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On Theology

by The Reverend Ben Brown


We need good theology. Theology is our thinking about God, the study of, and thinking about, God. A thriving Church is a thinking Church. Bad religion, glib religion, fanatical religion, stale religion springs out of bad theology. But what is bad theology? One way to look at bad theology is that which attempts to flatten out and simplify the mystery of God revealed in Christ through the power of the Spirit. A bad theology is a theology which has stopped humbly, deeply thinking, that has arrived at some point and has anxiously planted its flag. Social media is awash with simplistic theology, theology which announces its position and is absolutist and defensive and often angry.


Churches are places where theology can live and thrive. They can also be places where theology goes to die. For theology to thrive the Church needs to be a place where prayer happens. Prayer and theology go together. In prayer we encounter and participate in the mystery of God-with-us. Our prayer can take us into the mind of Christ as Paul puts it. We learn our thinking about God through the discipline and delight of our worship. If they become separated, if our thinking is no longer informed by our prayer, our thinking about God will become stagnant and stale.


Churches then should be places where thinking and praying go together, we need to meet Christ in communion as real presence so we can meet Christ as real presence in the world. Theology is informed by our radical humility before the living God, a humility which should question our easy absolutisms, our stale conservative convictions, our liberal platitudes. Theology is a living encounter with the living God. But theology needs also to be informed by the depth of the Church’s theological tradition.


Some months ago, we ran an experimental series of discussions after the Sunday service where we talked about a few of the themes from the day’s gospel and sermon. It felt fresh and challenging, people would come up with fascinating insights and examples of how to understand God within the complexity of modern life. We will be trying these discussions again soon as they showed how we are natural theologians, working out how Christ reveals God now, what it feels like to try and live out of the vulnerable space of love which Christ invites us into.


I’ll end with a substantial quote by one of our greatest theologians, Rowan Williams. What is striking about Williams’ writing is its depth and its humility and its refusal of easy, glib answers. Williams is, at times, a complex and demanding writer, but he takes the job of being a theologian seriously, his thinking and writing about God are shaped by prayer and openness to the mystery of the living God. This paragraph is well worth praying over and living with (and the book is well worth reading).


We have to give up a false 'spiritualism', an ego-centred mystical language. We are not pure spirit, and we cannot make ourselves at home with the infinite God by a technique of detaching ourselves from our limitations. We must embrace what God has embraced-the compromising and difficult life of the body and the emotions. Yet this is emphatically not a refusal of ascetic detachment in its proper sense, which is the release of the spirit from being enslaved to limited goals, to the dream of possession and control. Wisdom will teach us-if we allow it-that our deepest desire is never fulfilled by the possession of an object; it is the unfathomable emptiness that opens out on to God. At this level of nakedness, all human beings are one. And when God becomes fully and consciously the object of such desire, the image of God in human beings is realised; we come to share in God's relation to God. Our unlimited, dependent openness to God is a finite sharing in God's eternal openness to God, the divine life aware of itself and understanding itself and loving itself. Our holiness is not a fixed achievement but a journey, without any final limit in this life, into ever-greater dependence and longing, into a love that has no end.


From On Augustine by Rowan Williams. Bloomsbury. 2016.

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