Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 2): The Role of Creative Thinking and the Gospel

Chapter 3: Resources for Theological Reflection

Our unique theological viewpoint should serve as a template that is overlaid upon our theological reflection and deliberation. These templates are patterns by which we view the world through Christian experience. Each person has his or her own one-of-a-kind theological template that comprises their embedded theology as well as certain themes and categories they feel personally inclined toward. It is the standard by which the rest of their theological experience is measured. Stone and Duke recall the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as primary resources for building a theological template—that is, the fourfold witness of experience, reason, tradition, and scripture. Each element must be tempered and balanced by the other three to construct a coherent theological template. Just how proportionately they are balanced, however, depends upon the individual.
            Though I have been aware of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral since I was a young teenager, I am only just beginning to consider what balance of authority I give to each of these resource elements. This is extremely important, since how one balances these resources determines their ultimate theological perspective. Too much emphasis on experience leads to extreme subjectivism, while too much emphasis on reason can cause one to cynically deny mystery. Too much tradition leads to empty, passionless theology (and worship), while too much scripture can lead one into “bibliolatry”.  In my own experience, I used to hold a theology that was about leaned very heavily on reason, a little less heavily experience, even less on scripture, and least of all on tradition. But now I am moving toward a more balanced perspective. I have grown to appreciate tradition, to doubt the extent of reason's usefulness as the sole arbiter of truth, and to be skeptical of my own personal experience (or lack thereof). I hope this act of balancing continues and eventually becomes a long-term trend that helps me to stabilize my theology and, ultimately, my humanity.
Chapter 4: Theological Method
Just as every good scientist makes use of the scientific method, every good theologian needs to develop a set of criteria for analyzing and evaluating where a particular theological claim finds its grounding, how that claim is valued among other claims, and which theological premises are to be taken as normative. To this end, Stone and Duke suggest that it is important for the Christian theologian to develop his or her own theological method (while taking cues from the methods of others). To do this, one must examine their “starting point”: do they approach theology from the perspective of human faith (anthropology) or from God’s message to the world (divine revelation)? While there are advantages and disadvantages to both, where one begins determines their ultimate approach to theology.
Next, those seeking deliberative theological reflection must pursue in their method a creative balance between sequential (linear) and parallel synthetic (abstract, big-picture) thought. The authors suggest a that a rudimentary method for theological deliberation calls for explicitly describing the issue being discussed in terms of the Christian message, analyzing this understanding of the issue to better understand its strengths and weaknesses, proposing an adequate solution to the problem, and supporting and explaining the solution in theological terms. Finally, in this chapter Stone and Duke lay the groundwork for the next three chapters that represent three distinct approaches (diagnostic exercises) for doing theological reflection.
            I am personally a more parallel synthetic thinker. I love to paint biblical theology in broad, empathetic tones that helps others see the beauty of scripture. When I was a youth pastor, the lead pastor of the church I was serving told me that there are “big picture” people and “detail” people, and the trick to accomplishing great things is to figure out how to pair these two kinds of people together. The same is true of theological reflection. Linear thinkers must train themselves in the discipline of abstraction and seeing the ultimate goal of their logical thinking, and parallel synthetic thinkers must likewise train themselves in the discipline of approaching and accomplishing their theological vision step-by-step.
Chapter 5: The Gospel
            This first of three approaches to theological reflection involves determining what the gospel is and what it means for a particular situation. Stone and Duke provide three primary questions as a starting point for approaching theological reflection in this manner: 1) What is the gospel? 2) How does the gospel reach people? 3) How do people receive the gospel and its benefits? How one answers these questions determines how one will approach the issue at hand theologically. “Coming to an understanding of the gospel’s meaning,” claim the authors, “is a bottom-line issue for every Christian theologian” (p.75). The case study of a couple from a church congregation presenting a self-help “refinding yourself” lecture at church represents just how a situation might be differently perceived depending on one’s own interpretation of the gospel.
            Answering these questions for myself is not simple. As my training is primarily in biblical studies, I am keenly aware of the sheer variety of views even (especially) within the biblical text itself. I agree with John Dominic Crossan that “good news is good news” and cannot be quantified in a way that means “good news for some, bad news for others.” Therefore, I try to approach the gospel holistically: it is the announcement that Christ, in his teaching, death, and resurrection, has been shown by God to be God’s hope for the potential of humanity. The gospel is that God had revealed for us in the risen Christ a liberating and reconciling force for both the oppressed and oppressors.

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