Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Theology No Substitute for God's Presence

Theology is like gossip about God by people who haven't actually met God.

Theology isn't wrong. It's the seeking part of "Seek and you will find." But if we have an inordinate fascination with theology as an end in itself--if we make theology our "stairway to heaven," so to speak--we miss out on fulfilling our purpose in this life, here and now. Indeed, the human body is a finely tuned instrument, specifically designed for one purpose: knowing God (see The Joy of Being, Explained).

Theology is the study of the idea of God. It is at least one step removed from the actuality of God--God's presence. Ushering people into God's presence is the goal toward which religions aim. Once that's been achieved, theology becomes superfluous.

Theology is a description of the idea of God. When you know someone, to the extent you can know anyone--that is, when you've met a person, been in his or her presence--descriptions become unnecessary.

Author and former nun Karen Armstrong expresses the Buddha's view this way:

"Religion is like a raft. Once you get across the river, moor the raft and go on. Don't lug it with you if you don't need it anymore." (For a thorough account of the Buddha's view, see An Excerpt from Karen Armstrong's Book, Buddha)

[See Eckhart Tolle's view on theology here: Excerpt on Theology from Eckhart Tolle's Book, The Power of Now]

Theology is of man (humanity); spirituality is of God.

To the extent clergy of every religion focus on spirituality--i.e. how to directly experience God--resisting the urge to focus on theology--descriptions of ideas about God--they will be effective in their mission.

This is the dichotomy to which the life of the great Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas points. His book, called Summa Theologica, a melding of Christianity with Aristotelian philosophy on which all of present-day Catholic theology is based, he never finished (see also Aristotle and Christianity).

Late in life, having entered the actual presence of God (he had practiced mysticism all his life), he received a vision, after which he said of his theological work, "I can do no more. Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears to be of little value."

Ideas about God pale in comparison to God's presence.

This is essentially the same dichotomy Robert Persig paints in philosophical colors in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (also available on line), when he writes:
Plato’s Good [e.g. the idea of God] was a fixed and eternal and unmoving Idea, whereas for the rhetoricians [ancient, pre-Socratic philosophers] it was not an Idea at all. The Good [e.g. God in actuality] was not a form of reality. It was reality itself, ever changing, ultimately unknowable in any kind of fixed, rigid way.

Theologians, as per the father of theology, Aristotle (Plato's pupil), have turned God into a mere idea, which is completely knowable, or definable. The ancient mind saw God as reality itself; that is, they experienced God, they considered themselves to dwell in the presence of God.

This is the point of the Book of Job from Jewish (and Christian) Scripture. Job is a prosperous, righteous man. Satan challenges God, arguing that Job is only pious because of his prosperity. God takes up the challenge and allows Satan to take away Job's possessions, his family and his health. Job doesn't curse God and die, as his wife urges, but he does ask why this has happened to him.

In the end, God appears to Job. He answers none of Job's questions, and in fact he chastises Job for daring even to ask. But Job is nonetheless satisfied, of course, because for God to chastise Job, God must be present with Job. God's presence, as one might imagine, is in and of itself a sufficient answer for Job, even as God remains "ultimately unknowable."

People who know God have no more need for theology because when they meet God, what they do becomes as innocent as kittens, beneficial and inoffensive to everyone.

Everyone, that is, except theologians.

Photo credit: Raphael's Theology from the Stanza della Segnatura in the Palace of the Vatican; electronic file provided by SUNY College of Oneonta

Tell me what you think. Your comments are important.


  1. Can't say I totally agree with this since theology, Christian at least, is based on Revelation, not the other way 'round. "People who know God" still need theology and find in it an expression of their experience. As Aristotle writes in the very first sentence of his "Metaphysics": All men desire to know. Sometimes the experience comes first. "People who know God" don't always become little time, things take time.

  2. Great comment. Thanks! For some, it appears the change is instantaneous. For the vast majority, however, it appears to take varying amounts of time to unfold.


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