‘Theology’ is, literally, ‘God-talk’, and although it is sometimes treated as though it was just an academic discipline to be done by those called ‘theologians’, we are all theologians when we talk, as we do here, about God.
It is easy to forget that St Paul was not writing academic theology when he wrote his epistles; he was writing as a missionary and church founder, trying to deal with the practical problems encountered by his congregations. The same is true about so many of the Church Fathers. The achievement of St Cyril of Alexandria becomes even more remarkable when we recall that all the theology he wrote came from his pastoral concerns as Patriarch of Alexandria; the same is true of St Leo the Great. These men did not write from some distanced academic position, but because they walked and talked with God constantly.
When CS Lewis wrote his Mere Christianity he was advised to steer clear of theology:
Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say `the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God,’ and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?
He quoted a contemporary version of our own dear Bosco:
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, `I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal !’
But Lewis would have none of this, even though he understood its origin:
Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music.
Theology, Lewis argued, was of real practical value:
In the old days, when there was less education and discussion, perhaps it was possible to get on with a very few simple ideas about God. But it is not so now. Everyone reads, everyone hears things discussed. Consequently, if you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones – bad, muddled, out-of-date ideas. For a great many of the ideas about God which are trotted out as novelties to-day are simply the ones which real Theologians tried centuries ago and rejected. To believe in the popular religion of modern England is retrogression – like believing the earth is flat.
How right that is, and how little of the ‘new’, as Geoffrey commented, there is in ‘New Age’ teaching; much of it is a mix of old Gnostic ideas. As Lewis put it:
If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.
But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion. They say that Christ is the Son of God (whatever that means). They say that those who give Him their confidence can also become Sons of God (whatever that means). They say that His death saved us from our sins (whatever that means).
There is no good complaining that these statements are difficult. Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see. You may think the claim false; but if it were true, what it tells us would be bound to be difficult-at least as difficult as modern Physics, and for the same reason.
Now the point in Christianity which gives us the greatest shock is the statement that by attaching ourselves to Christ, we can `become Sons of God’. One asks `Aren’t we Sons of God already? Surely the fatherhood of God is one of the main Christian ideas?’ Well, in a certain sense, no doubt we are sons of God already. I mean, God has brought us into existence and loves us and looks after us, and in that way is like a father. But when the Bible talks of our `becoming’ Sons of God, obviously it must mean something different. And that brings us up against the very centre of Theology.
It is in this sense that we are beginning a short series of posts by Struans, which follow up on the three posts we have just had on the Trinity. There will be five of them, and I hope that you will enjoy them – and feel inspired to comment.