Editor’s note: “Matters of faith” is a column that provides local religious leaders a place to write about how their respective faiths provide hope, courage and strength in these modern times.
Our human nature struggles to allow God to be who God really is. We want to make God into who we want or need God to be. St. Augustine said, “If you comprehend it, it’s not God.” Richard Rohr asks “Would you respect a God you could comprehend? And yet very often that’s what we want — a God who reflects our culture, our biases, our economic, political, and military systems.”
Theology is the study of who God is and how God is revealed to us. Theology is the study of how we experience and express God. Theology is not just the study of God but the way we study God. I have learned it is just as important to know what I don’t believe about who God is as it is to know what I do believe. Theology is not apologetics, although my theology is used to defend my faith. Theology is not science; it is not the study of how “things work,” but rather the study of God’s participation, in the way the world functions.
Theology’s function in the church is to confirm what we believe about the church is biblical and livable. In other words, when I say I believe the church is the body of Christ and we are the church, I am saying God continues to make the word flesh through me and its members, regardless of denomination. This is where it starts to get complicated.
Because we are human and because we are the church, Christ’s body, there is a built-in conflict, which I refer to as my own civil war between my humanity and God’s divinity. My theology or what I believe about God helps me resolve that conflict. Theology is not blind faith, but rather a disciplined way of living that fertilizes my faith and encourages me to continue growing. My theology shapes my faith, giving my faith feet and hands. It is a process that gives purpose to my life, and a process that transforms my life into the life of God’s original intent. I believe this is the purpose of the church to “make” disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
OK, so, I have a tendency to get hung up on words, and the word for today is the word “make.” Think about all the ways we use the word make. I can make my bed or make a cake. When we “make” something, we are literally creating it, bringing it into existence and there is a process involved. There is also a way of using the word that is demanding and forceful, like when we are children and we say “make me” to someone who wants us to do something we do not want to do.
So, how do we “make” a disciple? If I decide I want to make my delicious chili verde, there is a process I go through to make chili verde. Because I have been making it for so many years, I don’t need a recipe or a shopping list. I also don’t need to measure; I just know how to make it. I have practiced the process long enough it has become a joyful experience that I look forward to sharing with my family and friends.
But, if I wanted to make chili rellenos, I would not know where or how to begin. But because I know what I don’t know and I know what I do know about cooking, because I have practice and experience with cooking, I am able to apply those same methods or disciplines that I use to make chili verde and there is a good chance I will make a tasty chili relleno dish.
The acronym R.E.S.T is used to refer to the method and disciplines John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, taught. Wesley’s belief, that we should study theology taking all our human knowledge into account by using “reason, experience, scripture and tradition,” is a good discipline to practice our theology. Like cooking, if I know what I don’t know (reason and experience) and I know what I do know (scripture and tradition) and I apply them in my study, I am able to “Rest” assured that my faith is not blind faith.
I have observed there are those who are sure about what they do not believe, but when it comes to stating what they do believe they are not as certain. And there are those who absolutely know what they do believe but are not as sure about what they do not believe. I think we all move around in both of these camps at different times in our spiritual journeys.
The function of theology is to help me put into place all that God has created without trying to make God who I want or need God to be. Good theology helps me understand there is more than I can possibly see or know about the big picture for God’s Kingdom.
Just because I don’t know all of God’s details, and even if I do not understand how God works in and through me, it doesn’t mean I can’t participate in partnership with God in faith. How do I live into God’s plan, not just for me but for the entire Kingdom, making disciples for the transformation of the world? My theology helps me do that, because what I believe about God, will determine the way I live as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Or put another way, theology is my knowledge of who God is and the way it shapes my faith as a Christian and what I believe about the church and insures that my faith is both biblical and livable. My Christian theology must be evident in the way I live my life. I think this is why Jesus taught us to pray: “thy Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) It is the transformation of the world one disciple at a time.
Rev. Paulsen is pastor at Tooele United Methodist Church.