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What is the point of theology? Why talking about God still matters

What is the point of theology? Why talking about God still matters

In their new book, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun make a compelling case for the public role theology can play, says Nathan Mladin. 03/04/2019

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“To introduce yourself as a theologian at a party or during a flight often elicits puzzled stares, not wide–open eyes. The common perception is that theology isn’t offering anything useful.”

I don’t completely relate to the first part of the quote. I’d usually get genuinely curious looks rather than puzzled stares. But that’s maybe to do with my somewhat exotic PhD on theology and improvised theatre. With the second part of the quote however, Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun are, sadly, right on the money.

Theology, they argue, is in a two–fold crisis. Externally, it is perceived as arcane and publicly irrelevant, hence ignored or marginalised. This is in the context of a more general loss of cultural interest and space for truth–seeking conversations under the dominance of instrumental reason, the pressures of pluralism and the ‘privatisation of the good life’. Yet, as the authors rightly note, beneath the surface, the big questions of life are live and burning.

As for theology’s internal crisis, the claim is that theology has lost the sense of unity between its various sub–disciplines and, fatefully, it has lost its central focus: the question of the flourishing life, the ‘true life’ or the ‘life worth living’ – the terms are used interchangeably.

The structure of the book is refreshingly clear. Chapter 1 argues that the fundamental human question is the good, true or flourishing life. Chapter 2 explains theology’s crisis, tracing it back to a failure, especially in recent decades, to properly engage with this question. In Chapter 3, Volf and Croasmun call theology and theologians back to their foundational task: to discern, articulate, and commend accounts of the true life. The book as a whole, but chapter 3 in particular, is a manifesto for a theology that gets out of the cloister, down from the ivory tower, and back to serving “the life of the world”. Chapter 4 shows how the universality of the Christian account of flourishing, taken to be true for, and relevant to all human beings, is compatible with social pluralism and does not squash human individuality. The life of theologians takes up Chapter 5. To do theology well, theologians are to intentionally align their lives with the visions of flourishing they commend. The book ends with a superb illustrative account of flourishing drawn up from the writings of the apostle Paul.

With the book’s subtitle ‘Theology that makes a difference’, the argument is not that theology has not yet made any difference at all. It decidedly has, and those doubting or disagreeing have only to pick up a book of intellectual history to see Christianity, and by implication theology, as a key source of the West’s most cherished institutions and values. Nick Spencer’s The Evolution of the West is not a bad place to start on the subject.

Volf and Croasmun’s argument is, rather, that theology has failed to fulfil, and ultimately lost, its central purpose, both for the church and wider society. Uniquely poised to explore, with religions more generally, the ultimate questions and the ‘life worth living’, theology has too often preferred fragmentation, narrow specialisations, and isolation. What they urge is for theology to return to its central quest: flourishing or the flourishing life in light of the Gospel, Christianity’s foundational ‘good news’ story.

Like the ‘common good’, flourishing is a frustratingly fuzzy word: it has a nice ring to it and its meaning feels obvious to those who use it, so it’s often left unexplained. To remedy this, Volf and Croasmun mark some helpful definitional boundaries. The ‘flourishing life’, they write, is “the good toward which humans are meant to strive.” Even more helpful is their point that all visions of flourishing have to do with three sets of convictions: convictions about the life which goes well (which touches on circumstances and right relationships), the life led well (which touches on conduct and character), and the life feeling as it should (what they call the ‘affective dimension of flourishing’).

If this still feels a little vague it is because any higher degree of specificity would inevitably describe a very particular vision of flourishing. For the Life of the World is a passionate call for theology to refocus on Christianity’s own visions of flourishing life in the light of God’s self–revelation in Jesus.

Theology, on Volf and Croasmun’s account, is about more than texts and rituals, dogmas and sacraments, though it will include all this and more. It is not even just about God, spoken about, and studied apart from the world, but about “the true life of the world” in its fullness, as the home of God. The goal of theology, as Volf and Croasmun envision it, is to “discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self–revelation in Jesus Christ.”

But if it is to have an audience beyond its ‘fan base’, the authors note, theology will have to offer a truthful and attractive picture of reality or a way of seeing the world. It will be open to and engaged in dialogue with the sciences. It will be flexible and adaptable to different contexts. And it will, finally, relish rather than resist dialogue with other visions of the flourishing life, religious or non–religious alike.

When theology begins to look like this, it may start playing an important public role, stimulating our conversations about ‘the life worth living’, and offer us much needed help in living with difference and crafting a common life. Theology has much to offer – Volf and Croasmunmake a compelling case.

Nathan Mladin

Nathan Mladin

Nathan joined Theos in 2016. He holds an MTh and PhD in Systematic Theology from Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of several Theos publications, including “Forgive Us Our Debts: lending and borrowing as if relationships matter”, a report on the ethics of debt (with Barbara Ridpath), and the chapter on ‘Václav Havel’ in “The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God” (Biteback, 2017). His current research interests include: religion in London; theology and economics; the ethics of AI/robotics; and theology and contemporary art.

Posted 3 April 2019

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