What motivates us to focus on some questions rather than others in theology? For some people, practical concerns take over. Black theology as seen in James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree has focused on undermining the theological foundations of white supremacy. Someone has to do it, they have said, because Black people are dying and suffering under the violence of anti-Black prejudice. Cone, and similar thinkers in Latino, Feminist, Queer, Indigenous, and other group theologies, focus on the questions they answer because they have a pressing existential import.
For others, practical concerns are sidelined, at least temporarily, to focus on abstract and theoretical questions. Who is God? What categories would best help us to speak truthfully about the Triunity of God as revealed to us in Scripture? How, exactly, did Jesus’s incarnate, two-natures-one-being, body work? Questions like these do not have an immediate social ramification. Okay, if we describe Christ’s hypostatic union as the communion of natures, rather than their formal oneness inhering in a hypostasis, that still doesn’t answer whether or not gun violence should be opposed. Someone interested in these abstract questions, which have an indefinite and ambiguous relationship to living practice, would probably consider themselves to be doing “pure” theology rather than motivated theology.
Yet what could be more motivated than study of the one true God? God is so holy and transcendent and good that studying God alone could take up a lifetime — a lifetime well spent. Who is to say that the indefinite and ambiguous implications of these questions will not one day become very concrete? Why would serving the God whose providential hand has guided all history into conformity with his unfolding will ever lack existential import?
Our identities and social situations come from our placement within race, class, gender, and so on, systems in society, this is true. But beneath this, and enduring beyond the abolition of these systems, we face crushing existential questions about our relationship to God, to the natural world he created, and to our own lives and our delicate vulnerability. Thinking critically about the abolition of class, for example, will require us to imagine lives beyond the reach of finance-driven capitalism and expressive individualism. The “pure” theologian wants to address that state. They are thinking ahead, like John at the end of Revelation, about the world as it will endure after purification by fire and blood.
On the other hand the resources to address crucial social questions usually come hundreds of years prior in the tradition. Without considering the depths of these problems in medieval and patristic thought, our practical answers will be shallow and likely to have only the shortest relevance. Agamben taught me this lesson years ago, when I was working through his works. The Kingdom and the Glory and The Mystery of Evil are the two books which are his clearest examples of this method in action. Our practical lives are structured by inherited systems which were themselves products of conflicted and often contradictory theological impulses working themselves out in a slow, centuries long processes of elaboration and rearticulation and, later on, secularization. To uncover the theological roots of our contemporary problems will require us to examine their more abstract formulations in the Councils and even in the Scriptures thousands of years ago.
At sunset there is no distinction between practical and pure theology. All theology is motivated and all motivations come from our social situations as beings captive to the theological discourse that preceded us. Try to separate them and you have trite solutions to complex problems, or formally correct dogma with implications we have failed to critically anticipate. We can only distinguish practical and pure theology in the broadest sense as a description of someone’s tendencies. Which side of the coin do they tend to call when the flip is airborne?
Three problems that have become pressing for me are LGBTQ discipleship, depression and mental health, and how the Jewish people relate to Christian theology. These are all very practical questions: either I can get married, or stay single, and either I should take this medication or wither and die, and either Christians have an obligation to combat antisemitism or we should propagate it. However, uncovering the real solutions to these questions, the solutions that will endure past the current moment when our practical advice remains relevant, is the project of a lifetime. My own experience with rejection in the church as a LGBTQ Christian motivates me to ask whether there is a better way forward than the paltry solutions on offer. My experience with depression, and the loss of a former youth ministry student to depression and suicide, have each motivated me to wonder whether the Church offers anything like the robust community and form-of-life it would take to help people so alienated find joy and peace. My shock at the Highland Park shooting last month, committed by a member of my Bible study small group, has heightened even further the question of whether we could do more to remind our people that the Jews are children of Abraham, and children of the Promise, before we belonged.
My theology is motivated by these concerns, and addressing them in the most substantial way has required me to dig even further into the sources of authority, our Scriptures and Tradition. Facing these questions has often forced me, despite beating at his chest in disbelief and frustration, into the embrace of the God who gave us these sources. You may not think that some random discoveries in the sectarian literature at Qumran about ritual washing of cups and plates would have any impact on one’s gender and sexuality, or on the struggle against racial caste systems the world over. But these historical discoveries are moments where others have faced challenges comparable to our own, and developed innovative solutions mostly lost to memory and erosion, but which we can reclaim to tell a better story about God and about our world today.