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

Little Big Book: Embracing the Questions

Written by: on October 17, 2013

David Ford’s, Theology: A Very Short Introduction (1999)[1] impacted me in a most powerful way.  I first read it this summer while on vacation in eastern Oregon.  The most amazing thing to me about this text is its unapologetic use of questions to explain theology.  The questions presented are honest and insightful.  As a young Christian theologian (in my pastoral years), I was encouraged by my professors to systematize my theology into tight compartments into which I could always “give answers for my faith.”  The problem about that is that nobody has all the answers for theology – with the exception of young, inexperienced theologians.

In Chapter 2, Ford gives his readers a framework in which to frame types of Christian theology.  He discusses the common labels for Christian Theology, using the terms conservative, liberal, and radical, but rightfully claims that this is a shallow way of describing theology.  Ford then introduces the work of Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology[2], which describes five types of theology with two extreme positions and three “mainstream views of academic theology[3].”  I find myself landing primarily in Type 4, which is “faith seeking understanding” and stresses that theology is not merely an intellectual position but is also “a way of life in a community that stretches around the world and down the centuries[4].”  The reality is that there are no real boxes that can fully describe one’s theological position.  We are always in the process of discovery, if we are open and if we pay attention to life as it unfolds around us day by day.  I never cease to ask questions, even in areas for which I thought I had the answers at one point in time.  Although God does not change, my understanding of God’s involvement in the cosmos does change, especially when I find a contradiction or an exception to my way of thinking.  The spiritual benefit to this dilemma is that I can never praise myself for having all the answers.  True humility is thus an act of worship; what other way can I go?

In Chapter 4, Ford discusses Christian Ethics.  In a section on Desire, he writes:

The most important statement in a Christian theology of desire is that people are desired by God.  At its heart is trust in being overwhelmingly desired by a God who loves them.  They are created by God, blessed by God, addressed by God, chosen and called by God, forgiven by God, taught by God, and given God’s son and spirit.  In other words, any activity of theirs is rooted in a radical passivity.  How this passivity relates to human activity is perhaps the most basic issue of all in Christian ethics (and most other religions have their own versions of it).  In terms of the present discussion, how does one understand theologically the relation between, on the one hand, being desired by God, and on the other hand, desiring God and what God desires?[5]

As a Christian, this is the truth I must accept and the questions I must ask.  If I am not used to living in a paradoxical mode, then I need to rethink my theology.

Although Ford deals primarily with Christian theology in his book, he also deals with a short section on comparative theology.  In Chapter 7, Salvation – It’s Scope and Intensity, Ford gives four requirements for doing comparative theology; here, he discusses salvation in Buddhism and Christianity.  After explaining four requirements for this comparative task, he surprises his readers (at least he surprised me) with a short admonition to what he calls “a genuine exercise of mutual hospitality[6].”  Ford then writes:

What does the field of theology and religious studies have to contribute to the study of and hospitality between ways of salvation?  I have described the field as having responsibilities towards the academy, the religious communities, and society, and those demands are perhaps most overwhelming in the area of salvation as described in this chapter.  Both the scope of salvation and its multiple intensities invite and even press for academic engagement with urgent questions of truth, beauty, and practice in the contemporary world as well as with the study of religious meaning and phenomena through a range of disciplines.  Likewise, the scope, intensities, and urgencies press each particular tradition into deeper engagement with others.  So the rationale for the shaping of the field as outlined in Chapter 2 above is strengthened by the implications of what has been described in this chapter under the heading of salvation.  And a responsible cultivation of this field can in its own way share in the healing of our world.[7]

Coming from an evangelical background, in my past, these statements would have made me close this book in shock and anger.  How could this author dare to equate Buddhism and Christianity in matters of salvation?  But now I ask the question, what is the purpose of theology in the first place, particularly in a pluralistic society such as our own?  If we are fearful of other views, and especially if we are afraid of dialogue with “the other,” then what good is our theology?  If Christian theology is merely a set of beliefs but does not cause us to engage with others on the hard questions we are called to embrace, then we of all people are most miserable.  And, if we as academics are unable to learn from others’ viewpoints and perspectives, then we are not truly academics.  Let us embrace the questions; let us embrace the “other”; and let us embrace ourselves in a spirit of humility and theological honesty.

[1] David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000)

[2] Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1992)

[3] Ford, Theology, 20-28: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000) 20-28

[4] Ford, Theology, 27

[5] Ford, Theology, 58

[6] ibid., 121.

[7] Ibid., 121-122.

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

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