Has theology become too introspective?

head-up-assEarlier this evening Steve Hayes complained, “Theology has become too introspective, talking about itself and its future,” and sadly, I agree.

The prompt for Steve was a Christian synchroblog on health care, which he felt was too vegetarian, lacking theological meat. In particular he said, “When a group of Christians write about Christian approaches to health care, theology has nothing to say to them. The voices of politics and economics speak louder.” What does attract theologians? According to Steve, internal squabbles.

In many ways these comments mirror some of my own frustrations with the Christian blogosphere. When I casually mention squabbles around abortion or homosexuality, my stats jump. When I critically ask, how do you think about prayer and meditation theologically, or experience and emotion theologically, or other religions theologically, my stats drift in the duldrums. You’d think I would have learned by now and shifted focus significantly! But no, I feel that would be too much of a sell out.

You see for me, being committed to a more holistic kind of Christianity, for me heart and mind must be in sync. I think it’s essential to be able to pray thoughtfully and think prayerfully, to develop a practically-tested theology and theologically-sound practice, to blend high religion with folk religion. This gulf between introspective theology and unreflective practice in contemporary church culture simply galls.

And you know what’s even worse? Having noted how they like Jesus but not the church, what has been the practical effect of the emerging church conversation? An increased emphasis on ecclesiology! GRRRRRR!!!! And an expansion of the Christianese dialect! ????? Like we needed that!

How about for once we lay off deconstructing the church … and dive into deconstructing the state … and the cultural and religious milieu we live in?

22 thoughts on “Has theology become too introspective?

  1. Jarred says:

    I wonder if this is partly due to the fact that many people find theology — or at least talking about it — intimidating. Often, theology is presented as this huge, monumental thing, and often the realm of academic types. With that image in mind, I think it’s sometimes hard to muster the courage to offer a theological opinion.
    That and I think that thinking and talking in terms of a theology is a learned skill, and one that probably isn’t taught well. Even reading over Steve’s blog post about this topic, I found myself admitting that I never thought about the Bible passages he mentions in the way he presents them before. And I find myself wondering why. Am I just a bad theologian? (See how that whole intimidation/fear things works?)
    I also admit that I often shy away from your theological posts about experience, prayer, and meditation. This is because, well, I’m not a Christian so I can’t really offer a Christian perspective or really speak to one very well. So I find it hard to comment, personally.
    I think these are all issues that need to be tackled and addressed effectively if there’s going to be any hope of making theology less introspective.
    By the way, I love the image you picked for this post. I think you may be one of the few Christians I know who’s willing to express the problem so…graphically. 😉

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  2. Matt Stone says:

    Jarrod
    Personally I think “theology” is another one of those words that’s way too weighed down with cultural barnicles. If you break it down, “theos” is Greek for god and “logos” is Greek for logic, so theology literally means nothing more or nothing less than “thoughts about God”. It’s not the exclusive province of academics. On the contrary, anyone who thinks about Spirit or spirituality is a theologian, whether they recognize it or not. The question then becomes, do we do it well or not so well? What I am suggesting above is that lay and academic theologicans both have some work to do. Christian academics need to get their collective heads out of their … conferences … and Christian communities need to become more reflective.
    With yourself, being a Pagan, this raises a number of interesting issues. Firstly, is theology only something you do when engaging with Christians? Given the above definition I would say, unlikely. That’s the same as asking if you only “think” around Christians, which, properly understood, should come across as somewhat insulting to an intelligent guy like yourself. Pagans have their own theology, whether they call it that or not, though I think its interesting that some Pagans actually speak of “thealogy” as the Pagan equivalent. But consider, what is magical theory if not Pagan style theology? Secondly, given that, I would ask what is your starting point for thinking about divinity? From my experience, Pagans start from ritual experience and anthropology and other stuff, which are very different starting points from the evangelical Christian. That creates some challenges. Thirdly, does this mean Pagans get let off the theological hook in interfaith conversations? Unfortunately no. Mutual understanding requires we both go deeper into each others thinking. The plus for you is, I have the same obligation with respect to Paganism.
    Which leads me to your other comments. I agree theology / Christian thinking isn’t taught well. It’s hardly surprising that Pagans struggle with it when so many Christians do it so poorly themselves. Like asking for directions from a lost man. The problem becomes most acute with such foundational questions as: how does the Old Testament and New Testament relate to one another? When Christians say the New takes priority over the Old but simultaneously quote the 10 Commandments as the foundation for Christian ethics, well, how contradictory is that? No wonder we sometimes get in such a muddle over ethical issues.
    But the problem is deeper. There seems to be some sort of fundamental disconnect between biblical thinking and practical thinking amongst many Christians. Much talk about prayer is grounded in anecdotal stories and home spun wisdom, with the Bible only referred to for proof texting purposes if at all. What makes such prayer biblical? Conversely, how many professional theologians, who haven’t working in the real world in years, have been bothered to develop a theology of work? You know, the place where most of us spend most of our waking hours? Where is the insightful teaching on business ethics and God in the ordinary? No, not for them, they’d much rather wax elloquantly on Sunday service recontextualization based on readings on Cuputo. Bah!
    The people trained to think don’t apply it. The people who need to think don’t have the training.
    Why I like to converse with people like you though, you’re a reality check. It doesn’t matter you don’t have the Biblical training, what matter is that you ask the honest questions.
    Matt

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  3. Jarred says:

    Oh, you’re right. I certainly think about theology at other times. I like to think that my blog posts tends to wax theological on a semi-regular basis. In fact, it’s something that I want to explore more regularly.
    I’m not sure how many of your other questions I should answer in a comment or how deeply. I may noodle it overnight and try to make a blog post or two out of my answers.
    And as always, I appreciate your honest answers to my honest questions.

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  4. fernando says:

    What role does location play in this. I would agree that many “theologians” are consumed by internal squabbles. But ,that is not surprising because most “theologians” are employed either by denominations and thus thrust into denominational politics, or by universities and thus compelled to feed discipline-specific controversies as a way to create publications and attract students.
    As for Pastors – well too few of them are really trained to be theologians and many that are are not given the time to enter that mode.
    I know that’s all a little harsh, cynical and simplistic. But, every time I come back to the problems you outlined (and that I agree with) it makes me think about this location problem.

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  5. Matt Stone says:

    Fernando, I agree location is a contributing factor, but I can’t help feeling many pastors palm off their leadership responsibilities. I have no formal theological training, yet I accept the challenge. I expect those who do have formal theological training to do likewise to the best of their ability. Maybe that’s harsh but I’m not going to let them off too lightly.

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  6. tikno says:

    Many people say that in following the civilization, theology tends to run in place and just look back from historical, while science is always evolving toward progress.

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  7. Matt Stone says:

    How do you define progress? Was the atomic bomb progress? Many would also say the Enlightenment dream of progress has turned into a nightmare. And why should theology follow civilization?

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  8. Jarred says:

    Ah yes, the old “science vs. religion” false dichotomy raises its ugly head again. Personally, even as a Christian, I never fully understood this whole concept.
    Science and theology are two rather different disciplines with two rather different goals. The former attempts to explore and explain the observable world around us and how it works. The latter explores the nature of God (or divinity or spirit or what have you) and what the implications of this are for humans and life. The idea that one is better than or can somehow supersede the other is bizarre.
    This isn’t to say there aren’t overlaps or areas in which cross-discipline consideration and discussion is necessary. Quite the contrary. For example, some of science’s findings often have theological implications. New understandings of how the world works requires us to consider how we should apply that understandings and live accordingly. And those are the kinds of questions science can’t answer directly, but must offer up to the philosophers and theologians.

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  9. Matt Stone says:

    I don’t understand the dichotomy either. For me it’s like asking, what’s more foundational: truth, goodness or beauty? Why, they are all foundational!
    Science enquires as to what “is”, but it is incapable of answering what “should” be. Religion looks deeply into “why” but not so much into the “how”. Yet these are all legitimate questions.

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  10. John says:

    Of course the common feature of all theology is that it is all written by “sinners”. And is therefore essentially a description of the person writing it and their fragmented point of view. Humpty Dumpty.
    So how profound could any of it possibly me?

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  11. alouw says:

    I think everyone has a theology even if they are atheists. the concern is that it is the laity that perpetuates the current trends as well. they are comfortable being entertained from the pulpits and many dont want responsibility that they “pay” their pastors for. I have very little theological training if doing a vocational course which i still need to finish is anything to go by. so i think that people it seems are intelligently lazy because if it isnt learning general history to being entertained in the church and with the lack of ministers nowadays, people cant really afford to be complacent, but i am always looking to learn more. sorry i m in a bit o hurry.

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  12. Matt Stone says:

    Oh yes, some have spoken of atheology as the atheist equivalent. And I agree it’s a two way street, that lay Christians perpetuate the gap every bit as much as Christian leaders. We have to get beyond this intellectually apathetic, entertainment driven mindset. God is not here for our amusement.

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  13. fernando says:

    Matt, whilst most pastors have formal training, I’m not sure many of them are trained to do theology. I’m not talking about “academic theology” (for that almost no pastors are trained), but rather theology in the sense of a sustained, critical and “encyclopedic” discussion of the application of dogma to everyday life.
    What most pastors get from their theological education are tools that could be applied towards doing theology, but have actually been assembled for the task of “running a church,” which is not the same thing.

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  14. Matt Stone says:

    I agree doing theology and doing church are not the same thing, but I struggle to see how either can be done properly in isolation from each other. Thinking and practice should be mutually supporting don’t you think?

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  15. Jim says:

    Matt, nice riff.
    I don’t think the introspective/objective divide is solvable. Except in the Spirit. As a Singularity. Another matter, for another time. We work, put food on the table, party, pray, go on. Introspective features provide variations in subjective experience which can be mocked up into objective agreements for work. Or other things. If parties are willing. If not, move on.
    About your stats going in waves: take a peek at some of the scientific literature on peer review which places metrics (stats) as the lowest value in rank among all the other things which count in the larger equation of learning and teaching,. And in developing relationships.
    I agree with you about Christian-ese. It’s all inclusive babble. Writing about new things is the proxy for doing. But if they’re having fun, then don’t crash the party.
    I come from a perspective of being baptized daily in drenching praxes. Four of them. In which I feel the Spirit constantly. For which I’m grateful. Taking time like this to talk about mission is a luxury. Introspection is a grand vacation. From drowning in mission. So many believers are dying to get into mission. I’m dying to get out: for a moment or two. That said, my greatest disappointment with the idolatry and worship of endless emergent novelty in theology (or in orthodox halt functions of endless formulae) is that too much of these theologies is – useless. For practice. Trivially helpful. Fun to read. Otherwise, useless. This theological stuff has value primarily to authors exploring their worlds. Introspectively.
    Perhaps I need a dose of your holism. Or your optimism for it. Because I think early Christians learned everything they needed to know in a day. And all the rest was addiction to obedience to the Spirit. And nothing more. Well, maybe some fun.
    Cheers,
    Jim

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  16. Matt Stone says:

    Jim, I am not seeing it as a subjective versus objective thing so much as a culturally empathetic verses culturally naive thing. You can still be quite subjective about politics and culture. If church is to be missional community then I think there’s a call to confront the excessive introspection and recognize it for what it is. I am not against introspection, I just think its gone too far.
    Also, don’t think I am saying theology is introspective by definition. No, theology can be both inward looking and outward looking. In fact, in suggesting we watch out doctrine and our life, the apostle Paul affirmed sound theology is essential for sound mission. What I am calling for here is sounder theology so we can be more effective missionally.

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  17. Jim says:

    Matt, perfect reply.
    I felt that same way after I posted and went on my way. That your focus pressed on the introspective issue. Not on the subjective v. objective divide. I agree that introspection is a matter of a how-much-is-healthy spectrum. I have no fast solutions for your other focus on calibrating sound theology to effectiveness in mission. Mainly because so many catch-phrase formulas about mission sound awesome. At a general level. And get illusive and hard to apply in practice on the street.
    Back to your valid criticism about excessive introspection at the expense of mission. I thought about Peter sitting on his rooftop (a sometimes ANET symbol of seasons of introspective prayer) arguing against the Spirit’s mission to Cornelius. This text has probably been overworked in ‘missional’ circles (and I just don’t know it).
    Introspective-Peter arguing introspectively against the Spirit counter-introspecting Peter on the safe and above-it-all rooftop of Peter’s introspection.
    What’s funny about this incident is how Peter had a pre-existing and well developed “theology” all ready to justify his introspective defenses against the Spirit! And what’s worse – Peter considered his pre-existing theology quite “effective” and not needing any improvement in Peter’s missional-mind. No less, the Spirit telling Peter what to do in mission, thank you. Later, when the Spirit falls on Cornelius’s house before Peter gets much good theology done, then Peter is surprised. Surprised by meeting – the Spirit – inside the mission itself. And not alone on the rooftop of sanguine introspection.
    Meanwhile, the good old orthodox boys back home in Jerusalem have introspective problems of their own – is Peter ortho or heterodox? Peter almost apologizes. He’s arguing that the Spirit is a wee bit bigger than their pre-formulated theology. What – eight or more years later? – Peter and the boys from Jerusalem are still struggling with it in Galatia.
    I think this sort of riff on Peter is a little closer to what you had in mind.
    Peace,
    Jim

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  18. Matt Stone says:

    Yes, that’s more what I had in mind. And I think you’ve just shown ones of the ways to get past catch phrase formulas. Sometimes a story says it so much more effectively, not least because it captures the ambiguities and paradoxes of the process.

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  19. fernando says:

    Matt, I may have explained myself poorly. Yes, “thinking and practice should be mutually supporting.” But, frankly, when I went through theological training I didn’t see much training for “thinking,” I saw training for (a narrowly defined sense of) practice.
    That’s part of my point. It seems a lot of people “in the churches” think pastors have been trained to do theology and have the time to do it. My view is they should (on both counts) but they don’t and they don’t (on either).
    The way I see the connection between the missional thing and pastors is kind of simple. Imagine the congregation (in a Baptist sense of the word) as a circle. Where is the pastor, in the middle or near the edge. I think they should be near the edge. What questions will that location beg of their doctrine in the course of everyday conversation?
    That’s their theology. Is that introspective or not? I don’t know, but I do not that is not internally-focussed, which is what most Pastors are actually called to be: congregation-centred.
    Does that make things any clearer?

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  20. Sally says:

    Interesting points fernando, but there is hope, as a newly trained Methodist Minister in the UK I have both been trained in doing theology ( MA Level) and been freed to do it. This means enabling a shift in the thinking of the church to embrace every member ministry- which is theology initself.
    I do think we make a mistake though when we hive of theology as a work of accademic, it needs to be a practitioners work- Christiand and Non Christian.

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