You Are a Theologian: Be a Good One

Here’s my bold claim of the day: theology is about God.

I’ll give you a minute to gather yourself. How about them Red Wings?

Ok, let me see if I can make the claim a little bolder. Theology is not just ideas about God, or a set of topics related to God, but our confessions of how God is actually engaged with creation.  Not just in the past. But right now. Not just in relation to certain philosophical propositions, but in relation to the actual conditions of the world and actual lives like yours and mine. That is, if you believe in a living God.

And because you are a part of this creation, and because you confess belief in a living God, you are necessarily a theologian.

Theology, defined this way, is a complex affair. It is not always obvious how God is related to the world in which we live. In fact, its often those who feel most confident in their pronouncements who make the worst theologians. God’s relationship with the world is something other than causation. In other words, God’s primary way of relating to the world is not through control, but through love. And love moves in mysterious ways, ways that aren’t always immediately apparent. Love does not control.

It’s simply bad theological method to assume that because something happens, God must be the cause of it. Because a tsunami hit the Philippines, God must be punishing them for something. Because my church is growing, God must be blessing us. Reality is nearly always more complex than simple causation, and even more so when you’re talking about God.

This is especially true from a Christian perspective. One of the things we believe is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the clearest demonstration of God’s way of being with us. This simply doesn’t conform to what we think is strong or wise or the way of things for deity. But it is from a Christian perspective. God’s way is hidden to us in many respects in this upside down way of engaging the world.

So, let me say some of what I think this means. First, not all data points directly to God. Creation is other than God. Creation is not simply a puppet or a chess board with God making all the moves. Stuff happens. God is not always directly implicated.

Second, it matters how you view the world, the posture you take in life, the attitude you have toward what you see. Take, for example, what Paul says in 2 Cor. We are the aroma of Christ. For some that smells like death, but for others it smells like life. Same data, different conclusions. This means, and this is huge, that God’s engagement with the world has to be discerned within a particular way of life. Theology in this way is not simply a settled set of ideas about a topic, but a practice of pursuing God within a particular way of life.

To the extent that you are a person pursuing God within a particular way of life, you are a theologian. Be a good one. Be a responsible one. Be a helpful one.



About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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13 Responses to You Are a Theologian: Be a Good One

  1. Sean Palmer says:

    Great thoughts. How do you see that impacting life and ministry? How can people churches or organizations evaluate knowing that the data might not tell us what we think it tells us?

    • Mark Love says:

      Sean, there are a lot of ministry implications. I will unpack some of those in future posts. I will say now that this is the continuous life of the church–evaluating what we know about God in relation to the data in front of us. It happens all the time, but usually privately and poorly. So more publicly and thoughtfully might be a way to do it differently.

  2. Shannon Amburn says:

    I like this, I would add “be a humble one” and/or “test your theology in the community”. The pit I fall into on this lay-theologian path is that I get an idea about God and I find it hard to see the validity of other/conflicting ideas. I still struggle with a “god must be the way i imagine” mentality. Some of this is a reaction to my religious baggage, some of it is arrogance, and most of it is something in-between. Peace friend.

    • Mark Love says:

      Yes, Shannon, both humility and communal discernment have to be a part of however you imagine this. I like Luke Johnson’s phrase related to discernment: modesty before the mystery.

  3. JW says:

    Mark, Mark, Mark. I can’t tell you how much your words are blessing me right now. I have changed my “views” on so many things in my life, that I wonder if I could fit anywhere / or no where. That has bothered me more than anything. Then, to call me a theologian. That’s too much pressure. But the way you put it in this blog post, it seems like a sweet invitation to watch, observe, notice, find. I like that. I can do that, I think. I recall you saying once (and since it changed my thinking for the better, go ahead & take the credit for it)..that there isn’t always a reason, an explanation, a purpose. I loathe the phrase, “there’s a reason for everything”. What reason could there POSSIBLY be for some of the things this life unloads? It has helped me so much to realize that there is a great place of MYSTERY that we live in and with. I hate it, and I also am attracted to it and at times even miss it when it’s not there. My real-life experiences have taught me enough to back far away from things I thought were of God or things that I thought about God or were taught about God. My life experiences have also drawn me closer to God in ways that can’t be articulated (at least by me). Theologian? I’ll try to be a good one..a responsible one…at least “be” one. You make it seem possible. Thanks.

  4. L.Barnes says:

    Talk about synchronicity and serendipity. Your post is the third time this week that I have been referred to as a theologian. I’d say that is a trinitarian call if I ever heard one. Thanks for the exhortation.

  5. K. Rex Butts says:

    Thank you for this great post. I wish we Christians would learn to discern better what is the work of God among us. It seems we erect unnecessary barriers by making claims of Divine action when we make every storm or disaster to be an act of God. At the same time, it seems we miss many opportunities to point to God’s work among us because we credit someone or something else (i.e., the nations, luck, etc…).

    Grace and Peace,


  6. jeff says:

    Great post Mark.

    So many thoughts stirred up by this post, but one for now, that I’m at least slightly qualified to speak on.

    One of my pet peeves is when preachers use “data” as a spiritual concept. While “data driven” approaches are all the rage in a lot of fields, data has always struck me as a particularly bad (and maybe even dishonest) way to look at experience as it relates to God.
    tes them appear more scientific. After all, what could be more scientific than looking at data and drawing (what we think is) an unbiased conclusion? The problem, of course, is that ministers aren’t scientists, and people who make arguments like that show a real ignorance of how science actually works. The scientific method begins not with data, but with a hypothesis, which you design an experiment to test, run the experiment, analyze data, and come to a conclusion. The point? Data is a long way down in that process.

    More than that, though, to tie into some of your other posts, the business of science is fundamentally about explanation, prediction, and control. If I can explain a physical phenomenon, I can predict how it will behave, and build systems to control that behavior. In this context, I think it’s clear why this particular type of knowledge is a rather poor way to conceptualize God, for whom explanation, prediction, and control are all … well, rather nonsensical.

    Of course, there is also an argument to be made that the post-Cartesian “turn to the subject” is also a bad way of understanding religious knowledge. That’s probably a discussion for a different comment, though.

  7. Mark Love says:

    Jeff, sorry it took me so long to get to this comment. I am using the word data on purpose, but perhaps in ways that are less than helpful. I think that ministers should be more disciplined in how they talk about God and that they should favor practices of thick description, which is to practice a certain kind of rationality producing a certain kind of knowledge. What I don’t want to do is to push theology into the hinterlands of a fact-value split and allow only one kind of reasoning to count as producing real knowledge. I think that the word knowledge is too often limited to those who practice a certain kind of reasoning–the kind you describe under the heading “scientific method.” But as Polyani, Bernstein, Kuhn and many others have pointed out, this is not the way we come to know most things, and this knowledge is fairly reliable. I am arguing for a theological method in line with certain understandings of social science, notably phenomenological, or perhaps in line with the American pragmatic tradition. This way of viewing the world assumes that reality is more complex than simple causation, is skeptical around terms like dependent and independent variable, and eschews positivist approaches to complex phenomenon.

    I know many of my friends in scientific fields find my intrusion on their language troubling. Welcome to my world. I am being a bit provocative when I do this. But I think its important. We don’t get breakthroughs, new understandings, apart from these kinds of border violations. My friend Richard Beck is proving this from the other side of this divide. And I do think there is a bit of a false consciousness that some scientists have about their work. For instance, does scientific work really begin only with a hypothesis? Isn’t it far more complex than that? Hasn’t there been a butt-load of interpretation already at work in order for a hypothesis to be formed in the first place? Is there really a clean line of demarcation between explanation and interpretation? And your quotation marks around the word objective I assume come from your own understanding of how problematic that word is. Does the very fact that science has to resort to a specialized language suggest some sort of metaphorical relationship with what is being observed? Who has tested the language? What kind of theory of language undergirds this work? And if this special language is necessary for this kind of work, then doesn’t it make it incommensurate with other kinds of knowing? Doesn’t this make science in some sense hermeneutical?

    So, I wouldn’t use the word scientist to describe myself. I am a theologian. But I think it is important for ministers to deal with the conditions on the ground. If God is active in the world, then there should be some way of speaking about that meaningfully. And that will require interpretation in keeping with a certain type of reasoning and with some “fit” with the world as we encounter it. You and I agree that types of reasoning that rely upon reduction and control are not well suited for this. But this kind of reasoning isn’t the only kind that can produce knowledge or “data.”

    • jeff says:

      Mark –

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. Language is always slippery, as evidenced by some imprecision in my own post (as well as my computer seemingly deleting a line or two, but hey… that’s what technology is good for, right?)

      My main concern is the logical positivist brand of “science” that is more commonly understood by the public, not a more nuanced understanding that Kuhn and Polyani would take. While I’m not sure that I would take things as far as some social constructionists would like, I would certainly agree that science is far more of an “art” than a set of methodical procedures. I would question, though, whether a phenomenological reduction is really a good direction to go in this regard – in some sense talking about the phenomena of consciousness as though they are “objective” (again with that word) isn’t that far off of talking logical positivist thinking about sense datum. Perhaps you can broaden your definition of what counts as sense datum or conscious phenomenon to include things that aren’t as rigid as the logical positivists or Husserl, but I still think there is a fundamental flaw in saying that we have to have “data” to talk about something meaningfully – after all, there’s got to be room for mystery, right?

      My sense is that the popular conception of science as looking at “data” is summed up by what I call the Gil Grissom Postulate, paraphrasing a quote from CSI: “You can be wrong. I can be wrong, but the data is just the data.” The problem, of course, is that the data isn’t just the data. What we as scientists collect is always a product both of what is out there, and our own experience and intuition regarding what is worth looking at. In a very deep and inescapable way, data itself is value laden. (I can give fun examples of this from my own experience, if you’re interested.)
      I think your remarks about science being hermeneutical are right on – I’ve mentioned before that I tend to identify more with Wittgenstein and Lindbeck (and Kuhn, scientifically) than Ricoeur, and I think language certainly plays a huge role in our understanding as scientist – far more than we would like to give credit for.

      What are your thoughts on how Reformed Epistemology might fit into this? It seems to me that Woltersdorff and Plantinga’s work is in some way aimed at bridging this gap, albeit in perhaps a more philosophical and apologetic (in the case of Plantinga) way, though perhaps I am misunderstanding your position.

  8. Mark Love says:

    Jeff, great stuff. I am not of the Husserl brand of phenomenology. As you have probably put together, I fall more in the Heidegger-Gadamer-Ricouer tradition. I think what Husserl unleashes by recognizing the other in the moment of self-consciousness leads further and further to the priority of the other. Heidegger definitely moves away from a reduction in consciousness with his notion of Dasein and when you get to folks like Marion, reality is not centered in consciousness but is always coming at you as a gift. So, my move into the hermeneutical tradition is precisely to escape any kind of positivism centered in consciousness.

    I am not informed enough really to speak meaningfully about Woltersdorff and Plantinga. They are on my list to read when I have some space, but they are down the que a bit. I am a recovering Lindbeckian. Lots of sympathy with the cultural-linguistic framework. I think Ricouer is very important here in recognizing a critical movement/distance/awareness within the hermeneutical circle, or grammatically construed world, or what have you. I am encouraged though to find scientists who appreciate the cultural/linguistic aspects of their tradition. Yay!

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