I know that theology matters. Really, I do. I know that what you believe shapes your actions and how you see the future. There are consequences to beliefs and there are horrible consequences to beliefs that are in opposition to reality.
For example, since God exists, atheism is a false belief. And while beleiving something that is false does not always portent horrible and immediate consequences to your averager person, eventually atheism produces disastrous results for whole cultures and societies if left unchallenged.
Or take the exalted view of what is now called “Scientism” which has and will continue to produce equally dire results as expert scientists leave their own lanes of expertise and enter into the world of morality, philosophy, or policy. As philosopher Tom Sorell wrote in his book Scientism: Philosophy and the Infatuation with Science, “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.”
The Roots of Scientism and What it Has Brought Us
Scientism really has its roots in Modernism, or the basic belief that scientific knowledge alone can solve the world’s problems and answer all of our most perplexing questions. The aim of Modernism was to bring an end to the world being held hostage to superstition and blind faith as it had been for, well, forever.
Modernism may have offered some interesting architecture, but it fails as a worldview. As did Naturalism - or the belief that matter is all there is or ever was – which has no legitimate defense because science can only answers questions limited to the natural world using a methodological process. This means that it has nothing to say about the supernatural, which is a part of reality.
With scientism and atheism (which often go together, of course) serving as two examples of false beliefs that have far-reaching consequences, I want to reaffirm that what we believe theologically really does matter. And because it matters, our world has had its fair share of theological debates, disagreements, excommunications, and even wars that have resulted from theological disagreements.
And not just on the “big” issues of God’s existence or the Trinity. No, fellowship is cut off over disagreements about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the nature of the atonement, and more.
Heck, even as I wrote those words, I am tempted to defend my understanding of all of those issues for I really do think they are important. But it seems like thinking about and discussing those topics really feel like luxuries these days. Perhaps I am just letting the world’s events dictate my thinking too heavily, but it really does feel like we are in the midst of massive paradigm shifts all around: the Afghanistan debacle will have long-term fallout as our enemies will be empowered and our allies must be concerned; Covid and its mutations are not under control and the controversy about how to deal with it is only just beginning; public institutions (the media, schools, and the government) have sunk even lower in our minds, and there already wasn’t much room at the bottom; and the U.S. dollar continues to lose import the world over which could trigger a financial crisis the likes of which we have never seen.
And all of this is, as I said in a sermon recently, on top of our ongoing fights against the horrors of abortion, the redefinition of marriage and gender, and a racial reckoning that never seems to end (!).
In the midst of all of that, what is the role of theology? Should we even worry about these historic ideas from scripture that both define us and divide us? Or do we hit the pause button and fight the fights of today because their emergent nature demands our attention? Is it a dereliction of duty to talk theology in seasons of intense change or to avoid theology in those seasons?
Where Theology Fits into All This
Well, I will say that if theology matters at all, it should say something to the moment we are in. Which also means the Church should speak to the moment we are in as well, only being careful to get beneath the politics of any one issue and see the larger issue at hand, i.e. get to the heart of the true motivations of voters and politicians alike.
So yes, I can imagine the discourse of your average congregation being less theologically abstract or less about our little quarks as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Methodists and being more like, “Hey things are changing fast and this is what the Church has to say about it.”
Without reaching for obvious hyperbole, imagine being a Lutheran pastor in 1930s Germany. I own Bonhoeffer’s complete works and have read much about this period, so it isn’t hard to get a sense of what it was like. It was a time of rapid change and government exertion that did not allow for the usual theological discourse. The Church had to act; it had to say something about what was going on. Meat had to be put on the bones of “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” At some point, application kicks in and theological debates are shelved or limited for a few decades.
Then, during times of relative peace and prosperity, you can debate again the nuances of our shared faith. For example, we tend to think of, say, the 1950s and 1990s as relatively peaceful. Look up, for example, what the major headlines of any day in 1994 were. It was, all in all, a pretty mild year. During days such as those, we can argue about egalitarianism or election. Even critical issues that feel, well, almost out of place.
Our Need for Theology Today and For Our Future
Furthermore, even if we are tempted to leave theology behind, we need to remember that theology shapes the future. All beliefs are theological beliefs, because every belief you hold assumes your views about the nature of reality. And if God exists or if you believe in false gods or if you think you are a god, then that will impact what you believe in the future. What you--and others--believe, will shape the world in which you live. So as hard as it may be, we still need to put the newspaper (or its virtual equivalent) down from time to time, and just exegete Biblical passages, review our confessions, and continue to teach our children the basic truths of Christianity.
To stop teaching theology and the Bible would definitely give way to a future that the enemies of Christianity desire. Indeed, it could easily be argued that the reason we are in the situation we are in today is because the Church stopped teaching good theology in those peaceful decades and we stopped forming future leaders in the right way.
So yes, some days theology feels like a luxury. But if we want to avoid those days in the future, it is a present necessity.
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