The Art of Doing Theology

2 Oct


Photo by Federico Giampieri


“What do you think?”

Stanley Hauerwas, academic and theologian states: “As a way to challenge……, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”

What a challenge in an age where everyone has an opinion and every opinion is deemed to be equal. We often hear people say ”Well that might be the case but this is what I think!” “This is my opinion”. Usually in opposition to documented facts, experience and understanding.

Many of the arguments we hear against climate change, marriage equality, euthanasia and indigenous rights are based on individuals personal biases and long held unquestioned traditions. They are personal opinions only and most should remain as such and not see the light of day.

What Hauerwas points to is that if you start with the wrong premise, it doesn’t matter what education you may have, you will end up at the wrong place. It is inevitable.

Jesus says the same. If you hold on to traditions, ideas and language which is out-dated and not supported by common sense then you will end up having an opinion that is wrong. Its inevitable.

One of the very clever things Jesus does is move the art of theology out of the academy, out of the hands of the scribes and scholars and places it in the ordinary world and engages ordinary people in the practice of this art.( Matthew 21:23-32) We are all theologians. It is not the task of those with PHD’s but of those who have to integrate the wisdom of God into the grittiness of day to day life.

You are a theologian every time you attempt to translate the words of Jesus into your lived experience. You have a choice: to hold onto a fixed and taught understanding or to open yourself and the words you read or hear, laying them out across the terrain of your life. Where does it fit? And why? Where does it not fit? And why? In both cases how can you reimagine these words so that they give meaning, direction and hope to your experience? How do you have the courage to encounter the challenge that comes from them so that you reimagine how you live?

My task as a priest and a preacher is not to tell you what to think, but to lay a foundation from which you can challenge and be challenged in your life; to help you to move past the place of defensiveness into the exciting place of an explorer being faced with a host of challenges to how you think, feel and act.

You are not to agree with everything I say. Often I don’t agree with everything I say. My preaching and discussion is part of this process of doing theology, of engaging with the scriptures and my life experience and attempting to build bridges over chasms, new structures where others have collapsed and remodelling structures that are still useful but need renovation. That is the art of theology.

It is the art I hope to challenge you with each Sunday. It is the art Jesus cleverly challenged those around him with each time he engaged with them. He didn’t tell them what to believe? He didn’t seek their opinion. He asked them to think, to deeply explore and challenge the wisdom they had built their lives on and to see what was new, what needed to be learnt and how that needed to be embedded in their lives.

In the two little stories in this reading he gives no easy or comfortable answers. He explains the consequences for those holding certain opinions. He knows that these opinions have been based on traditions that no longer work. He wants them to work that out for themselves. He will give them the bones on which to chew but they then have to digest and talk the nourishment that is there.

Our wisdom and knowledge catches us out. These people could have answered the questions but to do so would have denied the academia on which theirs and their community’s faith existed. So they said they didn’t know. They had an opinion but they didn’t know.

How often do we find ourselves in the same place? We hear a sermon, hear a statement and find ourselves going, no that’s not what I think, or no how dare he, I do that but I have good reason to…..(whatever). We defend our traditions, (the things we do) based on our opinions and shut ourselves out of the opportunity to explore something new, not just for ourselves but for others.

Theology is not a personal process. We do it in community together. We do it in community together to enlarge and enrich the world in which we live. We do theology so that others can too, so that others can have their lives enriched by what we learn and understand.

Jesus say what do you think, really think? Not what is your conditioned response but what do you see in this story and what dos it mean for you? He calls them to do theology, to purposefully pull apart what is there and reconstruct it in a way that speaks into our lives in this time and in this place.

That is the challenge for the institutional church and it is the challenge for the church as the faith-ful people of God – us. Let us accept that challenge every week, the challenge to be made anew through the application of what we hear to the intricacies of our daily lives. Lets continue to do theology together.

What do you think?

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