Wanted: Good Theology (COMMENTARY)

Momany_HeaderI opened a popular church publication last week and actually read an argument claiming that the widening gap in wealth among people is a good thing. My first instinct was to react from a social justice perspective, and that would not be incorrect. Yet further reflection moved me to conclude that such a claim is first and foremost lousy theology.

Ironically, criticism from a theological perspective might not mean much to a lot of people. As a rule, those on both the left and the right don’t view their calling through a theological lens anymore. Oh, we will attack one another over differences in doctrinal conviction and especially social applications. But this is not the same thing as thinking deeply about Creation, Fall, and Redemption through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Recently, a regional board of The United Methodist Church invested much energy in coming up with criteria for evaluating campus ministry. The notes from the meeting stated that this work was about more than “just theology” (meaning, merely theology). Game over. The criteria were almost entirely sociological in nature. These values may have something to contribute, but I did not see much that explored the profound purposes of God in Christ and our communal vocation.

Many conclude that theology is the stuff of esoteric theories or doctrinal minutia. Not true. It is the lifeblood of the church. Some will presume that theology is done only in graduate seminaries. Not true. It better happen in church basements and fellowship halls – and especially on the streets. If the only people qualified to do theology are those in graduate institutions, then we are in trouble. Come to think of it, we are in trouble. Marian Wright Edelman once said: “Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs, and the Titanic was built by professionals.” The statement might not be entirely fair, but it does suggest a liberating challenge for the church – the whole church.

We don’t need a renewed clericalism. In fact, I have been surprised and disappointed to see how little traditional theological truths move our clergy. Real theology is different from church-speak. I am talking about authentic claims regarding the nature of humanity, the hope that is in Christ, and the love that blows away all other dynamics of relationship. It would make sense to suggest that a growing wealth gap is good when you possess an inadequate understanding of sin. Theologically speaking, sin is not simply individualistic failure. It is the distortion of perception, especially about the self and the way we readily accept convenient rationale. It makes sense to measure performance in ministry by secular categories if one has not meditated deeply on the amazing cost of the Incarnation and Atonement. Thank God (literally) that humanity was and is measured by grace in God’s economy!

This emphasis on theological claims is not intended as a pitch to sharpen our arguments against one another. In fact, if it is good theology, it should have the opposite effect. Viewing life and one another through this lens will not automatically resolve our differences, but it might force us to operate from at least a modest grasp of what it means to be sinners saved by grace.

I won’t apologize for considering myself a theologian. I do that recognizing how some have so narrowed the definition of this vocation they may not be willing to include me. On the other hand, I believe the call to good theology is a vocation for the whole church – laity and clergy.

Let’s drop the trendy disdain for good theology. In the end, the gospel is not about applying muscular techniques derived from a broken world. It is about the gracious invasion of that world by a God who gave it all so that we need not go our own, destructive way. Most people out there don’t care if our particular denomination lives or dies. I don’t blame them a bit. However they might care to meet a God who loved them enough to enter our world, die, and rise for them!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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6 Comments on "Wanted: Good Theology (COMMENTARY)"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Betsy: Good thoughts. We have fine Wesleyan scholars out there, but the church’s culture does not always support them when they attempt to bring their work into conversation with day-to-day ministry. Perhaps we can help change that situation.

Chris Terrill

Have you checked out “Mere Christianity” by C. S. Lewis.

Lloyd FLeming
I don’t pretend to be a theologian. I do understand that the term means simply “God Talk.” In this sense, the college kids having an all night talk session about God are theologians. Indeed, in one since, all who seek God are. But I am interested in some of the musings of theologians like Schleiermacher, Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and even our own John Wesley whose theology I always thought of as practical rather than philosophical. But I do not find much distinction between seeking social justice (sociology?) and practicing theology. I am not interested in a God who is not… Read more »
Zach Oaster
Chris writes: “but I did not see much that explored the profound purposes of God in Christ and our communal vocation.” — because Chris, you didn’t show up at the meetings. With all due respect, the document was “sociological” because it was specifically dealing with creating a system of accountability with regard to how one social group (namely, individual campus ministries) report and communicate their activities to another social group (the Conference Leadership Team). The conference leadership team, the campus ministries, and the Conference itself all work within a shared theology, and various ‘good’ theologies that they embrace to do… Read more »
Stephen Rankin

Thank you, Chris. It alarms me how unaware (most of the time) of background beliefs are the people who have substituted sociology for theology.

Richard F Hicks

As John Wesley practiced we all have “good” theology. You have your’s I have mine. Your’s, or anyone’s, is defective, mine is correct. I pray for you. When was the last time you heard someone on the street/shopping area ask, “Hey buddy. Do you know where I can get good theology.” People – the folks just aren’t asking that question. Stop trying to answer it. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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