“To be Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions,” say Howard Stone and James Duke in the introduction to their fantastic little primer on How to Think Theologically. From the very beginning, the authors distinguish themselves from other theological writers by placing all Christian thinkers—from Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg to my grandpa Roger—in the same boat. The purpose of this book, write Stone and Duke, is not to dryly dictate a complex and incoherent systematic theology, but to focus instead on the everyday act of doing theology in our personal settings, a process they will refer to as a “trenches hermeneutic” in the final chapter. Doing theology, they say, requires sincere theological reflection and a faith that seeks understanding. Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts and reactions to each chapter of this excellent book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is suspicious of theology or thinks that they are not cut out for “doing theology.”
Chapter 1: Faith, Understanding, and Reflection
The authors begin their daunting task of teaching their readers how to think theologically by recognizing a few basic premises: all of our theological thinking is somewhat defined by the parameters of our upbringing, social context, and biblical/theological preconceptions—what Stone and Duke refer to as “embedded theology”. However, while our embedded theologies may give our faith and beliefs a general shape, we should not be confined to them. Instead, we should continually challenge and question our preconceived theologies to instead produce a theology that is deliberative in nature—an “understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions” (p.16). A deliberative theology carefully weighs all sides of a given issue that demands theological reflection. It requires setting aside biases in favor of theological conscientiousness.
The obvious real-world example of embedded theology is readily visible as religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalist who clings to an embedded theology of a literal six-day creation bristles at the notion of divinely inspired biological evolution, claiming, “If part of the Bible is wrong, then it’s all wrong!” But in my own experience I have come to find that embedded theology is everywhere, regardless of whether one is a hyper-conservative fundamentalist or a super-liberal relativist. My own gut reaction in the past has been to disregard those issues that prove to be classic challenges to theological liberalism—Did the resurrection really happen? Is there a literal Hell, and do “non-believers” really go there? Can and do miracles actually occur?—by claiming that Christian theology is really just all about love and forgiveness, and all those other nice things. But at a certain point in my seminary career I began to have those biases challenged. If we cling to such warm-and-fuzzy notions as the “real” Christian theology, what is to separate us as Christians from, say, a friendly atheist who holds the same values? I am now beginning to deliberate my theological views on such questions, but have yet to find a solid answer.
Chapter 2: Fashioning Theology
In this chapter, Stone and Duke explain how a Christian might get to work constructing (fashioning) a deliberative theology. Every theologian, they argue, performs the three tasks of “interpreting the Christian faith, correlating those interpretations with other interpretations, and assessing the adequacy of the interpretations and their correlations” (p.27). In other words, for any given issue requiring theological reflection, the Christian who hopes to exercise a deliberative theology must ask themselves what they believe, how that belief is reconciled to other perspectives of belief (even—especially—within one’s own theological worldview), and whether or not that belief is sufficient to answer the theological issue at hand. We do this by considering the interpretation’s appropriateness or faithfulness to the Christian message, its intelligibility (i.e. it has to make sense to other Christians), its moral integrity or ethicality, and its reasonable validity.