It is worth asking just what our objectives might be, in engaging in conversation and honest thinking about life and faith. What are we trying to achieve?
One aspect of this question is quite personal: What motivates us in doing thinking about life and faith? What part of our life story has brought us to this enquiry, and so what questions or concerns need to be acknowledged and dealt with?
And how do we gather that story into the theological process?
For me, this is not simply about getting something off our chest, so to speak. We think and write in some sense for each other, towards a kind of community of understanding, even when we don’t always agree or share the same points of view.
I would suggest four things that theology might be seeking to do, in gathering in and including experience and story as part of its activity:
a. We might be seeking to name and to ‘resolve’ some life issues, some
deep and fundamental questions. This may be a very helpful thing:
especially if these issues are not just ‘my’ problems, but arise with
and for a community. Many theologies have arisen this way: liberation
theologies, Moltmann’s theology of the suffering God, etc.
b. We might be seeking to explain the world: here the desire to
understand drives theology for a ‘world-view’. This is what much
systematic theology has in the past sought to do: to explain how God is
the answer to everything, or the explanation of everything.
The difficulty with this approach is, first, that it seeks to know
everything, which no one can claim; or rather, no one should claim.
None of us in fact has a ‘god’s-eye view’ of everything.
A lot depends on how we understand this word ‘explain’: the word can in
some ways be used to express a kind of power relation, as if one group
is saying: ‘We (the church, theologians, Christians) have knowledge, we
have power to say what is real, or what is important, or what your
experiences really mean.’ If this is what we mean by saying that
theology seeks to explain the world, then it may not be a very helpful
On the other hand, if theology seeks to engage with real-life questions
and issues, and tries to offer constructive ways to see new
connections, relevance, and even fresh ways to work them through, then
this may be helpful.
The matter of suffering is I think a test case: does theology seeks to
‘explain’ suffering? If it does, does it seek to explain it away, as if
it is not a problem? This kind of explanation is in my view not helpful
and actually causes resentment and often a lot of misunderstanding. But
if theology seeks to engage with the question, to explore possible
perspectives and help people find ways to live with, engage with,
suffering and injustice, then it may not offer and adequate
‘explanation’ but it may provide some very helpful responses.
For me, the test here is whether an explanation approach leaves things
‘solved’ but still exactly how they were, or whether in some way
theology changes how things are for us, even when the situation may not
yet be radically different. Does theology offer the kind of
understanding which stands outside a problem or the understanding which
lives with the problem, in some constructive and perhaps transforming
c. A third element here concerns the pursuit of truth. There are some
thinkers who suggest that we should no longer speak of ‘truth’ at all.
No one can claim any knowledge or any truth.
While I think the de-constructivist questioning of truth claims has its
place, I don’t believe it means that we have to take a totally
relativist stance. We may not be in the position to know all the truth
but that does not mean that there is no truth. To claim that would
indeed be to claim an absolute truth.
If we assume some general willingness to seek ‘truth’, the question is
what for: what is the motivation for theology seeking the truth? Is it
to defeat error, to prove some people wrong?
Is this truth we seek a kind of possession?
Or is it, to use an ancient idea, that we seek to be the servant of the truth, not so much possessing it as possessed by it?
Do we seek the truth wherever it may lead us?
And what kind of truth is it we seek? Is it the truth of ideas, what we
might call knowledge as information, or do we seek truth as being,
truth which acts? The whole of the Gospel of John revolves around the
question of what kind of knowledge the Christ brings, the Word who
takes flesh: what kind of truth and knowledge does the gospel offer;
truth of knowledge as information, or truth of knowledge as being and
doing, in relationship?
d. Finally, I think there is an option which seeks to include all the
above, in constructive ways. Here theology seeks to engage with all of
life as related to God. This was the option at least proposed in
Tillich’s method of theology. Here mind and spirit, heart,
relationships, community, culture, hope, suffering: all are parts in
the stuff of theology; and this responding to God in all aspects is
part of the purpose, the understanding, the truthfulness that theology
Our own life story is then part of theology and is in a way shaped by whatever our theology is and becomes.