“It is very strange. But we Christians often seem to be completely unconvinced of the power of thought with regard to our Christian faith.” (Karl Rahner)
I’m currently in my sixth year of studying academic theology. (I’ve posted before about how I ended up in this area.) Despite those inevitable moments of feeling tired of it all, on the whole I honestly can’t imagine doing anything more engaging. However, I’m all too aware that from the point of view of many Latter-day Saints, what I’m studying is worthless at best, and possibly even downright harmful. It’s nothing but the philosophies of the world, I repeatedly hear. It denies the value of revelation. And so on.
Obviously I don’t have a terribly objective perspective on this; it’s going to be no surprise to anyone that I think the subject is a worthwhile one to study. However, I have noticed that those who quickly dimiss theology aren’t always all that familiar with it.
A crucial point, I think, is that theology is second-order discourse. It’s a reflection on faith, and it draws on such sources as scripture, tradition, and experience. (The relative value of these sources varies, of course, depending on your denominational background and general outlook.) I think that many Latter-day Saints get nervous about theology because they see it as making truth claims equivalent to those of these primary sources, and therefore usurping the role of revelation. However, this is not how I understand the theological project. Theological reflection is dependent on these sources; it is not equivalent to them, or meant as a substitute for them.
Because of this, I don’t agree with the claim that theology is what happens in the absence of revelation. I don’t see how theology would even exist without revelation. This also means, I believe, that continuing revelation and theological reflection are quite compatible. From an LDS perspective, I don’t understand why continuing revelation would not be simply an additional source for theology. Nor do I see why continuing revelation would render theology unnecessary; we inevitably try to make sense of revelation in the context of our own experience–and to do that is to do theology.
One of the weaknesses of theology as it has often traditionally been done, I think, is an excessive tendency toward the abstract. My own view is that the real power of theology is actually in its connection to lived experience. As I see it, theological questions actually matter a great deal for the way in which I live my life: if I believe that God is involved in the minute details of the world or if I think God is more hands-off, if I believe that I have to acheive a certain level of goodness before grace will kick in, if I believe that freedom exists, how I make sense of evil–all of those have real implications for how I experience the world on a daily basis. Theology and praxis continually shape one another, as our beliefs influence our behavior and vice versa.
There are many things I enjoy about working in this field. But perhaps what I value the most about it is my sense that it’s a place where people combine serious faith commitments with a willingness to ask hard questions about their beliefs, which is something I really felt starved for when I was growing up. And though it’s certainly posed challenges to it at times, the study of theology has also tremendously enriched my own faith. The sentiment which I periodically encounter–that it’s no more than the uninspired speculations of those who lack access to real truth–hasn’t remotely matched my experience with the subject.
People occasionally ask me why Mormons don’t have much of a theological tradition. I don’t really know what to tell them. But I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t, and I’m encouraged to see indications that this might be changing. In the Middle Ages, theology was the queen of the sciences. My own hopes are rather more modest. I’d simply like to see it have a place at the table.