I Smell a Theological Rat!
Trawling idly through my Twitter timeline the other day I stumbled upon an interesting post that read, “God didn’t save you just so you could learn theology, he saved you so you can live out that theology experientially.” I should confess that I have heard this pithy little saying a handful of times from different sources, so it wasn’t new to me, but seeing it on Twitter got me mulling it over a bit (I resisted the urge to reply at the time simply because it’s better to think it through first!)
I guess a large part of the problem with things like this on Twitter is that the format leads inevitably to reductionism (how would Thomas Aquinas or Jean Calvin have survived in a digital age of 280 character chunks?) Nevertheless, I think I understand where this is coming from (there is more to the Christian faith than dry, lifeless articulation of doctrine) and where it is pointing (it is important to seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit). Yes and yes. I agree on both counts.
But…(and this is where Twitter just doesn’t serve us theologically) there may be some fairly hefty holes in this idea. First of all, on the basis of the Anselmian notion of theology as “Faith seeking understanding” it could be argued that God saved you precisely to learn theology- to learn to contemplate and enjoy the wonders of God. Theology can be dry and lifeless, but it does not have to be dry and lifeless (some of the most energised and exciting Christians I have met are the ones whose hearts and minds are engaged in a slow-burn, lifelong pursuit of the knowledge of God). Secondly, I am not very happy with the idea that all theology can be reduced to human “experience” (okay, the tweet didn’t say that exactly, but it didn’t not say it either, and that is a large part of the problem of theological tweeting). What I’m hinting at here is that in classical orthodox theology, there is a difference between God and human creatures- e.g. God is good, but he is not good in the same way as, say, my wife is good, because there is a fundamental difference of being between what is created and the uncreated creator, even though my wife’s goodness is a participation in the goodness of God in an analogical sense. Basically, what I am trying to say is that if there are things about God that we cannot truly know, express, and understand (and there are plenty), then at least some of our theology simply cannot be “lived out experientially” in the way I think is being suggested.* Thirdly, and closely related (and, I suspect, closer to the heart of the charismatic subtext of our tweet), it only seems to be a short hop from here to an over realised eschatology where all that is left to hope for in the age to come is more of the same (in both qualitative and quantitative terms). Finally, I wonder which theology or theologies are being privileged here? If all of our theology is going to be lived out experientially, then we had better get ready for some sharing in the death of the Messiah a la Philippians 3:10-11 or the darker, less popular half of Hebrews 11.
I smell a theological rat!
Aquinas spoke about the end (telos) of human existence as the beatific vision where we will see God’s essence, and yet still not understand God’s essence fully; even in our final beatific state, according to St Thomas, our theology will not be completely experiential! I am convinced of the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and I am equally convinced of the necessity of theology for the upbuilding and energising of the church as she shares in the mission of God. What I am not convinced by (did you pick that up, by the way?!?) is the subtle but dangerous insinuation that if it can’t be lived experientially, then it ain’t worth it.*
*This may be bringing us perilously close to what George Lindbeck called “experiential expressivism” (theology as primarily extrapolated from an experienced reality that does not take into account the complexity of how words shape experience in the first place). This, by the way, is my own terrible reduction of a complex argument found in Lindbeck’s “The Nature of Doctrine”
*This, of course, may not be what was intended, but if you are going to tweet that sort of thing…