Theology as Relationship – Take 2

[This post is far less accessible and far more opaque than my previous way of describing theology as relationship. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to put into words some of what leads me to think more and more that theology is relationship, theology is meaningless outside the context of relationship, and relationship is the only context in which theology is capable of truth.]

Here’s the most controversial thing I think I think – relationship comes before individuality. If what I think I think implies what I think it does, nearly every conversation we have about truth and fact is fundamentally flawed. Story and community are more basic realities than fact and fiction. In other words, the relationship(s) in which truth and falsity are possible come before the words to express what may be true or false. If what I think I think is correct, there will be no way to prove it is true because such concepts as truth can only ever be expressed within the contingent words of my own time and place and given understanding and meaning by the relationships that form and are formed by me. When my words are no longer in this time and place, they will no longer mean what they once meant.

To make this claim is not to deny truth and falsity to the world, but to deny the kind of rationality and agency that would be necessary to objectively ground the meaning of words or facts apart from community and relationship. The more important questions to ask are not about truth, falsity, and the possibility of moral action that follows, but about relationship, agency, and both the type of community that created the person capable of speaking and acting in ways that can be evaluated as true or false and moral or not, as well as the type of community that is capable of doing the evaluation.

The fundamental error in epistemological endeavours is the notion that there is an agent to have an epistemology apart from the community that gave the categories of thought and the presuppositions that form the agency of the individual. To assume that we are community before we are individual is to render any epistemological program incoherent to the extent that such a program seeks after an objective grounding that does not rely on a tradition of rationality to arrive at the point where the epistemology makes the sense that it makes.

Assent to this argument does not render “truth” or “meaning” relativistic in such a way that we can pretend that there is no ‘real’ world outside the mind of a thinking agent. The point is, rather, that whatever truth or reality there is to the world, our experience, understanding, and explanation of it come to us through the traditions that have been passed along and are shaped by us as we pass it along to the next generation. To make this claim is to argue that an accessible, objective, and eternal rationality is an incoherent notion altogether. In aiming for rationality or truthfulness, the best we can knowingly attain is coherence and consistency within the stories and communities that we have accepted, rejected, and transformed. In other words, that truth is only possible in the context of relationship is not a bug, it’s a feature.

I’ll grant, what I think I think is not controversial in the click bait sense, but it is the least coherent claim I can offer into the intellectual world I inhabit. Why all of this matters to me is because of what it says about the enterprise of theology. Theology is literally the God-words that we speak and, by extension, the lens through which we view life and faith. If what I think I think is correct, the distinction between a more ‘academic’ theology and a ‘practical’ or ‘contextual’ or ‘lived’ theology is impossible to make. Such a critique is made plenty from the direction of minority theologians – namely that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual or specific than ‘liberation’ or ‘womanist’ or whatever other theology one could offer. Theology proper is simply the contextual theology of those in positions of power and authority.

I could not agree more with the notion that ‘theology proper’ is no less contextual, but arguing that ‘proper’ theology is contextual in the current intellectual landscape leaves open the possibility that there is a coherent sense of truth and objectivity toward which each ‘contextual theology’ is pointing that is meaningful apart from the lived relationships through which the words of theology became capable of meaning what they now mean. It is precisely that notion of truth, meaning, or objectivity outside the context of relationship(s) that I am rejecting.

The capacity to speak objective truth is only possible within the communities that give shape to the agent who attempts to offer God-words. Truth and falsity are not impossible in theology, but our relationship with God and one another forms us in such a fundamental way that speaking of any words on a page as true or false apart from the community in which they are offered is an incoherent and impossible project. The act of doing theology is the attempt to express the reality of God in words that are both handed down to us and transformed by us within the context of the multiple, often competing communities that constitute human life.

In the process of creating God-words, we have the potential to name and deepen our relationship with God and one another or to distort and tear those relationships down. True theology deepens relationship. False theology creates brokenness. Or in more traditional terms – love God, love neighbor; on these two commandments hangs everything else.

21 thoughts on “Theology as Relationship – Take 2

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