What's Tony Thinking

Against “Theological Reflection”


In my work on the field education aspect of seminary curricula I keep running into the phrase, “theological reflection.” Field educators try to teach “theological reflection,” that is to think theologically about what’s going on in “the field.” Often this is done by utilizing a case-studies approach. Look at an incident, event, encounter in ministry — the case — then let’s “reflect” on it theologically.

I get it. I even value it. But I also am bothered by the phrase. “Theological reflection” makes theological thought, analysis, engagement sound like an after-thought. Something we might consider doing at our leisure. It sounds like tweeds, pipes and a glass of sherry in the old boys club.

Tom Long riffs on something like this in his “Hebrews” commentary. “Thinking theologically [seems often to be thought of] as a leisure activity, reserved for professional theologians and religious virtuosi. In this view, it doesn’t much matter what theological ideas one believes to be true, so long as one is sincere.

“Theological reflection is a nicety for the seminary professor, the minister on ‘study-leave’ or the occasional super-religious layperson, but it can be checked as excess baggage in the face of the crushing demands of the organizational church and the workaday life of the Christian. From this perspective, theological convictions are like parlor games, fun to talk about in discussion groups, but finally of no consequence . . .”

As I say, an after-thought, a leisure activity . . . pour the sherry and wax eloquent about doctrines of atonement or whatever.

No! Theology is a matter of life and death. Once there was a time when the great convictions of Christian faith were called, “saving truths”? I still believe that is what they are. They save lives. They rescue people from aimlessness and sin. They liberate people from demons and oppressors. They make all the difference in the world and for the world. Such convictions make the difference between vibrant, healthy churches and boring, lackluster ones.

Bad theology is the bane of so many churches and of a great deal of contemporary non-church “spirituality.” I know, I know . . . “Tony, you sound so judge-y. I didn’t think we did judge-y any more!”

I’m with you when we’re talking about judgmentalism and considering ourselves better than others. But distinctions must be made. Judgments rendered. Truth sorted from error. The world and the human condition must be described accurately. What you believe to be ultimate truth matters. Theology matters.

So I’m against “theological reflection.” But, yes, I will have that glass of sherry, thanks.

p.s. Friend, Richard Topping, responded to this with the following: “Barth once said that if a Christian says, ‘I’m no theologian, that’s not humility but impertinence.'”

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