A Minor Contribution to, “Theology: Does It Matter?”

Tony SigIt can be quite easy to remain in a state of oblivion to a wider world around you if one spends much of their time around people who value and assume the same things as you.  I had not realized it, but with respect to theology, I had come to such a point.

One day I was working on my wife’s salon (Salon Ori, whoop whoop) with my Aunt.  Now my aunt is a very intelligent Evangelical woman and has been a Christian her whole life.  She was painting mirror frames and I was putting together standing-cabinets and I was recalling to her a conversation I had overheard where one of the party had said something to the effect of, “What’s the point of a theologian anyway?”  I recalled this story with a blatant guffaw in my voice; the tone implying that such a question was obviously stupid and ignorant.  But to my own humility my aunt looked at me and replied genuinely, “What is the point?”

I didn’t really have a coherent answer.  Indeed, I’ve been thinking about that ever since.  I needed to be able to explain to someone not only why theology is important, but why theologians (I sort of plan to sort of be one) might be justifiable.  I shall briefly give two simple examples that I hope will make a simple and quite incomplete case for the importance of theology.

There is a famous scene in Plato’s Republic where “The Perfectly Just Man” is being described.  Plato is attempting to tease out whether justice is something that ought to be sought and obeyed for itself alone or for the benefits, perceived or otherwise, that it will bestow on society or ones family.  In the end, Plato imagines that this Just man would be ridiculed, scorned and finally crucified (the parallel has not been lost on Christians) for the “trouble” he would cause to society.  Plato almost certainly had his beloved Socrates in mind here and Plato’s own final verdict is that justice (and all things which are good ultimately) are in themselves worthy to pursue and need no justification.

Or take for instance the Roman Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh.  Here is a man who has been a primary editor for the massively influential, creative and sometimes utterly abstract theological journal Modern Theology; he has written a powerful book on Torture and Eucharist;” he has contributed to inter Roman Catholic discussions on ecclesiology and ecumenism; all very academic and “ivory towered” things:  Yet he also wrote a tiny little book on  the relation between economics and the Church which is easy to understand, filled with practical examples of how to practice his ideas and theologically rich.

As I see it, Theology is uniquely equipped to speak to most academic and truth-seeking conversations in an infinitely inter-disciplinary way.  Therefore, Theology is a vital and irreplaceable discourse in all searching after those things which are true and good, and so it needs no justification, no measurable utilitarian value.  It is right and good for its own sake.

Also, Theology does not always lead to arguments about “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.”  It is highly questionable that Cavanaugh could have written his simple little book had he not spent all this time in serious and critical reflection on the Church.  I’ll agree wholeheartedly, that there is often a great gulf between what goes on in some theological journals and what the parish needs.  But to dismiss theology as some do, with a casual and ungrateful wave of the hand, having laid on theology all blame for our divisions, is to make a mistake.  Let us not cut the head from the heart (so to speak), for the Church needs eyes, it needs hands, and perhaps, it even needs theologians.

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5 Comments

  1. In the Church and in the world, it is important that we think about how we think and speak of God: theologians help the Church and the world understand how it is that they (and the Tradition) think and speak of God. I like to think that theologians are in the service of the Church. Rather than telling the Church how it is to think and speak of God, it helps the Church understand how and why it is that it even dares to think or speak of God in the first place—maybe.

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  2. … Theology is uniquely equipped to speak to most academic and truth-seeking conversations in an infinitely inter-disciplinary way.

    This is true. I just finished a class on major critical theories (in pursuit of an English degree). The theories and theorists presented in the class came from a variety of disciplines: literature, philosophy, sociology, politics, theology. But many concepts and structures were familiar to me from what little theology I’ve read, so I had an easy time of it. I was also prepared for the kind of critical thinking, close reading, textual analysis, and cultural criticism that the class called for, since theology involves all of these practices.

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