Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.
Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.
Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.
How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”
Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.
In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:
I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.
Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.
Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.
I just happen to disagree.
I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.
But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.
Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.
Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.
Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.
People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.
They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.
Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.
A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.
Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.
How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.
Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.
In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.
In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.
Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.