What Do You Do, Anyway?
My major in graduate school was systematic theology a field about as familiar to people as my first name. My mother was constantly asking me, Now what is it that you’re studying? It is about the Bible, right? Envying my fellow students in Old and New Testament and church history, I would stumble through technical definitions. These were inevitably forgotten or misunderstood, and I would be asked again at the next social occasion: What do you do again?
A similar problem surfaces when I make new acquaintances. After we exchange pleasantries, talk about the weather and the freeways, and so on, a familiar sequence begins: And what do you do? I’m a college teacher. Their eyes brighten. Oh! What subject do you teach? I can tell they’re hoping for one of the sciences. Theology. And then they’re stumped. No one has prepared them for how to exit gracefully from this kind of dialogue. I’m not passing out tracts; I’m not waving around a Bible; I seemed so normal! Social convention keeps either of us from asking or answering the question that would naturally come next in our post-Christian society: And what is theology?
It was in preparing my first introductory lecture that I finally figured it out. Theology is simple: It’s the discipline of envisioning everything in terms of God. Teaching theology is training people to think this way. As a professor of theology, my task is simple. I train people to think like Christians.
In uncountable ways, our world trains us to think otherwise: We put ourselves, or our countries, or our families, or our jobs first. We relegate the term God to the explicit language of Church or prayer, and leave God out of vast areas of our public and private lives. We take our eyes off Jesus Christ as the supreme guide to everything we know about God and about ourselves, and let other things take his place as our way, truth, and life. (The technical term for this is "idolatry.")
The de-centering forces in our lives are so powerful that we constantly need retraining in being Christian. Theology is the practice that disciplines us to get our thinking lives back on track. It isn’t just about memorizing the Bible or keeping the commandments or knowing what Jesus would do. It’s about recovering and discovering a tradition that can keep the Church alive and fruitful.
Training for Recovery and Discovery
Theology is about recovering the ways our spiritual ancestors centered the Church’s thinking on Jesus. Twenty centuries of Christians guide us in rethinking marriage and childrearing, the significance of ethnicity, the metaphysics of the universe, the meaning and use of money, the role of gender in human life, the uses and abuses of language, the claims of secular authorities, and practically everything else.
Theology is also about discovering new ways to center our thinking on Jesus. The same guides to the past are guides to negotiating the future faithfully. We need them to help us through the end of modernity and the rise of postmodernity, to make fruitful the lessons of science and the promise of new technology, to survive the rivalry of other religious traditions and the unprecedented power of global culture to domesticate and silence the Christian faith.
For any complex skill, we need training. Thinking like Christians is no different here than playing a sport or practicing a profession. To think like Christians, we need a vocabulary for talking about things like sin, grace, Jesus’ relationship to God, and the church’s place in the world. We need to understand the things Christians do (praying, repenting, witnessing, serving each other, singing, sacrificing our lives and our possessions, obeying and disobeying others as God requires, eating together, reading the texts God has inspired for us) and we need the disciplines that empower us to do them. We need to learn to tell good practice and thinking from poor practice and thinking. All these are resources theology offers the Church as it strives to live and think faithfully. (Like medical doctors, pastors and theologians will never work our way out of our jobs.)