Why theology matters

It’s jarring to listen to the news from Haiti, the utter desperation of the situation there, and to wait for news from a seminary classmate whose father is gravely ill, and then to traipse from class to class, worship service to worship service at this institution while so much suffering is going on so far away. A classmate’s mother-in-law has died in Haiti, crushed by a falling building in the earthquake, and he, his wife and his children are in New York, waiting for a flight back to Haiti. Sometimes widespread tragedy hurts so much that we wonder why we go on with apparently trivial efforts such as sitting in a theology lecture or shopping for groceries. I was looking for a bottle of wine to share with friends coming over for dinner tomorrow night, and I suddenly felt horrible that I would be enjoying good company and relaxing with a glass of wine while others search for loved ones in rubble.

And yet, one thing I have learned this week is that these studies are not trivial. Theology is not trivial. Because theology is what many people turn to in horrible times like this, asking where God is, who God is, what God does in a situation like this. Did God cause it? Could there even be a God that allows such devastation in a place already ravaged by so many problems?

I would not be at seminary preparing for the priesthood if I did not believe absolutely, positively in a God who cares and responds. How God works is something I don’t understand, but like to think about a lot. And so my spring class lineup is theologically heavy, and I am in seminary heaven as a result. Here’s the spring lineup for you class junkies:

Medieval Theology–a look at monastic, mystical, and scholastic theologians of the 5th to 15th centuries! The reading list includes Dante, so I am also in literary heaven.

Paul Tillich seminar–we will study the three volumes of this famous American theologian’s Systematic Theology. Somebody told me, “Oh, he’s the 20th-century Schleiermacher.” Uh-oh. I hadn’t counted on that.

Old Testament Biblical Theology: Walter Brueggemann and His Critics. We’re reading six books by this Old Testament exegete, pastor, and social critic, and also looking at Biblical theology in the OT through his lens. I much prefer this to the large survey lectures on Old Testament and New Testament.

Transitional Moments in Church History: American Christianity. I think we’re starting at the first pilgrims and stopping with the Civil Rights Movement.

And my extra class is German again, which will prepare me to read and study more theology should I be called to do that. I’m taking it Credit/No Credit this semester.

One of the things we talked about in this week’s discussion of Walter Brueggemann’s book, The Prophetic Imagination, is that WB does not like sureness and certitude, especially when it comes to statements about God. He focuses on the Hebrew testimony about God in the Old Testament, such as the way God is represented in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. It’s precisely representations like those that make some people think, “God must be punishing Haiti.”

I have a hard time believing that. On the other hand, I would not put wrathful properties past God, as so many people have perceived God to be that way. On the other hand, they have also perceived God as being protective and merciful and life-preserving.

I also have a hard time believing that God does not care about human problems, does not get involved in the details, even though I probably have addressed thousands of prayers to God that begin with, “Do you care? When are you going to help?” I think that’s a natural prayer. It was a frequent prayer of the Israelites of the Old Testament, who were beset from time to time with disasters.

But I have also tried not to limit my conceptions of what God is and what God does. I side with Brueggemann in believing that we can’t say much about God with certitude.

Except that God is, and God loves. That I feel very sure of.

And I am heartened by the news that airplanes and ships are loaded with aid for Haiti and are waiting for access to the airport and docks. We are, and we love, too. Please pray for my classmate who is trying to get a flight in to Haiti to bring back his mother-in-law’s body, and for my other classmate who is by her father’s side in the ICU right now.

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