Frederica Mathewes-Green has finally settled the age-old question: “Why do I usually fall asleep when I open a theological text written in the twentieth or the twenty-first century?”
The theological greats – such as Augustine or Luther or Calvin or Wesley – were obviously struggling to know God. They were worshipping as they wrote. Their theology was “connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help,” to use her words. Whatever their mistakes (and they made many), they were like people “plugging a lamp into a socket.” They knew eternal verities hung in the balance, so they shelved their own reputations, sometimes bearing prices on their heads. Their books were acts of devotion and they strove to bend their wills to God.
But something happened. It became permissible and then favorable to do theology without God. Neo-Orthodoxy made a noble attempt to bring God back into the study of God (the true meaning of “theology”), with Karl Barth, Jacques Ellul, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer trying to worship once more — but most wrote indecipherable, footnote-laden tomes for the approval of their academic peers. They sneered at worship and tried to bend God to their desires. Occasionally, these attempts to whittle-down God surface in the news: There’s the Jesus Seminar and Rob Bell’s stroke of mediocrity, Love Wins, which could bear the subtitle: “I don’t like Hell, therefore it doesn’t exist.” The public hoots.
Ironically, theology as mere academia does not lead to civility. Matthewes-Green is insightful:
“… focusing on philosophy/theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for ‘zinging’ me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.”
Perhaps theology will recover if theologians learn from her insights. I invite them – and all of us – to learn by reading her short blog. Follow the link here.