Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Engaging Theology As Theology Engages Us

Written by: on October 18, 2013

Reading David F. Ford’s Theology: A Very Short Introduction is at the same time compelling, in the sense of wanting to read more deeply and daunting, if ever so slightly, because he does not back away from asking the challenging questions one must ask in the study of theology.  It is these questions in every chapter and in each and every section that reveal the true heart of theology.  “Theology flourishes best when it can learn from and contribute to various disciplines, faith communities, and debates on matters of public importance.[1]

It is compelling because Ford models for the reader the task of theology. Even as he approaches theology from the viewpoint of academic theology, his explorations though systematic to a point demonstrate the interrelatedness within any attempt to understand and know God.

After putting this book down several things continue to strongly resonate.  Questions are essential.  We cannot and should not back away from or shy away from asking difficult questions.  In a very clear sense some of the questions that will be asked may not be quickly known or discerned. Reflecting upon the laborious, challenging and long process of articulating and understanding the nature of the Trinity Olson writes, “Theological conclusions are not just deductions from authoritative statements, but are worked out by worshippers responsibly engaged with God, each other, scripture, the surrounding culture, everyday life, and all the complexities, ups and downs of history.”[2]  As we discussed last week theological study happens not in an ivory tower but in community.

It is Olson’s ability to present questions that propel the reader to turn the page.  Rather than see questions as an end in themselves he offers the possibility “that questioning, seeking meaning and exploring intellectually might be an occasion for awakening trust and challenging to a decision.”[3]  Among the things that I have been challenged by in recent years was my own bias, things I had been taught, but not questioned or investigated.  The freedom to ask questions, to explore different avenues of thought have deepened and enriched by own understanding of God and my relationship to God while recognizing that I know in part though I am known fully.[4]

What exactly are we invited to study?  As we seek to know and understand God we also seek to understand our humanity including our desires, responsibility and capability for good and for evil.  How we worship and what we worship?  How do our actions and beliefs reflect our desire?  Olson asks, “What are the moral implications of living before a God who creates and sustains everything; who is deeply involved in all human history, as seen especially in Jesus Christ; and who is present to all creation in many ways through the Holy Spirit?”[5] Responding to this question causes one to consider how we know God and are firstly known by God, how do you understand freedom from God’s perspective and how we do understand personal freedom and responsibility? We simply cannot attempt such a task apart from inquiry, study and reflection upon scripture, history and culture.

While I would expect a book on theology, even a very short introduction to address core aspects of Christian faith such as God, salvation, and Jesus Christ, I am most appreciative that Olson devoted a chapter to “Facing Evil.”  We live in a violent world; the question of evil and our response brings us into the tension of understanding human freedom, dignity, rights, and responsibility.[6]  Those of us that have been touched by evil know both the seductive nature of power and control, systematic forces affecting economics and political structures as well as the possibility for redemptive grace and action.  Olson reminds us in this chapter that we cannot know all things and we cannot be quick to assume that we know what God is doing.  It isn’t about winning a theological debate or losing an argument.  What we are reminded of is the mysteries of evil and goodness, dark contrasted by goodness.[7] “The drama of good and evil is focused through the history of one person.”[8] Jesus Christ.  In light of this Olson proposes that if we theologically understand evil as whatever contradicts God (acknowledging that God is good), then a basic way of exploring what evil is and does is by the dynamic of idolatry.[9]  He suggests, “Society’s idols may be more visible from the margins, where the normality is under strain or contradicted.  Idols are usually supported by falsehoods and by ignoring major truths, and it is easier to discern these too from the margins.”[10] Interesting, isn’t it?

There was something else I realized as I read this “very short” book when we study theology we are engaging in sensory ethnography.  In sensory ethnography knowing comes about by participating in the world.  It requires active participation and knowledge of processes.[11] In Sensory Ethnography” the research method serves the research question.” [12] As Olson demonstrated our methods and approach vary, we need to have at our disposal a variety of tools and skills developed to appropriately interpret and respond to the relevant questions being presented.  “The interface between present and future is where experiencing, understanding, and judging interact with deciding.”[13]

Two things stood out to me at the book’s conclusion.  They are lasting words for me.  Much of the focus in theology rests in knowledge and understanding.  Olson reminds the reader that wisdom holds these together.  Wisdom applies knowledge and understanding, it responds to and deals with pain, suffering, joy and living.[14] The last thing is the reminder that God does theology.[15]  Olson is right, affirming this does change the landscape, it realigns theological responsibility; it defines the focus.  While I may be studying and seeking to understand God, in reality God is asking questions of me, searching me, judging my motives; I am being known and affirmed by God.

[1]  David. F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, England: Oxford Press, 1999), 20.

[2]  Ibid., p. 37-38.

[3]  Ibid., p. 43.

[4]  I Corinthians 13: 9, 12.

[5]  Ford, p. 56.

[6]  Ibid., p. 69.

[7] Ibid., p. 76, 77.

[8] Ibid., p. 77.

[9] Ibid., p. 78.

[10] Ibid., p. 79.

[11] Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography. (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 40 & 41.

[12] Ibid., p. 49.

[13] Ford, p. 153.

[14] Ibid., p. 165

[15] Ibid., p. 175.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

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