Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Theology as Pastime: Learning to Enjoy 'God-Talk'

I love theology. I could sit around for hours talking about God, the world, and what it means to be human (provided enough libation). But not everyone shares my affinity for theology. For some, theology is intimidating and serious business: a battleground for truth or a religious exam that can be passed or failed. For others, it is irrelevant and downright boring. This is unfortunate and yet understandable. Having spent my life in the church I too have grown dissatisfied with theology as many practice it. That's why I've come to approach theology as a kind of pastime: "an activity that someone does regularly for enjoyment rather than work; a hobby," (Oxford-American Dictionary). Here's why I prefer this approach:

1. There's No Pressure.  Pastimes are activities that bring us enjoyment, not performance anxiety. Theology can never be the criterion for salvation because those doing the 'theologizing' are saved by [grace through faith in] Jesus the Christ. To put it simply, Jesus, not theology, saves. No theological question or doubt can change that. St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) famously defined theology as "faith seeking understanding" and I believe this definition gives us great wisdom. Christian theology is the consequence of or supplement to faith, but not the means to 'securing' or 'proving' faith.

When St. Paul proclaimed the certainty of God's love, I'm pretty sure it covered theological exploration. There is therefore no pressure in exploring Open Theism, Womanist Theology, Liberation Theology, Universalism, etc.  Collin Morris affirms, "Jesus has given us the freedom to be both rigorously agnostic and insatiably curious. And the community which bears His name exists to promote free enquiry, not to defend some orthodoxy. No doors are closed to us. No thoughts are forbidden. We can explore any system or philosophy or idea fearlessly and judge the truth or lie in it according to the single standard that it helps us to get at the meaning of Jesus in the concrete event," (Include Me Out! Confessions of an Ecclesiastical Coward, 82).

I'm not saying that theology doesn't matter (see below). But I am saying that salvation does not depend on one's ability to theologize. And this fact could afford many Christians the comfort to fearlessly explore the questions that burn within.

2. It's an Art, Not a Science. The very word "theology" ends with an academic suffix: -ology. That suffix conveys a scientific, orderly account of the subject to which is attached. Hence, theology is often viewed as a systematic account of God just like biology is a systematic account of living organisms. When theology is approached in this manner it becomes a task for the God-scientists: the metaphysicians and philosophers of the ivory towers. Theology becomes stale, objective, and abstract; distanced from ordinary life. No wonder Jeff Tweedy sang, "Theologians don't know nothin' about my soul."

But theology is not a science, it is an art. It is not an objective investigation to discover evidence and proofs, it is a subjective adventure into the richness of life itself. It is for this reason that many are beginning to use the term theopoetics to describe theological exploration. One blogger writes, "Theopoetics is the appreciation of - no, the embodied luxuriating in - God's words and works as art. The same God wrote the Bible as spoke the world, so theopoetics extends from the exegesis of Paul's use of 'kosmos' to the dancing of taste buds at breakfast this morning." (I highly recommend reading this blogger's entire post. See 'blogger' hyperlink above.)

This means that theology (or theopoetics) is not confined to the four walls of the classroom or to the ink of scholarly papers. Theology happens in the dirt, around the dinner table, under the stars, and across the bar top. It comes in the form of songs, stories, paintings, films, parables, jokes, prayers, hugs, dancing, food, drink, and all the riches of life. It requires not only information and reason, but experience, passion, and imagination.

Like any art, theology is an expression of what it means to be human and therefore a witness to the God of Life whose image we bear. The greatest revelation of God came in the form of skin and bones, it is therefore imperative that our theological exploration look outward into the world as well as upward. As Marjorie Suchocki writes, "God's aim directs us toward the world, not necessarily toward God." When theology is seen as the "art of life" it will soon become a favored pastime. Let us remember that pastimes don't have to be done "right," they are to be done well 

3. It's More than 'About'. If I wanted to know about telephones I could go to Wikipedia or buy a book about the history of telephones. If I wanted to know you, dear reader, then I would probably need to sit down with you and share a cup of coffee (probably many). The difference is that you are living and becoming whereas a telephone is inanimate. We cannot come to know living beings through objective facts alone. Living things require the dynamism of relationship and relationship is, of course, the oldest and greatest pastime of all.

The Christian faith asserts that God is living. God is therefore not an object to know about, but a Subject to know and be known by. In the same way that I cannot replace my wife with mere knowledge about her, we cannot replace the living God with a static, mechanic set of beliefs. Is this not a dominant motif in the Gospels? Those "children of Abraham" may know their Scripture, but they cannot see the living, breathing God-in-the-flesh! The Psalmist warns that those who create such breathless idols will end up putting their trust in them instead of the God who is alive and on the move. One of my favorite Gospel passages is at the end of Mark when the women are told that the risen Jesus is on the move, "going ahead of you to Galilee." We must take seriously that Jesus is not just a historical figure to read about, but the living Savior who may, in fact, be doing more than just sitting in a chair in the sky.

Theology at its very core is a relational pastime. The late Thomas Merton once explained that theology "is the way to a vital contact with a God Who is alive, and not to the view of an abstract First Principle worked out by syllogisms from the evidence of created things." (New Seeds of Contemplation, 127) When we approach theology as a relational pastime that is to be enjoyed purely for the sake of itself, we come to see that our 'theologizing' is a means to knowing the God who is alive. Again Merton writes, "Theology ceases to be a body of abstractions and becomes a living Reality Who is God Himself." I have found that approaching theology as a pastime allows me to enjoy getting to know the Living God who is more mysterious, more beautiful, and more alive than I can even imagine.

Like any pastime, theology becomes more enjoyable the more that we do it. Perhaps this is not because we get "good" at theology, but because it is the very means by which we come to know the One in Whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).


There will no doubt remain those who wish to practice theology as an objective science (and consequently those who find theology boring and irrelevant). But as for me, I'm going to continue to practice theology as my favorite pastime: to soak up the richness of life and reflect upon what kind of crazy, beautiful Lover is behind and embedded within it; to wrestle with the complexities and injustices that keep me awake at night; and to wonder how it is that the Christ Event speaks to me and the world today. 

Furthermore, I'm not trying to say that this is the best approach to theology. But it is working well for me and I'm convinced that there are many who might also benefit from this approach. If you've found this post helpful, please comment or send me a message. Peace.



  1. This is good stuff Josh. I think I like you're first point the most though. For me, doing theology can be so high pressure because I want to get it "right." Thanks for the reminder that theology's end is knowing and loving God... not being right about God.

  2. I always enjoy your posts, Joshua. Thanks! How about a post for: how to keep theology poetic in the high school classroom? I can't tell you how much I dislike giving tests in my religious studies class. The western academic system is not extraordinarily conducive to theology as pastime, but oh, how I wish it was! Here is to the challenge of bringing theopoetics inside the classroom, the university, the church and our hearts!