Pretentious. Irrelevant. Cerebral. Complicated. Dense. These were some of the words that were fired at me when I asked a crack team of Christian aid and development experts what they thought about theology. If theology were a person, she doesn't sound like one you'd invite round for dinner very often, let alone someone you'd want to spend a lifetime with. Maybe you feel the same way, so in this two-part series, let me give you nine illustrations to inspire you to think differently. Not only about considering the subject of theology, but to see it as a life-giving and essential companion to your flourishing as a Christian disciple.
1. Theology helps us to discover another dimension
I can still remember the acrid smell of the mothballs at the back of my parents' old cupboard. It had been there as long as the house had been in my family – three generations at least – and maybe longer. As a primary school child it seemed reasonable enough to investigate if, behind the old coats and clothes, there was a gateway to another world, just as CS Lewis described. Another magical world that intersected with our own. In fact, the gateways to Narnia were not limited to the back of a wardrobe in Lewis' chronicles. In one book it is a piece of art, in another it is the beauty of nature and in the Last Battle even death itself becomes an entry point to another realm. For many of us, coming to know God and entering into His Kingdom began not simply by walking through a new doorway, but with an experience of beauty, a glimpse of God's glory in nature or sadly a brush with death. Some mystics describe these experiences as thin spaces; places or circumstances where we become more aware of the presence of God than usual.
If you think a breathtaking panoramic sunset or the magnificence of a Da Vinci can elicit awe from our consciousness, then how much more can a direct encounter with the revelation of God? Art and nature are echoes of God's revelation, but theology deals with the source material. In beauty and creation there is a background trace of the radiance of God but in theology we deal with the raw radioactive core of the deep truths of God. Through creation and beauty, we are given a glimpse of the glory of God but theology allows us to linger over the details. Admittedly some theologians have turned theology into thick space – a place where God seems more inaccessible and difficult to understand – but it shouldn't be like this. Theology should be the thinnest space; an opportunity to come closer to God by understanding what He wants us to know about Him.
2. Theology is the answer to our spiritual thirst
As we travelled I felt like I was going to melt. Opening the window of the van made things worse; it felt like a jet of hot air was being blown in my face. When we arrived the red dust on the ground made it seem as if the sun had scorched the very earth. It was 50 degrees centigrade in the shade. As we headed towards the church at the centre of a village 50 miles outside of Ougadougou, Burkina Faso, my body craved but one thing – water. It felt like every cell in my body was screaming out just for a sip. I am grateful for the sensation of thirst; it alerts me to the need my body has for hydration. Without thirst I might forget to drink.
Back to CS Lewis who explained that our spiritual instincts are the same: "Creatures are not born for desires unless satisfaction for these 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."
Built into humanity is a thirst for God. It is why in every culture there is religion. The ubiquity of worship was eloquently summarised by the award-winning but troubled American author David Foster Williams:
"In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship... Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is... that they are unconscious. They are default-settings."
If we were born to worship God then our minds were designed to contemplate Him. The curiosity we see in a child is a reaching out into the world to discover something beyond himself. This drive persists to a greater or lesser extent throughout our lives. What we are looking to find in the most enthralling novel, the most moving piece of music, the most important relationships and the most gripping films is a way to understand who we are and why we are here. Just as a mathematician craves the beauty of solving an equation and cannot be fully at rest until it is solved, so our minds long to resolve our place and purpose in the universe. Just as thirst drives us to seek water, so our curiosity about the world is in part a homing beacon to draw us to God. When we study theology our brains are doing what they were made to do. Like a fish was born to swim, and an eagle was born to soar, so your brain was built to reflect on the riches of theology.
3. Theology keeps our passion strong
We started dating about two weeks before she left to teach in Germany for a year. This was way before email, Skype and social media made distance evaporate, so we took to writing a handwritten letter a day. Every single day. As these epistles were exchanged across Europe, our love grew. When I wasn't reading or writing letters (or trying to complete a Chemistry degree), I would spend a long time just staring at her photograph. I kept it in my wallet so I could show people who the most important person in my life had become. I would delight in the shape of her face; the sparkle in her eye. Close examination of the photo did not feel like academic study, and I didn't feel obligated to set aside a regular time to look at it.
Theology is as much a labour of the heart as it is work of the mind. Theology is about the devotion of the lover not just the toil of the worker. Theology is like dessert at the end of the meal, not the vegetables that you know you ought to eat. Theology should have the same place in our lives not as a text book, but the photograph. In 2014, the Imperial War Museum in London recreated a trench from the First World War to help remember the horrors of that conflict which saw millions of young lives lost. Amid the mud and stench, rats and shell-fire, soldiers would often pull out a locket containing photos of their loved ones to help ward off despair and to inspire hope and courage for the next assault. In the same way, in shifting and often difficult times for Christians we need a clearer view of our God, a more accurate picture of Christ, and a clearer glimpse of the Spirit to give us courage and faith until we are reunited.
4. Theology destroys prejudice and misrepresentation
First the words wounded me, and then I realised they were infuriating me. The boys in the playground were taunting me and calling me names. Before they knew me, they were prepared to make public their judgments about me from the colour of my skin. I know many people who have faced far worse abuse than the school yard racism that I encountered, but my limited experience helped me to understand a little of what it means to be on the receiving end of prejudice. I am pretty sure all of us hate it when people make assumptions about us; attributing character flaws or making derogatory verdicts. For me it was just a few bruises on my body and a big dent in my confidence. For others it means threats to their life and liberty. The most frustrating thing to me was that I wasn't given the opportunity to answer back, to help correct the lies they were telling about me, my family, my intellect, my habits or my body. I wanted to set the record straight and let the truth be told – eliminating the mockery and the misunderstanding.
I wonder if that is why God hates idolatry: enshrined in the 10 commandments is the clearest ban on the construction of idols possible. Idols are a human attempt to represent God. They attribute physical and moral features to Him without letting Him speak and explain who he really is. They are an offense to God because they are a misrepresentation of who He is. Theology is iconoclastic; it demolishes false perceptions. Theology rips the gag from the mouth of God to allow Him to speak and explain who He is and what He is like. Theology is liberating because it seeks to listen to God rather than dictate to Him. Theology seeks to destroy prejudice and misrepresentation of God, and let the truth be known.
This is the first in a two-part series on the power and place of theology in our lives. Tune in next time to discover how theology not only is vital for our faith to grow, but also how it equips us to make a difference to a world in need.