2 Nov 2019
Theology as a resource in Christian discipleship
Professor Thomas O’Loughlin
Words have a sparkle as well as a meaning. For many Christians today the word ‘discipleship’ – a notion that has a very wide range of meanings – has a very positive sparkle. It captures a sense of personal commitment, of life as a movement of growth and learning, and seems to fit very well with a sense of belonging within a church that imagines itself as the pilgrim people of God. ‘Theology,’ by contrast, has little sparkle; indeed, it seems a dull word relating to a rather boring and obscure academic pursuit. But let us look at a series of situations – scenes that confront us as Catholic Christians every day – and see if looking at them with the resources of theological speculation can help us to do three things.
First, theology can help to reposition these problems so that they might be seen as opportunities rather than roadblocks.
Second, theology can help us to relate to them differently as individual disciples and as a community of disciples, the church, and thus find ways ‘through’ the problems.
And third, theology can provide us with alternative ways of talking about what we hold precious as disciples, and so help us in the task of evangelisation.
But what do we mean by theology? Most Christians consider theology primarily as an academic subject: a body of information that exists ‘out there’. It is a difficult challenge as a study, but it is a body of facts that has to be absorbed by religious experts – and so it is really the business of the clergy. It is somewhat close to being the religious equivalent of physics. Physics is complex, seems to be awfully important, and we are glad that there are experts who work on it – but we can manage life quite well without it! Just so, theologians are no doubt useful, but just as the egg still boils whether or not you understand thermodynamics, so faith keeps going and God is still ‘above us all’ whether or not you have read a theology book! But theology is not really like physics, it is far more like cookery: the more you know about cookery, the easier everyday cooking – and cooking is not only unique to human but affects us everyday – becomes.
This might seem a little bit arrogant, but think of the number of times either religious questions or questions with a religious dimension come up in everyday conversation. A person is knocked down on the road and someone says: ‘if your number’s up, your number’s up!’ Do you accept that life is so determined? Even if you do – and there have been many deterministic religions – do you still look both ways before crossing the road? One athlete on winning a race bows to the ground and thanks Allah; another blesses herself; a third does nothing because he thinks that is superstition – are there different gods or if just one God why so many arguments or is it all hocus pocus? As I write this I have just heard on the news that a bomb has been thrown into a church in Sri Lanka, another bomb has gone off in Iraq in a dispute between Sunni and Shia, and there are tensions in America arising from some of the apocalyptic ideas of the fundamentalist ‘Christian’ right who deny climate change: and all three stories set me thinking. Perhaps religion is bad for human beings – maybe it needs to be consigned to the dustbin of failed stupidities? That is a theological question. Religion produces discord but could it also be the sponsor of discourse between groups since societies always develop religions even if today they are usually god-less religions. That is a theological question. All religions argue about what their ‘original’ texts/stories/ founders mean/ said/wanted – are there better ways of looking at these questions that might generate more light than heat, and are there ways of pursuing these questions that are creative rather than destructive? Once again, we have theological questions.
We cannot avoid theological questions
We all ask theological questions and we cannot avoid them. Sometimes we realise this and we carry on the questioning with skill and a full range of resources, sometimes we do it badly, with a limited band of ideas, and make a mess of it. The same questions that lead the untrained person to throw it all up and say the world is mad and a mess, can, with some theological training, be seen to refer to basic human issues, and, possibly, it can be seen there are ways out of our problems and the discourse can replace discord, and enlightenment can take the place of bigotry and ignorance. I want to develop this by looking at a sequence of situations where there is ‘a common-sense answer’ and another, more theologically informed, answer and then leave the answer as a choice which each can make with an informed conscience.
Living as an individual disciple: What is ‘God’?
Everyone I meet appears to know what the word G-O-D means. For a great many people I meet, the answer is simple: there is no god – it is an illusion and the universe does not need a god and there is no evidence in human life for god: just look at suffering! For others, there is a god and there are ways of describing god. There are ‘Acts of God’ which are invariably nasty like fires or floods or earthquakes. There is ‘The Man Upstairs’ and it’s a good idea to ‘keep in with him.’ This Man Upstairs is very much like a lord of the manor whom you do not really like, indeed resent, but you know you have to be ‘nice’ to him, as you do not want the consequences of making him angry. I know other people who cannot utter a sentence without mentioning god; and god seems to be the actual motive force of everything – except for some reason he keeps hiding. So it is ‘Thank God for a lovely day’ – but what about the storms that kill people? Or ‘God is above us all’ – so no need to worry! – so why bother doing anything? Or ‘do not be sad, God loves us’ – but I am sad and I want to shout out in anger as the agony of death, decay and destruction I see around me.
This should not be understood as some sneering criticism of everyday religiosity as if this was something distinct and inferior to some more precise vision of Christianity that comes with the trappings of ‘book learning’. The Spirit moves in every human heart and in every situation there is possibility of encounter with the divine. But we need to take account also of the slippage for human memory, that are knowing is always partial, that we all ‘see in a mirror dimly’ (to use an expression of Paul in 1 Cor 13:12), and that we tend to use language in ways that are often confusing and, even, self confusing. Experience becomes clearer in reflection.
Professor Thomas O’Loughlin is a Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham. He visited New Zealand in July on a lecture series about ministry, discipleship and the sacraments, with the support of Good Shepherd College.
Published in WelCom November 2019