Theology as Craft and Language: On "Tradition-Based Rationality"
When I was in college, I was a theology and philosophy major. I deeply valued my theology courses, and I took as many of them as I could. Toward the end of my time there, a seminary student and alumnus of my school (who did not major in theology as an undergraduate) wrote a helpful guide to undergraduates who aspired to attend seminary. While the majority of his insights were helpful, I was a bit suspicious of one point in particular: “Don’t major in bible and theology. You’ll get all of that stuff in seminary anyway, so don’t bother with all the repetition.” But it seems to me that theology is a craft rather than an activity in intellectual mind-storing, so repetition and practice are vital to one’s pursuit of understanding. Theology, furthermore, is an act of worship, which, by nature, consists of Spirit-infused practices that are tangible, embodied, and communally rhythmic. Indeed, our theological rationality does not come out of an information vacuum; rather, it’s tradition-based. In The Colossian Forum’s glossary, an entry on “tradition-based rationality” was provided by Dr. Brad Kallenberg, who says that “One learns a conceptual language not by reading a dictionary but by immersion in a way of life. One comes to read music with comprehension while learning to play an instrument (or sing in a choir) with other musicians.” When applied to theology, here’s what he says: So too for the language of theology. By participating with others in those activities in which the word “God” is at home – activities such as praying, confessing, thanking, evangelizing, worshipping – one will slowly become fluent in the language of God. These repetitive, communal activities cultivate fluency in a language that belongs to the particular community called “church.” The church’s theology never comes out of a rational vacuum and should never be rendered a storehouse of “brain food.” Rather, with respectful disagreement with my well-intentioned seminary friend, theology requires the ecclesial repetition that makes the church tradition what it is (and an undergraduate theology program is a good place to exercise such repetition!). One of the reasons The Colossian Forum exists is to encourage Christians who are engaging the faith/science conversation (a conversation that is by nature theological) to remember that this dialogue is rendered Christian by the communal fluency in the language shaped by the rhythms of faith, hope, and love. Lamentably, divisions resulting from disagreements over evolution and creationism are an indication that many Christians are not yet fluent in such language. A mark of fluency is disagreeing well. And that takes a lot of practice.