Hymns, Bible readings, sermons, liturgy and prayers are saturated in words. And the internet is crammed full of blogs (like the one you are reading).
And so often, it is those most prolific at shaping and expressing words – preachers, writers and theologians – who are the most esteemed. Often, they will be promoted at events with phrases like ‘Author of over 20 books’.
But of course, the Christian message cannot be limited to words. They need to be embodied – to come to life and become real. Our words need to be in sync with Jesus who ‘became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1:14)
Therefore sermons, books, theology, conferences and websites should never be seen as ends in themselves. They are means that should equip people for action. All Christian reflection and writing ultimately counts for nothing unless it contributes to making a difference in our unjust and fractured world.
As Shane Claiborne has wisely said:
“Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.”
I think books and learning are important: to carry God’s message we have to understand the message and what it means for today. Strong roots are vital for a healthy tree. But they are not the tree itself. Good theology does far more than enhance reputations and sells books – it helps produce the fruit of love.
This is why Christian knowledge should never puff us up, make us proud or give us delusions of grandeur. For knowledge must simply oil the works of love, equipping us to live and work for God’s purposes.
‘Do not settle for a desktop theology’
This emphasis is captured by Pope Francis in a recent letter to the Catholic University of Argentina as they celebrate their 100th Anniversary:
“We must guard against a theology that is exhausted in academic dispute or watching humanity from a glass castle.
Do not settle for a desktop theology. Your place for reflection are the boundaries. And do not fall into the temptation to paint, to perfume, to adjust them a bit and tame them. Even good theologians, as good shepherds, smell of the people and of the road and, with their reflection, pour oil and wine on the wounds of men.
Theology is an expression of a Church which is a “field hospital”, which lives its mission of salvation and healing in the world. Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude but it is the very substance of the Gospel of Jesus…Without mercy our theology, our right, our pastoral care runs the risk of collapsing into bureaucratic pettiness or ideology, which of itself wants to tame the mystery. Understanding theology is to understand God, who is Love.”