Surplus of meaning

Why Bother with Theology?

The oft captivating Blake Huggins at (Ir)religiosity has prompted me once again.  I encourage folks to go give his post "The task of the theologian: responsibility for God," a read and/or check out my thoughts on a very similar topic below.


What do we Gain with a Doctrine of God? 

What do we accomplish in the development of a Doctrine of God? With ecclesiology we find ourselves left with the suggestions of worship, the role of the church, and the relationship of Church to world. With Doctrine of Humanity we investigate theological anthropology and move towards some sense of our ultimate purpose, how we might be called to be in relation to one another and the world, and potentially, the ground of a Christian ethic. What then, does Doctrine of God provide us with? I believe that the answer lies in the way of C.S. Lewis's comment that, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." The best of our Doctrines of God provide us with a way to consider the Divine in such a manner that also allows us to make some greater sense of the world and our various experiences within it.


Our articulations of the Divine must simultaneously be a commentary on our own condition as well as a means of hope for something more. In some sense, we run the risk of imbuing God with our own ideas, falling into Feurbach's accusation that our constructs of God are always just projections of the values we hold most dear, rendering God as nothing but an objectified and created container that holds our collective virtues. Of course, on the other side, explaining God as somehow beyond everything of this world also runs into problems as it relegates the Divine to a distant and disconnected horizon.


I do not want to locate God solely within the known world and our experience, as we can too easily define God in our image instead of vice-versa. Similarly, I am resistant to the idea that God is entirely beyond our experience as well, a God which would force an articulation of the nature of God to be greater than our experience, a wholly other God. With both of these extremes offering something to the person of faith, and with either possessing its own potential pitfalls, it behooves us to consider how we might incorporate these positions into one articulation of God and God's nature, and in so doing, explore the role and purpose of a well-crafted Doctrine of God.


Divine Resonance

If our explication of the nature of the Divine somehow places God fully beyond human access, then God becomes available only beyond life. If, conversely, it is the case that God's valency is experiential, then our models and articulations of the Divine ought to provide for this to be the case. Those who see this move as heretical often have a sense of the role of theology and doctrine of God that differs substantially from mine. While many feel as if knowing and proclaiming the redemptive truth of God is central to a Christian life, I have some significant suspicion of those who insist on their interpretation as the only valid approach, as if their sense of God is ultimate and complete. I agree with Tripp Fuller that, "in an unfinished universe it is unreasonable to think a theology is finished." What we know of God is contextual, personal, and ever capable of change. To say that God is ever changing may seem to fly in the face of the eternal nature of God, and yet I believe that there is some grounds for it, which I would like to articulate via analogy, of all things, to chemistry.


Asked what H2O is, most people will answer water. They are correct, and there is more to the story than their response. Formed the other way around, "H2O" as an answer to the question "What is water?" is not wholly correct. Imagine two molecules of water, each with two atoms of hydrogen associated to a larger atom of oxygen. What we have discovered is that even in a container of "pure" water, the reality is that a collection of H2O molecules do not remain simply a collection of H2Os. Instead, they begin to interact with one another, resulting in one of the two oxygen atoms taking a hydrogen atom from the other, an event which chemists notate as 2 H2O <–> H3O+ + OH and refer to as the "self-ionization" of water. Essentially, even though water is H2O, that is, two hydrogen atoms and and one oxygen atom, water does not ever actually exist in a pure H2O form: it is constantly in a state of resonance, transition, and relation: that state of oscillation in process between H3O+ and OHis what we refer to as H2O, as water. So too is God: somewhere between transcendent and immanent; personal and eternal; and any number of other seeming contradictions.


By extension then, our task as theologians is not to name God as a fixed God that is and always will be, but to describe God in a such a way that captures some of the Divine nature as it is in the process of becoming something other than what we have named it. This is not to say that God is becoming something ungodlike any more than it is to say that water is not water-like simply because we always thought it was just H2O. The function of a Doctrine of God is to provide a sketch of how it is that God is at some middle point of becoming something more than we thought it was, but not so far afield that it is unrecognizable; two molecules of water do not self-ionize into wombats: they stay water-related, just further afield than we first thought. There is enough sense of continuity between H3O+ and OHsuch that it makes sense to call a mixture of those things H2O, even though what we have discovered challenges our sense of what exactly that wet stuff is.

As we scientifically name water as H2O because that is the state in between its two poles of existence, so too can we conceive of God, with the noted exception that while water "self-ionizes" into two distinct parts, each of which is qualitatively identifiable, quantifiable, and fixed, God seems to be formed of more parts than we can name. Yes Father, yes Son, yes Holy Spirit, and yes also Alpha and Omega; Love and Light; and Living Water and Word. Yes, yes, and infinite becoming yes.


The Truth of the Daily

If I ask someone to tell me what water is and they say that water is something you drink, that doesn't mean they got it wrong. Even though there are other things that we drink as well, that certainly is one of the things that water is. Too often we associate truth with abstract generality so that when someone speaks to the particulars of their experience we discount, or devalue their commentary in light of more totalizing and structural methodologies.


Understanding and/or relating to some aspect of the Divine does not entail understanding and/or relating to the entirety of God. If you ask my wife if she knows me, she is sure to say yes, and you would think nothing of it. Of course she knows me. And yet there are thoughts I think, things I see, and stories I have heard that she has no knowledge of. That doesn't mean she does not know me: it means than I am more than that which she knows. I see no reason why this should not be the case with God as well. We articulate God's qualities not to limit or ascribe finitude to that which is more than that, but as an offering and invitation to others that they might respond in kind, lending their voices to a conversation which is both the echo of ancient words and the renewal of current hope.


I see the task of a theologian as one akin to a poet's: to capture some sense of the moment in such stunning detail — by tone, image, sound, example, etc — that upon reflection, some echo of that moment is called forth in the other. In the writings of George Fox, he repeatedly called for Christians "to answer to that of God in all." As a theologian, I understand my role as an articulator of the Divine that I perceive in the world, an answering call that hopefully encourages other to do the same.