How My Conversion Shapes the Way I Study Theology

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It’s the end of an academic year. Quite apart from the fact that I didn’t get into various PhD programs, this has invited reflection about why and how I’m trying to do what I’m trying to do—namely, study theology for the foreseeable future. Writing often helps me with this kind of reflection. And it’s my experience that reading another’s reflection can sometimes help one process one’s own thoughts. So, at the risk of self-indulgence, here’s a blog post reflecting on why and how I am so wrapped up in all this.

There are lots of answers to the question ‘why do you study theology?’ There are at least as many answers to the question of ‘how?’ Mine hinge around the way I became a Christian. I wrote about it at length a while ago—but long story short, I woke up one morning believing in the Christian God having not believed in the Christian God when I went to sleep. This is, of course, just one point in a story (conversion is a movement, not a moment). It was not a new beginning, or a division between old and new. Any other changes that occurred because of this did so gradually, are still doing so, and don’t necessarily have a direction. But without giving it undue centrality, the particular character of that non-experience has been fundamental to the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of studying theology since then.

In terms of why: first, there’s a self-centered element. I want to understand what happened to me. It’s entirely possible I banged my head in the night—but since I can’t occupy a position where I don’t believe what I’ve come to believe, I’m working on the premise that even this would just have knocked something true into place. When navigating the character of my belief, then, how I grew up is secondary (not irrelevant; it provided the framework through which faith came to work) to systematic theology. As such, theology is more important to my personal questions than ecclesiology, ethics, and psychology. It’s this theology which seeks to articulate the interworking of God’s activity; and if I want to have some sense of what happened to me, it’s helpful to have a sense of the Trinity, the Incarnation, grace, creation, sin, and all that.

Secondly, there is the sense that being able to study theology is a gift. I was taking theology classes before I was a Christian, of course, and enjoying them more than I thought I would. It’s also possible to study Christian theology without being a Christian—and there are benefits to this! But for my experience, being able to read theology as gesturing toward a divine reality, and to find joy and excitement in this, really feels like a gift. I would have found joy in other things, I’m sure; but I would not have found the joy I do in theology without believing.

Finally, the manner of my conversion has convinced me that there is something in abstract theology which can nourish everyday life. Without wanting to valorize myself today (I can still be pretty terrible), I was an awful person in the years before converting—cruel, spiteful, misogynistic, and arrogant etc. Nothing completely out of the ordinary for teenage boys who read Nietzsche badly, but the ordinariness shouldn’t detract from the awfulness. Christian faith shouldn’t be necessary for men like me to try and move away from this kind of awfulness—and I hope I would’ve realized this some other way in a world where I didn’t become a Christian—but in my case, is’t just so happened that it was my faith that made me realize who I was and had been. It was the patterns laid out through systematic theology that have helped me start to chart a course in a different direction. Behind all of this, there’s been a constant question ‘if God is God, what am I?’, the answers to which have often drawn me to places which felt like the right places to be. Without wanting to generalize from this experience to all humanity, I believe this can be applicable to other lives.

In terms of the how: there is a level at which my belief in God is inexplicable. My mind wasn’t changed through argument, and I was never convinced that belief in any God (let along the Christian God) followed from rational argument. As a result, theology has never really been about justifying Christian belief. I’m less likely to argue that it can’t be justified than I was a few years ago. But simply through how I came to believe, I’ve remained convinced that Christian faith needs no justification outside itself in order to make its claims. There’s a danger to this, of course, in that one can easily move from this belief to the belief that theology need not meet any standards of rational inquiry. This is false; at the least, Christian theology should cohere on its own terms, and its account of human reason should not veer too far from the fact that the reason with which we pursue theology is the same reason with which we pursue science, maths, literary criticism, history, and philosophy. But with this limited boundary, I do not think that Christian theology should be about making sense of or justifying itself in terms of these other forms of inquiry. It should not be segregated from them; but neither should it be made dependent on them.

The fact that this conversion was so dramatic (again, not the moment so much as the movement) also negates any postulated division between doctrine and life—even if it’s a division one thinks can be overcome. Any conceptual statement be totally abstracted from the conditions of its utterance, of course, and I don’t think there’s a way of preventing this from happening. But this fact does not mean that abstract conceptual statements are not part and parcel of the lives they inform. On this supposition, it makes no sense to say that the doctrine of the Trinity can be applied to concrete situations; that assumes that the doctrine is not already in some sense a part of the situations to which it is being referred. Rather, I find myself compelled to say that if God is Triune, then both the significance of this doctrine and the reality of the situation through which it is being approached must—at most—be different of the same state of affairs, without one being necessarily authoritative over the other.

Another way of putting this is to say that life is systematic. As such, it is necessary to describe and critique life in systematic terms which life has always already thrown up. There are multiple such descriptions—nothing is just one thing, after all. And the manner in which systematic reflection can critique and inform its own ground is as trick a subject for me as the basic idea that human beings are self-reflexive creatures (I still find this obvious fact utterly mind boggling). But with these provisos, if we believe we live in God’s creation, if we believe the Holy Spirit breathes through this creation, and if we believe that Jesus Christ is the interpretive ground and guarantor of creaturely value, then systematic theology is already woven into our systematic lives. At the very least, my conversion has been an emphatic personal experience of this. And this experience has been integral to the way I study theology.

Finally, one of the most profound consequences of my conversion was a change in the way I approached community. I can safely say that my faith has led me to develop deeper friendships and relationships (especially those completely independent of any religious setting) than I was capable of before. The theological reflections which brought me most joy have often come out of these friendships—even when coming across an idea in a book, it has been the development of that idea through dialogue with others that brought it to life. At YDS, I’ve been especially blessed to be surrounded by people who make sense of that idea that studying theology is communal work. And since these communities have only been possible for me through my faith, studying theology in this way seems a fitting reflection of the gratitude I feel for being able to do it at all.

All this is an attempt to articulate how the logic of my coming to faith has influenced my study of that faith’s inner logic, without assuming that these two logics can either be reduced to or separated from one another. At the end of the day, I believe theology is both a personal and communally motivated endeavor, and one which can be pursued for manifold reasons—each of which informs, without restricting, how that endeavor comes to be pursues. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope it’s been interesting, and that it might be useful in some way for provoking further thought (if it is, please do comment! It’s always lovely to read other people’s experiences etc.).

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