The Art of Worship and Belief (part 2)

The Art of Worship and Belief, part 2: Theology is Art

Before you read this post, please have a look at Part 1, which essentially serves as my caveat to all that follows.

Since you’ve now read Part 1, I’ll be blunt: I wish church folks would quit thinking that theology is a dirty word. I have found that when the term theology arises in congregational settings, people feel afraid of what is coming next. They think that theologians only exist in monasteries or seminaries or dusty old libraries. In fact, theologians do exist in these places. But theologians are not confined by monastery/seminary/library walls. Theology is done by anyone who thinks about God, believes in God, communes with God, or refuses to do any of those things. You (yes you!) probably engage in theology whether or not you call it that.

The primary difference among theologians is their approach to the understanding of God. Some refuse to employ their minds in thinking about God. Some refuse to employ their hearts or souls in believing in God. Some refuse to employ their experiences in working out who God is and what God has done. Some refuse to acknowledge the value of other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and experiences with God. So there are many ways to do theology, and there are many possible outcomes of doing theology.

My own theology has been formed by twenty-nine years of congregational participation, overlapped by ten years of exploring the nature of theology and the plethora of approaches to it through higher education. In my younger years I thought that the outcome of theologizing was a systematic list of clear-cut beliefs about God. Whatever made the list was correct and whatever did not make the list was wrong. And anyone who questioned the list deserved to be rebuked. This idea has changed over the years, and here is my current thinking: Music, worship, and theology—all three—are artistic insofar as they are creative practices that wither when confined to principle or formula. Each of these three are descriptive more than prescriptive and should not be subjected to rigid systems of definition. (I’ll write more about music and worship in future posts in this series.)

In case you’re not familiar with it, I’d like to share with you a way of thinking about theology that has been helpful for me. It is rather pretentiously called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but it’s really pretty simply. First have a look at this illustration:

Now here’s the idea in a nutshell. John Wesley, leader of the Methodist movement in the late eighteenth century, believed that four factors came together to form the core of Christian faith for the believer: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Wesley came from the Anglican theological tradition, which already used the first three as the bases of its belief, and he added experience to the list. I should note that Wesley himself never articulated this quadrilateral idea; it was written out by twentieth-century Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler. I now refer to the United Methodist Church website for more detail:

Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual’s understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.

In summary, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” [The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press) p. 77.]

I think it’s helpful to understand that scripture, tradition, experience, and reason inform the way that each of us believes. Personally, I know many Christians who will object to this, claiming that their belief comes directly from scripture. “I believe what the Word of God says, nothing more and nothing less.” First of all, a pet peeve… The Word of God is embodied in Jesus Christ, who holds authority over scripture, the word of God. Note the lowercase.

Secondly, claiming that doctrine comes directly from the Bible is just not correct. To reduce scripture to a list of theological principles is to do it an injustice; it is so much more complex, and Spirit-filled, and authoritative than a list of doctrines. Anytime we read or hear scripture and then seek to apply it to our lives, it goes through a process of interpretation. (In this sense interpretation does not mean translating from one language to another.) Please understand that interpretation is good and necessary. The process goes like this:

Scripture –> interpretation –> application

So if scripture is the foundation of your belief (and I really hope that it is!) you should realize that it first goes through a process of interpretation. And your process of interpretation is based on your tradition, experience, and reason, or how you have been taught.

Interpretation of scripture is crucial for theology. Beyond this, there are a number of balances in how a person or group believes. Is belief more personal or more communal? Does it lean toward reason or experience? Is it more heady or heartfelt? How much is it informed by tradition and how much is freshened by newness? When you consider theology like this, you can understand how it is really more creative than dry and rigid.

If all this seems like too much thinking, I sympathize with you. But remember – we are all theologians, and our relationship with God requires us to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Please share your ideas with a comment.

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