T is for theology. The first half of the word, “Theo” refers to God. The second half, “logia” (study) is connected to the word-family that includes “logos”, which means “word”, and “logic”, which suggests a system or method. We are doing theological reflection when we think about God, and the activity, the identity, the purposes of God. “What is God doing?” “Who (or what) is God?” “Can we understand God’s will, or plan?” “What does God have to do with me, or I with God?”
Saint Francis of Asissi famously spent whole nights praying two questions, “Who are you, God, and who am I?”
We do theology when we read the Bible stories about Jesus’ birth. We seek to understand something about God, and our relationship with God. This is good for us, and even better if we do with it with humble awareness it is not a simple task. We bring a lot more “baggage” with us than we may realize.
I remember a lecture from my time as a philosophy under-grad, about the distinction between “Event” and “Event Meaning”. The professor said:
” Two groups of people, wearing clothing that identified them as members of opposing sides, faced each other across a wide expanse. There was a loud noise, and then a fairly large projectile was seen flying through the air, from an area dominated by one group, towards an area dominated by the other group. Then there was a lot of confused movement, and more loud noise, and it appeared that members of both groups were quite agitated.”
The professor asked, “Can anyone tell me what I was describing?”
One student made a convincing argument the scene was a battlefield. Another said it was a football game. A cynical soul at the back of the room wondered if there was a difference.
We needed more information to interpret the story. If that information was not available, we might “fill in the blanks” using our own memories, creativity, or biases. The result might say more about ourselves, than the author’s intended meaning.
An author brings their culture, and beliefs, and language, and biases into their work. We as readers are on alert to sift through and get a sense of the meaning. We may be hampered, or helped, by our own education, experience, and attitudes. In an earlier letter I mentioned how important it is to read what is in the text, and not what we expect to be there. (Can you find an inn-keeper or cattle in the nativity story?)
This issue of interpretation can crop up with relatively simple documents, like a shopping list or a sales receipt. (I have never learned to read a baseball box score in the newspaper.) When the subject matter is much more complex, there is even greater need for humility.
I believe we are meant to use our minds, and ask questions, and think carefully about matters of faith. I don’t mean to suggest it is a purely intellectual exercise- we definitely need to listen to our hearts, and pay attention to our experience in life.
John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, drew upon scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when he sought theological understanding. He encouraged all followers of Jesus to do the same.
The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.