From My Thesis: The Theological Task

Dr. JoAnne Marie Terrell, in a class I took with her at Chicago Theological Seminary, once remarked that “Humanity is not the object of theology; God is the object of theology.” I think this is mostly correct, and that it showcases the absurdity at the heart of the theologians task, which is to write and say words about that which we nothing can be said, that which is, in the words of St. Augustine, “other, completely other.”[1]

The task at hand for theology may be to reflect upon God, but I think theology also has the task of helping us human beings find our place in God’s story. By talking about God, we learn more about ourselves, being created in the very image of God as we are. And we do so by hearing the story of the people who have yearned after God, and finding ourselves writing the next chapter in that story. As Hauerwas and Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “Story is the fundamental means of talking about and listening to God, the only human means available to us that is complex and engaging enough to make comprehensible what it means to be with God.”[2]

In telling our story, one cannot overlook the suffering that afflicts each and every person. Few things link all of humanity together like the reality of suffering and death which each one of us must face down eventually. Suffering, and the fact that our story inevitably ends, places us within the arc of history, and gives color and meaning to a life that otherwise would be completely placid and completely experience-less. One must go through the valleys to climb the mountains.

Human suffering and God come together in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The story of Christ is the inflection point of the story of God’s people, and colors all we as Christians say and know forever more. Our story becomes clearer through the lens of Christ’s story. Hauerwas writes in a more recent work, “that one of the fundamental tasks of theology is the ongoing attempt to develop the tools necessary to tell truthfully the story of Jesus Christ in such a manner that his life shapes our lives. That means, however, that there is not nor can there be an end to the telling of the story, because the story is quite literally ongoing.”[3]

This is a work, fundamentally, about the human reality of suffering, what that reality says about how we understand God, and how we can relate to God, in some small way, through our experiences of suffering and death. No word written here can capture the immutable good of God, the ultimate reality God represents. All we can hope for in this endeavor is to contribute to the story of humankind, in a way that maybe illuminates one corner of our experience, and shows how Christ walks with us in each and every moment.

[1] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 147.

[2] Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 54-55.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, The Work of Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 264.

 

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