Reflections, Theology

Paul and Practical Theology

In New Testament class we’ve been talking about Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (or at least the first one we still have), and my professor almost bursts at the seams with all his excitement. He loves the book because it gets down and dirty, addressing very particular situations within the Corinthian church that are affecting the way they worship and live.

If you only read Romans, you might be tempted to think that Paul was attempting a kind of crude systematic theology — going point by point and setting forth what Christ-followers should believe. Read more carefully and you notice what some people call missional theology — theology that is aiming to convert or uphold a particular group and is tailored to that particular aim. But 1 Corinthians is so obviously practical theology — theology that looks at particular practices of the church and tries to make sense of them in regards to life in Christ.

And, oh, is it messy! In one point in 1 Corinthians, Paul says, essentially, “if you’re married, stay married. If you’re single, stay single. That is, unless it’s better for you to get married. In which case, get married.” In another place, Paul says, essentially, “it’s fine to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That is, unless you’re going to hurt someone else by doing that. In which case, it’s not okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols.” It ends up making Paul look like (especially if you read all of Paul’s letters) a wishy-washy, flip-flop who doesn’t really know what he believes.

Unless, of course, if you notice that his theology is messy because life is messy, and Paul is trying desperately to make this new Christ-following faith thing apply to life.

This is why we need practical theology, even though it’s notoriously hard to pin down. This is why we need our practices and our understandings of God to be in tandem. Everything we do says something about what we believe about the Sacred. Whether we notice it or not, every moment in life we are making choices about how to act, and these choices not only are affected by what we believe about God; they also affect what we believe about God. Every single person is a theologian, all the time.

Now, are all our decisions life-and-death decisions? No. Am I going to radically alter my conception of God because of the kind of shoes I choose to wear? Probably not.

But a lifetime of little choices, a lifetime of interacting with grace breath by breath… these are the things that form us. These are the sacramental moments when God can show up, bidden or unbidden.

So what are we saying (to ourselves, to others) about God when we gather for a potluck? When we choose our mode of transportation? When we pick the color of the carpet for our churches (and the whole process that comes with that!)?

What are we saying about the Christ we follow when we are forming our budgets? When we spend our time? When we choose our movies and TV shows?

What are we saying about the Spirit who enlivens us when we offer support to grieving ones? When we garden? When we show affection?

We are always doing theology, whether we’re conscious of it or not. This, I think, is what Paul knew. It behooves us to struggle, as Paul seems to have, to find words, always provisional, for this haphazard and holy, inch-by-inch and row-by-row, imperfect and imprecise “study of God”, because it begins to usher us toward a more whole life, a life lived more fully in the sacramental presence of God.

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