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The Value of Theology

Posted on: October 16, 2016

Category: Theology

The Value of  Theology

Theology is an academic subject that includes history and philosophy. Unlike history and philosophy, however, theology must address contemporary issues and understand why human beings think the way they do. Theology is often about changing our opinion on things or about convincing us there is a better attitude to hold or a better way to live. Philosophy deals with thinking, and history deals with events. Theology must think about events and have something to say.

Two events this past week merit thinking. One is about misogyny, and the other is about the Nobel Price for Literature. If we look at these two events theologically, one is an example of theology gone wrong and the other is an example of the promise theology holds.

The United States has produced many great theologians in its history and has inspired great theological movements, but in the paradox that it is, it has also exemplified the worst elements theology holds. Misogyny is among the worst elements theology holds, and in the present Presidential race, misogyny is what the American religious right is reaping after years of sowing discord, celebrating intolerance, valuing racism, and promoting sexism. It's an example of theology - that is, of a social attitude expressing a kind of thinking about events - gone horribly wrong. In place of the themes of liberation and equality, found in the story of Exodus and in the Deuteronomic instruction to welcome the stranger, the focus is placed on exclusion, fear of the other, and libertarian (or self-centred) salvation. In place of self-sacrificial love, which is supposed to be the hallmark of Christianity, there is self-love, otherwise known as narcissism, celebrated as greatness. This form of theology is ripping apart the fabric of American society.

Against every form of theology gone wrong, there usually stands those few hopeful and remarkable signs of theology engaging our times and causing us to think differently. This week, the celebration of theology as the observation and engagement of society came to the fore when Bob Dylan - one of the better theologians of our time - won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Dylan's lyric often name us, describe our struggle and pain, and uphold the thought of transformation. Dylan's lyrics often challenge us to see the world as it is and to question what we value or what we think can save us. In the song entitled Masters of War, Dylan wrote and sang, "Let me ask you one question. Is your money that good? Can it buy you forgiveness? Do you think that it could?" That is theology at its best. In the lyric, a value is named in two different ways: one economic (money) and one moral (forgiveness). Then, in the lyric, we are asked whether the two can be connected. Of course, we know that they cannot be, but we have to wonder why we seem persuaded otherwise. Why are we commonly convinced that money is the higher value? That question composes work of theology; for the point of theology is transformation, the changing of the heart. The point is a value that cannot be purchased because it's not for sale.

Jesus parables like the Pearl of Great Price and the Buried Treasure play with the same themes. Both these parables are about acquiring a good but losing integrity in the process. We usually fail to see the social criticism embedded in these parables because, in their reading, we are usually too busy looking at the money to see the ethics. Bob Dylan, like the Jesus of history, is a poet who expresses theology in the observation of the world and in the question about what holds true value. When it is like this, theology is a great subject. It can bring our human imagination to transforming questions. And Bob Dylan, in this way, is one of the finer theologians around.

The Republican Party in the United States has been a party of explicitly evangelical and patently bad theology for decades. This week it may have finally hit a barrier and have to admit that playing dice in this game is a bad idea. It is perhaps obvious now that bad theology produces horrible results both socially and morally. You cannot buy forgiveness for bad theology, as Dylan or Jesus might say.


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