A Dearth of Spiritual Theology*

I have to read a fair amount of theology as a student, and I have to admit: I don’t like it much. I feel like so much theology revolves around discussions of semantics or abstracts that are so removed from our actual experience as to be nearly irrelevant. One theologian’s definition of “nature”, for example, rubs another the wrong way and inspires numerous pages in defense of his definition. Meanwhile, the differences between the two definitions often don’t actually have many practical implications and don’t change too terribly much, if anything at all, in the lives and hearts of Christians across the globe. They more or less continue their lives in exactly the same fashion as they did before.

I’m probably too hard on theology and theologians in general, partially born of a pessimistic outlook and a distaste for and confusion of philosophical thinking. Theology has its place, and it is valuable. I just often wish for something a little different.

Years ago, I read Simon Chan’s Spiritual Theology, and while I don’t remember much from it, I do remember appreciating it or at least his goal with it. Going through parts of it again now, I so appreciate his perspective on his job as a spiritual theologian: his task is not merely to ascertain the facts, but to determine how those facts actually affect the person. How does theology actually come up against everyday life? Where does the rubber meet the road?

I wish more theologians were concerned with this very issue. Some of them argue that they are concerned with it, and we have to know the truth rightly in order to live it, and yet such logic is flawed. Do we know that Jesus loves us? Do we know that sin is wrong? Do we know that punishment is a reality? And yet we act counter to these ideas.  Knowledge is apparently not enough. We function on something more than that, and I wish theologians were aware of and focused on that “more” as well as the ideas they elucidate.

I think we need more spiritual theologians, scholars who seek to understand not only the truth, but how those truths can become real, why they sometimes don’t, why the realness sometimes fades or is choked out. How is the believer affected, not just in the abstract, but also in the practical? What feelings, experiences, thoughts, behaviors, inclinations, etc. are associated with realities such as regeneration, the filling of the Holy Spirit, mystical experience, etc.? How long do such feelings, behaviors, and such last, and are they necessary for the fulfillment of God’s will? How does God go about fulfilling His will in the believer if they fade away or is that fading part of it? What of unusual experiences that seem outside the norm? I feel like these kinds of questions so often get lost in the rhetoric.

Maybe it’s just me.  Maybe I’m missing the heart that really is there. And maybe I’m just ranting a bit in my frustration.

* I gotta’ admit: I just like the word, dearth.
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3 responses

  1. Good thoughts. I’ve blogged extensively on this very thing (often with a bit too much vitriol I admit). I am quite content staying away from the pantheon of post-Enlightenment, rationalist, left-brained theologians, preferring instead to read novels and Merton, smoke a good cigar and write poetry, thank you very much.

    August 10, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    • In my more frustrated moments, I must admit I spout some vitriol on this as well. The trouble, I think, is that the academics are the ones educating the pastors who then go and lead churches. Then the church leadership isn’t any more certain of their spiritual theology than anybody else and get stuck in their heads, forgetting they have bodies and emotions and desires.

      But I’m well on my way to started a mild rant, so I think I’ll end on that note. Seminaries need spiritual theologians…

      August 10, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      • Seminaries need stories and nap time!

        There’s nothing quite like having folks who have picture perfect theology but whose lives are a chaotic mess of narcissism, hidden aggression, an affair or two and gin-soaked panic. What, then, is theology but an exercise in abstractions? Jesus must be the Way before he can be the Truth or the Life (see Eugene Peterson). Good post, dude.

        August 10, 2012 at 9:42 pm

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