What is Theology and its Purpose (A Pre-Assignment)

Webster defines theology through the following description: “the study of religious faith, practice and experience; especially: the study of God and of God’s relation to the world… a theological theory or system…. a distinctive body of theological opinion.”[1] Theology is often perceived as the lofty language of the religious who possess plenty of knowledge but lack wisdom in its application. That they spend so much time studying God and what faith, practice and experience look like that they fail to actually have faith or practice their beliefs; that they miss out on the experience God has to offer those who seek Him. It raises the question, is this really theology and if so, what purpose does it serve? As we begin to ask ourselves why we study generally, and specifically God, we can begin to understand the reason for theology.

Many people have very different motivations for studying, but the root of the work to gain knowledge is often change. Perhaps we are studying to change our career, or to move up at our job, or to better understand the systems in place and how they influence our lives. Maybe we study the past so we can better understand the future. Ultimately, we find a very close relationship between studying and a desire to move beyond the place we are. While there are many reasons why one might seek knowledge regarding God, most often they are motivated by a desire for something different.

If we did not study God, as it is phrased, if we did not dive deeply into the words of the Bible as well as the history of God’s people we could quite easily lack the understanding to correctly apply the teachings we find. Consider that Jesus, the foundation of the New Testament, was well versed in the word of God through the Jewish people’s sacred documents. Even the Son of God sought to have a thorough understanding of those books and often made them the foundation upon which he built his teachings. Contrast this to an example of poorly formed theology, such as Christians who used the Bible as justification for the enslavement and abuse of Africans brought by force to America and its profoundly heart-breaking impact. By selecting the verses that were meant to encourage the enslaved and ignoring verses that called for followers of God (both Old Testament and New) to care for the foreigner, the widow, the orphan, and to work against poverty, they formed a theology that elevated them rather than one that was seeking God.

Thus, the purpose theology should serve is as a means of preventing ourselves from forming our faith around truths we’ve created that serve ourselves rather than God. By learning about God and putting those teachings and the context of them first, we can transform our lives from ones defined by moral convenience to lives lived according to the values and principles that God provided to us. It can be challenging not to become lost in the seeking and easy to forget the application but a well-formed theology should always be something that a person walks in, speaks to and demonstrates. As it is defined, it is not just the study of God but of God’s relation to the world. The way God views and interacts with the world ought to guide us on the ways in which we do.

[1] Marriam-Webster. n.d. Definition of Theology. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theology.

 

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Life According to Ecclesiastes

I always feel differently about Ecclesiastes depending on the place I am in my life. Ecclesiastes starts in a place that sounds dire. Many people I have spoken to have been stuck there at one time or another; it is a place I existed for a long time. The belief that everything is meaningless. Then it gets more specific. It asks, what about spending our life seeking wisdom? Or conversely, living foolishly?

“I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 

So the wiser you are, the more sorrow you come to know. The more knowledge, the greater your grief (although from observation I believe this is true if indeed our hearts are part of this growth in wisdom and knowledge). Later it is clarified that it is better to be wise than foolish, but that it doesn’t in itself create meaning. It goes on next to examine the pursuit of pleasure. This is an endeavor our society can relate to. “Do what makes you happy.” “Do what you want to do!” “…the pursuit of happiness…” and so forth.

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 

That sorrow and grief I felt made me decide that the pain I felt was not worth it. I hardened myself and decided to try to pursue my own happiness; it turns out that happiness is not obtained in such a manner, at least not for me. The more I checked off my list of things I believed would bring me happiness, the emptier I felt. I had put value on the wrong things and in the wrong places. So I threw myself into my work.

“For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:21-25 

So I toiled and toiled; my nights were restless. I worked long hours in a field which I was least suited for but I did it well and I cared about serving the people with whom I worked by making their jobs better. This served them well and it grew me as a person but I was becoming more unhappy and it was effecting my health. Slowly my passion died. Then I started to get to know God, and I really began exploring what life looked like when you put God first and each aspect of my life started to shift.

“To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:26

God gave me sources to go to for knowledge, wisdom and happiness; and He somehow made me a source of those things to others. God began creating abundance in my life in the matter of a few crazy short years. There certainly has been struggle and sacrifice on my part but on the other side of it is crazy goodness! This is no longer a chasing after the wind. One of the keys here is that we don’t do it alone. Ecclesiastes talks about meaninglessness of the man toiling alone, longing after wealth when he has no brother or son. It goes on to look at the value you create together:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 

After telling us that our value is found not in isolation but in relationship, it examines our relationship with God. This isn’t being terrified of God, but understanding the awesome power of God and respecting it; not making light of the covenants or promises that you make to God and that you remain faithful in the commitments you make to God. If the only thing you have with God is words but your actions don’t reflect your relationship, then it is meaningless.

“When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it…Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.” Ecclesiastes 5:4-7

So we’ve got value in relationship with others and God (kind of like when Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and love others). But there’s a lot of other things that come with life. Can our value be found in wealth? Ecclesiastes 5:10 says “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless.” It lists a lot of ways wealth, consumption and desire are meaningless. So where is the goodness in wealth? To happily toil and be content and enjoy their gift with a glad heart from God.

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

Contentment; to be content with where God calls us and to serve Him with a happy heart. To love the life that we have been given with the people we are with; because to not see the abundance of blessings that exist within our life and give thanks for them is to endure suffering of the most acute kind; as written, a grievous evil.

God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?” Ecclesiastes 6:2-6

We all must die. In Ecclesiastes 9:2 it says, “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” We all leave this world through the veil of death; the question is, what do we do with our life? First, enjoy it with a glad heart.

“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do… Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love… For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

Invest diversely and abundantly and do not be idle; although we now understand some things much better than they did when Ecclesiastes was written, the awesome mysteries of the universe are bountiful and remind us how little do we know. Even smaller is the amount of influence and control we have over the direction our investments take, whether we speak of time, assets, or energy.

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” Ecclesiastes 11:5-6

And lastly but perhaps most importantly, remember your Creator who blessed you with the day that you have and the breathe that you breath. Honor the covenant between the Lord God and yourself.

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14