Where does one even begin with Ford’s brief masterpiece? Though it claims to be a very short introduction to theology, the author presents an overwhelming amount of material filled with an array of subjects from the theology of prayer and worship to the interpretation of theological texts. And this vast material is presented in a short 175 pages. “Overwhelmed” may be a good word to label the feeling brought about by this work, as the author tends to use it abundantly to describe all aspects of life. We have the tendency to be overwhelmed — by God, by human condition, by religion, by identity, by passionate pursuit of goodness, and even by academic conquests! (Ford, 9) The overwhelmings come from within, from without, from above and from below. (13) By the end of the book, I was simply overwhelmed with all I had yet to learn! Pages of highlights, notes and dog-eared corners overwhelmed my thoughts!
In my attempt to focus my efforts, I concentrated on one simple point: “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.” (37)
Pontificating this jewel, I wondered how much our experiences shape our theology. The author seems to give it much merit, and one could hypothesize that all of our life occurrences effect what we believe. I formulated my own term for this, if you will, as “doctrinal experience,” which means that we are affected by the theological principles to which we are exposed throughout our lives. If we are born and raised into a particular theology, that experience may very well have the single greatest influence on our personal theology. For instance, a person who has attended only a Southern Baptist church throughout his life has a much greater likelihood of having a fundamentalist (or “Type 5”, 23) Christian theology than someone raised in a Presbyterian, Muslim, or atheist household. No other life experience, in my opinion, could have a greater effect on one’s theology than the beliefs and practices of those around him during the early stages of his life.
Second, our theology is influenced by the circumstances we encounter, which we might label, “circumstantial experience.” I believe that one who suffers through multiple and repeated instances of violence or other disaster is unlikely to have the same theological perspective as one who proceeds through life without encountering misfortune. As an example, a person who lives through or witnesses an unmitigated natural disaster, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, might naturally experience questions about the existence of God, or at least question His purpose or design. A person who is mugged or beaten repeatedly might do likewise. Conversely, a person who experiences kindness and compassion, especially from those of a particular faith, may be more likely to identify, or at the least be open to, those believers and perhaps adopt their theological views. Circumstances and context – historical, economical, cultural, and social – influence our interpretation of the Scripture and our doctrinal statements.
Thinking of my own story, I grew up in a loving, Christian family, who worked tirelessly to expose me to the Christian faith. Each evening we gathered for family scripture lessons and devotions, and each week was filled with service projects and other acts of kindness to live out our faith. My family’s commitment to Christianity and God had a profound impact on me, and as I matured, I gravitated toward the gospel to learn more and form my own intricate beliefs. Yes, my family gave me the theological foundation upon which to build through my own studies and experiences. As Ford said, through drawing close to God, through intermingling with cultures far and wide, and through studying the writings and thoughts of our church fathers, my personal theology was compiled.
In essence, while my take away from our previous book, What is Theology?, may be every one is a theologian, my final thought from Theology: A Very Short Introduction is theology is, at least somewhat, shaped by experience. What say you?
Ford, David F. Theology: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grenz, Stanley J. and Olson, Roger E. Who Needs Theology: An Invitation to the Study of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 1996.
(As a side note, when I was first buying the book, I found this YouTube interview with David Ford. Thought you might enjoy as well! — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E7QUhaJWC4)