Wednesday, April 05, 2006

what is theology?

[NB: Some time ago, I wrote a post titled "What is Religion?", to which Charles of Liminality provided an articulate, meaty response. Go give those posts a gander and then come on back here. No rush.

By the way, I am indebted to Charles, who helped me flesh out some of what follows in a lengthy email exchange we had many weeks ago.]

What is theology?

The online Merriam Webster defines the word thus:

Main Entry: the-ol-o-gy
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural -gies
Etymology: Middle English theologie, from Latin theologia, from Greek, from the- + -logia -logy
1 : the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of God and of God's relation to the world
2 a : a theological theory or system [Thomist theology] [a theology of atonement] b : a distinctive body of theological opinion [Catholic theology]
3 : a usually 4-year course of specialized religious training in a Roman Catholic major seminary

Meanwhile, the indecipherable Catholic thinker Bernard Lonergan defines (I use the word loosely) theology this way:

A theology mediates between a cultural matrix and the significance and role of a religion in that matrix.

Lonergan, Bernard. Method in Theology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

Note that, in the above, Lonergan treats theology as a countable noun, and not as "the general activity of theologizing."

One of my professors at Catholic U., going back to the root words "theos" and "logos," defined (or maybe I should say "translated") the word "theology" thus:

Ordered discourse about the deity.

I would rework the phrase slightly to express what "theology" means in its most interdisciplinary sense:

Ordered discourse about ultimate reality.

Many academics use phrases like "Buddhist theology" quite without irony, because "theos" has been interpreted to mean something more than God in the classically theistic sense. The godfather of religious pluralism, Raimondo Panikkar, speaks of the cosmotheandric nature of reality, by which he means perichoretic* relationships among the world (kosmos), the divine (theos), and people (andros, aner). In Panikkar you see that "theos" is not confined specifically to the God of the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

My above definition isn't quite complete, though. I'm of the opinion that theology is an activity engaged in primarily by interested parties. While I'm open to the notion that normally disinterested parties might make claims that are theologically relevant (e.g., an atheist who claims "There is no God," while not doing theology per se, is certainly saying something of theological relevance from the point of view of a theist), these claims usually do not add up to a systematic picture of the divine.

So I would contend:

Theology is ordered (i.e., systematic) discourse about ultimate reality, created primarily by people who acknowledge and cleave to that reality.

Despite having pondered Fr. Lonergan's definition for years, I'm still not sure what the hell it means. Lonergan seems to be associating theology with both culture and religion, and to that extent he sees eye to eye with his peers in academe: many scholars take theology to be what happens after the initial human response to the "eruption of the sacred" (Eliade) into the milieu of the profane. Theology is the rational, intellectual order that emerges from the initial emotional chaos resulting from an encounter with the divine. Huston Smith, in talking about how ritual precedes theology, notes that people "danced out their religion before they thought it out." For Smith, theology is the thinking-out of religion.

This rational order can arise and coalesce quickly or slowly. Modern biblical scholars view the four gospels, for example, as theological in nature-- they are not merely bits of narrative "data" to be harvested in the service of constructing a theology. Given that the gospels were likely written within mere decades of Jesus' death, this would indicate that early Christian thinkers were hard at work interpreting Jesus' life and words, communicating what they felt to be his message, aware (or unaware) of their own theological agendas. Christian theologies thus began forming quickly, probably thanks to mental skills acquired from a long tradition of Jewish theology.

Theology can include a number of sub-practices, with scriptural hermeneutics (interpretation) most notable among them. While I imagine that theologizing can occur without scripture, I don't know enough about scriptureless traditions to speak intelligently to the question of whether such traditions have theologies. My general feeling is that theology is an activity most likely to occur in urbanized or urbanizing societies. The religious traditions that flourish in such societies will likely have some sort of scripture, either in open- or closed-canonical form.

As logos in the word "theology" implies, theology is a rational activity. It might have faith or some other religious impulse as its motivation, but it is at heart an attempt to explain religious experience. Theology can serve a variety of purposes. Among those purposes: establishing and reinforcing religious authority structures; aiding and encouraging scholarly contemplation of core religious questions; defining one tradition against other traditions (synchronically) and/or against other eras (diachronically).

Last of all, it should be noted that theology, while rational, is also very much a creative endeavor, which to my mind implies that it keeps one foot in the realm of the irrational or nonrational. The basic impulse that nourishes the construction and refinement of a given theology is sourced in the Unspeakable, the Formless. While the tree of theology has a definite form, that form is rooted in the soil of Emptiness. If it is a living and robust tree, it must constantly grow and change. And like any other sort of tree, a theology must eventually die to make room for other, newer theologies.

*From perichoresis, a Greek term that translates literally as "(the) dance in the round" (Gk. peri = around, as in "perimeter" + Gk. khoreia = dance, as in "choreography"). The term is normally used by Christian theologians to refer to the way the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity relate to each other: unitary yet separate, moving about and in and through each other. Panikkar, a Catholic priest with deep background in Hinduism, Buddhism, and of all things, chemistry, likes constructing tripartite structures and relating them perichoretically. His Asian background (he's ethnically Spanish-Indian) allows him to view perichoresis as analogous to the form/emptiness nondualism referred to in documents like the Heart Sutra. As you might imagine, some Christian thinkers take issue with this reinterpretation of an important term in Christian theology.


1 comment:

  1. Bravo! I'm a little bit late with a comment here (been a bit busy over the past few days), but I wanted to thank you for posting this.

    What I found most interesting about your definition of theology is that it is more exclusive than your definition of religion. Since your definition of religion encompasses even those who might not "acknowledge or cleave to" an ultimate reality, it would be possible to have a religion where no theology is possible. Atheists, for example, are religious in nature because they reject (respond to) the ultimate reality of God, yet they can never have a theology.

    Interesting. Tasty food for thought. Cheers.



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