Called to “look in” upon Christianity from the outside margin, we have recently considered the transformative possibilities such an “Overview Effect” holds. To see fully, we need to move outward toward the margins, away from the comfort of being safely “inside.”
In Part 3, we looked at the centuries-long development of Christian theology. Theologia began as the deeply spiritual encounter of “one who prays,” then shifted to a scholastic emphasis on reason. Some contemporary theologians have retrieved theology’s originating sense of transcendence, and we do well to uphold the critical balance between the often distant poles of interior spirituality and its theoretical inquiry, study and discourse. Both are necessary, the “Martha” and “Mary” (Luke 10:38-42) of action and contemplation. But how do these function in our lives, in the real world?
Questioning the function of theology is to ask, more simply, “what does it do?” Rather than a utilitarian attempt to justify my own admitted fascination with immaterial abstractions of theological discourse, this inquiry is crucial to developing our capacity to envisage their more complete whole.
To ask what theology does is not to ask what it is for (a question often broached by a student or two in my undergraduate classrooms), but to ask the much more fundamental question of what theology actually is. While the theoretical breadth of this question can appear an abstract stumbling stone to authentic praxis, getting at theological “being” empowers our ability not only to explore the function of theology itself, but dynamically to enact the multiplicity of theology’s “doing” as well.
Theology simultaneously enacts the subjective experience, intersubjective relationship, objective evidence and interobjective specialization comprising its vast whole. Often obscured by our hegemonizing preference for one of these domains, theology manifests an equilibrious balance of its fourfold nature.
Theology’s “Four D’s”
Unashamedly betraying my undergraduate teaching practicality, we can classify these interrelated dimensions as “Four Easy D’s”:
- Depth – Subjective Experience
- Dialogue – Intersubjective Relationship
- Description – Objective Evidence
- Dispatch – Interobjective Specialization
The Inside: Depth & Dialogue
While mystical and spiritual “depth” penetrates the subterranean interior of heart, soul, mind, and strength, “dialogue” relationally incarnates its commonality through the concrete immediacy of its multicultural proclamation, interpretation, fellowship and compassionate service.
While the inestimable value of these too-long-neglected interior encounters comprise theology’s energetic capacity to inspire, challenge, and transform, depth and dialogue do not stand on their own. Only a part of theology’s fullness, they are influenced and developed by their more exterior contributors.
The Outside: Description & Dispatch
Objective “description” of the historical unfoldment of biblical texts, sources, doctrines, dogmas, iconography, architecture and more gives substantial flesh and bone to an ever-developing tradition extending from antiquity into the future. However, even when these objective elements accompany theology’s interior, they remain insufficient without the fourth element, extending theology into the complex world of its pragmatic systemization.
So “dispatched” into ecclesial hierarchy and organizational patterns, interpretive effects of doctrinal constructs, ministerial administration of communication, media, art, and network navigation, theology becomes fully active and alive. Orphaning theology in this realm of “dispatch,” easily reduces it to the all too familiar, inauthentic caricature of lifeless church policies, procedures, rubrics and rules.
All of This, At Once
Reducing the whole to any hegemonized quarter—no matter how valuable—betrays theology’s fourfold unity of subjective experience, intersubjective relationship, objective evidence and interobjective specialization.
Theology’s fourfold being, like the piercing two-edged sword of Hebrews’ living and active word of God (4:12), functions as all of this, of all that is. To see into ourselves from the margins, we must begin to see all of this.
The ancient Hebrew story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11: 1- 9) will help us grasp this more fully, but before turning there, we have first required a few insights from Christiainity’s theological tradition to empower our expanding vision.