This is the third part in a three part series exploring I why call myself the DesperateTheologian. Parts one and two can be found by clicking on the links. I am probably the world’s most sporadic blogger, so this series has been extended over quite some time. A large reason for my blogging unreliability I think has come from not really knowing what I wanted to do with this blog. I do aim to start posting regularly. However, I don’t make any definitive promises and I hesitate to specify what ‘regularly’ means – life does tend to happen you know. In this post I have three main aims. The first is to pick up where I left off with the “Concluding Theological Primer” in part two and to share some more thoughts about how I see theology and my general theological agenda (this makes up the bulk of the post). The second is to give some ideas as to what I want to do with this blog. And the third is to give the reader some idea what they may find here.
[Note: Some of this a repeat from post two. My plan is to edit all three parts together into a single piece and post it in the ‘WhyDesperateTheologian’ page to the right and tab up above.]
Captured by the Triune God – Theology as Spirituality
In part two of ‘Why DesperateTheogian’ I shared about the deep struggle with doubt and grief in the wake and midst of Christie and I losing three of our babies to miscarriage (there were also a couple of devastating failed adoptions during this time – long stories I won’t go into here). It was in the midst of this journey through doubt and grief that I sensed within me a growing desperation. To be honest this sense of desperation is hard to pin down and describe. The best way I can describe it is that I was desperate in the same way that a suffocating or drowning person is desperate for air or in the same way that a starving person is desperate for food. The only thing was, at the time, in the midst and depth of the grief and doubt, I had a very hard time specifying what I was desperate for (I gave a list in part two but it’s important to note that this list is the product of subsequent reflection over time). What I did know was that my formerly propositionalist theology was not really much of a help. I see it as an act of divine providence then that I came across Stanley Grenz, who remains my favorite theologian.
Grenz presents us with a theology that is intentionally structured and shaped by the triune reality of God in which trinitarian concerns are not relegated to a footnote or single section in a systematic theology but instead permeates all areas of theology. It is in Grenz’s writings that I discovered the idea of perichoresis, or (all too briefly defined here) our participation in the divine trinitarian life of God, articulated first by the church fathers but seemingly lost in modern theology. I found that trinitarian theology (and the reality of participation in the triune life) spoke directly to my grief and doubt. I found trinitarian theology to be immensely practical while at the same time not sacrificing, well, the theological. In fact, through my study of trinitarian theology I became convinced more than ever of the overwhelming majesty, beauty, and sovereignty of God even in the midst of my doubt and grief. In the process I found a desperation for God (as triune) I had not known previously. In fact, it was if my desperation was being transformed – from that of the loss of hope to that of the finding of the ultimate ground of hope and the longing for deeper participation in the divine life. Though hurting, grieving, and doubting I was like a moth led the flame. In essence I went in search of a theology, and a way of doing theology that would give me some answers and alleviate my desperation, only to have my desperation transformed in the (re)discovered of the triune God.
In this sense trinitarian theology has also played a large role in the shaping of my spirituality into what is a trinitarian spirituality that is bound up within and can not be separated from trinitarian theology. I make no claim to have captured all of who God is; instead quite the opposite. I have been captured by the triune God. Some may feel that captured is too strong of a word here, perhaps to Calvinistic even. However, in my experience it fits perfectly. You see, in the depth of my grief, doubt, and despair I was quite helpless and powerless. I had no strength left to hold on to God on my own. I had to give up any pretense I ever may have had about ‘holding on to God’ in my own strength, capturing God, or making sense of things through a theological system alone. No, as I look back the only thing that held me (us really, myself and Christie) together and in place, as it were, was the grace and triune love (perichoresis) of God. I found that despite my lack of strength, this was a love that would not let me go.
The Nature of Theology
Theology and spirituality must be interwoven into the same fabric. Theology happens not through the mere systemization of propositions but when one ceases trying to capture God and is instead, having been drawn in by inexhaustible love and grace, captured by God. Apart from its divine source theology is really a rather weak thing. The would be theologian should be aware that theology is not something to be used to control God. Much of modern theology has been concerned with formulating doctrines through rationalistic methods, boiled down into the form of propositional statements, which are then formally systematized. Theology done (up)rightly should recognize that doctrines are not and can never become an end unto themselves without significant theological distortion and reduction. While, negatively, we can certainly avoid saying false things about God, as well as positively saying many true things, what we say will always have a sense of inadequacy. The triune reality of God is more grand and mysterious than any proposition can communicate. This is not a Sherlock Holmes type mystery that we solve by the use of our rational powers alone. God is not a puzzle that we find the answer too. In reference to the triune mystery the key words are not ‘problem solving’ or ‘sytematics’ but drawing, relational participation, and indwelling. We speak of God, not in the pretense of having God figured out, but because we can not remain silent about the triune God revealed to us ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit. What must be understood is that what we call doctrines only function properly if the would be theologian is willing to hear from God. One should never confuse doctrinal formulation for either theological or spiritual depth. The intertwining of theology and spirituality ought to lead us to the intertwining of deepening knowledge of God with deepening communion of God which is expressed in a holistically embodied theological existence.
In contrast to the rationalistic, propositional, and systematic expression of theology found throughout much of modern theology I find it helpful to speak of the nature of theology in other terms as well. It is important to note here that rationality (or the use of reason), systematics, nor propositions are bad in and of themselves. They only become problematic when theology is reduced to these things as theology’s sum and substance instead of viewing them in a more holistic manner. Thus, contra the reductionism of rationalistic, propositional, and systematic modern theology I prefer to see theology as:
Not merely rational but…
- relational – flowing from and embodied in communion with God and others, conversational in nature.
- reverential – theology done under God’s sovereignty for God’s glory alone.
- reserved – recognizing our own limits and the irreducible nature of God’s truth, epistemic and theological humility.
Not merely propositional but…
- phronetic – practical wisdom expressed in ‘fitting’ theological virtues enabling us to make ‘fitting’ theological judgements about the true, the good, and beautiful.
- prosaic – practical wisdom that is incarnated in everyday life, theology that can move from the prose of Scripture to the prose of contemporary culture.
- perichoretic – theology that above all else finds it ground, grammar, and goal in the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit.
Not merely systematic but…
- situational – the recognition that all theology arises within and must be ‘situated’ in particular forms of life and cultural contexts.
- systemic – each aspect of theology is interrelated, intertwined, and interwoven with all the others and can not be neatly separated but must be considered in relation to each other.
- story centered – realizing the importance of narrative context and situatedness for the theological task, the central narrative being the narrative of Christ.
The Shape of the Theological Task
Here I repeat something that I’ve said often in other contexts: we are all theologians. In one sense we are all theologians because we all believe something about God (“theo-logy” literally means “words about God” or “teaching about God”). But we are also all theologians in how we live (our narratives), not just what we say (our propositions). Our lives are inherently theological! The question is what kind of theologians we are going to be. This brings us back, I believe, to the interdependent and interwoven character of theology and spirituality. Theology is about making us into a particular kind of people…or if you will; a particular kind of theologian – the kind that love (up)rightly, as well as know (up)rightly and do (up)rightly. The task of theology itself is a kind of spiritual discipline that is just as much an art (if not more) as it is Wissenschaft. The task of theology is a kind of spiritual discipline involving just as much prayer and contemplation (again, if not more) as academic study, a discipline that weaves these things together into the tapestry of life. The kind of spiritual formation resulting from such discipline is, then, our continued response to the reality of being captured in and by God’s triune love and grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world and God’s mission in the world. Such formation involves the transformation of the whole person for the purpose of embracing one’s role in the grand theo-dramatic narrative of redemption and has its source in the divine life of God. As such it can be nothing other than wholly theo-logical!
To this end of forming and shaping us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ are the development of theological virtues such as humility, trust, receptivity, and patience (and we could name others), but the one that stands out to me the most (perhaps because it seems to be in such short supply these days) is the virtue of wisdom. These theological virtues not only work to shape us into ‘particular kinds of theologians’ but in turn also shape the way we carry out the theological task. Theology is not just about producing really smart people. Rather it is a discipline of wise discernment which leads to wise living as well as the development of what I like to call fitting ‘theological instincts’ which contribute to what I referred to above as a ‘holistically embodied theological existence’ lived to the glory of the triune God.
Such a theological vision will necessarily emphasize the interdependency of theology and praxis. The dominate model it seems in modern theology has been to split or divide theology per se (which is viewed as a kind of theory that is usually propositional) and praxis (as represented by ministerial or ecclesial practice). In this, the theory and praxis are treated as rather distant cousins that one must choose between. However, I do not believe this should be the case. Theory and praxis should never be divorced, dichotomized, or bifurcated from each other, for while they are both distinct expressions, theory and praxis are both endemic to the theological task and intertwined with each other. Ultimately, the interplay of (up)right loving (orthokardia, being), (up)right knowing (orthodoxy, thinking), and (up)right practice (orthopraxis, doing) contribute a holistic theological hermeneutic for life itself. In view of this I have taken to theologian Miroslav Volf’s view of seeing the task of theology as involving a whole way of life. Most specifically I have come to see theology as my/our participation in the divine, trinitarian life of God that is trinitarian, narrative, and missional in nature.
The shape this theological praxis takes is first of all trinitarian. Though it may seem a rather obvious thing, the triune God must be the center of theological discourse. However, God as Trinity went conspicuously absent in much of modern theology. One of the most important theological tasks I believe is the re-discovery, re-embracing, and re-living of a robustly trinitarian faith. In particular, a theology of participation is a trinitarian undertaking flowing from the triune identity of God as the ground, grammar, and goal of all theology. It is connected to the divine life (the perichoresis of which Father, Son, and Spirit are all communal participants) having been drawn into this participation in the divine, triune life ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. The Christian life is nothing other than participation in the trinitarian praxis of God.
Second, this theological praxis takes on a narrative shape. Such a participation in God can only be expressed in narrative form by participating with God in the grand, triune theo-dramatic narrative in the world. An important theological task here is to re-member, re-connect, and re-flect on the narrative dimension of theology. Here theology is not so much about the systematization of propositions but instead involves the interplay of the biblical narrative as the norming norm of theology, church tradition as the hermeneutical trajectory of theology, and culture as the embedding context of theology. A theology of dramatic, participative narrative theological praxis works to connect us with God’s very life as well as draw us, within our own particular narrative and cultural contexts, into the wider triune theo-dramatic narrative revealed to us within the biblical narrative ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, this theological praxis takes on a missional shape. Trinitarian praxis and narrative praxis find further expression in missional praxis. As God is active in the world, He is shown to be the missional God who calls His people into not only dramatic participation in His narrative but into missional participation and praxis, which must be grounded in the divine life (perichoresis) of the missional God. Theology as a way of life then is participation in the triune life and praxis of God that brings us into participation in God’s triune narrative and sends us outward in missional praxis to the world ‘in Christ’ and through the Holy Spirit. It is here, in the area of missional praxis (connected to and flowing from trinitarian and narrative praxis), that the church is faced with the need for wise contextualization. An important theological task here is for the church to re-think, re-form, and re-imagine its ecclesial, missional, and (flowing from this) incarnational presence. As a result we can not divorce the theological task from the ecclesial context. As such theology should never be done in the ‘ivory tower,’ but must always be ‘ecclesial’ in nature, contributing to the trinitarian, narrative and missional praxis of the church. The church, in my view, should be a missional community of missional theologians who worship the one, true missional God.
To summarize then, I have come to see theology as both personal and corporate (ecclesial) participation in the divine triune life of God that is characterized by trinitarian praxis (our participation in the triune, communal life of God), narrative praxis (our participation in the grand triune, theo-dramatic narrative revealed within the biblical narrative and person of Christ), and missional praxis (our participation in the triune mission of God). In this I envision a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional theology that gives rise to a distinctly trinitarian, narrative, and missional spirituality and way of living. This is what I see as the thrust of the theological task: theology as participation in the divine life; exhibited and lived out in trinitarian praxis, narrative praxis, and missional praxis.
My purpose and Agenda
So…why a blog? This is a question that I have been thinking about for awhile and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with this blog. With the question of why I refer to myself as the DesperateTheologain explained, the next question is why do I want a blog? Here are a few of the reasons that should give you an idea as to what to expect here at DesperateTheologian.
- To share about the intersections between my story and theology. I realize that there is a widespread aversion to ‘theology’ among many and that the mere thought causes the eyes of many to roll back into their heads. At the root level I think that many who have this reaction simply don’t see in theology any relevance or import for living in the ‘real world.’ I will admit; this conception may have been well deserved in a host of theological expressions. But in my opinion, theology should never be divorced from the rest of life. I have found theology to be not only immensely practical but crucial. I want to explore the interwoven nature of story and theology (what we might call a storied theology).
- To help me organize my thoughts. Some will be more organized while some will be me “thinking out loud” and perhaps even incomplete at the time. As a part of this, I do a lot of reading, mainly theological in nature. I am hoping this blog can provide a creative outlet for me, theologically speaking, that will help me process the thoughts from my reading.
- To develop my ideas and hopefully maybe even get some constructive feedback from others – but only if you promise to be nice.
- To keep myself in practice as far as writing is concerned. I don’t envision this being strictly academic in nature (I don’t plan on footnoting everything, who has the time) but I don’t want it to be non-academic either – if that makes sense.
Research Interests: Finally, these are some of my interests in my theological research that just may find their way into a blog post at some point.
- Developing a theology of community that can find application within the church in the postmodern context.
- Postmodern theology.
- Post-foundationalist theology.
- Gender issues, sexuality, and marriage from a trinitarian perspective.
- The relationship between Trinity and scripture.
- Philosophical/theological hermeneutics and hermeneutical philosophy/theology.
- Theological ethics.
- The ‘self’, theological anthropology, and the imago dei.
- The contemporary emerging and missional conversations.
- The intersections of trinitarian theology (my main area of interest), narrative theology, and missional theology.
- And I’m sure Stanley Grenz will warrant a few posts as well. 🙂