The Meaning of Theology for the Present Society

Theology has always been the subject of agitated debate and discussion on many issues – starting from whether it is a science on the whole and finishing with the aspects of its study, whether God can be considered a subject of theology or not etc. In other words, it is clear that theology is one of the most contradictive sciences in the existing world, being challenged to explain itself in some contexts, as outstanding theologians at times confess by themselves. The present work is aimed at comparative analysis of three theological works on the basis of their subject and the attitude towards theology the scientists argue in their works.

The article of Douglas John Hall “What is Theology?” is very appealing in the meaning of being reader-focused – it is arranged in the form of relaxed pondering over the issue of theology with relevant examples and substantiations. Thus, it is first of all a very readable piece of theological literature, proving the major point of the author that theology is not the incarceration of mind but the freeing of thoughts, creativity and the right to discovery. At the very beginning of the article the author tells about his encounter with some anonymous businessman in the plane who replied to his ‘lecture’ on the essence of theology summarizing it as “to think about everything all the time” (Hall 6).

At first the author rejected such treatment of the subject, considered it to be superficial if not ridiculous; however, in some time of thinking over the response of the man from the plane he came round to realizing the rightness of his conclusion:

there is no object under the sun that is unimportant to someone who tries to understand a little about God and God’s world; and if you have that as your object, you have to be at it – simply at it – all the time. Because you know very well that you will never understand it even if you were given, literally, all the time in the world” (Hall 6).

The example Hall gave at the beginning of the article underlined the subject of the article – the attempt to define what theology was in fact. The author uses an efficient approach to defining theology – negation put first. He is sure that “the way of negation is important… when something is too often, and wrongly, identified with some of its aspects and associations” (7). Truly, further Hall proves that it is first of all important to ruin the mistakenly imposed beliefs on people to free their mind for understanding the real sense of theology. Thus, Hall ruins four gravest mistaken assumptions connected with theology.

The first assumption he discusses is the fact that theology is in no way a doctrine:

there are few forms of human association more oppressive, more unforgiving, more conductive to power-seeking and, eventually, schism than are communities based on correct doctrinal belief (Hall 8).

Further the author deals with such notions as theology considered to be a biblical study and knowledge, its having little to do with religious experience and its connection with ethics and morality. The author turns the reader attention to the fact that “the purpose of Christian ethics…is not to reflect but to engage from a perspective hat belongs to our confession of faith” (Hall 10).

The conclusion made by Hall on the issue of the meaning of theology for the present society – not to subvert people into the limited life full of doctrinal impositions, but to help them see the true meaning of spirituality, to open their minds and to think about the Holy Spirit creatively, re-opening religion in an individual way. He sees the purpose and outlook of theology as an “ongoing activity of the whole church that aims at clarifying what ‘gospel’ must mean here and now” (Hall 11).

The article of Sally McFague is also concentrated on the elimination of false, limiting assumptions that are spread in the contemporary society for the sake of achieving the common goal – striving for peace, freedom and life. She notes that about a decade ago the scientific work connected with theology was too focused on some purely theoretical issues having nothing in common with the real life of contemporary people. Recollecting the writings of outstanding theologians she admits that

they were all concerned with the same issues, notably reason and revelation, faith and history, issues of methodology and, especially, epistemology: how can we know God? (McFague 19).

This way, the writer turns the reader’s attention to the fact that the science of theology was detached from real life, which is unacceptable under the present circumstances – “the issue will be not how we can change the world but how we can save it from deterioration and its species from extinction” (19). She identifies the scope of aching problems existing in the contemporary society and emphasizes the fact that it is the responsibility of theologians to accept the challenge and to take an active part in the solution of the emerging problems jointly:

in the closing years of the 20th century we are being called to do something unprecedented: to think wholistically, to think about ‘everything that is’, because everything on this planet is interrelated and interdependent and hence the fate of each is tied to the fate of the whole (McFague 20).

The author argues for the ability to unite the effort of both Jewish and Christian religions – modern problems like inequality, discrimination of the oppressed or the nuclear threat:

we need to work together, each in his or her small way, to create a planetary situation that is more viable and less vulnerable. A collegial theology explicitly supports difference” (McFague 21).

Other alternatives offered by the author are to implement more practice into the scientific activity of theologians despite the fact that their practice is negatively connoted as ‘prophetic’ and to contribute to the planetary agenda of the 21st century and working on the issues of unification, peace and refusal from destructive ideologies:

Theology is an “earthy” affair in the best sense of that word; it helps people to live rightly, appropriately, on the earth, in our home. It is, as the Jewish and Christian traditions have always insisted, concerned with “right relations”, relations with God, neighbor and self (McFague 22).

The last article, the one of Thomas Aquinas, is based upon purely theoretical considerations over the issue of theology and its place in the multitude of existing sciences and scientific studies. He focuses on five questions in his analysis – the first one is whether theology requires any scientific base other than philosophy. The response is ‘no’ – the author thinks that people do not need any other spheres for consideration, since it is not typical or desirable to try to understand something that is beyond reasoning, whereas reasoning may be provided by philosophical considerations – he thinks that “any other knowledge besides philosophical science is superfluous” (Aquinas 2).

The second question the author addresses is the issue of whether the sacred doctrine may be considered a science. The answer he gives is ‘yes’ despite the common objections that a science cannot rely on facts not accepted by everyone without exceptions (not everyone is religious) and cannot be based on individual facts. However, the author relies on the opinion of Augustine that it is a science:

it is that sacred doctrine is a science, because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed” (Aquinas 4).

Other issues Thomas Aquinas speculates over are whether the sacred doctrine is one science (the author admits that it is), whether it is practical (the author’s opinion is that it is more speculative than practical) and whether it is nobler than other sciences (sacred doctrine is thought to surpass all other sciences because of its being both speculative and practical, thus being initially better than all speculative and all practical sciences) (Aquinas 5-7).

Summing everything that has been said up, it is possible to draw a conclusion that all the three works are focused on the place of theology in the world of science, its mission and purposes. The article of Hall is more explanatory, making theology closer to ordinary people, even non-theologians. The second article is focused on the way to make theology closer to real life, thus being concentrated on the theory of this change to be made. The third article stands out of the group being purely theological, theoretical and complex for perception, thus conforming to the usual stereotypes that are argued in the first two works.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. The “Summa Theologica”, 1920, Vol. 1, pp. 1-7.

Hall, Douglas John. “What is Theology?”, Crosscurrents, summer 2003, pp. 171-184.

McFague, Sallie. “An Earthly Theological Agenda”. The Christian Century, 1991, pp. 12-15.

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