The peculiar joy of reading good theology

never finishedFor the last few weeks I and some others at IBI have been swimming in module descriptors, programme documents, programme specifications, aims, learning outcomes, assessments, bibliographies, skills mapping charts …..

All this to do with the considerable challenge of (re)designing and developing undergrad and postgrad theology degree programmes that will come under scrutiny by external experts who will assess whether they are worthy of university validation so we can launch the new degrees next autumn.

A whole bunch of documents (something like 300 pages) went off today. But I don’t want to blog about the challenge of theological education – maybe another day.

As a celebration, and before the next round of things to do, I indulged in that most amazing luxury: actually taking up a theology book and reading. Just for a wee while incase it all became too much. Note, dear reader, the delicious irony of being so consumed with writing theology programme documents  etc, that little or no time is left actually to be reading, let alone writing, theology.

The book is one I have to review for a journal (and is overdue – those documents again). It’s by an Australian Anglican priest called Catherine Ella Laufer and is called Hell’s Destruction: an exploration of Christ’s descent to the dead (Ashgate, 2013).

I doubt that I would have searched this book out if it hadn’t arrived in the post. And I don’t actually want to blog on what it is about (also maybe for another day). All that needs to be said is that it’s a well written, thoroughly researched and probing piece of historical theology that I am now very much looking forward to getting into.

Let’s just say that Love Wins it ain’t.

What I do want to do is to post some musings on the sheer pleasure of reading good theology.

I’m adding those two words, ‘good theology’ to that sentence because I confess that Christian theology is what I enjoy reading most. I love fiction as well, but it’s theology that tends to trump everything else (is that a qualification of nerdishness?)

And ‘good’ in this context doesn’t mean ideas that I agree with. Nor does it mean ‘evangelical’ or ‘reformed’ or ‘conservative’ or some such narrow ‘orthodox’ qualifier. Nor does it mean policing the boundaries of right belief, on high alert for bad theology.

So what does ‘good theology’ mean?

The following are some rather random starters for five. If you have your own definition feel welcome to share it. I’m trying not to define ‘good’ by contrast to what is ‘bad’ – it is too easy to think of lots of examples of bad theology! So, if you join in, try to keep to positives ….

1. Good theology means writing that is robust; arguments that are well grounded, researched and developed.

Not necessarily neat and tidy, in fact most likely not since life is not neat and tidy. But theology that persuades and appeals, that engages and makes you think afresh. I want to learn when reading theology. And you learn when your own paradigms are jolted a bit rather than just being butressed by being told what you already know.

2. Good theology knows its own limits.

I guess you could say that good theology is suffused with humility. In exploring the divine, it knows that, while much has been revealed in Scripture and in the richness of Christian tradition and history, the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord. It is aware that all theology is provisional; it does not have all the answers and has much to learn from people of faith and of none. In this sense, good theology is God-focused and grace-filled. And yes, this means I am arguing that good theology emerges out of a living faith.

3. To qualify as good theology, it also has to be well-written.

There has to be a pleasure in reading the text that draws you in to the conversation through creative and attractive prose. Good theology flows out of learning and research, but that ‘data’ has to integrated into someone’s life and mind and thought in such a way that it is expressed clearly, without artificial complexity or academic pretentiousness. A good writer can be understood!

4. Good theology probes questions of depth, meaning and significance.

It has a seriousness since it is dealing with issues of justice, truth, love, reconciliation, suffering, sin and redemption. The world we live in is a serious and unjust place, and good theology engages with the world as it is. It has a deep awareness of humanity’s brokenness and a compassion for the tragedy of the human condition. Good theology will be constructive theology.

5. Good theology is shaped by the gospel.

That gospel revolves around the incarnation, life, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension and future return of the Messiah of Israel, God’s Son, Jesus Christ who sent the Spirit of God at Pentecost.

If that narrative is the spine giving shape to the entire Bible, then good theology will emerge out of a dialogue between that gospel and myriad other stories from which we construct meaning and significance for our lives. Good theology, in other words, while drawing on two millennia of Christian thought, will be in constant engagement with other theologies.

For example, it will offer eschatological hope in the midst of liminality, despair and death and it will confront the powers that appear to rule this world.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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