When we say “theology”…

I’ve heard a lot of mentions of theology in my social media timelines recently.  Which is what happens if you follow the sort of people…well, the sort of people who read this blog, I suspect.  A statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a funeral sermon by the Dean of Southwark sparked some of it in recent weeks.  However, a lot of the discussion seems to me to be happening at slightly cross purposes.  At the risk of sounding like the epitome of an academic evading the point, it depends on what we mean by the word “theology”.  I think the Archbishop of Canterbury was right when he said recently that we are all theologians, and the Dean of Southwark was right when he said the Church of England has abandoned theology for leadership skills.

In one meaning, theology is speech about God.  This is the definition mostly like to appear at the beginning of courses on the subject.  From the Greek, Theos, meaning “God” and “logos”, meaning “word, discourse, speech”.  Speaking about God is “theologising”, in the technical sense of the word.  This embraces the whole range of ways we speak about God, from quoting the Bible, to preaching, to composing and singing hymns and worship songs, to sharing our experiences of faith with each other.  To speak about God in this meaning is to theologise, whether we’re talking about God’s self, our experience of God’s actions in our lives, about God’s church or God’s scriptures.

There’s another rather different use of exactly the same word, which also ground itself in the meaning of the Greek “Theos” and “logos”.  Theology as the disciplined and reflective activity of discussing our knowledge of God.  This is often identified with the academic discipline of theology in universities, but of course it takes place around and outside universities as well.  According to this this definition, theology is a set of intellectual activities and traditions which seek to arrange, analyse and develop our understandings of God.  This is an obviously smaller category than simply “speech about God”.

In this vision of theology, it is not enough to speak about God to qualify as doing theology.  We need to know what has been said by other people, to have some sense (or theory) of why other people said that, to place our own statements in that tradition.  We might be rephrasing what they said in modern terms, or wildly disagreeing them, but we are consciously joining in a conversation which has been going on before, and accepting its terms (even if we go on to disagree.)  We are also required to have a critical awareness of the sources of our own ideas, the ways they interact with other people’s, and the potential replies which they might make to us.

The definition we use has large implications for what we say about theology.  For example, according to this second, stricter, definition, the Bible contains relatively little theology.  There are certainly large passages of the Epistles in which the author explains a particular view of God, and criticizes other views, and harmonises previous materials on the subject.  But much larger swathes of the Bible are not “theology” in the second sense, though they certainly are speech about God.  They provide rich and powerful sources for theological thought, and they draw on deep wells of theological meaning, and they are a continual inspiration for theological expression, but they are not theology in themselves.

This brings me on to a third sense in which we often hear the word used: “theology” as the religious meanings and assumptions implicit in something.  We talk about “the theology of the liturgy”, or “the theology of foodbanks”, or even “the theology of coffee mornings”, without meaning that these things themselves are statements about God, let alone that they are theological dissertations.  We might similarly refer to “the theology of Mark’s Gospel”, or “the theology of Hymns Ancient and Modern” or “the theology of The Lord of the Rings”, since these are books which contain little which sounds like academic theology, but which express a distinct vision of what God is like, and what God’s actions mean.

My rather pedantic winnowing out of meanings is not intended to set anyone right about whether they are doing theology, or which meaning is the correct one, but to simply call attention to the fact that we use the word so variously.  Theology does mean “God-speak”, so any speech about God might be theology.  But “biology” means “life-speak”, and we don’t usually refer to life coaches, life-savers, lifestyle bloggers, or life insurers as “biologists”.  That doesn’t mean those people don’t have valuable work to do, or that they don’t enrich life, but it does mean we would get in a massive mess if we confused their activities.

In a more personal and speculative vein, I suspect that some of our confusion stems from the historical inequalities which have been involved in theological practice.  Distinguishing academic theology from devotional blogging, and worship songs from Biblical commentary, would be a less fraught matter if every distinction didn’t sound like a value judgement.  Or even an attempt at a social put-down.  When only certain people from certain background were validated to engage in academic and public theology, it was accorded importance and associations which we have not lost today.

Claiming that something “is theology really” is often making a claim for its value, that it should be regarded as highly as academic theology was in the past.  Conversely, attempts to use the discursive techniques of theology as a discipline – identification of sources, analysis of terms, probing of implications – can look intimidating or dismissive when used on sermons or books which are speaking about God outside an academic register.  The mixing up of the meanings of “theology” can be personally hurtful and institutionally damaging.  Well, there’s no “can be” involved.  They are, I’ve experienced it myself and seen it around me.

By offering these basic distinctions, I don’t mean that the various meanings of “theology” shouldn’t overlap.  They have to, if we are to be a healthy Christian community, and keep pointing towards God.  Sermons must be intellectually meaningful, worship songs must express an orthodox and deep faith, and theological treatises must contribute to the community’s understanding of God.  But I do think our public discussions, and even our internal documents, in the Church of England, sometimes muddle up what we mean by “theology” at a given moment.  And at times this feels like a minor crisis.

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