Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Theology as a Spiritual Discipline

The term "Practical Theology" has always erked me a little. Though I am thankful for the emphasis on praxis and the focus having shifted from dogmatic theory to where the rubber of our thoughts actually hit the road of real life, the implication of the term "Practical theology" is that boring old regular theology is just impractical. I I think this implication is actually the biggest reason I changed majors in college. If you don't know, when I started at Azusa Pacific University I was a Youth Ministry major. I knew from the time I was a Freshman in high school that I wanted to be a Youth pastor someday. But when I got into the program, I became bored and frustrated. I was bored because it seemed that my classes were only interested in application and I was frustrated because I wanted to spend more time unpacking the ideas upon which we were basing our application. It seemed that everyone was in such a hurry to get to the practical that the delayed gratification of real robust theological reflection was just too inefficient for my professors and peers. Now, this is meant to be more a commentary on my own personality than a criticism of APU's Youth Ministry program. Now, with the likes of Doug Fields and Jim Burns involved, I am sure that it's the best Youth Ministry program in any undergraduate program in the country. A good youth ministry program should emphasize practicality! But good practical theology must take deep theological reflection seriously, even if it may not seem immediately applicable to creating a youth event.

The truth is, for better or worse, all theology is practical... every bit of it... every punctuation mark. whether we like it or not and whether we are aware of it or not, what we believe and how we theologize is an act of Spiritual formation and thus affects the way we act, the way we speak, and the way we live. 

A friend gave me a great analogy for this. He said, "many of us behave the way we 'see' our Father behave." As someone who works with teenagers, this idea resonates. We usually think of teenagers as free thinkers, but the truth is they're incredible adept at reflecting their influences. So who has the greatest influence? Their parents, of course. think about it... a teacher might have 5-7 hours with a given teenager per week during the school year. A coach might have more. A Youth Pastor, assuming the students is active in their Youth Ministry, might have about 40-50 hours per year... maybe 80 for those who come twice a week... maybe 100 for those who go to camp. Hell, let's exaggerate and say that a Youth Pastor gets 200 hours a year to influence a given student... Well parents get more. According to research by Reggie Joiner of ThinkOrange, Parents get 3,000 hours per year to influence their kids. Whether or not they actually take advantage of that time in a positive way, they have influence. From my observation, students are good at absorbing that influence. Rebellious or not, daughters usually act and talk a lot like their mothers. Sons are typically similar to their dads. generally, kids are incredible at being like their parents, if for no other reason, because they're with them more often than they are with any other adult. If your a parent, you can bet that your kids will turn out something like you (though probably in unexpected ways).... guess you'd better shape-up.

Apply that principal to our ideas. How much time do we spend with our thoughts? Well, not much less than 8,765 hours. That's a lot more time than kids spend with their parents. We never really get away with our ideas. The things we have actually internalized are even in our dreams. I had a dream the other day that I was trying to talk a friend into buying fair-trade cantaloupe... apparently I've internalized the concept of fair-trade marketing. My mom told me about a dream she had where she had dinner with Hilary Clinton and was asking her about U.S. relations with North Korea in light of their recent regime change... (that's SO my mom). See, I never get away from my beliefs. Nobody really does. Our ideas influence who we are. They change our reactions. They shape us into the people we are becoming.

I think A.W. Tozer hit the nail on the head when he said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." Whether or not you are immersed in the Biblical narrative, whether or not your God is the God revealed in Christ, we all appeal to some authority or narrative as a lens for interpreting our experience. What you believe to be the essence of reality, what you believe in your bones to be the truest thing about the world will transform who you are and what you do. If we have thousands of hours a year with our thoughts, we'd might as well be intentional about them.

Spiritual disciplines are about becoming the kinds of people that God created us to be.  We pray so that we can become people who are in tune with the heart of God. We read the Bible so that we can become people who are immersed in God's version of the story. We engage in silence so that we can become the kinds of people who stop and listen. We do all of these things out of a desire to be formed a certain way, understanding that what we do shapes us whether we like it or not. Theological reflection, being the foundation for all such practices, is the most important spiritual discipline we can take up. What isn't immediately applicable will still shape us. Therefore we must be patient for delayed gratification. We may never see how subtle differences in atonement theory or eschatology can affect the way we run a program or plan an outing. We may never see how the heady academic discussions on 1 Corinthians 15 are actually "practical" for planning a sermon series. We may think that reading Barth or Rahner is boring (God forbid). But if we are intentional even in the little things, the fruit of our reflection will grow beyond our imagination.

As I have said since my undergrad, everyone's a theologian... not everyone's a good one. 

2 comments:

Danny said...

You need to manage your online profile.

You aren't the first return on google anymore when I type "Wes Ellis." There is some golfer named Wes that comes up before you. =)

I didn't know that Jim Burns and Doug Fields were at APU. How long have they been there?

I think I'm more like my mom than my dad.

What you said reminds of the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, "Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Children may not obey, but children will listen."

Wesley Ellis said...

What a legendary professional golfer shows up above mua?!

I'm more like my mom too...

Jim and Doug have been there a couple years now I believe.

-Wes