I have been doing a class on Practical Theology and struggling a bit, so am going to come back to this blog to explore some thoughts, ideas and invite reflection in comment. If you read this, and you have thoughts, please, comment.
Classical “Theology” is a “discourse on God” so sometimes generates a reaction among Unitarian Universalists; so let me ask this before embarking on a many varied exploration of theological ideas. Could you please define “God” in a way that works to establish general agreement among people of pluralistic faiths, so that we can narrow the field?
Yeah, I cannot do it either. There are those, such as Jose Ignacio Cabezon, who argue that “Theology” even with its root in “theo” or “God” is appropriate for Budhism, “”I take theology not to be restricted to discourse on God … I take ‘theology’ not to be restricted to its etymological meaning. In that latter sense, Buddhism is of course atheological, rejecting as it does the notion of God.” (Jose Ignacio Cabezon, ‘Buddhist Theology in the Academy’ in Roger Jackson and John J. Makransky’s Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 25–52.) Of course, we assume that the definition of “God” involves some form of directed intelligence; some idea that is embodied, as “I” which makes it separate from “Us” though even in biblical sources, we can argue that the phrase “I AM” as the name of God is certainly an experience which we all share; and taken metaphorically, perhaps “God” is more than a consciousness, a direction, maybe we can see “God” as potentially “Is” or all things that are.
That’s my working definition of “God” these days. All things that are. All concepts of things, all suffering, all love, all of creation, both the random elements that respond to gravitational forces and the metaphorical ideals that wander our minds and call us to our higher selves. This definition is by essence plural, it must include “non-God” as well as “God” because without the God of my relation, my mind, my heart and my identity, am I even here to debate God’s existence?
Nope, not the way I see it. This God has many voices, many identities, and shifts and changes with the times. S/He speaks out in the moments of public policy joy, like when Anderson-F’n-Cooper came out and when our senators show what real courage looks like, and S/He laments at moments of sorrow, like the horrible loss of the western fires here in the United States, and the many wars, death and hunger that plague our planet.
If that is MY OWN definition of “God” – a living embodiment of all that is – then tell me, in terms of “being-in-discourse” with God, when we attempt to make meaning of existence, when we attempt to understand our world, to explore its purpose, its identity, when that is our calling to Theology, to interpret the will of this “God” of mine.
So, you tell me; where would I bound that discipline of “theology?” If my God walks in all things, speaks through all trends, the economic, the physical, the emotional – then who am I to deny the use of the term “theology” because classically, it applied to just one instance, one vision of this “God” with whom I would speak?
In his two part work The Age of Reason, the American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote, “The study of theology, as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and it admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science, without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.”
First, I apologize for the bolded caps (Hi Mom, I fixed that – I think your caps lock was on 🙂 – I found this quote on the Wikipaedia site that also quotes your Buddhist reference So bottom line….it’s pointless to worry about nothing 😉
Now this is why I’m starting to enjoy gospels more than people like Thomas Paine; one uplifts and the other tears down. Critical thought can be wielded as a tool of oppression just as easily as can a book.
It is inaccurate that theology has no principles, proceeds by no authorities and has no data – he is using some definition of principle, authority and data with which I think I would disagree – because I suspect that the way he’s using those ideas I could use his definitions to make the same statement about philosophy, psychology, sociology and perhaps large-scale economics. Any field of study that has for its “data” intangibles of human experience would be suspect, I suspect.
We engage in study as if concepts like “emotion”, “thought” or even “dollar” have empirical identity that is absolute beyond us. They do not. Its our relationship to such concepts that define their presence in our minds, and thus, in the greater systems of which our consciousness (consciousnesseses? consciousnessesi? *grin*) play a part. That being the case, I fail to see how “God” becomes an “un-quantifiable” experience.
If theology is the study of relationship to “God” – if I conducted an empirical study and went around and asked people “Do know God? What is that like for you?” People DO have answers to that question. Their answers are no less concrete than the question “Do you know joy? What does that feel like to you?” or “Do you know sorrow? What does that feel like to you?” We say we can study states of consciousness and emotion because they have physiological and psychological presence that we can describe and quantify. Well, a mystic in a trance, in communion with “God” has a different physiological and psychological presence. Does that mean that we must re-label “God” as an emotional or physical state? That we must describe what the mystic experiences as personal, instead of relational to some greater force? Why is reducing the experience of the vast and wonderful to the limits of our consciousness important when it is through that consciousness that we experience and interpret everything? Why does the experience of ideas small enough for us to “grasp” provide a “foundation” and “principle” for study while those more vast do not?
Theology is based upon the experience of the divine, the reflection upon its presence, and the description of it found in texts and sacred thought throughout history. Its principle is to help us relate to something greater than ourselves, and it holds a responsibility to liberate, uplift and care for one-another. In summary, I do not understand Paine’s statement. It seems little more than a reactionary criticism of what he fails to understand…and yeah, I know who he is. Great thinker. Due respect. Sure. Still, great thinkers can still be reactive, critical and condemning instead of illuminating and uplifting.