theology and power :: what’s the use?

by Eric Daryl Meyer

Here’s an excerpt of a conversation that I thought others might want in on – feel free to add your two bits, eh?:

I’m going to throw a few words back; you said:

    “I’m really trying to figure things out – especially the power of nations against nations…especially “doing” theology while comfortably existing in a nation – I mean really – how does this work. Maybe they are right – in order for our ‘lil theology centers to keep tick’n out happy theology that “cares for the poor” we better keep piling money into our military piggy bank…because ALL nations will do this, so we better be the best at it.”

If theology is a detached “merely academic” enterprise, then you are right; theologians are the worst of the bourgeoisie – lazy, overfed men (and women) peddling metaphysical delicacies to those with the capital to buy a few years of listening leisure. If doing theology isn’t really “doing” anything and we need a big brother with a big stick to protect our little project on the world’s playground from other goons with sticks, then let’s call it a good two thousand years, pack up our bags, and move to a “real” vocation. Obviously, I don’t think that’s the case. Theology used to be called (ah… the good old days) the queen of the sciences, because it is, like the sciences that originally grew from theology, an attempt to describe reality as accurately as possible. I can see why the distinction exists, but lumping theology in with “the humanities” can occasionally make it sound like a really creative thing that humans have been doing for a few thousand years. “Now, we need some more creative folks to cook up some new theology for us.” Theology is a creative discipline, and I’ll stand by the statement that theology without poetry is theology without truth. But, it’s not merely creative – it really is an attempt to understand our context and help people to live the best lives possible. This is why you will see theologians fighting side by side with scientists for the reality of objective truth, however limited our access to it might be. Good theology corresponds to reality, otherwise it is bedtime stories and fairy tales; and Plato was right to banish such poets from his Republic.

On the other hand, on an entirely worldly level, theology has a lot to say (to anyone who will listen) about who gets to carry the sticks, how they carry them, and when they get to use them. Even if we want to think on an entirely materialistic/naturalistic/I-don’t-bother-thinking-about-what-I-can’t-see level, theologians have a few handy suggestions for how we might want to structure our society. In fact, I would be willing to venture that even the best parts of our pluralist/materialist/secular culture are vestiges of a Christian worldview, existing parasitically on the roots of value still left in the veins of the people. Rome had no welfare system, and as bad as Europe’s religious wars were, they were never total wars (the idea that even in war there are rules to be obeyed is the product of consciences guilt-stricken over the idea of war in the first place) – it took secularized nations deliberately cutting themselves off from their roots to start using their big sticks against women, children, and anyone with a different vision of reality. (Hitler, Stalin, Fr. Revolution…. etc.).

Theology isn’t merely the quiet hobby of a few irrelevant ivory tower residents. Theology is the memory and the identity of the church. Theology is our best link to God’s gracious offer of love, and to his commands.

Who tells the government to put down the stick? Who is willing to stand fast in the face of its violence? Who is willing to pick up the pieces when everything goes to hell? Who is willing to love their neighbor regardless of that neighbor’s political position, past, or ethnicity? Who is willing to call to repentance the rich and the powerful who abuse their neighbors? Who has a moral vision on the basis of which to call for that repentance? Which people’s revolution in history has not merely turned the tables, the old poor become the new rich and powerful – one dictatorial minority swapped for another.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that God has a plan for the government. God has a command for the government. I’d even be willing to say that God works through the government, whether or not the government recognizes it. God’s command for the governments of our world is that they should protect and preserve life and freedom. They should make the space where the people of earth can work hard, love their families, and worship their creator.

Theology is important (among other reasons) because it recognizes the limits God has placed upon any and every government. The church’s place in the world is to call the government (and others) to respect those limits. The church can speak God’s word to the world. When the institutions of the world quit paying any attention to the role that God intended them to fulfill, who will speak out for those left in the lurch?

The way I see it, we could endlessly organize new activist groups, set up new infrastructures, and write new mission statements (until these become outdated and the issues have changed)… or we could attempt to organize and motivate an enormous group whose infrastructure is already in place, whose calling is to love and serve endlessly, and whose mission statement is written on the heart of every person baptized in to the name of the Triune God who made the whole stinkin’ universe in the first place. If “doing” theology only amounts to keeping the church (or even small segments of the church) faithful to its identity, then I’m all for it.

That’s a load of dogmatic booya for you…