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Doing Theology: Comprehensiveness

August 20, 2010

I was asked a question today by an aspiring theology student, “How do I explain what I am going to school for to a non-Christian?”  I wrestled with the same question while I was going to seminary.  Often times at work, I would get asked what I was studying.  It was not always easy and sometimes their eyes were glaze over as I talked about philosophy and metaphysics, or they would automatically take a defensive position when I would discuss my ethics class, or they would be extremely intrigued by my apologetics class.  The main problem is, how do you explain that Christian studies attempts to be comprehensive in all that it addresses?  Is it even possible?  I provided a twofold answer that I thought was worthy of sharing.

The first is that modern public education is attempting to do the same thing.  It is attempting to provide a comprehensive education for people to thrive in society.  It attempts to educate them in everything they need to know while be sensitive to individual strengths and weaknesses.  However, in our American context, there is a firm commitment to provide a religiously and ethically neutral education.  Therefore, our educational system rigorously pursues a secular education. The foundational subject that can provide such a supposedly unbiased education is science.  Virtually all subjects are processed through a scientific grid because this is the realm of facts and objectivity, all other subjects are the realm of values and subjectivity.  Hence, the arts take a back seat in education, music, literature, drama, drawing, painting, sculpting, you name it.  Science provides a theoretically religiously unbiased secular worldview.  This is a contradiction in terms, for its comprehensive nature takes on a religious commitment.  Science is the religious worldview of our day.

Theological education on the other hand, provides a systematic worldview revolving around who God is and the world he created  It therefore provides a foundation to properly understand all aspects of life: art, science, morality, human relationships and human thriving.  Christian studies have to be just as comprehensive and yet have the difficulty of understanding and addressing the secular society in which we live.  The result is sometimes that is too quick of a leap to Christian ethics and thus a shallow understanding of the culture and missing the larger ruling authorities, secularism and science.  Morality is subjective and therefore no one authority rules.  Moral arguments often go in one ear and out the other while people argue back and forth about this “study” vs. that “study.”  Just witness the nature of the arguments in court over the Prop 8 controversy.

One of the more subtle modern challenges to such an overarching plan of theology is that it traditionally has been done by Westerners.  Systematic theology has gone out of favor and it is my opinion liberation theology (at least methodologically) is dominant.  Liberation theology is simply that God will liberate oppressed people by the judgment and over through of those in power (an inadequate definition I recognize).  Liberation theology has attempted to provide a “voice” and an alternative methodology for people without the power and resources to produce such a comprehensive picture of the Christian faith.  The emphasis is not on the universal, but on the particular experiences of under-privileged and oppressed people.  It is no accident that most dudes committed to reformed theology are Western white guys.  There are very few african americans committed to reformed theology and the debates surrounding the relationship between human free will and God’s sovereignty.  Yet, even such a particular emphasis still provides an under girding comprehensive nature of a theology of liberation.

The point being, Christian Theology cannot avoid being comprehensive and thus systematic.  It does not necessarily mean that it must always be in the same categories reflecting questions in distant eras and cultures.  It does need to adequately address the current questions and the nature of them to provide the church with a robust worldview to challenge the prevailing one.  In this sense, theology is derived from scripture for every generation while being faithful to the historic and orthodox faith.  Theology today needs to address issues like the scientific worldview and the particular experiences of people.  In the midst of this, it must not lose sight that it always about God’s self-revelation through Jesus Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the whole world and rising from the dead to reconcile all things whether on earth or in heaven to himself.

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