01—What Is Theology?

What is theology?

What do most of us associate with the word “theology”? When I have done word association discussions in my classroom or congregation, often terms such as “boring,” “self-satisfied,” “otherworldly,” “heavy,” and “irrelevant” come up. And these are people going to church or attending a church-related college! So, theology has a bit of an image problem.

Beyond rapid-fire word association, what do we mean by “theology”? These are some possibilities, most of which reinforce the negative feelings many Christians have about this term and what they think it stands for:

Theology is an academic discipline. One takes classes in theology. One gets degrees in theology. We have theology departments. To be a theologian one must have specialized, graduate school training and be able to use technical, insiders-only language (with terms such as soteriology, ontological trinity, and hypostatic union).

Or, consider this definition. Theology is a collection of formal written doctrines of belief issued by various Christian bodies—creeds, confessions, statements of faith. If you want to know what, say, Mennonite theology is, you read the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective formally adopted by the Mennonite Church General Assembly. If you want to know what Presbyterian theology is, you read the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Or, theology is the basis for determining boundary lines, an elaboration of official beliefs for an organized religious group that serves as the basis for determining which beliefs are acceptable and which are heretical, who may be considered inside the circle of membership and who is to be outside.

Or, theology could be defined as the study of what theologians have written. This would be parallel to how Robert Pirsig describes philosophy in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He coined the term “philosophology”—philosophy as the study of what philosophers write. Maybe we could say “theologology,” theology as the study of what theologians write. To study theology one must be well educated, able to understand a lot of technical language and sustain intense levels of concentration with highly abstract and often speculative formulations that compare and critique other highly abstract and often speculative formulations from thinkers recognized as theologians.

All of these definitions may be valid, perhaps—at least as descriptions of how the term theology is used in actual practice. However, I have something somewhat different in mind. I will define theology as follows:

Our theology is made up of the convictions that matter the most to us. We each have a hierarchy of values and commitments, things that we see as the most important things in our lives. At the very top of this hierarchy is our god, or gods. The term “theology” does literally mean “the study of god”—theos being the Greek word for god.

I want to propose, though, that for right now we recognize that the term “god” signifies that which we believe is ultimate or supreme. This ultimacy may or may not be associated with a “supreme being,” as in Yahweh or Allah. To understand the actual theology we live by, we should be asking first of all about how we order our lives. What in practice are the priorities in our lives that reflect what we truly accept as ultimate, reflected in the actual ways we live? These priorities tell us what our actual god or gods are.

So, first of all, theology describes our priorities, our most fundamental beliefs and values. Theology deals with the convictions and commitments we order our lives around and devote our best energies toward.

Then, secondly, we do theology when we reflect on and articulate these values. Theology is how we understand and describe our most basic values. So, theology is about communication. To express our own convictions to others, we must find ways to communicate. This process of “finding ways to communicate” about our most fundamental values and commitments may be defined as “doing theology.”

Dishonest theology

Defining theology in terms of our actual values, I suggest that if we talk about bad theology or false theology, we might mean mostly dishonest theology. Dishonest theology is when one’s stated beliefs and values are quite a bit different from the values that actually determine what one does.

This proclivity for dishonest theology should push us to be more self-conscious about our true convictions, more self-aware of how we actually function in real life in terms of ultimate convictions. Certainly the problem of hypocrisy, obvious contradictions between one’s stated convictions and one’s actions (or we could say, contradictions between one’s stated convictions and one’s true convictions evidenced in the actual way one lives), takes a terrible toll on the witness of communities of faith and faith traditions. Working at self-consciousness about our theology should help us shape our lives more closely toward the ideals we likely sincerely hold to.

For most of us, our surrounding culture imposes a kind of theology on us. Walter Wink suggests that the predominant “religion” in our world today is “the myth of redemptive violence,” the belief that violence is necessary and effective and is worth the devotion of untold amounts of time and money and natural resources.[1] Now, I imagine very few Christians in North America would overtly affirm this theology that places its highest priorities on the redemptive power of violence. However, unless we self-consciously name our true commitments and then test to see how they actually operate in our lives, we quite likely will find ourselves in practice simply accepting by default the priorities and values our wider society inundates us with through pop culture, mass media, and cultural symbolism.

Bringing our true convictions to the surface

How do we work at bringing our true convictions closer to the surface? How do we work at having our lives more closely conform to the vision for life we truly do want to affirm? How do we resist living by a theology we do not truly want to embrace?

The first step may be simply starting to reflect on where our beliefs about ultimate things come from. Simply this process of self-reflecting will move us closer to being able to exert some self-determination on what we believe and how we live.

All of us grow up internalizing beliefs and commitments that are passed on to us by our families and communities. We may call this “embedded theology”[2] —a set of values that we have maybe before we can even talk, mostly beliefs that seep into our hearts with no self-awareness at all.

That which we valued the most when we were five years old or so came from our environments, our parents, our siblings, our friends, maybe our exposure to television and movies. These values would reflect the theology we had had embedded in our hearts and minds. This “embedded” theology did not come to us through our own choices, our own quest for answers. It was given to us; we inherited it.

We take our various elements of our embedded theology with us our entire lives. Our embedded theology is simply part of who we are. For some people, embedded theology is all that is ever needed. They stay in the same communities and live around the same people all their lives and face few threatening questions or traumas. For most of us, though, our embedded theologies are not enough.

When we face a world that is bigger and more diverse than what we experienced in our younger years, when we suffer, when we face questions and struggles that shake us up, when we are simply asked by someone else who does not share our background what we believe and why, then we must move from embedded to what we could call deliberative theology. Then we think and apply and expand and understand and articulate.

Hopefully, as we grow and become more self-conscious about our theology, we will mostly find that the things we absorbed as children are right for us. Hopefully, the move from embedded to deliberative theology will mostly be a process of affirmation—but with a sense that we know what and why we make the affirmation. But for just about all of us, there will be things we need to cast aside, or at least revise in major ways.

Often, no matter how comfortable and safe the environment was within which we were nurtured as young children, we will find that quite a bit of our embedded theology needs revision. And sometimes, the embedded theology needs to be discarded in large part.

Our embedded theology gives us our start. For just about all of us, it is a mixture of truth and falsehood. We cannot fully transcend it or live as if it never were a part of us. Yet, from my own experience I conclude that we generally need self-conscious deliberation to separate that that should be affirmed in our embedded theology from that that should be jettisoned.

As we become more self-conscious about our hierarchy of convictions, and are exposed to other people with other theologies, we will become aware that we have a whole mess of things to sort out, many options and choices. William James accurately wrote about life in the modern world being lived amidst the “blooming, buzzing, mass of confusion.”[3]

Does this cacophony of voices, values, priorities, philosophies, commitments, and opinions that makes up our modern world leave us without any sure guidance? Do we have any criteria to guide our deliberation and quest for self-consciousness about our theology? Christians claim that we do. We claim that in Jesus Christ we have God’s definitive revelation for shaping our theology.

However, one big problem with many ways of thinking about Christian theology is that they allow us to focus only on beliefs, only on doctrines, only on what we say we believe. This is why it has been possible for so many Christians over the past 1700 years to proclaim their belief in Jesus as savior while at the same time fighting wars, owning slaves, abusing their children, and destroying the earth. Doctrinal beliefs have taken the place of Jesus’ own message in the hierarchy of self-conscious convictions for many Christians. As a consequence, other values and commitments (many of them are variations on Wink’s myth of redemptive violence) have taken priority over the content of Jesus’ own life and words in the hierarchy of Christian theology (again, defined in terms of how people actually live).

Theology in light of Jesus

It seems obvious to me that if we are talking about Christian theology, our ordering point should be Jesus’ life and teaching. However, in practice this ordering point has not typically been characteristic of Christian theology. Still, the path I propose we should follow does take Jesus’ life and teaching as its ordering point. I will add a second, complementary ordering point—our vision for wholeness in our lives and the lives of all creatures. We look back at what Jesus said and did. He shows us God as nothing else does. And we look forward. How might we envision being whole?

As I suggest, in the actual history of Christianity what seems obvious to me has not usually been obvious for traditional theology. Going clear back to the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps first formulated only one hundred years after Jesus’ death, we see an amazing omission. This is how what matters most about Jesus is concisely stated in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead.”[4] What’s missing?

The Creed jumps from “born of the Virgin Mary” straight to “crucified under Pontius Pilate”—as if what matters most theologically are Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. It totally leaves out Jesus’ words and deeds. No wonder Christians have found it so easy to confess Jesus as Savior while living in ways that contradict how he lived and how he taught all his followers to live. No wonder theology became the domain of experts, focused on abstract ideas, and the tool of institutional control and boundary marking.

I am suggesting something quite different. Theology is something all people do. Our theology reflects our commitments that shape how we actually live in the world. Christian theology, as a self-conscious task, looks at the ordering of our values and convictions and actions in light of the life and teaching of Jesus.

If we approach theology as I am suggesting, this is what it may include:

(1) We engage in self-reflection and conversation that helps each other (especially those who agree that we want Jesus’ life and teaching to be our core, but including everyone else who also cares about being self-conscious about their convictions) to clarify what our values truly are.

(2) We seek to know ourselves better and discern how closely our lives actually fit with our stated ideals.

(3) We work to find ways to name our true convictions, to hold them to the light of day, to test them, and to revise them.

(4) We grow in our understanding of what kind of people we truly want to be, how better to become such people, and what hinders us from doing so.

(5) We learn better and better what our gods actually are, and how to differentiate the God of Jesus from other, lesser gods.

By helping us work at such self-reflection and conversation, some of the traditional Christian doctrinal categories may still be useful. These doctrines (such as Christology—the doctrine of Jesus Christ; ecclesiology—the doctrine of the church; and anthropology—the doctrine of humanity) must not be made into absolutes. They are at most tools, aids in helping us reflect on real life and real practices and real values.

We run the danger, when we speak of discrete doctrines, of believing that such doctrines actually exist in some true sense. We too easily forget that doctrines are things human beings make up. They are not part of true reality but are artificial.

When they work properly, doctrines will help us make sure we think about the life of faith more fully, that we consider many different aspects of how we live and think and relate to one another. More importantly, doctrines will help us be self-conscious about thinking about our theology (our highest values) in light of Jesus’ life and teaching.

I suggest we use the life and teaching of Jesus as our key for reading the Bible, for reflecting on Christian tradition and understanding, and for adapting what we want to be most important in shaping our lives. Jesus’ message and way of life then serve as our basis for evaluating what we find when we read the Bible, when we reflect on the Christian theological tradition, and when we consider present-day experience.


1. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) and The Powers That Be: Theology For a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998).

2. I get this term “embedded theololgy” (along with “deliberative theology,” used of the process of deliberating more self-consciously about our convictions) from Howard W. Stone and James O. Duke, How to Think Theologically (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), especially chapter one (“Faith, Understanding, and Reflection”).

3. William James, The Principles of Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981 [1890]), 462.

4. John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine from the Bible to the Present 3rd edition (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), 24.

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