Last time we looked at the relationship between gospel and culture. We discussed the Accommodation View and the Isolation View, both of which we found to be inadequate, as well as the Transformation View which we found to be theologically and biblically more satisfying. Today I want us to ask a slightly broader question: What is the relationship between theology and society?
To begin, then, we ought to define a few key terms. By “theology” we mean simply: discourse about God. The two Greek words “theos” and “logos”, which comprise the term, mean “God” and “word” (cf. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 2010), p. 102). So Christian theology is enquiring about, engaging with, and explaining God. By “society” we mean that “enterprise of world-building” – whereby schools, governments, religious rites, the arts, and other institutions and practices – are humanly constructed typically in the fashion of what sociologist Peter Berger calls a “dialectical phenomenon” (cf. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Anchor, 1967), p. 3).
A simple (if simplistic) example of what Berger means would be: the social institution of legislation whereby a collective of human persons write into the laws of a society certain prohibitions which coerce all those belonging to said society to abide by them. Society can be simply defined as the infrastructure of the realm of human interaction.
So, then, what is the relationship between theology and society? Does theology, when properly construed and practiced, necessarily impact society? Isn’t theology, especially certain branches of academic theology, too abstract, even abstruse, to make a dent in the real world?
I think we should acknowledge that certain forms of theology (perhaps all too often) function as mere exercises in intellectual theorizing. But even then – such as Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God – theology was done for the sake of helping the Church better understand and engage God and his world. (Anselm offered his Proslogion [Discourse on the Existence of God] as a prayer, after all!) Even the sometime mind-numbing Medieval metaphysics was meant to serve and equip the Church who in turn was meant to serve the world at large.
Various divisions of theology, e.g., practical, historical, interreligious, etc., have an even more obvious social effect – whether as instruction for the Church and her rituals and traditions (practical theology), or as wisdom on engaging the faiths other than the Christian one found in society (interreligious theology). So major theological divisions inform how we approach everything from church governance to church-government relations. But also Christian theological categories or themes such as Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Glorification have direct bearing on how we think about, live in, seek to shape, and pray for the world in which we live. Theology is the Christian’s view of the world which, sometimes consciously and other times less so, inform our actions within it. Simply and profoundly, theology is inherently culture-shaping and society-making.
If this is true – that theology is inherently society-making – then it would behoove us as Christians be like the men of Issachar “who had understanding of the times” (1 Ch. 12.32). Because theology is transformative, and because what we believe will impact ourselves and the society in which we live, we must theologize well. Also, not only must we have a good grasp of our theological heritage; we must analyze well our social-cultural moment in order to best appropriate the theology we hold. In short, we must draw from the riches of Christ’s wisdom in our theology, and we must be in tune with the Holy Spirit to see what he is doing in the world around us. For this reason, I would suggest that we would do well to consider the steady study and prayerful ponderings of those who have walked before us – which is what we shall turn to in the next post.