Why Theology Matters

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So you’re looking at something that Jesus says that’s hard for you to accept, something like the recent parable where at the end of time the “tares” or “weeds” will be separated out from the “wheat” and burned up. And you decide (perhaps encouraged by something you learned in seminary about theories of the composition of the Bible, that there was a process of transmission and time passed before any of this was written down)—you decide not to believe that Jesus really said that. You’re going to question it precisely because it seems so wrong to decide that any person ever goes to hell. You’ll say, instead, that God’s love is so great that in the end he will not allow any person to be lost.
    I understand this line of thought. We cannot read the Bible without thinking about the Bible, and thinking is always some sort of interpretation. But there is a move here that is both false and dangerous.
    The false move is to allow your own judgment to preside over the biblical text. And the danger is, once we start articulating “what the Bible ought to say” or “what Jesus didn’t say even though it’s written in the Bible” then we, no matter how careful we are, will start coming up with a Bible and a Jesus that looks just like us.
    Our posture towards the Bible should be one of humility before a text that we trust to be true. When we see something in the text that jars against our sense of morality, we need to interrogate the text further, boldly and humbly at once. We need to argue with the text without running away.
    It is perfectly correct to say: “God, I don’t get this text. It seems the exact opposite to what I understand to be your character. Am I missing something?” It is okay to “push back.” But it is not okay to walk away from the Bible.
    To the parable about burning the weeds at the end of time: Saint Paul tells us that Jesus is a fire, and he describes something that occurs at the end, a burning process which “tries” every person’s works. Some works will survive the fire, others will be burned away. Could it be that the wheat and the weeds in Jesus’ parable are both within each person? Then the burning up would be relief: at last, God will get rid of all the stuff in me that is bad!
    Theology is, at its heart, a lifelong engagement with the biblical text, trying to make sense of it, trying to understand what it tells us about God and about human beings. Why does theology matter? Because it keeps us going back to the text; it won’t let us walk away.
    This column is a bit of a confession. When I was newly appointed as Theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas Church in New York City, I offered a number of classes on various theological topics. Some people asked me for a Bible study. I said: “I don’t do Bible; I’m a theologian!” I could hardly have been more wrong. I learned along the way that Thomas Aquinas, the great author of a monumental book called (roughly) “The Summation of all Theology,” the great Aquinas thought of himself as nothing more than a writer on the Bible.
    We Christians, clergy and lay alike, need to keep reading the Bible, keep thinking about it, keep pondering it. We love it because it is “God’s Word written.” It is of course “only” a text: it is not a person, nor a Person. But it is a lovely text, a gift from the one who loves us for ever, the one whom we shall encounter at the end face to face.

The Teacher

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  Before he let me go to seminary, my bishop (this is of course way back in the dark ages) wanted me to spend time in the “real world.” I managed to become a junior high math teacher on an Indian reservation, one of the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico.
    It was at least a piece of the real world, and it was hard going. But afterwards, my wife inscribed a book to me: “For Victor, who taught division to Dominick.” Apparently I had been successful at least in teaching one person one thing.
    You’ll sometimes see people call for “Christian education.” But what is Christian education? Is there Christian junior high mathematics? Yes there is, I will say, but Christian mathematics is just good mathematics.
    You might think, okay, but what about ethics? Even there, some have argued, there’s no such thing as “Christian ethics,” there’s just ethics. Christian ethics is about what’s good for human beings; it’s about living as God wants us to live and as he has called us to live. And to live that way is satisfying to us; it is true human flourishing. Yes, this life is in Christ, and so you could say it’s “Christian.” But it’s not thereby un-human or super-human. It’s just ethics, because the gospel is for everybody’s flourishing.
    But let me go back to other subjects. Take medicine. Do you want a Christian doctor? Actually, I just want a good doctor.
    (Have I told you this one before? I was told, when you’re sick, get a Jewish doctor, not a Catholic, because the Catholics believe in eternal life!)
    Some of you reading this will have been mentors or coaches of young people, helping them learn English or math, helping them develop good study skills, helping them do well so that they can flourish in our society. And you might not think that what you are doing is Christian. After all, you weren’t teaching them Bible stories, you were teaching them algebra or history, and you were teaching them how to build up habits of sitting down and studying.
    Such work is, in fact, deeply Christian. To learn anything that’s true is to draw closer to the Truth. Our dear Jesus, as he drew close to the moment of his supreme self-offering, said he is the way, the truth, and the life. There is nothing true that is alien to Jesus, and every approach to any truth is an approach to him.
    So, bravo to all teachers! And thank God for all our teachers!
    Yet we also need people who not only draw us closer to truth, but who help us see that Truth has a name and a human history. These are people like Sunday school teachers, catechists, writers such as C. S. Lewis and Tim Keller, parish clergy, and sometimes friends who just informally open things up for us. We need these people so that we can know the story of Jesus ourselves, and the greater story of creation, redemption, and future consummation. We need them because they put us in position to embrace this story and make it our own.
    Teachers of the Christian faith do not call us to conversion and commitment, but they set all the pieces in place so that, if God so moves us, we can consciously embrace our place in that story. They teach us for instance how to repent and receive forgiveness and amend our lives and offer forgiveness to others.
    All teaching is of God and for God. To be able to participate in that—to be called as a teacher in any form, but perhaps especially as a catechist or theologian—is a privilege that is almost unspeakably wonderful.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: