – far from being different categories, love and truth are different sides of the same coin. So for example, when we are told to “speak truth in love,” I wonder if the apparently “true” thing we are saying seizes to be true if not spoken in and through love. The difficulty with this approach is that people who are deeply concerned about objective certainty find it ambiguous, as they may be looking for a true proposition, one that is true in the abstract outside of lived life, that does not need to be coupled with real love – orthodoxy without orthopraxy.

      To adopt this type of approach is definitely to move away from the foundational certainty that has been present in Christianity for a few centuries. But in my mind, if we can say Jesus is Lord without is necessitating action, i.e – that we can make a propositional statement that does not force us to react in some what or another – then the statement alone – Jesus is Lord – seems quite void of power.

  4. In Brad Jersak’s _A More Christlike God_, he says it well:

    “What do our ethics of freedom or love -willfulness or willingness- have to do with competing images of God? Only everything! Our highest moral values are ultimately an echo of the God we believe in (or once believed in). We can trace our ethics to our understanding of God’s essential nature. Namely, if your highest value is freedom (as self-will), the God you know (and may have received or rejected) is one whose nature is pure freedom or pure will. If your highest value is love, the God you know (and are most likely to love), is probably the God who is pure love or pure good. This crucial distinction impacts our worship, our theology, our faith-practice -indeed, our every decision- so it deserves a clear explanation.”

    And later ….

    “And so we see, just as with people, a God who is pure freedom is also utterly willful. Add to this willfulness the fact that God is all-powerful, and you get a triumphalistic deity who can be dangerously violent. This God is an irresistible force to be feared and obeyed, worshiped and loved, or else!”

    1. Daniel, I absolutely love this quote, especially where he says, “Our highest moral values are ultimately an echo of the God we believe in (or once believed in).” I know that for many people who do not believe in God, there would be significant protest, here. But for those of us who are intentionally attempting to follow God and walk in ways that please God, and integrate this faith into our daily life and practice, this is undoubtedly the case. That’s why theology is so important, it’s why theology is so dangerous, it’s why doing theology rightly is crucial.

  5. Anything we do to guard and protect the truth, seems to put us in the position of not only “one upping people” but also “one-upping God” since we have taken responsibility for something that God says he has covered – taking care of his truth. Any time we fail to begin with love, we end up guarding and protecting (some form of truth), instead of thinking, speaking and sharing the love that we’ve received from God. Thanks for the challenge to my thinking.

  6. I like your quote “…theology that produces bad behavior loses its claim to be giving faithful stage direction to the Christian drama” because I believe it touches on something very important. Let me try to explain. I’ve always understood theology to mean the study of God, and this, at least in my circles, has mostly been translated as a systematizing of the “word of God” in an attempt to organize what it says about God, specifically and categorically. I have been satisfied with this definition as it has given me points to both trust in and argue. These have seemed necessary, yea helpful, for my understanding for many, many years.

    Unfortunately, however, there have been times in my history as a believer that the tenets of my faith and the practice of those with whom I practice “church” (seem to me to) have been blatantly and life-alteringly contradictory. In other words, what I have understood to be true about God, and what I have known to be true about His children in my world, don’t quite line up. And this is where I am finding that mere theology, as I have learned, known and loved it, falls short. Which, in retrospect, makes sense in the sense that God is SPIRIT.

    (This is a great question, Daniel. Thank you.)
    How is it that we believe it is possible to systematize SPIRIT? Where do we get off thinking we can categorize or compartmentalize GOD? Perhaps all theology is, by definition, ignorant arrogance. What I have become interested in learning is not so much new, different or better theology, but rather LOVE. But that, of course, is no simple pinning down either. And again, in retrospect, perhaps the WWJD people were really on to something. But Jesus did different things in different contexts, and I haven’t been able to figure out the pattern of THAT either. Some he healed, and some he left wanting. Is that just? Loving? Beats me.

    A favorite verse has been John 17:3 because it defines the hard-to-pin-down-this-side-of-eternity Eternal Life as KNOWING God and Jesus. Which is not the same as knowing about them, right? Theology is knowing (stuff) about God. Christianity, in practice I believe, is knowing God through Christ’s life and the Spirit’s work in us, and living as led by this. Theology can help us to delineate things in our lives which prove or define this knowing, perhaps. And I suppose that can be healthy. But I’m more interested, these days, in learning to love. And that ought to keep me plenty busy. But I’m not sure I’ve answered any of the questions. Sorrynotsorry.

    1. This really resonated with me: “Theology is knowing (stuff) about God. Christianity, in practice I believe, is knowing God through Christ’s life and the Spirit’s work in us, and living as led by this.” The John 17 passage you cited is a good one for warning us of our potential failures in theology. Eternal life is not, in fact, knowing a bunch of stuff about God. It is knowing God. That knowledge and friendship comes from doing: “You are my friends if you do what I command,” which we pair with, “This is my command, that you love one another.”

  7. I was wrestling with a lot of questions and doubts for the past year or so, and while I want to continue to dig through those I decided to take a season to stop and simply go through the gospels again. In that time I picked up Scot Mcknight’s Jesus Creed and have been enjoying the simple reminder of what its all about – loving God, loving people. Then I read this blog, carrying that theme on in my life.

    I want to give it some time and get back into wrestling through some questions, but it was getting overwhelming and I personally needed to pause and remember the basics of discipleship – Following Jesus and the way he instructed us to live our lives.

    thanks for posting on this and modeling this “healthiness” in your blog.

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