Teaching Theology in the Church

by Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony Robinson is senior minister of Shepherd of the Hills Congregational Church (United Church of Christ) in Phoenix, Arizona.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 1, 1989, pp. 980-982. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Coming from the position that doing theology is not so much a matter of picking a system of thought as it is acquiring a way of life and a perspective for understanding all of life, Anthony B. Robinson reports on his experience of teaching a class on theology for his parishioners based on the idea that the main business of theology is to make sense of one’s life.

Several years ago, while serving as minister of a congregation in Hawaii, I had frequent opportunity to observe a karate school that used our fellowship hall. I began to notice that this school taught much more than how to strike blows--indeed, that may have been the least of it. The instructor taught the students to practice certain postures, to observe certain rituals as they entered or left a room, and to address the sensai, or teacher, in a prescribed way. The discipline was designed to harmonize and integrate mind and body. The karate course appeared to be teaching a discipline and a way of life, one that would make the students different people.

Also several years ago I attended a regional consultation on theology in the United Church of Christ. This was one of several meetings prompted by concern in a number of quarters in our denomination about the state of theology. Some people challenged what was perceived as the reigning theology. Others asked if the denomination had an identifiable theology, and if so what difference it made. The task before us seemed that of identifying and arbitrating among the various theologies contending for recognition in our family of faith. Some people linked themselves to a theology inherited from one of our historic predecessor denominations. Others characterized their theology in terms of a "justice" commitment. Others advocated feminist theology, liturgical theology, process theology and so on. All sought to express the salience of their particular viewpoint for our denomination's self-understanding and future.

The consultation was stimulating, yet I sensed that we had missed a step, a rather basic one suggested by the karate school. We seemed to assume at the consultation, as we do in much of theological work in the church, that developing a theological identity is more or less a matter of picking a system of thought, be it feminist, neo-orthodox, process, liturgical or liberation, that fits our own concerns and agendas. This tends to make theology the province of elites. And there is something a bit pretentious about the way in which we select and expound "our" theology.

Such an enterprise has its place, but teaching theology in the church should proceed differently. It should be less a matter of advocating and arbitrating and more one of acquiring a way of life and a perspective on all of life. Ethicist James Gustafson, in Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, refers to theology "as a way of construing life." Scripture can function in a similar way--it can give us a different lens through which to look at ourselves and our neighbors. If we only "examine" Scripture as one might examine a frog, and not allow Scripture to examine us, then we miss the most crucial point. Christian theology is not, as it sometimes appears in seminaries, a matter of paying your money and taking your pick. Christian theology may be more like what was going on in the karate class: a rather slow process of acquiring a perspective on life and appropriating certain patterns of behavior and speech.

With these concerns in mind I decided to offer a class on "New Directions in Theology" for my congregation. In a dozen years of parish ministry this was the first time I had taught a class on theology. I have taught many classes on the Bible, worship and prayer, and social and ethical issues, but none specifically theology. Nor have I noticed many of my colleagues offering such courses. Those who have invariably present some kind of "do-it-yourself" course–"Developing Your Own Theology"--as if the only possible theological option today is one so intensely personal as to be applicable only to oneself.

One insight I gained from teaching this course is that many laypeople, even in my comparatively educated congregation, have given up on theology. While some recalled something of Niebuhr or Tillich, several indicated that they thought of theology as unrelated to the church or to personal faith. They viewed theology as either a highly personal, individualized matter or as an essentially academic discipline conducted in universities and seminaries, something not germane to the life of the church or to personal faith.

If this is an accurate reading, then either the church is cut off from its own tradition, or theology has lost its primary constituency -- the church -- or both. If the church has given up on theology, what is its reason for being? If theology is not tested in the lives and communities of the faithful, does it not risk becoming a kind of neognostic venture, without incarnational expression?

It is increasingly difficult for North Americans to sustain meaning and coherence in their lives and communites, or to impart a living tradition to a new generation. These religious issues -- personal formation and making sense of life -- are often disguised by our relative affluence and the apparent assumption that getting everyone to middle-class economic status will solve all problems. Paul Holmer, in Making Christian Sense, challenges this notion. "Somehow the proximity and plainness of the advantages of prosperity, of peace, and of freedom make us want to exaggerate their advantages and attribute to them a healing of the spirit that they can never bring. For amid all the advantages of contemporary life, where fewer people suffer disease, hunger, or lack of opportunity than in years past, there still is probably no increase in the sum total of human happiness and very slight advantage, if any, in the main business of making sense of one's life."

When I listen to people speak of the role of religion or faith in their lives I hear them often speak of "having something to fall back on." While one might wish for a larger or more formative function for faith, this does suggest something about our context -- that even (or especially) in our technologically sophisticated society we need to deal with basic questions of meaning, value, purpose and belief. To do so requires a way of life, a sensemaking way of life. Our society has many competitors for people's hearts and minds. If the church is to be in the battle at all in the future, it must become more able and intentional about teaching and embodying a way of life, a lived theology.

I began my class with a discussion of our socio-historical context and a consideration of what theology is and does. Richard Fox, in his biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, quotes Niebuhr as saying that he thought of faith not so much as an "experience, but as a foundation for experience." Fox comments that for Niebuhr, "believing in God was not like a warm feeling inside. It was perceiving an outline of meaning in the midst of a broken existence." With Niebuhr's concept of faith as a foundation for experience and Gustafson's suggestion that theology is a way of construing the world, the class proceeded to consider the Reformed tradition, postliberal theology and perspectival theology.

The Reformed tradition of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards is the primary theological stream in the Congregational branch of the United Church of Christ, but we are not much aware of it today. To focus on it, even briefly, was to honor our "roots," and to see how this theological construal has shaped our experience and practice, even if subconsciously. One especially prominent theme in this tradition is the sovereignty and otherness of God. Many current and popular religious expressions place great emphasis on theological immanence -- God in me, God in you. God in this construal is close, accessible and available. Emphasizing God's sovereignty moves toward a focus on transcendence, on the God whose ways are not our ways. Attention to this theme helped us to understand why we are often a bit uncomfortable with those who describe "what God did in my life today."

God's sovereignty is also the ground of great confidence and boldness, for as the hymn puts it, "everywhere that man can be, thou God art present there." We considered such Calvinist themes as piety and religion as thankfulness, and the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The category of "piety," understood not as sanctimonious behavior but as living all of one's life before God, may be due for renewed attention, we found.

In many ways, conceiving theology as a way of life and a foundation for experience characterizes postliberal theology. We considered this approach by way of Robert Bellah and colleagues in Habits of the Heart, George Lindbeck in The Nature of Doctrine, and William Willimon in What's Right with the Church? All emphasize the community of faith as the matrix in which faith is learned, embodied and sustained. Whereas we commonly understand religion and theology as beginning with an inner and personal experience that only later seeks a community or tradition, the postliberal asserts that the community's ways of speaking and acting, its rites and rituals, its patterns of life and behavior shape and indeed make possible certain kinds of experience. This view emphasizes the "giveness" of the faith and the necessity of communal embodiment that is both old and new. Participants in the class responded enthusiastically to the idea that the community of faith has a role in acculturating its members and passing on a living tradition.

Finally, the class turned to perspectival theologies, perhaps the dominant ones in academic theology today. Many theologians are thinking and writing from a self-conscious socio-cultural perspective, be it Afro-American, Latin American liberationist or feminist. We examined the work of Taiwanese theologian C. S. Song, who challenges from an Asian perspective the centrism of Western culture and the Western church. Song argues that theology is not immune to cultural and historical influences, and that "theology begins in earnest when it identifies its home and discovers its belonging."

We noted that while there are significant differences between this approach and the postliberal one, there are also some similarities. Postliberal theology is cognizant of the particular situation of North American society. A deeper understanding of the contextual emphasis of Asian and Latin American theologies might lead North American Christians to consider even more such themes as powerlessness in corporate America and anomie in a society that so emphasizes personal autonomy.

It strikes me now that this attempt to teach theology in the church was preoccupied, as is much of theological study, with methodological questions--What is theology? How is it done? etc. I hope in the future to be less methodological and more substantive or constructive. Yet, focusing on method may be necessary and important at present, for it may help us to rethink what theology is and how it relates to the life of the church and the lives of individual believers.

If theology is a way of life and a lens through which life is perceived and not simply a set of propositional statements, then teaching theology in the church should involve reflection on the life of the church--on worship and sacraments, ministry (ordained and lay) and mission. How are these elements of a way of life? What aspects of the gospel do they express? Are these practices forming or transforming us in the image and mind of Christ? What happens to us as we participate in them?

A second option might be to examine case studies. After developing certain theological themes --for example, justification, providence, sin, grace, communion and vocation -- the group might comment on examples provided by participants from their family life, work or the larger community. They would consider these cases theologically as the church, bringing to bear the insight and themes of the faith they hold in common.

A third approach would be to delve more deeply into what Thomas Oden (and others) are calling "the Great Tradition," "the consensually received instruction in classical Christian writing." The Protestant emphasis on Scripture as a sole and sufficient guide for faith has made us deficient in drawing on other traditions of the church. This Great Tradition contains hidden riches for our faith.

To teach theology in the church at all reorients our understanding of the church and ministry. The church and its ordained leaders have become reactive, whether in letting the world set our agenda or in simply responding to the many requests that come our way daily. While this posture is not without value, we can do something more -- we can be engaged in teaching, embodying and sustaining a particular way of life. However uphill that struggle will be, it promises to be a more exciting and more faithful response to the one who said "go therefore and make disciples of all nations."