I finished reading a book the other day and I needed to decide what to read next. There are lots of unread books in our house, most of which are in boxes and likely not being unpacked until we make our final move. Even so, there are quite a few out that I could choose from. But which one, or from which genre?
I decided on an unconventional method to make my decision. I would ask for advice from my friends on Facebook. So I posed the question, “What sayest thou, Facebook friends, fiction or theology?” And I waited for an answer. And waited. After nearly a full day I had a response…from my sister. By that time I had made a decision, but since she did answer the question I will respect her guidance and read the genre she suggested after I finish the book I chose while I was waiting.
Right after I posted the question to Facebook I had a flash of insight. I have friends on Facebook who have a wide variety of views about the things of life. And I think that there a number whose response to the essence of my question, “fiction or theology?” would have an immediate question of their own, “What’s the difference?”
According to Dictionary.com, fiction is: “The class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form.” The same reference says this about theology: “the field of study and analysis that treats of God and of God’s attributes and relations to the universe; study of divine things or religious truth; divinity.”
The definition of ‘fiction’ tells me clearly that it arises from the creative forces of imagination. The definition of ‘theology’ tells me…I’m not sure what it tells me.
It could suggest that theology is essentially one of many forms of academic study. Being the study of God it could have myriad permutations, depending on the orientation of the one doing the study. I have studied theology from a Christian perspective but surely there are theological approaches to Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Jainism, and so on down the line for however many different ways there are for attempting to apprehend an understanding of God.
The second part of the definition of ‘theology’ moves beyond God to a less-clearly defined subject, i.e. ‘divine things.’ This, to my eye, seems more vague than the first part of the definition, and being more vague it would seem to blur the line separating fiction from what is not fictional. And in neither part of the definition does it state that the student should have some basic belief in what they are studying. The study and analysis of theology is held to be an academic pursuit. Something that can be pursued during the day while at work and then set aside when it is time for Monday Night Football.
I would like to suggest a different understanding for theology: “Faith seeking understanding.” (This, not entirely coincidentally, was also the title of the first textbook used as I studied theology at seminary.)
So from my perspective an essential element for studying theology is the presence of faith in Christ. (I don’t want to discourage any of my non-Christian friends…if you have read this far I invite you to jump in and explore the pool. Send me a note if you want a companion for the journey)
Faith…seeking understanding. As people of faith in Christ we explore theology to know our Lord more fully, to love him more completely and to serve him more faithfully. Not always in that order.
How do we get that ‘faith,’ that particular faith in the work of God through the death-and resurrection of Jesus? Question-and-Answer 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism says it this way:
Q: What is true faith?
A: True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ's merit.
So at the end of the day I believe there is a difference between theology and fiction. Fiction arises from the creative forces of imagination. It may facilitate understanding of any number of things about ourselves, our world, or nothing at all.
Theology has its basis in faith in Christ. It can be done through reading, through conversation, through prayer. And it is always intentional, leading us in understanding the things of God in the ways I outlined above – to know, to love, and to serve – for the purpose of proclaiming his glory now and forever