does theology matter?

Dr. Craig Keen has been teaching theology at Azusa Pacific University for the last 14 years, and at other institutions for some 30 years before that. This spring he will retire from full-time teaching. In honor of his commendable career, APU hosted a two-day conference titled “Whistling in the Dark.” The conference featured Dr. Craig Keen alongside Dr. John “Jack” Caputo (a philosopher) and Dr. Stanley Hauerwas (a theologian).

I had the privilege of attending two of the three panel lectures with these three. One of the sessions focused on the two-part question, “Does theology matter? If so, how should it inform today’s church?”

Jack Caputo began by addressing the Enlightenment change in thought and its impact on the church. Dr. Caputo was helpful in pointing out that the Enlightenment “exploded” monarchy, therefore making room for democracy; it “exploded” papal authority, therefore making room for Luther’s notion of a priesthood of all believers; and it “exploded” superstition, therefore making room for modern science. In so doing the Enlightenment also “exploded” certain aspects of life into harsh dualisms: rational vs. irrational, private vs. public, feeling vs. thinking, faith vs. reason. Where once religion permeated all of life, now religion was relegated to the realm of irrational, private, feeling, faith. Therefore religion was reduced from a way of life to a set of propositions, which could more-or-less be subjected to the scientific scrutiny of Enlightenment rationality. Theology became a discipline, much like the study of language, or mathematics, or biology.

Stanley Hauerwas is a well-known self-proclaimed “Enlightenment basher” but simultaneously acknowledges the Enlightenment as a great gift from God for undoing Christianity as a Constantinean establishment concerned first and foremost with conquering. Unfortunately, the alternative it provided was the concept of the nation-state. People no longer went to war against the Catholics or the Muslims or the Jews, but against the French or the German or the English.

At the same time, theologians began to overemphasize doctrines of the atonement. Specifically, there began an overemphasis on satisfaction doctrines of atonement. The quintessential image of justice is of a blind woman holding scales, representing the idea that justice is about getting even. But there is no justice separable from Jesus, and Jesus is not interested in getting even. As long as justice is about getting even, we will simply continue killing each other. Satisfaction doctrines of atonement fail to realize that Jesus’ life, work, death, and resurrection are not about getting even. It is not difficult to imagine how satisfaction doctrines of atonement legitimize war and other violences against humanity. Bloodshed brings bloodshed, and I worry unless something changes this cycle will continue until there is no more blood to shed.

Craig Keen then pointed out in the Enlightenment period (the “modern” period), we have come to believe that knowledge is power and therefore with our knowledge we control the world. We are in charge. We are capable of justice because we have the knowledge needed to be in control of the world. We can reach human flourishing with our knowledge. Flourishing is an admirable goal— the life and livelihood of all people. There is nothing wrong with seeking the good of humankind (so long as we remember that the livelihood of humankind depends upon the livelihood of the rest of creation). But the idea that where there is flourishing there is God, and the idea that to be just is to get even, are not conclusions we can reach by the doctrine of the cross.

In the doctrine of the cross— or rather, on the cross— we see that “God is quite pleased to dwell in the mutilated body of a 1st century Galilean peasant called Jesus,” in Dr. Keen’s words. “God is pleased to dwell where there is absolutely no flourishing.” This is the gospel: we don’t have to win. We don’t have to flourish. God’s victory on the cross is achieved by dying. In the midst of death, decay, lifelessness, in a tortured and mutilated body— where there is no flourishing— is God. As Dr. Caputo put it, “the victory is embedded in the defeat.”

Easter Sunday is not about looking back at Good Friday and saying, “he got better!” Rather Easter Sunday says, “you don’t have to get better.” God is there in the mutilated body. The hope of the world is right where there is otherwise no hope at all. That is God’s glory.

In order for the church— as the spokesperson of the kingdom of God, commissioned to pronounce an alternate way to be— to glorify God and shine a light on the hope of the world, the church must go to the body of Jesus. Its location is told to us in Matthew 25.[1]

The task of theology is not to gain the knowledge needed to control the world. It is not to identify the correct propositions to which a person must subscribe in order to be in right standing with God. Rather the task of theology is to pray. Theology speaks to God who is present in the mutilated body of Jesus. When theology is properly rooted in the life of the church, the church is privileged to listen in on the prayers of the theologians. Why does theology matter? Theology matters because theology is prayer. Whatever else theology is, at least it is thinking prayerfully.



[1] Matthew 25:31-46 (New Revised Standard Version): ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

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