A Definition of Theology
“God“ is a relationship word—a word of devotion similar to sweetheart, lover, friend, rock, foundation, shepherd, mother, father, and other such words of devotion. When we call the Final Mystery “God,” we are making a religious confession. If we are not making a religious confession, we do not need the word “God.” We can get along without the word “God” or any word like it, unless we are a self-conscious Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a member of some other religious community that uses ”God” as a devotion word—as a relationship word for the Final Mystery.
Honestly living within today’s culture, we find no heavenly realm of rational meanings that humans can access to make sense of the absurdity of a Big Bang Beginning, or of an evolution from the single-celled organisms that mysteriously arose on this minor planet of a marginal star in one of the hundred billion or so galaxies. The sheer Mystery of this vast expanse and of the infinitesimal minuteness of this physical cosmos is not made less Mysterious by presuming a First Cause or an Ongoing Creator of all this wonderment. As a solution to scientific meaning or contemplative awareness, the word “God” is not needed for any rational solution.
If we call this Final Mysteriousness “God,” we are making an act of will, an act of devotion, an act of commitment, a leap of trust. Trust of this Final Mysteriousness does not alter the fact that we still know absolutely nothing about this Mystery—nothing with our scientific research, nothing with our contemplative inquiry. We know things, but all that we know is approximate and changing.
The famous Sufi Muslim poet, Rumi, captured the shock of calling the Final Mystery “God” with this provocative verse: “Life and death are two wings on the same bird.” For Rumi, the name of that “bird” is “the actions of God.” Rumi uses the word “God” devotionally. And the object of his God-devotion is Whatever this IS that is ISING what is ISED.
Some theologians are trying to say that God is changing. It is true that our human uses of the word “God” can be said to change or evolve. But “changing” is not something that can be said about this Final Mystery, this Absolute Mystery about which nothing can be said. Similarly, “unchanging” cannot be said about the Absolute Mystery, unless “unchanging“ means that the extent of the Absolute Mystery is no less Mysterious today than it ever was or ever will be.
The human mind cannot speak about the Absolute Mystery itself, but only about our relationship with this Absolute Mystery. Therefore, there can be no models of God, no images of God, no attributes of God. Why? Because Absolute Mystery cannot be thought by a human mind. The much rehearsed God-talk found in our Bibles, Torah, Koran, and other theologizing is now seen to be story-talk about our human relationship with this Mystery. The entire 3000 years of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim “God-talk” is story-talk about our human relationships with the Unspeakable Mystery, not about the Unspeakable Mystery that remains unspeakable in any human language.
We can indeed describe our experiences of our conscious relationships with this Indescribable Mystery. We actually know a lot about our experiences of this Mystery. We often call these experiences “Wonder” or “Awe”— where “Awe” means a shaking of our rational foundations resulting in a deep dread and fascination—experiences for which we need courage to sustain them as our conscious state. Such courage is part of our faith, our trust-devotion that reveres this shattering Awe as good for us. Strange as it can seem to our knowledge-hungry egos, we can revere our total ignorance before the Absolute Mystery as good for us.
Following Søren Kierkegaard’s insights, we only have two basic options for our relationship with this Absolute Mystery, (1) “Yes, this is my life, and it is good” or (2) “No, I will insist on having some other ‘reality’ (or perhaps I will simply resign myself to consciously fleeing, fighting, and inwardly hating what IS).” The word “God” fits into this awareness as a devotional name for the Absolute Mystery when that Mystery is being related to in accord with the first basic relationship with this Unknowable Mysteriousness. In other words, the name “God” is a name that is expressing a positive relationship with the Absolute Mystery. “God” is not about some rational understanding of this Mystery. Similarly, Father, Mother, Friend, Rock, etc. are all words of story-time talk that describe a relationship of trust with the Mystery for which we have no description.
What does it mean to have a relationship with any object or process? Relationship includes an encounter of my consciousness with some otherness plus a response by my consciousness to that otherness. We have all sorts of relationships with temporal entities and processes: parents, stars, planets, children, enemies, gravity, etc. Some of these others can consciously respond back, some cannot. We also have relationships with internal others, such as our own bodies, minds, feelings, and consciousness. And we have an unavoidable relationship with that Absolute Mystery that is ISING every temporal isness and all our relationships with these temporal othernesses.
The argument that there is no otherness, that we humans are simply an inseparable aspect of an inescapable Oneness is only half the truth. This Mystery is indeed an Everythingness in which we and all things exist. But this Mystery is also a Nothingness, an otherness from which we and all things have come and to which we and all things return. This paradox of Everythingness/Nothingness is simply an expression of the realization that we know nothing and will forever know nothing about this Absolute Mysteriousness.
The Oneness of the Absolute Mysteriousness is part of our faith, our leap into the darkness of Mystery. We who cherish a truly monotheistic faith do not believe that we face two powers—one that is for us and another that is against us. Rather birth and death are two wings on our experience of the same Oneness. The same “Love for us” is trusted in our death as in our birth. In other words, our faith in Oneness is not about a description of the Unknown Mystery. Rather, Oneness is about our relations with the Absolute Mystery. Again, the Absolute Mystery is that about which nothing is known, including Oneness.
When monotheistic faith seems to be in rejection of the many warring, quarreling, battling mysterious powers, this only means a rejection of scatteredness in our human devotion, not a rejection of the many Awesome aspects of life. To worship Venus as help for our love life and Mars as help for our conflict life is a scatteredness in our devotionality. Of course both love and conflict are real powers in our human existing. But worship is not about whether something exists, but about the quality of our devotion to what does exist. Monotheistic faith is about an affirmation of the goodness of every Awe-filling aspect of the Overall Awesome Mysteriousness. This quality of Oneness in our monotheistic God-talk is a confession of faith—a relational quality of trust in THAT WHOLENESS about which we know nothing with our mental faculties or with our emotional sensibilities.
Every Psalm in the Bible is a poem about a relationship of trust with the One Eternal Mystery. Here is one of my favorite Psalms, plus a bit of substitute wording and some notations for reading it aloud, as I believe all Psalms are meant to be read.
Eternal Mystery, my God, . . .
You see through me. . . .
You know everything, . . . when I sit down or rise up; . . .
You watch my thoughts. . . .
You have traced my journeys and my resting places. . . .
You are familiar with all my paths. . . . . .
There is not a word on my tongue that has missed your observation. . . .
You have kept a close watch in front of me, behind me, and over the top of me. . .
Your knowledge of me is beyond my understanding. . .
I cannot comprehend it. . . . .
Here there is a shift in tone of voice: it is louder now, more openly full of dread, a tone of satirical humor is added.
Where can I escape from Your presence? . .
Where can I flee from Your sight? . . .
If I travel out beyond the last galaxy, . . You are there. . . .
If I bury myself in the grave, . . You are there. . . .
If I flee to the east where morning begins,
or go west till the ocean ends,
even there You will find me . .
Your awesome actions will grasp me. . . .
If I say, “Surely darkness will cover me,
black night will hide me.” . .
No darkness is dark for You.
The night is as luminous as the day. . .
Dark and light are alike to You.
Now the voice tone shifts to sheer amazement.
It was You who fashioned my inward parts. . .
You stitched me together in my mother’s womb. . . .
I marvel at Your presence,
for You fill me with AWE.
You overwhelm me with WONDER,
And each specific entity You bring forth is full of WONDER. . . .
You see me through and through. . .
My private body is no mystery to you.
You saw as I was secretly shaped,
patterned in the depths of earthiness. . .
You saw me unformed in the womb.
You marked down in Your records each of my limbs,
as day by day they were formed.
Not one limb was late in growing! . . .
O trusted One, how deep is Your sense of things!
How inexhaustible the subjects of Your wisdom.
Can I count them? . .
They outnumber the grains of sand . .
To finish the count, my years would have to be as numerous as Yours. . . . .
Now the voice tone is loud and angry.
O trusted One, if only You would slay all those who oppose You.
If only those killers of Your truth would but leave me in peace–
those who challenge You with their deliberate falseness,
those who viciously rebel against You. . .
How I hate them, O Eternal One, those that hate You.
I am cut to the quick when they oppose You.
I hate them with undying hatred.
I hold them all as my enemies. . . . . .
Now the tone is more quiet, but with the intensity of humble confession and sober trust.
Examine me, O trusted One, . . . know my thoughts. . . .
Test me, . . see my ignorance. . . .
Watch me, . . lest I follow any road that departs from You. . .
Guide me, . . in Your primordial path. . . . . . . .
Theologizing is a confessional witness meant for a community of faith and for the building of that community. Theologizing is a planet-wide address only in the sense that it is about the profound humanness that is possible for all human beings. But as rational content, Christian theologizing is only one of many viewpoints on this quest for realism. And Christian theologizing is a group process, rather than a merely individual opinion process. If that group is a vital community of Christian faith, we theologizers in this group work together on a common theological project for our era. We Christian theologizers serve each other, and we do so in obedience to a specific revelation of Final Reality, a revelation called “Christ/Jesus.”
When the best of Christian theology speaks of revelation, it speaks of an encounter that illuminates all encounters for those who join this revelation. When the best of Christian theology speaks of faith, it speaks of a current human response to a current human encounter with specific events in the life of a living human being. In faith, specific current events are viewed through the Christian revelation of the meaning of all events. Christian theologizing is reflection on such revelations of the Christ Jesus revelation.
A similar theologizing is taking place among many members o f Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In what I view as the best of Jewish theologizing, we find an inquiry into a revelation about Final Reality given to us in the event of the Exodus and its accompanying new mode of law writing. In what I view as the best of Christian theologizing, we find an inquiry into a revelation about Final Reality given to us in the “New Exodus” event of dying/resurrecting into the ongoing body of Christ Jesus. In what I view as the best of Muslim theologizing, we find an inquiry into a revelation about Final Reality pulled into focus by events surrounding the life and teachings of Muhammad, who is also a devotee of the God of Abraham. At least some of the theologizing within each of these vast religious communities can be seen to grapple with the implications for living the total round of life in the light of a unique revelation about the meaning for humans for living every event.
We can discern a great deal of overlap among the deepest theologies of these three monotheistic religions. There is also considerable uniquenesses in each of these three religious points of view concerning how Final Reality is to be viewed and trusted. In spite of these differences, all three of these Arabian-originated religions emphasize “eventfulness” and history and living that history in the light of a specific revelatory vision.
Buddhists, in their theoretics about Final Realty, make little or no use of the word “God” or “eventfulness,” so their theoretics need not be called “theologizing.” But Buddhists also revere a type of revelatory event found in the life and teachings of the one called “Buddha.” Christians talk of participating in dying with Christ Jesus in order to be resurrected with him to newness of life. Similarly, Buddhists talk of participating in the enlightenment of this historical Buddha. As actual experiences of the depths of human living, resurrection and enlightenment have overlapping meanings. Clearly each of these four religions have enrichments to share with each of the others. All revelation is a unique viewpoint on the Absolute Mystery of Final Reality—unknown to everyone.
The above summary is a bare-bones picture of what a confessional theology or a confessional religious theoretics looks like. “Theologizing” is reflective thoughtfulness about an event of revelation concerning what we are encountering in every event. Each event of revelation includes the response of a primal choice of trust toward living that revelation—a response often called “faith.” In other words, revelation only becomes revelation when it is revelation to someone making the choice of faith to allow their lives to be so revealed.
This definition of “theology” makes theologizing (or any other confessional religious theoretics) a different kind of intellectual inquiry than the inquiry that is done by the disciplines of learning called “philosophy” or “history” or “art” or “physics” or “biology” or “mathematics.” These disciplines of learning explore our human experience of seeking better linguistic and/or artistic exposition of our outer and/or inner experience. Theologizing begins with a revealed Truth about the Totality of Reality, and inquires into the specifics of living out that revealed Truth in the entire round of life.
Our “philosophy,” “history,” “art,” “physics,” “biology,” “mathematics” etc. are parts of our entire round of life. Our Christian theologizing has relationships with all the disciplines of learning, because those disciplines explore Mysterious Realty. For the remainder of this essay, I will illustrate this with remarks about the discipline of philosophy and how that discipline of learning relates to my mode of Christian theologizing.
What is Philosophy?
Philosophy is a discipline of learning closely allied with two other “humanities”—history and art. One branch of philosophy deals with the scientific approach to truth and the meanings and uses of language. This is often called “analytical philosophy.” Another branch or aspect of philosophy focuses upon the contemplative approach to truth, the inward-looking that we find in most religions, art, and historical story. This branch of philosophy has taken on the name “existential philosophy.” A third branch or aspect of the discipline of philosophy has to do with practical cultural overviews that combine the results of the scientific approach to truth with the results of the contemplative approach to truth into a third means of truthfulness that is rooted in the workability of a particular culture’s responses to its historical challenges.
My mentor Joe Mathews chose to call this third branch or aspect of philosophy “metabilt philosophy.” He was using this category as a replacement for “metaphysical philosophy.” In this discussion, metaphysical philosophizing presupposes the existence of a meta-world of reasonable content that is “over” or “prior” to scientific knowledge. Metabilt philosophizing assumes that there is no such “meta” to “physics.” But like metaphysics, metabilt philosophy emphasizes practical overviews for our cultural use. Metabilt philosophy views the so-called metaphysics of ancient Greece to be a discerning the accumulated overviews of Greek culture and the adding of further clarification and content to those overviews. Metabilt philosophy promotes a thoroughgoing cultural relativity; that is, the view that philosophy (human thinking in general) does not have access to any rational universals that are not the universals of some specific historical culture. Therefore, metabilt overviews do not purport to be “universal” in the absolute sense.
This same relativity-based attitude is taken in metabilt philosophy with regard to natural law. All natural law is merely natural-law-for-now. All our scientific universals are temporal constructs open to further development, and thereby no more than holders of truth-for-now. Philosophy is about truth, but only about truth-for-now in this culture—never the Truth for all time and everywhere.
My Philosophy of Religion
My interest in philosophy is centered in my interest in a philosophy of religion that establishes relative universals-for-now about what religion is and why “religious formation” appears as a social process in almost every human society. Such a universal-seeking philosophy of religion can explore what is lost when a society goes without a working religion, or when a society substitutes shallow, obsolete, corrupted religious practices for a working religion. These religious universals-for-now provide a means of evaluating religious practices as helpful or as corrupting.
Such a philosophy of religion is beyond the scope of this one essay. For now, I hope only to help clarify what I believe to be relevant Christian theologizing for our era of culture. In order to do this, I see that we need to respect the sensibilities of a workable-for-now, general (or secular) philosophy of religion. I have endeavored to write an entire book about such a philosophy of religion. Here is information about that book and how to order it:
The Enigma of Consciousness
A Philosophy of Profound Humanness and Religion