What God Thinks of the Theology Books We Write

What God Thinks of the Theology Books We Write January 17, 2012


What we think of the theology books we write:

Well, I’ve worked for years on this, and I have to say I think I nailed it. It’s not perfect, but I am sure this will be a lasting contribution to thinking Christians everywhere. It’s a thoughtful piece that raises many pressing, indeed, perennial issues, that have not been addressed quite as clearly as I do here.

You’re welcome.

What God thinks (as told through dramatic metaphor):

Five year old: Daddy, do you like my picture?

Father: [Dear God, if there is a God, have mercy on me and tell me what this random series–if series is even the right word–of lines and squiggles is supposed to be. Please. Help. Me.] Ah….woooooow! That’s A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

Five Year Old: Can you tell what it is? [no clue what’s happening]

Father: [Merciful and Almighty God. I do not know what this is. Either tell me or make it stop. I will promise you anything.] Of COURSE.  Yeah.  It’s a cccaaaa….

Five Year Old: [slightly puzzled but not discouraged] It’s a reindeer in a boat.

Father: [Capricious God, was I asking too much? A little help. Still, not too bad. Damage control time.] Sure. Here are the antlers…and look…it’s nose…and there is the outboard motor…..and that’s the water, right?

Five Year Old: That’s the sail.

Father: [A sail? Why didn’t you warn me to leave well enough alone?] Oh, riiiight. The sail.

Five Year Old: Isn’t that a great picture, Dad.

Father: It’s beAUTiful. I love it. And everyone else who sees it will love it, too. Let’s hang it up on the fridge to make sure everyone sees it. Everyone needs to see this picture of a …reindeer…in a boat….

Five Year Old: ….with a sail.

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  • Wow. Too hilarious. But, at the same time, so true.

  • RonH

    I’ve always loved Buechner on this: “Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”

    (On the kid-art thing… I find the safest approach is to say: “Hey, I really like that picture. Why don’t you tell me more about it?”)

  • Fred

    And this would apply to blog posts as well, right?

  • Zeb

    A Simply Beautiful Allegory!

  • The best part is – even this allegory falls into our concept of God and his ways. for all we know, we have it down pat. (though, I doubt it)

  • Brilliant.

  • Love it!

  • eric kunkel

    Whew, I am glad 🙂

    I thought one of your “famous footnotes” was that “thru a glass darkly” did not apply to you, as it appeared in the original autographs …. (which you have in your basement office.)

    Will you be moving them to your new office?


  • Andrew Bauserman

    Reminds me of a statement by the late physicist Richard Feynman:
    “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”

  • James Elliott

    Yes, but we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook so easily. In biblical interpretation, the “professionals” need to coordinate their efforts better among theologians (biblical and systematic), bible scholars (exegesis, criticism, etc.), and scientists (the purer the science the better). The picture will get clearer when these decide to color on the same page.

  • J. Johnson

    For just a minute you had me worried. I must say that is to cute and so true.

  • I always imagined it to be this way:

    Five year old: Hey Daddy?

    Dad: Hey buddy. What do you need?

    Five year old: I wrote this for you.

    Dad: Oh my. You wrote this for me?

    Five year old: Yes, daddy. I wrote a letter to tell you how much I love you.

    Dad: Oh son. I love you, too. Thank you so much for this. I love this letter. Thank you. I love you, son. You know that, right?

    Five year old: Yea, daddy. I know.

    • I like this one. I like to think that God enjoys when we try to better understand who God is. All our attempts at theology are attempts to describe who we see God as, and I at least hope God enjoys when we try.

      • I agree that the attempt is honorable but to come across as definite and allow systems of theology to be made is when I think we cross a line from cute to – not quite as cute.

        As I age and become more educated I have realized just how off my own drawings of God actually are. They may have been cute when I was 3 years old but now at 42 I can not help but suspect that my drawings are just down right ugly and wrong.

  • Susan

    I love your sense of humor!
    This is very timely for me as I’ve been struggling with the question of theology and leaving room for the Spirit to work…(Jesus healing on the Sabbath)
    Just this morning after reading a passage and gaining new insight, I asked myself if I should share this with those close to me, but then questioned my motive and wondered if its possible that this insight was given to me because I need it while others do not?
    I too have wondered if I really “get it” (have my theology ducks in a row) or am I more concerned about “getting it” versus being sensitive to the Spirit’s still, small voice guiding me to my purpose for being…
    But that’s just for me for today…if you hadn’t shared what you did, I would have missed out on the blessing your words brought me!

  • That is hilarious precisely because our attempts to define the reality of God are so often that messy – no matter how well we dress it up for our brethren.

    I also often wonder if when I have written a theological book on God if I am not in a sense slipping into idolatry – If the infinite always makes sense to me (the finite) when I am finished then I may as well have made a golden calf and point it out to people as their god.

    This is a great analogy that I am going to love sharing with my friends and colleagues.


    • I also often wonder if when I have written a theological book on God if I am not in a sense slipping into idolatry – If the infinite always makes sense to me (the finite) when I am finished then I may as well have made a golden calf and point it out to people as their god.

      This is very much what Mark Noll was talking about in the article that Peter linked a post or two ago. In the understanding of Aquinas, we (the finite) are able to make true statements about God (the infinite) because being is analogical. However, there’s a catch–or, if not a catch, a crucial caveat.

      As Aquinas explains, analogy is “a type of equivocation.” The long and the short is, we understand the truth of our statements about God, i.e., we know for example that God is good, but we don’t understand the substance of those statements, since we are unable to grasp the infinite with our finite intelligences. Thus, when we say that God is good, we are applying the human, limited (finite) understanding of goodness to the infinite, unlimited goodness of God.

      Analogy is the basis for the “Triple Way.” Affirmation, negation, and reaffirmation or transcendence. In the first “movement” we make a positive statement about God, based on our human experience; in the second we negate that statement–we acknowledge that our human experience cannot grasp the fullness of God’s being; in the third movement, however, we reaffirm the truth of our initial statement, with the proviso that that truth exceeds our understanding. I.e., the truth of God’s goodness exceeds our human experience of goodness. The statement is a true statement, but its content or substance exceeds the capabilities of our human understanding. Thus, we have true but limited knowledge of God.

      Cf. The Problem of God, by John Courtney Murray. A brief (128 pages), clearly written classic. Amazon comment:

      The Problem of God is a deceptive book. Slight in pages, it presents as a modest group of lectures on Biblical experiences of God. In fact, the book may well represent one of the most profound meditations on God and man’s reaction to God produced by the modern church. I first read this book while in seminary. I find that I return to its insights again and again.

  • David Bentley

    Aphilosopher, W.North Whitehead, said that “theology is looking for a black cat in a dark room that is not there.” To which a believer responded, ” I found it.” We need theology to comprehend our humanity otherwise we could end up with a belief system based upon law and works not grace.

  • Karl Barth wrote about theology being a comedy as well. You can see a quote here at Storied Theology: http://www.jrdkirk.com/2011/09/25/laughing-at-karl/

  • Curly

    By love he shall be gotten and holden, but by reason, never.

    • Hmmmm. Looks like an argument based on reason.

  • Mary Fisher

    Having lived in societies for about a decade where theology books were non existent I would disagree – respectfully – with your analogy. In December 1989 I sat with 5 scholars in Peking University, two of whom were under investigation for their part in the Tian An Men Square events earlier in the year. They had a copy of An article on Glen Tinder’s book, “can We Be Good Without God? the Political Implications of Christianity.” that was a cover story in October 89 of The Atlantic Monthly.
    We talked for two days of the influence of concepts of the “image of God” and “holiness” of a self revealing God on a society that does not have theology books.
    Live in a society without

  • Mary Fisher

    PS. The incarnation also tells me that theology has more import than that

  • Hi Peter good analogy, this is why we need to start with the correct writing tools so we wont be deceived or deceive others, we find these in the Scriptures below, Jesus is our only Teacher by the empowering of The Spirit.

    James 1:4-6
    1 Corinthians 2:9-16

    Yes God does indeed uses the foolishness of Preaching, His Truth is everywhere but so is Satan’s lies that deceive… the good news is the Truth will always be Victorious.

    Many Blessings for Easter and Christian Love from both of us. Anne.

  • Peter

    Ha ha, very good.

    But doesn’t that describe a theological book written without God’s input?

    I tend to think of it more like this:

    5 yr old to father: Dad I want to write a book for you, which is all about you.
    Father: Excellent! Go for it!
    5 yr old starts to write book
    Father looks on and asks – do I really look like a monkey?
    5 yr old: Oh I guess not, I’ll change that bit. She keeps writing.
    Father looks on, “You’re doing great, don’t forget that time I fell over and broke my arm!”
    5 yr old: “Oh yeah! And that time you took me to the zoo too!”
    Father: “Yeah! Wow, This is fun!”
    5 yr old: “Yes, Daddy, you’re teaching me so much I didn’t know before.”

    I reckon there’s enough revealed about God in the Bible and his creation to teach us enough to draw a picture which is satisfactory for us while we’re here on earth.

    It seemed to be enough for Jesus.