I was talking with someone the other day and they asked what I do. This is a hard question for me, because I quit work almost a year ago to go to grad school. For 18 years I worked as an engineer, and, in I my mind, that’s still what I do. But in reality, I’m an unemployed, stay-at-home father and PhD student.
I sighed, and said, “I’m a PhD student.”
“What are you studying?”
There are two types of people. Those who almost immediately say something supportive, and those who don’t know what to say at all. This person was clearly the later.
“How do you do research in theology?”
And so it goes.
Interactions like this have forced me to realize that many people view religion in general, and theology in particular, as ossified areas wherein there’s really nothing new to be discovered or explored. All that’s left is rehashing old discussions over and over again.
Of course I disagree with such a view. Theology has the opportunity to be as fresh and new as the people who are doing it, as they bring their fresh perspectives on science, politics, economics, sociology, art, religion, and scripture to bear on theology itself. In short, theology is ALWAYS reforming, which is as it should be.
“…everything theological has been for me marvelously new. I have first to discover everything for myself, and understand it, and make it my own. Right down to the present day, theology has continued to be for me a tremendous adventure, a journey of discovery into a, for me, unknown country, a voyage without the certainty of return, a path into the unknown with many surprises and not without disappointments. If I have a theological virtue at all, then it is one that has never hitherto been recognized as such: curiosity.
“I have never done theology in the form of a defense of ancient doctrines or ecclesial dogmas. It has always been a journey of exploration. Consequently, my way of thinking is experimental – an adventure of ideas – and my style of communication is to suggest. I do not defend any impersonal dogmas, but nor do I merely express my own personal opinion. I make suggestions within a community. So I write without any built-in safeguards, recklessly as some people think. My own positions are intended to be a challenge to other people to think for themselves – and of course they are a challenge to objective refutation too.”
— Jurgen Moltman, “The Coming of God”
That’s why I’m always interested in creative interpretations and innovative interpretations.
I’m also convinced that the authors of Christian scripture were creative in their interpretations. There’s not a person alive who hasn’t studied how the authors of the New Testament use the Old Testament scriptures and come away without scratching their heads. And in the Old Testament itself, from the creation stories (yes, there are more than one) to Job, Esther, Jonah, and the prophets, creative interpretations abound. Scripture was made out of creative impulses, and is itself meant to provoke its readers to creative interpretation of the world.
Christians throughout history have taken up this creative impulse in their interpretations. Nowhere in the Bible is the term “trinity” mentioned, and neither is your favorite “onmi” (e.g., omnipresent) or “dispensation” or “rapture” or “age of accountability”. Neither is “hell” (not to be confused with hades, sheol, Gehenna, or the grave), the “sinner’s prayer”, infant baptism, abortion, or scientific principles. But what IS mentioned are things like slavery, the lower status of women and gentiles, other gods, a multi-tiered cosmos, and plenty of rules about radical love, head coverings, eating shellfish, and how to ensure your wife hasn’t cheated on you.
For each of the things I’ve mentioned above, virtually everyone who even pretends to be interested in scripture has an interpretation that, at the end of the day, is creative in that their interpretation doesn’t necessarily follow from what the text is actually saying. And that’s okay. Otherwise, interpretation becomes a theological system that is, as Moltmann puts it, “starved out”.
So that’s why I spend time thinking about what it means for humans to be both evolved creatures, and also be the imago dei. That’s why I’m interested in the integration of psychology and theology. That’s why I listen quietly and think carefully about any politician’s use of God in their arguments. And on and on.
But that’s not to say that every interpretation holds water. Some are certainly more right than others, and are always evaluated within a community. But it is to say that going on the adventure is monumentally important for scripture and theology to be the living and breathing thing it has always wanted to be.