Good Theology Changes Everything

Theology is the engine that drives action. There is a direct link between what we do and what we believe. A.W. Tozer was not wrong when he said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We are all theologians—there are no exceptions. The only distinction is whether we are good or bad theologians, accurate or erroneous, healthy or unhelpful.

How we work our jobs, treat our families, interact with our neighbors, handle relationships are all deeply theological things. Theology informs the way we engage issues of war, peace, death, suicide, abuse, money, time and freedom. Every sphere of life is connected to theology—there are no exceptions.

When I was in college I recall a class discussion on the Trinity. In the middle of this mind blowing discussion of how God can be one and yet exist in three persons, the professor asked a profound question. “How do we apply the Trinity?” He was driving toward practical theology—he was helping theology find feet. What does the truth of one God existing in three persons have to do with me, my family and my co-workers? What a wonderful question!

The answer: everything! The Triune God is the blueprint of true community. In God we behold how relationships are intended to be. In him we see what love, service, humility and honor look like between persons. In him we behold what safety and acceptance mean. In this God we see how difference and distinction can exist perfectly alongside equality. When we press into the Trinity we see that true love is marked by sacrifice and other-centeredness. The Triune God is the one who defines community and relationship—he shows us what it means.

That’s not all—the Triune God is also the one who saves and rescues us. The fact that our relationships and communities do not look like the Trinity means we have sinned. It means we are broken and need to be restored. All three persons of the Trinity in perfect unison to bring about this restoration. The Father is the architect of the rescue mission and the sender of the Son and the Spirit. The Son comes willingly and humbly to pay the ultimate price for our sin and rebellion. The Spirit empowers the Son to accomplish his task and then comes to apply to us the benefits of his death.

The great work of redemption and restoration pulls us into community with the Triune God—through God’s grace we can know fellowship within this perfect community. The Trinity changes our understanding and experience regarding true community. The Trinity then begins a work within us to take this community blueprint and flesh it out in our homes, in our jobs, in our neighborhoods and in our churches. In short, there are innumerable ways to apply the Trinity. When you start to think about how the doctrine of the Trinity can find feet in your life…everything changes!

This is true of all theology—the same thing happens when you ask that question about the atonement, the person of Christ, the person of the Spirit, the nature of man, the nature of the church and many other doctrines. How do we apply the image of God? How does the atonement affect how I think about my enemy? How do I apply the doctrine of the Holy Spirit? What does it mean for me that Jesus was a 9 year old boy at one time? How do I apply the doctrine of the universal church?

Wrestling with theology is richly edifying and rewarding. How much more when you work out how mind blowing truths can directly affect the very core of your family or job or life challenges.

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Practical Theology and the Messiness of Life

Stephen Pattison wrote an article entitled, “A Vision of Pastoral Theology.” In the article, he places practical/pastoral theology in the realm of “soft knowledge.” He argues this type of knowledge comes from wisdom, intuition, and mystery. He further argues that practical theology thrives in the “messiness” of life. It is down to earth and real. Here is a helpful excerpt from the article.

Aristotle distinguished between practical reasoning, which helps to distinguish the proper course of action or conduct, and theoretical reasoning, which helps one to arrive at true statements and beliefs (Hampshire 1978, pp.23ff ). Pastoral theologies arise in the sphere of practical reasoning and that they need to engage more of the person than the faculty of reason. They help people to distinguish how they should act and be. More than this, the kind of knowledge which is contained and expressed in pastoral theologies, even in their written form, is transformational knowledge.

Transformational knowledge is soft knowledge.

[It] involves intuition, wisdom, and mystery in contrast to technical control … Transformational knowledge is a ‘peculiar’ amalgam, different from the method- ological knowledge sought by the humanities in their academic and scholarly pursuits. Members of the transformational disciplines are always faced with the ‘messy’ aspects of human life. (Patton 1990, p.70)

Transformational knowledge emanates in large part from the transitional realm of the symbol. Here reason and emotion, conscious and unconscious, intersect and interconnect to generate fundamental, if not necessarily verbally expressible, under- standings, hopes, fears and world views. It is in this dimension that religion operates and from which it gains its importance and significance. Transformational, knowledge is messy. It amounts to informal knowledge, personal knowledge and that elusive thing wisdom: the kind of knowledge which is very difficult to evaluate and assess by any kind of examination process. It arises from people’s experience of living and their dialogue (at all sorts of different levels) with experience.

A Theologian You Need to Meet

Stanley Hauerwas calls him the “premier pastoral theologian of our time.” I first encountered him three years ago when I picked up his book on engaging the problem of evil. Since then, I have been trying to get my hands on everything he has written and I have not been disappointed yet. His theology is practical, relevant, and understandable. He pushes gospel truth into areas where theology desperately needs to have a voice. His name is John Swinton. He holds a Bachelor of Divinity and a PhD from Aberdeen. He is also a Registered Mental Nurse (RMN) and a Registered  Nurse for People with Learning Disabilities (RNMD). He currently holds a chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Here is an excerpt he wrote about himself.

The foundation for much of my research and teaching has emerged from my background in nursing, ministry and healthcare chaplaincy. I worked as a nurse for sixteen years initially within the field of mental health and latterly within the area of learning disabilities. I also worked for a number of years as a hospital chaplain, latterly as a community mental health chaplain. It was whilst working in these fields that I began to gain a passion for developing modes of care that are genuinely person centred and which take seriously the significance of theology, spirituality and religion within the processes of healing, healing and community building.

I am an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland with a strong commitment to supporting the work of the church. I am member of Aberdeen Presbytery and currently secretary of Christ’s College, which is responsible for the welfare and education of candidates for the ministry of the Church of Scotland.

I have a particular interest in multidisciplinary education and research. At present I teach cross-college courses in the schools of nursing and medicine at the University of Aberdeen. For a number of years I have taught an interdisciplinary course on spirituality and health that involves nursing students, medical students and students from the Arts and Theology. To my knowledge there is no other course like this in the UK. I also teach on spirituality and healthcare to nurses and occupational therapists at Robert Gordon’s University in Aberdeen.

I also engage in cross-college interdisciplinary research. An example of this would be our ongoing collaborative research with Professor Steve Heys who heads up the Breast Cancer Unit at Forresterhill Hospital in Aberdeen. We are working on a number of projects exploring the relationship between spirituality and women’s experiences of breast cancer.

My research profile is similarly multidisciplinary in its emphasis, and I have published extensively within the area of practical theology, pastoral care, mental health studies, disability theology and nursing.

I am honorary professor of nursing in the Centre for Advanced Studies in Nursing at the University of Aberdeen where I teach the role of the humanities and healthcare, nursing ethics and qualitative research. I supervise PhD students in nursing studies within a variety of areas. I continue to research and publish in the areas of nursing and medicine.

As you can see, his background and interests are quite unique for a theologian. This is precisely what is drawing about him. He addresses issues that are rarely discussed in Christian circles. He pushes the boundaries of his theology into areas that seem untouched by the influence of the church. He works out his theology in such a way that it is meaningful for all facets of life—even very foreign and challenging areas. Good theology always collides with reality. Swinton seems to live by this principle. Here are a few of the books he has written.