Theology: it’s a ‘yawn’ word … makes even the most religious feel a sudden and overwhelming weariness. Drop the T word in a sermon and you might as well announce the benediction there and then. So what is it about theology that sees the faithful reaching for their pillows?
Granted, part of the problem has to do with perception, or misperception: that theology is an obsession with obscure religious theory completely disconnected from the hands-on concerns of real life. It is the lot of the poor theologian to constantly redress this misunderstanding if he or she is ever to find an audience beyond the library. It’s a vocational cross to bear.
Another part of the problem, however, is not with perception but reality. In other words, this common aversion to its existence is theology’s own fault. Too often theologians get so lost in their own speculative world that they themselves cannot make the connections necessary for theology to be heard let alone listened to.
I have to say, my own reading of today’s theology is of a much more responsive, practically oriented and publicly engaged sort than has been the case in the past. Certainly in my own sub-discipline–commonly known as ‘practical theology’–this is true. The trouble is, even the most practical theology can be remarkably impractical—offering critically insightful analyses and inspiring new paradigms but nothing more. At the end of the day we are intrigued but none the wiser.
In his book Redeeming the Routines: Bringing Theology to Life, Robert Banks addresses the struggle of theologians to get really practical:
‘A theological analysis of an issue may be clear and accurate, but what about the prescription for dealing with it? All too often this is very general. Only rarely will the theologian provide an operational model for what might be done and offer practical recommendations or examples drawn from first-hand experience. We are left up in the air, tantalized by a vision of what is possible, but without the means of realising it.’
Of course, the struggle to move from faith to the nitty gritty of practice is not unique to theologians. It’s common to all of us. Banks again:
‘If you ask a representative sample of churchgoers whether faith and life ought to be in harmony, they will answer with a resounding ‘yes’. The rub comes when you put the question in a specific way, in relation to a particular aspect of work or area of responsibility. For example, if you are a homemaker and I ask you whether your religious convictions should influence the way you bring up your family and relate to your neighbours, you will probably nod your head in agreement. But then if I ask you whether these convictions have as clear and direct an influence on the kind of house you have, area you live in and the means of commuting you use, you will probably pause to think.’
When it comes to practice, perhaps theologians–perhaps all of us–struggle to get particular because to do so scrapes too closely to the bone. Theorizing about a theology of consumerism is one thing, but making practical revelations about the way I spend my money … well, that’s my business. Let’s get back to theology!