Are you allergic to theological books?

I recently started reading another book of theology, but I found it utterly unintelligible and gave up after the first couple of chapters. I sometimes wonder whether theology is a matter of us studying God, or of God studying us. If the latter then clearly I stand accused.

I have even thought that maybe theology consists of theologians talking to themselves about each other – but I must try not to be cynical. But they do seem to use specialised language of their own which can barely be understood except by fellow members of the same mysterious and exclusive theologian’s guild – I almost said ‘trade union’.

Having said that, I do sometimes get vague ‘feelings’ of illumination if I plough on long enough regardless – but they seldom last. Much theological utterance, it seems to me, is apparently about what a rotten lot we humans are, which, if true, makes for pretty depressing reading.

Some writers have cleverly sugared the pill by wrapping up their doleful observations in the forms of drama and fiction so that we then seem to be finding fault with others, not necessarily ourselves. (I am thinking of Kafka and Camus for example.) Their protagonists, however, do not often emerge triumphant and joyful – they never entirely escape from their troubles. Works of classic modern fiction tend not to go in for happy endings.

Works of theology, trying to articulate our failings, succeed only in keeping them and our ‘fallen’ nature at arm’s length – maybe that’s why they are so difficult to read – so heavy-going.

Most Bible stories are likewise, I suppose, about the constant friction between good and
evil. I don’t mean they are just moral tales though David may triumph over Goliath – it’s far more interesting than that. If we analyse the characters and update some of the props we may find that we are left with an interesting psychological situation as infinitely subtle as any modern novel. Sometimes the simplicity of the story conceals a remarkable complexity of meaning. For ‘chariots’ and ‘horses’ read tanks and artillery: for ‘slings and arrows’ read missiles: for ‘castle’ read party headquarters: for ‘city wall’ read road-block
or pill-box: and so on.

Psychological states are revealed which are maybe not so very different from those that afflicted the people of long ago. For ‘prison’ read fixation: for ‘armour’ read defence-mechanism: for ‘retreat’ read phobia. Biblical goodies and baddies have much to tell us beyond their doubtful place in ancient history.

But to get back to my allergic reaction when faced with works of theology, maybe my
problem arises because theology is essentially speculative, unlike most fields of study, such as mechanics or astronomy where there is, so to speak, something to get hold of – something more or less tangible.

Theology, it appears is different: theological ideas have to be inferred, they cannot be observed. Now, at last, I think I know what is the matter: God is simply not susceptible to human study, the theologians are all wasting their time! Is God actually unthinkable? I’m not suggesting he doesn’t exist – simply that he cannot be imagined – at least, not with any certainty. But now, of course, I am in danger of falling into a trap of my own making.

Perhaps we cannot escape the possibility that we are just not ‘meantto fret about an
afterlife. Our business is to live the life in which we find ourselves. Despite the fact  that our clergy still go, I think, to ‘theological’ college, they tend for the most part not to engage much in theological discourse. Sermon material, so far as I can tell, is mostly about the life we live here and now. If we get our values right in this life, maybe the life to come can take care of itself. Don’t worry! I am encouraged in this notion when I see that the elderly, generally speaking, do not rush around in a state of sheer panic. Old people’s homes are not plagued with impending gloom or glory. They are apparently waiting rooms where old people patiently await their turn to find out what may be in store.

A dear brother-in-law of mine, when terminally ill and asked how he felt, told me calmly that he was ‘content’. Let us leave it at that.

Copyright 2011 G Roland Smith

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