Ten Disciplines for a Deeper Theological Life
By Karen Petersen Finch, Ph.D., M.Div.
In fall 2014, I spent four months in dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians at Boston College. In addition to being accomplished scholars and generous people, my dialogue partners were students of Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian who died in 1984. One lesson to which Lonergan always returned was the value of self-awareness in theology. In any given moment, as we think and talk about God, are we interpreting Scripture; are we remembering history; are we answering difficult questions? In other words, theology is a blend of interrelated tasks; we need to know what they are so that we can do them more effectively. It isn't only academic theologians who need this self-awareness, for everyone who thinks about God engages in at least some of these disciplines.
Following are 10 disciplines for theologians – and for laypeople, clergy and academics –that can provide the "bone structure" of a deeper theological life.
- Scripture plus one: In addition to making reading the Bible part of our everyday experience, it is enriching to have at least one seasoned theological "voice" walking through Scripture with us. Add one theologian to your daily reading, if only just a few sentences.
- Sharpen your grasp of Christian history: To me, the fact that the Gospel has produced the same challenges and errors over and over again in history is evidence of its truth. Christians before us have crafted thoughtful answers to such questions as, "Is Jesus fully divine?" They knew the pressures of thinking theologically in times of conflict. We need the same skills today.
- Identify your interpretive tendencies: Do you tend to unite the Testaments in your theological thinking or do you find that you separate them? Do you interpret the more difficult passages by means of the more straightforward ones? In any case, whatever your tendencies are, know what they are so that you can replace them with better ones if needed.
- Engage with the "other": As the boundaries of Christendom shift and change around us, believers who are at home in more than one tradition will be increasingly valuable to their communities. And there is no better way to know your own tradition's theology than to compare or contrast it with the traditions of other Christians.
- Be aware of the connections between your personal history and your theology: Iris Murdoch, the Irish novelist, once said, "To understand a philosopher, know what he fears." The same is true for theology. We are all drawn to certain theological positions in part because of our histories, our wounds and our joys. To be aware of this makes us infinitely more teachable.
- Be consciously Christocentric: Resolve to know "nothing but Christ and Christ crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2). When I teach on the character of God, we look at God's classical perfections – justice, mercy, holiness, patience – and then we do an exercise to demonstrate that all of God's attributes are evident in the cross. Not one is missing.
- Be consciously Trinitarian: Theology is organic by nature. The position you take on one topic will affect the positions that you take overall. Therefore, if you have a robust Trinitarian theology, those connections are more likely to be healthy connections and not confused ones.
- Don't be afraid to come to conclusions: Our cultural moment is characterized by polarization. We are afraid to speak definitively about what we believe, with the result that we may not say anything at all. It is possible – and very Christ-like – to have convictions but to hold them with humility. And because this attitude is rare today, it is all the more winsome to unbelievers.
- Monitor your lived theology: If I talk about humility in an arrogant way, that's not winsome at all. I need someone else to tell me when my lived theology is in conflict with what I speak and write.
(This is what university colleagues are for, but friends and family do just as well.)
- And finally, last and first, pray: There is no true theology without prayer. Prayer transforms us over time so that our theology may become an expression of wholeness/holiness. Theology limps after Spirit-directed prayer, which beholds God as God is: So pray.
Karen Petersen Finch is an assistant professor of theology at Whitworth. She was awarded a fall 2014 postdoctoral research fellowship at the Lonergan Institute at Boston College, in Boston, where she studied John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, and the doctrine of the church.