I’ve mentioned this passage before, but it’s good so I’ll do so again:
Theology is the product of [worldly] Christianity and aids in its entrenchment. If theology deals with “timeless truths,” then all the temporal things we encounter in life are outside the range of theology.
But EVERYTHING we encounter in life is temporal. Therefore, all life is outside of theology.
All that remains within the realm of theology are (perhaps) ecstatic and “timeless” encounters of the soul with God, God with the soul. Theology keeps Christian teaching at the margins and ensures that other voices, other languages, other words shape the world of temporalities. Politics is left to politicians, economics to economists, sociology to sociologists, history to historians, and philosophy to madmen.
Theology ensures that Christians have nothing to say about nearly everything.
-Peter Leithart, Against Christianity, Ch.2 Sec. 4
This came to mind again recently while a friend was discussing the “non-overlapping magisteria” idea that says that science (biology, psychology, physics, etc.) have NOTHING to say about spirituality and religion and that religious people have NOTHING valid to say about science. Of course I think this is obviously just a ploy to stuff religious people in the closet and exclude them from virtually any meaningful discussion.
My friend was concerned over Leithart’s use of the word “theology” in this passage and I’ll admit, he is using a specific definition of it here so he can be “against” it, as well as using a certain definition of “christianity” so he can be against that too, as the book title implies. It’s a bit controversial by design. The theology he is talking about is the kind that has decided to play the secularist’s game and ONLY talk about abstract spiritual things that can be easily disconnected from any real people, places, or things. When you hear a liberal Episcopalian minister preach about “the Christ”, then you know this sort of thing is going on. Equally so though, a thoroughly orthodox theologian can get carried away with pie-in-the sky discussions of the Trinity or concepts like election or even purgatory. They can find themselves with nothing to say about anything temporal. By default they’ve handed off healing to the pharmacist, parenting to the psychologist, and their wealth to the banker, none of whom are likely to fear God.
To the degree that we’ve trusted economics to economists and politics to politicians is the degree that we, as Christians, have abdicated. Christians should have something to say about all these things – something Trinitiarian even. A theology that is mostly abstract and deals in “timeless truths” is essentially gnostic. We need a theology with some dirt on it, with some flesh and blood, that means something vital for what you are doing right now, whether it’s sitting on your butt at the keyboard thinking and typing (like I am right now) or in the kitchen eating a burrito, or yelling at your kids to brush their teeth, or a thousand other things.
When we talk about God or “what the Bible says” in a fashion where it’s all this “out there” knowledge that we are then going to bring in and apply to life, complete with a power point slide for each element, we are playing on Dawkin’s and the other secularist’s own turf. We give them a place to stand from which to say that we shouldn’t bring that stuff in and “apply” it.
But God is actually tied up in everything we do and have ever done. I love this passage from Chesterton on this matter:
It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it. And the more converging reasons he finds pointing to this conviction, the more bewildered he is if asked suddenly to sum them up. Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly round at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.” The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex. It has done so many things. But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.
-G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Ch.6
I feel that way when someone asks me why I am a Christian! Answering something like “because the Bible says so” is so insufficient it sounds almost silly. A more careful answer about the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is probably more technically accurate, but is still only one piece of the puzzle, even if it is the central piece. It is difficult to answer because all the real reasons are tied up in a million different things.
If I am going to “do theology”, I think it’s going to have to be tied up in a lot of temporal things. It must be earthy.