Teaching a Living Theology

How can faith be proclaimed in a manner that will be both satisfying and challenging? How can people come to be embodiments of faith, whose lives reflect their baptismal covenant and the good news of Jesus Christ? These complex questions defy a simple response.

Critical theological thought, however, must be at the center of Christian education curricula. Of course, many other criteria must be considered when selecting Christian education curricula, but fostering the ability to think theologically needs to be given due regard.

Too often people are tempted to think of theology as an exotic discipline. Granted, theology does consider questions and issues that are shrouded in mystery. But theology itself is really concerned with the things of everyday life, things that are common to all of us. Theology is concerned with our experiences and questions about God, with who we are as God’s children, and with the world God created and sustains. Theology seeks to connect all things with God. Thinking theologically, then, is an ongoing determination to interpret life-including our commitments, actions, and indeed all reality-in relationship to God.

People are also tempted to think of theology as only the responsibility of clergy and academics. On the contrary, theological thought that is most reflective of and challenging to human experiences of God will be shaped by the history of the believing tradition that informs it and the experience of those who live and ponder it. Christian educator Thomas Groome suggests that theology should be done on all of our feet rather than in only some of our heads. In other words, theological thinking should be the responsibility of all Christians seeking to live their faith-those in the seminary and those in the pew.

Theological reflection does not just happen. It is an intentional activity that requires the propensity to engage in it as well as necessary skills. The following four commitments are essential to Christian education curricula that seeks to foster theological thought.

Encourage interpretation of the biblical story. The Bible needs to be understood as a witness to the relationship of God with the life of the world. Thus it is not enough to simply "teach" Bible stories. The biblical story in all its fullness must be presented as having a particular context and set of concerns, as able to withstand critical questions and disagreement, and as a vehicle for God’s gracious gift of faith and understanding.

Learners should be encouraged to ponder the hopes, dreams, questions, and concerns that biblical persons and the whole of the human family have had about God, God’s presence, and God’s relationship to the world. For instance, a study of the Exodus can be connected not only to the history of the children of Israel but also to the function that story had for slaves in the American South when they referred to Harriet Tubman as "Moses." Such an interpretive study encourages learners to consider the theological meaning of the Exodus event to historical persons as well as discern commonalities with the present day. Learners can consider how they too are called to be part of God’s people. When this kind of questioning takes place, theological thought is present.

Convey the theological tradition. Theological thought is not an individual activity, but a communal endeavor. Much of what we have come to understand about God is due to the fact that the believing community through the centuries has struggled greatly to understand God. The fruits of their struggles are handed down to us.

This does not mean that contemporary people are simply told what to believe. On the contrary, it means that we have a starting place, a place from which questions can be asked and considered. At times the theological tradition can provide tremendous insight and clarity. Other times it must be augmented or changed to become vital and responsive to the present day. The bottom line, however, is that Christians today can learn from others’ experiences of God.

Thus, for instance, curricula need to teach the history of the ecumenical creeds. Learners need to understand their contexts, be able to interpret them, and recognize them as statements of faith and trust that are larger than the faith and trust of individuals. Learners also need to be encouraged to articulate and consider issues of faith either not addressed by the creeds or addressed incompletely or unsatisfactorily. Such study encourages learners to think theologically themselves while they are being connected to the faith tradition.

Acquaint learners with the lives of people of faith. Individuals also become connected to the faith tradition when they see the examples of other people who have and continue to struggle with issues of faith. Too often theological ideas are presented almost as "laws" that need to be learned as opposed to a tradition within which we’re invited to live.

For example, learners can study the response of the Confessing Church to the Holocaust during World War II. They can read Elie Wiesel’s writings to experience something of the way in which life can both call into question and confirm the totality of one’s faith. Reflecting on such issues constitutes critical theological thought.

Engender a commitment to relating life and faith. Curricula need to teach a method for theological thinking. This is difficult work. Theological reflection does not have one consistent method in the same sense as does, say, the multiplication of quadratic equations. A method of theological reflection can assume many forms. It exists, for example, when one recycles as a response to God’s command to care for the earth; it resides in the process of discerning God’s call for one’s life; it prompts one to bring a child to the font for baptism. Theological reflection is not any one of these actions, nor the sum total of all of them. These actions are, rather, the manifestation of theological reflection.

Theological reflection is a pattern for pondering the relationship between someone or something and God. As such, a method for theological reflection includes the process of bringing one’s self, life, and perspective of reality to God and discerning the implications.

Curricula can engender such a commitment to theological reflection when it deliberately seeks to relate life and faith. Lesson plans can pose questions such as: How can you be like the Good Samaritan? What does it mean to care for creation today? How can one live as a child of God? Reflect upon your life commitments in connection to what God calls people to do and be. How can you trust in God’s promise of a future as Sarah and Abraham did? These questions, and others like them, can encourage individuals of all ages to relate their lives to God, and in the process become critical theological thinkers.

Christian education is a daunting task. It calls for attention to both the faith tradition and the contemporary setting. Educational experiences that have the potential to impact most completely upon the lives of the faithful will be those that encourage theological thought by seeking to relate life and faith.

STACY JOHNSON is adjunct instructor of Christian education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and associate pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.

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