Another Thought on Responsible Theology

‘Messy’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot in theological discussions – spirituality and theology is said to be ‘messy’, instead of clear, precise, well-defined, etc. This is typically a point made against more systematic forms of theology – but what seems to be the primary motive for terming theology and spirituality as ‘messy’ is an effort to avoid critical engagement and close scrutiny.

To claim that theology and spirituality is ‘messy’ is to absolve the claimant from any responsibility of precision in their theology and spirituality, which removes the claimant from any arguments or criticism. ‘Messy’ spirituality and theology are fundamentally subjective, when you really get right down to it – the messiness effectively locates theology and spirituality away from the objective controlling realities to which our theology and spirituality should conform to. To assert ‘messy’ spirituality and theology is to barricade oneself off from critical inquiry – because how can something inherently ‘messy’ be subjected to logical scrutiny?

What this does, then, is to move theology from the realm of the objective to the realm of the subjective, and once that move is made, the validity of one’s theology and spirituality becomes the same thing as the validity of one’s feelings – and how can the validity of one’s feelings, especially in spirituality be questioned?

An answer to an objection: no, this does not mean that theology and spirituality is a purely objective science concerned with arriving at all of the propositional truths about God – very few people would ever really claim to know every truth about God. However, theology isn’t mere articulation of one’s spiritual experiences, which we can term ‘messy’, and avoid having called into question. Theology, if it is true theology, is done in the service of the church, and so to that extent is authoritative. Yes, there are mysteries, no, we will never know everything about God, the Trinity, or Jesus – this does not mean that we cannot come to conclusions or authoritatively settle certain matters in theology.



Conceiving of God

It’s not uncommon in the philosophy/theology/philosophy of religion world to come across the phrase, ‘how we conceive of God’ or ‘our conception of God’, or any number of variances on that theme. Is God, however, someone we simply conceive of? Is God someone we arrive at in thought?

I go back and forth on this issue – broadly it’s basically debate over the validity of natural theology. Can we get by reason from nature or the world to God? I generally lean towards a no – because I don’t think that God is something that we approach via our intellect alone, though one cannot be a Christian and deny the place of human reason.

I would say that no, God is not someone we conceive of – if our god is a god that we conceive of and not a God who makes Himself known to us then what have is not God but simply our own construct.

Insofar as we genuinely seek God, He will meet us along any road we travel as we seek Him – if we seek Him on the road of science, He will meet us there. If we seek Him on another road, He will meet us there – but we must genuinely seek. This is the ‘burden of seeking’ that Christianity has, as well as the promise it gives. One cannot simply treat God as an intellectual exercise.

Bonhoeffer on God

‘God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.’

‘Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above, which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way to seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness.’

‘Christian apologetics has taken the most varied forms of opposition to this self-assurance. Efforts are made to prove to a world thus come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of “God.” Even though there has been surrender of all secular problems, there still remain the so-called “ultimate questions”–death, guilt–to which only “God” can give an answer, and because of which we need God and the church and the pastor. So we live, in some degree, on these so-called ultimate question of humanity. But what if one day they no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered “without God”?’


I haven’t slept more than 4 hours a night for the last 5 or 6 nights – which is unusual for me. I was reading the Psalms last night trying to sleep, and I found this:

‘You held open my eyelids’. (Psalm 77:5)
I then did a bit of searching and found this:
‘Most remarkable and profound is the ancient church’s request that, when our eyes are closed in sleep, God may nevertheless keep our hearts alert to God. It is a prayer that God may dwell with us and in us, even when we feel and know nothing, that God may keep our hearts pure and holy in spite of all the worries and temptations of the night, that God may prepare our hearts to hear the call at any time, and, like the boy Samuel, answer even in the night, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Life Together’, p. 79-80)
Perhaps God has a reason for ‘holding open my eyelids’.

Another thought on Impassibility

‘God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. … It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor. … Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.’
― Nicholas Wolterstorff

I’ll say it again: it seems that the Scriptures bear witness to a suffering God. I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the subject, and I have not yet been convinced by the arguments for impassibility. Perhaps I’m not understanding them, or they’re not presented well, or any number of things. I hold to what I said in a previous post on the subject: I am open to being convinced.