Is theology really relevant?
Connected to prayer
This article was first featured alongside our Prayer Diary in July 2019. You can download the July 2019 prayer points here or sign-up to receive future editions by post or email.
What should the role of theology be in our lives? For so many people, theology seems dead, boring, irrelevant, maybe a little bit contrived or just too academic. I really want to rehabilitate the way that people think about theology, and I think that these four metaphors might help us.
Who is Krish Kandiah?
Krish is the founding director of Home For Good, a charity seeking to find loving homes for children in the care system. He has written 13 books, including Paradoxology and Faitheism, and holds faculty positions at Regent College, Vancouver, and Regent’s Park College, Oxford University. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme and BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought.
Theology is a wardrobe
Firstly, how about thinking that theology is like a wardrobe to another dimension? I don’t know about you, but as a kid I tried the whole C. S. Lewis thing, climbing through my clothes to the back to try and get to Narnia. Sadly, all I did was get to the back of the wardrobe and find some old moth balls. C. S. Lewis paints this wonderful picture that there are doorways to another transcendent reality. In the Narnia books, sometimes that is through art and beauty, other times it’s through death, other times it’s through difficult experiences, like the suffering the children are experiencing when they first go into Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I love this idea that it’s through physical things that are happening in this world, or aesthetic things, that we are transported to know something more about God. And I believe that.
“…theology gives you a high definition picture of God, almost a face to face encounter, because God is revealing himself to us.”
The Bible talks about the idea that everyone has a knowledge of God through what has been made, through what they can see, feel and touch. But that picture we get of God is somehow skewed. It’s not as pure and bright and beautiful as it could be. It’s a bit like a little profile you might read about a child who needs adopting. It tells you how old they are, some of the challenges they’ve got in their lives, and what they like to play with. But that picture is so small and so inadequate compared to meeting the child and coming to love them as a person. And that’s the difference between the kind of knowledge that we can have about God through what has been made, the physical creation, and what we can know about God through what he has revealed about himself in Scripture. Us thinking about Scripture and what it reveals about God is what we call theology. Theology is a combination word, made up of ‘theos’ meaning God, and ‘ology’ which means discourse. So it means to talk about, to think about, to reflect on God. And it’s what we’re supposed to do in our worship; we’re supposed to love him with our heart, soul and mind. That is how theology gives you a high definition picture of God, almost a face to face encounter, because God is revealing himself to us.
A homing beacon
The second metaphor is that theology is an unrelenting homing beacon in your mind. I remember when I was in Burkina Faso, I was incredibly hot. I’d just met some incredibly lovely people, but it was 50 degrees, we were in the middle of nowhere in a field somewhere, and I was just desperate for water. That thirst for water demonstrated what my body needed. It was crying out for something. Until it got water it was never going to be happy. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis put it this way, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Lewis is using this concept to talk about a sense of longing. Some theologians call it ‘sensus divinitatis’, a longing to know God. Until we really know him we are not really fully satisfied. If that is true for us as beings, then that is also true for our minds. Our minds were built to reflect on, enjoy, savour, revel in what God is actually like. Our minds will never be fully at rest, or fully at home, until we have that opportunity. Our brains were created to do theology. We are supposed to love our God with all our heart, soul and mind, that’s what we were created to do. So theology is an answer to the homing beacon within us. Now of course we need to worship God with more than just our mind. Acting with compassion and justice is a way that our hearts and our bodies respond to God. But the way our minds respond is through doing theology.
A locket photograph
The third metaphor is that theology is a locket photograph to keep your passion strong. You might remember those war movies, where you’ve got the guys in the trenches in the First World War and bombs are going off all around them, mortar fire, gas canisters, machine guns. And yet what is it that keeps these men sane, what stops them from losing the will to live or to fight? Well, many of them take out a picture or carry around a photo in a locket of one of their loved ones. Maybe it’s their wife, their sweetheart, their family members, their parents. That locket picture was the way that people kept themselves orientated, the way that they kept on going. There were people they loved who they needed to help and serve in this way during the war.
Life as a Christian is supposed to be difficult. Jesus said that we were going to be sent out as sheep among wolves. We will face persecution, opposition and hatred. Jesus told us we were to take up our cross and follow him and keep on going. But why? Because of our love for God. Just as a soldier in a trench might look over a little portrait, trying to remember as many details as they can about the person that they love, so theology is taking the time to slow down, meditate, enjoy all that God is, and letting our minds do that thoughtfully. That meditative, reflective act is theology, thinking about God, about the goodness of God, about the character of God. And as we do that, we will want to serve him. Theology is like a locket photograph to keep your passion strong.
“So theology is not just a personal discipline, it’s a public discipline. It’s the way that we speak out into the world the truth about God, that he might be fully known and loved for who he is.”
A battering ram
Theology is the battering ram to destroy prejudice and misrepresentation. I was a very brown boy in a very white school. It was pretty difficult sometimes when people would attribute to me everything that they thought they knew about brown people. I was called ‘Paki’ even though I was from India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Ireland, and never had a connection with Pakistan. They assumed that I would smell different, that I wouldn’t be able to float. I was told once that I wouldn’t be able to swim because I am Asian. Everyone thought I lived in a corner shop. I had all these prejudices pushed on to me. And I could cope with that, but when they started talking about my Mum, that was hard. They would say terrible things about her, horrible things, without having ever met her, without knowing her. There was something in me that wanted to put the record straight, not let people get away with that. I wanted to be an advocate for her, an apologist for her, I wanted to tell the truth so that people wouldn’t have these terrible views.
I think that part of being a Christian is that you feel that way about God. There are so many ways that God is misrepresented in our world. The Bible calls it idolatry. People have these false pictures about who he is. It’s doing them harm and it’s not giving any honour to God. As a Christian you want to put the record straight and you hate it when people start to think rubbish things about God. You want people to think the right thing about him because he is what they are longing for in their lives. If they don’t know who he is, they will never have that longing satisfied. The best thing that anyone can ever do is get to know God. So if people have a false view of God then we need to deconstruct that. Theology is the battering ram that we can use to destroy these false and prejudiced images about God, so that people might know the wonderful God that we do. We’re so driven by passion for God and passion for people that we want to get it done. So theology is not just a personal discipline, it’s a public discipline. It’s the way that we speak out into the world the truth about God, that he might be fully known and loved for who he is.