Question 5: What is theology?
One of the electives I chose for my first semester at Princeton Seminary was The Spirituality and the Theological Legacy of the Dionysian Forgery, taught by Dr. Rorem. I really had no idea why I was taking this course, and that became even more apparent during the first class session. And while I struggled with the reading, and while Dionysius was speaking above my head during a number of occasions, I did really come to enjoy one aspect of the course: the chance to read Pseudo-Dionysius’ Mystical Theology and become more familiar with apophatic theology. Apophatic theology is a way in which one discusses not what God is, but rather, what God is not. Gregory of Nyssa described the apophatic way using the Greek word epektesis – perpetual seeking. Dionysius, in his Mystical Theology, seeks to understand the apophatic in such a way that it leads one to a complete surrender, plunging into the darkness of the Unknowability of God. Apophatic theology presupposes a transcendent God who is beyond human comprehension.
However, this doesn’t mean that we have absolutely no ability to make any statements about God – for some would say that is what theology is – humanity’s attempt to grapple with who God is and to communicate that both to God (in prayer) and to Others (in theological discourse).
One of my favorite emerging theologians, Pete Rollins, writes about this in his book, How (Not) to Speak of God. He writes:
“…I discovered a way to embrace both the wisdom of those who would say that God is unspeakable, and must therefore be passed over in silence, and the wisdom of those who would say that God can, and must, be expressed. The union can be articulated like this:
That which we cannot speak of is the one thing about whom and to whom we must never stop speaking.
…those within the emerging conversation perceive a very different way of understanding theology. It is no longer thought of as a human discourse that speaks of God but rather as the place where God speaks into human discourse. In other words, theology is understood as the site in which revelation makes its appearance in the world…If theology comes to be understood as the place where God speaks, then we must seek, not to speak of God, but rather to be that place where God speaks…Our ‘theological’ musings can thus be called a/theological insomuch as they acknowledge that we must still speak of God (theology, as traditionally understood) while also recognizing that this speech fails to define God (a/theology).” ((Peter Rollins, “How (Not) to Speak of God” (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), xiii, 21))
Pseudo-Dionysius, who Rollins is deeply informed by, said something similar:
“Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regard to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmations, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.” ((Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Mystical Theology, MT 1(997B); Luibheid ed., p. 136.))
Because God is God, we should be speaking of God – we should make statements (affirmations) about God – we should reflect on God and God’s role in the world and in relationship with humanity. However, since God surpasses all, we should also negate all of these statement we make – knowing that nothing we ever say will be “true” of God.
I don’t know where this leaves you – this idea of theology as both making statements while almost simultaneously negating them. When I took the course, it became very meaningful to me. I think it works very nicely with a postmodern humility that is prevalent in many after modernity’s certitude and sureties.
So, what is theology? Theology is any action in which we put ourselves in a place to both speak about God and receive from God; it consists of both our thoughts and statements about God while at the same time, our experience of the God who is beyond all thoughts and statements.