What are the “tangible” benefits of studying theology? In a world with so many pressing needs, why spend so much time reading books, navigating the intricate details of complex debates, and figuring out where you stand on issues that most people don’t care about anyway? What’s the point?
Questions like these come up every year in at least one of my theology classes. And they’re partially driven by the view that theology should be “practical” in at least some meaningful sense. In other words, we don’t do theology for the sake of theology. If it doesn’t contribute to the everyday life of God’s people, we should spend our time on other things.
There’s a lot to commend in such a view of theology, one that presses us to remember that theology has a purpose beyond the books, papers, and coffee shop discussions, one rooted in the needs of the Church. Yet I’m always concerned by what appears to be an overly reductionistic view of what qualifies as “practical.” I’ve written before on the need to develop a comprehensive understanding of how theology is practical (see “4 Ways Theology is Practical“), one that would allow us to see the practical value of even such apparently impractical questions as “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” On this view, theology is practical both because it seeks to understand the world the way it actually is and the God who created it—thus being practical in the same sense as other disciplines that seek to understand the world around us (e.g. chemistry, sociology, biology)—and because it helps foster worship, promote spiritual growth, maintain faithfulness, and stuff like that. In that sense, theology is practical because it is transformational, helping shape both individuals and communities as they worship and serve God daily.
In one of my classes this semester, though, a student pushed back with a good question. If theology is practical in this latter sense, we should be able to assess theological conversations on the basis of whether they are making a real contribution to the transformation of God’s people. Since some theological discussions do not seem to have any tangible connection to real-life transformation (e.g. the dancing angels again), maybe those are the ones we should regard as impractical in at least this sense. They’d still be practical in the broader “understand the universe” way, but not the more direct “transforming life and ministry” way, which is the one most Christians are concerned about anyway.
That’s a fair question. But I’m not sure the process is as easy as the question makes it sound. Consider, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity. A while back, I spent several months reading through Fred Sanders’ The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything with a friend. It’s a great book, and we had a terrific time discussing lots of fun issues. But my friend had already been to seminary, so he had a pretty solid understanding of basic trinitarian doctrine. When we were done with the book, then, it would be easy to conclude that nothing had really changed. Sure he had a better understanding of the history of the doctrine and the theological intricacies involved in affirming three persons in one nature, yet he still spoke the same way, prayed the same way, ministered the same way, and lived the same way.
Three months studying the Trinity and nothing changed? Talk about a waste of time.
At the very least, we did some good worshipping as we spent three months talking together about how amazing God is. That has to make a difference.
But there’s more. After we finished the book, my friend was convinced that working through the book had made a difference in his life, but he was having a hard time putting a finger on it. According to him, when he talked to God and about God, there was a depth in his words that wasn’t there before. It’s nothing that would be apparent from the outside since the external shape of his God-talk hadn’t changed. But, as he put it, “It’s like I’m saying the same things, but I mean something more.”
In other words, transformational and tangible are not always the same thing. Some changes can’t be measured, at least not easily. That doesn’t make them less important, or even less practical, just more difficult to quantify. But most of the really important things in life are like that. So should theology be any different?