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The Underrated Power of Theological Reflection
We cannot stop seeking to make sense of life through scripture—even if we are tired of, or wounded by, previous approaches to the Bible.
Until a few weeks ago, I thought that strenuous workouts six days a week—with a day off for Sabbath—was the right thing for me to do. You know—no bull, just results! Don’t quit. No pain, no gain. The body achieves what the mind believes!
Baloney. With such a rigorous workout schedule, I was in constant discomfort, if not pain. Ice packs on my knees became the norm. But through listening to trainers, doing research and paying close attention, I realized I need to think differently about my aging body. I need longer to recover than I did in previous years. At 67, I need to listen to my body’s creaking bits and strong parts, not an artificially-created workout schedule.
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Just as good thinking was valuable to my body and its care—and wrong thinking caused me pain and discomfort—good thinking is important in considerations about God. Errant thinking can harm us. Accurate thinking supports the with-God life. Jesus said,
If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
Notice the if…then. If we think about and hold to Jesus’ teaching, we are his students. And then, being his students, we are set free. Freed from the penalty of sin. Delivered from bondage to sin. And most crucially, freed from the self-centeredness that blocks our ability to be Jesus’ cooperative friends in the world.
Discipleship is more than thinking about the Trinitarian God, but following Jesus must include it. We want our thinking and reflection about God to be as accurate and true as possible. Why? Not because entrance into heaven is a theological exam that requires a score above 60% or you fall through a trap door into hell. No—nothing like those silly religious superstitions. Rather, clarity is meant to lead to a God-bathed life.
Recently, a colleague of mine suggested rereading Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. I read and experienced the predictable blessing the book delivers. The final meditation is called “The Discipline of Theological Reflection.” In it, Nouwen proposes “a discipline of strenuous theological reflection.” He explains:
Just as prayer keeps us connected to our first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our [lives] communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.
According to Nouwen, theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus. Theological reflection helps raise human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.
Nouwen’s ideas are not native to many of us. Countless people today think of Bible study or theology as part of the evangelical baggage they are trying to leave behind. We might need a break. We might need a healthier frame for theology. But permanently setting aside thinking about God as revealed in the scriptures cannot facilitate the life God intends for us.
For many thousands of years, God’s people sought to center their daily moments, their vision of the good life, their values, and their practices on the Old and New Testaments. Seeking to make sense of life through scripture is a feature within the Bible itself. This pattern cannot be ignored because we are tired of, or even wounded by, previous approaches to the Bible.
Thinking well about God does not have to be arbitrary, narrow, or polluted by misuse of position or power. We avoid these traps through love, by focusing on others. As Nouwen writes,
Theological reflection is meant to strengthen us for service, making us capable of manifesting the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of [our] time.
Nouwen’s premise is that a Christian “thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus.” Our goal is to serve the world in humility by,
…identifying and announcing the ways of Jesus… [and] articulating faith in God’s real presence…[within] the loud boisterous noises of the world that make us deaf to the soft, gentle and loving voice of God.
I know I long for discernment in our hectic cultural context, and I cherish it when I get little glimpses. Nouwen says that such discernment,
…cannot be just intellectual training…that it requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart.
The Bible may feel flat to you right now. You may be tired of, or frustrated with, divisive theological arguments. I feel your pain. Even though I have been joyfully studying the Bible and theology for almost 50 years, I, too, get tired or bored sometimes. But then I get thirsty again for Living Water, for meeting God in scripture, for the stimulation that comes to my mind, heart and soul.
Don’t give up on the Bible. Find a fresh translation. Try some Lectio Divina—just know that it is not the same as careful interpretation of the text. Find a small group you trust for mutual conversation, asking the Spirit to illumine your heart and mind.
What genuinely interests you at the present moment? Is there anything theological you are curious about? Is there something in the current culture you want to study? Theological reflection should serve you—you do not need to serve it. It will work best, and you will stick with it, if it comes from your desire, not an “ought” or “should” put upon you.
The wrong workout routine made me sore, but careful reflection freed me to care better for my body. Similar wisdom is needed for our spiritual strength and health. I know from experience that the theological reflection Nouwen suggests is a fundamental discipline for those who want to intelligently follow Jesus for the sake of others. As Jesus’ cooperative friends, we will then have the strength to be a redemptive presence to the people and events in our lives.