Why theology?

November 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

For urbane folk, theology seems like an optional pursuit, something that might be considered while skipping stones across the face of the water, or in the late hours of a dinner party, after the wine and before the cake: ah yes, let us talk about God.

But really, outside of those isolated moments, why should we care about theology? What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks one thing or another about God?

We are, after all, in a post-modern-post-politically-correct era, a time of tolerance. Reform Jews are savvy and connected, aware of practices across the globe, knowledgeable about the staggering variety in practice and belief. The practice of theology seems, well, just so parochial, in the fullest sense of the word.

Why should we care about theology?

For many of us God seems to be absent, aside from the role God plays of symbolic placeholder in our prayers, appearing as a part of a phrase that bridges the blessing and the mitzvah. Yet, at the same time, our prayer language is indeed the language of God-belief, of God’s active involvement with a people Israel.

But God appears to be missing-in-action: we have (had?) a covenant of protection with this being (Being?), a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos and wilderness, and the demons of evil and destruction, would stay clear of us if we were but to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. And this breach is a still-painful wound.

Out of a longing for a missing God or out of an inchoate desire to find what is truly authentic, we might commit ourselves once again to some kind of practice, a renewal in the wake of a life cycle event.

But this retreat into the baroque pleasures of observance does not help with the theological problem, which is why such bursts of enthusiasm are often so short-lived. We need a new narrative, a story that we tell about the nature of the world, one that has the power to shape our understanding and to guide our commitments.

Theology is needed because it defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without. Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations.

More specifically, theology answers the difficult questions of purpose: Is this the best of all possible worlds? Or do we believe that the world can change? Do we hold out for the possibility of redemption from all that is inadequate, deficient, and broken, or do we accept life as it is?

Theology also answers the difficult questions of exegesis: How do we read the Torah? How do we decide what is literal and what is metaphorical? Our need to know is more urgent than idle interest, and runs deeper than nostalgia.

We need a theology that implicitly or explicitly addresses the following concerns:

  1. One that makes sense of the distinctions between the people of Israel (Am Yisrael), the land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), and the government of Israel (Medinat Yisrael). The three are not synonymous, of course, and it is not obvious where our loyalties lie. What is included in the definition of each? Are they equally important to us? Are there situations where we would choose one over the others? Is there an absolute in this relationship – a line that may not be crossed? And how do we handle dissent and dissonance on these issues?
  2. One that explains the concept of commandment. The implicit danger of the informed choice model is the potential for devolution into anarchy. We continuously face the accusation of succumbing to mere laziness rather than engaging in principled decision-making. At the same time, we cannot enforce dogma, and would find it morally repugnant to do so. Another model is needed, one that emphasizes the voluntary aspects of affiliation while encouraging consensus of some kind regarding these choices. How might we redefine the concept of reform?
  3. One that investigates the concept of covenant. What kind of relationship do we have with God? Is our model that of a covenant, and if so, is it an inclusive one? Does God play favorites? Or do we recognize a universal ethic? How do we resolve the tension between a particular covenant and a universal mission? And how do we go about healing in the wake of a breach in our understanding of the covenant?

What we do not need, however, is bad theology. We do not need the kind of theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need the kind of theology that convinces us that we have the right and obligation to dominate others, to make them bend to our will. We do not need a theology that forces us to defend the indefensible in the name of tradition.

What we need is a theology of purpose that answers these questions, shapes our exegesis, and defines our agenda.

Copyright 2011 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

§ 3 Responses to Why theology?

  • Barbara says:

    Thanks, Kari – as always, you are clear and helpful in defining the issues.

    With regard to #2, have you read Rami Shapiro’s “Minyan?” I think that he attempts to address this.

  • TorahGirl says:

    “or in the late hours of a dinner party, after the wine and before the cake”

    This makes me think of some fun times, of which I hope there will be many more.

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